The Running Man by Gilbert Tuhabonye

I bought The Running Man* as my book from Burundi for the Read The World challenge. I can’t say I was particularly looking forward to reading it, though, because the blurb on the cover — How the voice in my heart helped me survive genocide and realise my Olympic dream — just sounds a bit TV movie of the week. Clearly there’s an interesting story there, but it doesn’t inspire confidence that it will be a well-told story.

I’ve read enough boring sporting autobiographies that I approach the genre with scepticism. Admittedly, it should be pretty hard to make genocide boring, but then you might think the same about playing in the World Cup, and plenty of footballers have managed that.

But I was pleasantly surprised. It is interesting and engagingly written (with the help of ghost writer Gary Brozek); and not just the more dramatic stuff, but about growing up in rural Burundi. It’s not a literary masterpiece, and I don’t think it offers any startling insights into either genocide or elite middle-distance running, but it’s a good story simply and well told.

The blurb is slightly misleading, in that Tuhabonye never actually competed in the Olympics, although he came attended an Olympic development training camp in Atlanta prior to the 1996 games and came very close to qualifying. On the other hand, if the Olympic part is slightly overplayed, the genocide bit is even more remarkable than you might imagine; he was the only survivor of a particularly brutal massacre and the details of his experience are just staggering.

* US title: This Voice in My Heart: A Runner’s Memoir of Genocide, Faith, and Forgiveness. I assume it’s the same book otherwise despite the different emphasis, although I suppose they may have toned down the religious content for the UK edition.

» The photo of Gilbert Tuhabonye meeting Chuck Norris is from his own website. Because, well, why not.

Abyssinian Chronicles by Moses Isegawa

I’ve just finished Abyssinian Chronicles by Moses Isegawa. Which is a bit of a relief, because I found it quite hard work. The good stuff first: it’s a story that traces a couple of generations through the history of modern Uganda, with the arrival of Idi Amin and the collapse of his regime, the sequence of messy guerilla wars, the rise of AIDS and so on. The central character is initially brought up in a village before moving to Kampala, is from a Catholic background and is educated in a rather brutal seminary; his grandmother is a midwife; he ends up leaving Uganda to move to Holland. So there’s lots of good material. And lots of striking incidents and some strong (though not generally very likeable) characters.

Despite which, after reading a hundred pages, I checked to see how long the book was and had a sinking feeling when I saw there were still 400 pages to go.

The problem is the prose style. Quite apart from a tendency to cliché, it seems like Isegawa reacts to similes the way a small child reacts to candy. Everything is like something. These similes are sometimes quite good in themselves — he describes a priest at the seminary as having ‘an ego as large as a cirrhotic liver’ — but I found the overall effect distracting. And it’s part of a generally over-written, shouty kind of tone the book has which I just didn’t get on with; sometimes I’d get into it and be quite absorbed for twenty or thirty pages, and then some turn of phrase would snap me out of it again.

I did wonder whether it was a problem with the translation; but as far as I can tell from the title page, the book was written in English. I guess English must be the author’s second language, which is pretty impressive, but doesn’t alter the fact that I didn’t enjoy his prose.

Here’s an example of the kind of paragraph that would annoy me:

It struck him like a bolt of lightning splitting a tree down middle: Nakibuka! Had the woman not done her best to interest him in her life? Didn’t he, in his heart of hearts, desire her? Had he ever forgotten her sunny disposition, her sense of humor, the confident way she luxuriated in her femininity? The shaky roots of traditional decorum halted him with the warning that it was improper to desire his wife’s relative, but the mushroom of his pent-up desire had found a weak spot in the layers of hypocritical decency and pushed into the turbulent air of truth, risk, personal satisfaction, revenge. His throttled desire and his curbed sex drive could find a second wind, a resurrection or even eternal life in the bosom of the woman who, with her touch, had accessed his past, saved it and redeemed his virility on his wedding night. Sweat cascaded down his back, his heart palpitated and fire built up in his loins.

200 pages of this stuff would have been harmless enough, and I might have said that, despite a few flaws, it was still well worth reading; 500 pages was too much.

But I stuck it out to the end. Partially from stubbornness but mainly because I bought Abyssinian Chronicles as my book from Uganda for the Read The World challenge.

