The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye

This is a novel from 1954 about Clarence, a white man who, finding himself broke and stranded in Africa, decides to approach the king and ask him for some sort of job. Clarence’s only qualification is that he is white — which admittedly was no small thing in colonial Africa — and after he fails to contact the king, he is taken under the wing of a beggar and two boys, and begins a journey south, hoping to meet the king again later when he visits that part of the country.

UNICEF’s director for West and Central Africa, Gianfranco Rotigliano, visited the office. He does not care much for meetings so we went straight out to get a better understanding of the situation of children. Over three days we drove from Conakry to Bamako in Mali. Along the way we visited schools and health centres in towns and villages. It was abundantly clear that the health system is not working and that major reform is needed. The education system also needs reform, but fortunately for that we have, with a coalition of donors, a solution.

It’s a dreamlike, sensual narrative; I’ve noticed before that novels from Francophone Africa (Guinea, in this case) seem to be more stylised than those from former British colonies. It echoes and subverts the tradition of white men’s adventures into darkest Africa. Africa seen through Clarence’s eyes is a world of fetid scents, impenetrable jungle, and the buttocks and breasts of the women; but he is completely ineffectual and naive, dependent on and manipulated by those around him.

My first impressions of this were really good; I enjoyed it for the characterisation and description, atmosphere, nuance. For me it didn’t sustain that level of excitement though to the end, but it was still a very good read.

» The photo, ‘Washday on the Niger’ is © Julien Harneis and used under a CC by-sa licence.


The Epic of Askia Mohammed by Nouhou Malio, trans. Thomas A. Hale

This is an interesting one: a piece of oral poetry, transcribed from a performance by a griot*, Nouhou Malio, in Niger. To quote the introduction:

The Epic of Askia Mohammed recounts the life of the most famous ruler of the Songhay empire, a man who reigned in Gao, an old city in present-day eastern Mali, from 1493 to 1528.

Although to be strictly accurate, it recounts the life of Askia Mohammed and some of his descendants. I was interested to learn that the events were recorded in contemporary written chronicles, so we have some sense of how the stories have changed over the centuries: the genealogies have been compressed a bit, and some historical events seem to have been conflated, but the people and events are clearly identifiable.

The griot speaks

The subject matter fits comfortably into what you might expect of epic poetry: kings, conquest, revenge, wrangling over succession. But of course it also has cultural specifics; for example, Askia Mohammed is remembered for spreading Islam in West Africa, and one of his notable achievements was a pilgrimage to Mecca. Similarly, some of the second half of the poem is the story of Amar Zoumbani, one of Askia Mohammed’s descendants, and his ambivalent social position as the son of a king and a slave woman.

It’s enjoyable as a story — if you skip over some genealogies of the Bob begat Fred begat Kevin variety — but it doesn’t seem particularly remarkable as a piece of literature. It seems to be fairly plain, direct storytelling; there’s some interesting use of repetition for emphasis, but otherwise the way the language is used seems straightforward; with the inevitable caveat that some amount has been lost in translation. Most notably, the original switched occasionally from Songhay to a version of Soninké used as an ‘occult language’ by Songhay griots, healers and sorcerers, a language which is apparently sufficiently obscure that many lines are just marked as ‘undecipherable’. There’s also some suggestion in the introduction that Malio switched between dialects of Songhay, though I may be misunderstanding; what effect any of this code-switching might have is left unclear.

I kind of feel I should be drawing comparisons with other oral/epic poetry: Greek, Haida, Norse, or Anglo-Saxon, which is the only one I’ve actually studied. But nothing insightful is coming to mind, tbh.

Anyway. The Epic of Askia Mohammed is my book from Niger for the Read The World challenge.

* The local word in Niger is actually jeseré, apparently, but it’s the same kind of poet/storyteller/musician/historian role.

» The griot speaks is © Julien Harneis and used under a CC by-sa licence. It was taken in Guinea, but that will have to be close enough.


Para Vasco: poemas da Guiné-Bissau / For Vasco: poems from Guinea-Bissau

This is my book from Guinea-Bissau for the Read The World challenge. Although ‘book’ is almost overselling it; it’s a pamphlet really. A total of twelve poems by nine poets, and even with an introduction, acknowledgements and the poems in both English and Portuguese, it’s only 44 pages.