» The photo, ‘Headless‘, is © Dave Blumenkrantz and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

A Grain of Wheat by Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o

A Grain of Wheat is a novel about the inhabitants of a village in Kenya in 1963 in the last few days before the celebrations for Uhuru — that is, Kenyan independence. It was originally published in 1967, so the material was completely current at the time, although after finishing it that I read in the introduction that

Ngũgĩ revised A Grain of Wheat in 1987, to make the ‘world outlook’ of his peasants more in line with his ideas of the historical triumph of the oppressed.

and that

Ngũgĩ has said of the 1967 version of A Grain of Wheat that his ‘peasant and worker characters’ had the ‘vacillating mentality of the petite bourgeoisie’.

As far as I can gather, the revisions were relatively minor, and I guess I support the author’s right to mess around with his earlier work if he wants to, but I still find it vaguely frustrating not knowing what was what. And it seems like an odd thing to do, to me. But there you go.

Incidentally, Ngũgĩ’s early work, including this book, was written in English, but for the past 30 years or so he has written in Gĩkùyũ. Rejecting the colonial language has obvious political and social significance, but to switch from a language with hundreds of millions of speakers to one which is a minority language even in Kenya is still a striking decision.

The characters in the book are all dealing with the aftermath of the Mau Mau rebellion, having lost family members or having suffered detention, forced labour and torture. There’s something slightly topical about that at the moment; not just because we recently learned that Barack Obama’s grandfather was tortured by the British at that period, but also because insurgents being detained without trial and tortured  have been in the news recently.

I didn’t read the book, though, as being principally about the relationship between colonist and colonised. Rather, it’s about the relationships between the Africans and the way they’ve been affected by events. Some of them worked for the British; others fought them. A man returns to his wife after years away in prison to find she has had a baby by another man. No one is left untouched.  All this is told in flashback, so we gradually learn how characters became the way they are.

Obviously none of this would have happened if it wasn’t for the British, so they (we) are central in that sense, but still, the novel is building up to Uhuru, when the young Duke of Edinburgh will sit in a stadium in Nairobi and watch the flags changing over, and the British part of the story will peter out. I read the novel as being about what is left behind; in that sense it reminded me of How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, Saša Stanišić’s novel about Yugoslavia. A war of independence against a colonial power is I suppose a peculiar kind of civil war, and it tears apart the fabric of the country in a similar way.

Here’s an extract.

He took a jembe and a panga to repeat the daily pattern his life had now fallen into since he left Maguita, his last detention camp. To reach his new strip of shamba which lay the other side of Thabai, Mugo had to walk through the dusty village streets. And as usual Mugo found that some women had risen before him, that some were already returning from the river, their frail backs arched double with water-barrels, in time to prepare tea or porridge for their husbands and children. The sun was now up: shadows of trees and huts and men were thin and long on the ground.

‘How is it with you, this morning?’ Warui called out to him, emerging from one of the huts.
‘It is well.’ And as usual Mugo would have gone on, but Warui seemed anxious to talk.
‘Attacking the ground early?’
‘Yes.’
‘That’s what I always say. Go to it when the ground is soft. Let the sun find you already there and it’ll not be a match for you. But if he reaches the shamba before you — hm.’

Warui, a village elder, wore a new blanket which sharply relieved his wrinkled face and the grey tufts of hair on his head and on his pointed chin. It was he who had given Mugo the present strip of land on which to grow a little food. His own piece had been confiscated by the government while he was in detention. Though Warui liked talking, he had come to respect Mugo’s reticence. But today he looked at Mugo with new interest, curiosity even.

‘Like Kenyatta is telling us,’ he went on, ‘these are days of Uhuru na Kazi.’ He paused and ejected a jet of saliva on to the hedge. Mugo stood embarrassed by this encounter. ‘And how is your hut, ready for Uhuru?’ continued Warui.
‘Oh, it’s all right,’ Mugo said and excused himself. As he moved on through the village, he tried to puzzle out Warui’s last question.

 A Grain of Wheat is my book from Kenya for the Read The World challenge.

» The cigarette card from the Empire railways series is from the New York Public Library online collection. There is a train that features quite heavily in the book, so it’s not a completely random choice of image.