But the choices were limited; the only real alternative was a book of the collected speeches and writings of Amílcar Cabral, the politician and guerrilla leader who campaigned for independence for Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde. Which probably would have been interesting, but I took the cheaper, lazier option and bought this instead.

There are some strong thematic threads running through the poems: the forest, freedom fighters, saudade, eroticised women, slavery, nationalism. If I had been told they were all written by the same poet over a long period, that wouldn’t surprise me; although there may be stylistic differences that are flattened out in translation.

Presumably that thematic similarity is at least partially an artefact of the selection process. But apparently the country’s intellectual tradition grew out of politics: the book is dedicated to Vasco Cabral* ‘who has been called the first Guinean intellectual’ and who, as well as being a poet, was freedom fighter, political prisoner and then government minister of the independent Guinea-Bissau. And in the forty years since independence (almost exactly: the anniversary is the Tuesday after next) there has been a civil war, so the theme of political violence hasn’t lost its relevance.


As always with parallel texts, it was interesting to see some of the translation decisions, even without knowing any Portuguese. For example, one poem was broken up at different points in the English from the original — i.e. the white space appeared a couple of lines later in the translation — which seems weirdly arbitrary, but it would be fascinating to hear the reasoning behind it.

Anyway, it was worth reading, I think; some of the poems worked better than others, in translation at least, with Hélder Proença the pick of the bunch.

*no relation to Amílcar, as far as I can tell.

» The top image is of the Buba river in Guinea-Bissau. It’s from the US Geological Survey and therefore public domain. The second is of Vasco Cabral at the UN-OAU Oslo conference on Southern Africa (i.e. on apartheid), in his role as Administrative Secretary of the African Party for the Liberation of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), six months before independence in 1973. It is © the UN and used under a by-nc-nd licence.


God’s Bits of Wood by Ousmane Sembène

This is a novel from 1960 about the railway workers’ strike on the Niger-Dakar railway 13 years earlier.

When I said in my Read The World challenge status update that I’d read 16½ books this year, this was the half book; it has taken me rather a long time to finish. Mainly I think that’s because it is written in rather a high style. Elaborate descriptions, speechifying and a general tone of Serious Business.


I’m always wary of commenting on prose style for books read in translation, but it reads like a conscious attempt to present the strike as an epic struggle — which indeed it is, featuring a large cast of characters in a many month confrontation with the company and the colonial power, involving a riot, speeches, a trial, a protest march, police brutality, starvation, trickery, and murder, all in a serious cause which is at its root the assertion of the human dignity of the African workers. So the style is not inappropriate; but it’s not particularly to my taste.

Still, it’s an interesting and impressive novel, even if I wasn’t always grabbed by it. Perhaps i’ve just read too much post-colonial fiction recently.

There are certainly lots of good things about it; it’s often vivid and atmospheric, for a start. I liked the prominence of female characters who are not just defined by their relationships to men, but take an active role in the strike. I think it probably deserves a more enthusiastic response than I’m giving it; but hey-ho.

Sembène was also a film director, and while trying to sort out what his name was (the edition I read had ‘Sembène Ousmane’ but everywhere else seems to use Ousmane Sembène’) I found there was a book of interviews with him about film, which might have made a more interesting choice for Senegal for the Read The World challenge. Or not, of course.

» The photo is of people playing football in front of the African Renaissance Monument in Dakar; it’s © Jeff Attaway and used under a CC attribution licence.


African Philosophy: Myth & Reality by Paulin J. Hountondji

This is my book from Benin for the Read The World challenge. I ordered it because I fancied a change from post-colonial fiction, and then regretted it almost immediately; I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about philosophy as a discipline.

Actually, though, I found it interesting and it really did make a nice change. It was first published, as Sur la “philosophie africaine”, in 1976, and is largely framed as a response to earlier works in the field. So it provides an interesting window into a discussion I knew nothing about.

Obviously it’s a narrow window, entirely shaped by Hountondji’s framing, and I don’t have the knowledge to judge how fair and accurate his presentation is. But it still offers an insight into something that would otherwise have passed me by.

The tradition he is arguing with is a kind of ethnological idea of philosophy, where for example, Bantu cultural ideas about death and morality and what have you were investigated, arranged into a system, and then presented as ‘Bantu philosophy’. Hountondji argues that this is not only a misapplication of the word ‘philosophy’ but a damaging one. Rather, ‘African philosophy’ should refer to philosophical works written by Africans; the same thing, in fact, as philosophy from anywhere else.

I was very much predisposed to agree with this argument: so much so that I felt the need to step back every so often and play devil’s advocate. Not because I had any long-standing opinions about African philosophy, of which I was completely ignorant, but because I have a long-standing peeve about the vague, hand-wavy way people use the word ‘philosophy’. It’s rather like ‘poetry’ in that respect.

Still, you can understand the impulse that led people to things like ‘Bantu philosophy’. Given the context of colonialism, there is/was a value in any assertion that Africans are capable of interesting thought that is distinct from that brought by colonialists and worthy of study in its own right.

Whereas if you insist on the narrow definition of philosophy, then there is almost no African philosophical tradition; certainly very little ‘authentically African’ philosophy that precedes or is separate from the stuff brought over by Europeans. That’s just an artefact of an oral society. It’s perfectly possible to do philosophy without writing it down — it was good enough for Socrates — but it doesn’t survive; we only know about Socrates because of Plato.

But things like ‘Bantu philosophy’ are a bad solution to that problem. Firstly, because it perpetuates the idea that Africa is so exotic/primitive/whatever that all our approach to it must be through an ethnographic lens, just as African sculptures end up in a different museum to the Picassos and Modiglianis that they inspired.

One result of that is that it strips away any sense of individual creativity: those African sculptures get labelled with a tribe and a place, and not the name of the individual sculptor. Similarly, ‘folktales’ get stripped down to a simple one-page version based on what the researcher thinks is the kernel, and both the name and the creativity of the individual storyteller get lost. Which of course is pretty much the opposite of how we treat poets, artists and philosophers in our own culture, where if anything we are overly obsessed with the idea of individual genius.

And lastly, the very process of taking a lot of different sources — traditional stories, received opinion, religious ideas — and systematising them into a coherent philosophy is itself pretty dubious. Hountondji argues, I think correctly, that the systematiser is imposing his own ideas far more than he is revealing something which is there already.

All this stuff is no doubt old news to people in the field, but I found it interesting to read about.

In the second half of the book, Hountondji looks at some case studies. I have to admit, I skipped over most of the stuff about Anton-Wilhelm Amo: he’s an interesting figure, an African from what is now Ghana who somehow ended up teaching philosophy in German universities in the 1730s, but his surviving dissertations are minor contributions to the debate between the vitalists and the mechanists; I have no idea what that means, and frankly I don’t care enough about C18th philosophy to try to make sense of it.

But I did read Hountondji’s analyses of Kwame Nkrumah’s thought, which was rather more interesting, not least for some second-hand insight into another set of arguments about which I was ignorant: about class, colonialism, capitalism, Africanism and so on.

» The videos are because, well, I don’t have many immediate associations with Benin, and  pictures of bronze plaques from the British Museum felt a bit inappropriate given the subject, so the Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou seemed like as good a choice as any. Although do check those plaques out, if you’ve never seen them.


The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah

The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born is a novel set during the last days of the Nkrumah government in Ghana. It’s about a man resisting corruption, quixotically in the view of most of those around him. The scathing portrayal of a corrupt society is all the sharper because of the contrast with the optimism that came with independence; it’s a novel, among other things, about the loss of hope. A kind of Animal Farm of post-colonialism.

It’s a slim book, less than 200 pages, but it took me quite a long time to read because it required focussed attention: eventually I took it on a long train journey where there were no distractions. It’s just densely written, with detailed, closely observed descriptive passages that are very effective; but also with some convoluted sentences that simply do not allow for skimming. This is the kind of thing:

But along the streets, those who can soon learn to recognize in ordinary faces beings whom the spirit has moved, but who cannot follow where it beckons, so heavy are the small ordinary days of the time.

I know it’s hardly Finnegans Wake, but it’s a bit of a speed bump when you’re reading.

Incidentally, the cover of the Heinemann edition really seems like a terrible choice for a novel which is dark and spiky and intricate. I should know by now: don’t read too much into the cover design. But I think it’s unavoidable that it affects your expectations, and I was really startled by the mismatch between the cover and the content.

The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born is my book from Ghana for the Read The World challenge. I tried to find a short passage to quote to give you a flavour, but it doesn’t really lend itself to quoting. So I’ll just say it’s sharp, bitter, evocative, sometimes for my taste slightly overwritten, but more often beautiful.

» The picture is a detail of a cloth printed in the 1950s to commemorate Ghanaian independence, from the British Museum collections.