Category Archives: African Writing

“My body is an archive”: Patrice Nganang’s “Mount Pleasant”

“If the invention of a writing system was due to his will to give form to the world’s multiple voices – much as he had done with the Shumum language, drawing on the other languages spoken around him – his grudging memory, his trembling hands, and his feeble body had taught him that now, in his chambers in Mount Pleasant, he had reached the end of a long path.”

In his memoir, There was a Country, Chinua Achebe writes about Amos Tutuela’s famous novel, The Palm-Wine Drinkard: “there is no attempt to draw a line between what is permissible and what is not, what is possible and what is not possible, what is new and what is old.” This sense – that the borders of what constitutes reality are simply more fluid and permeable than we are trained to imagine – is at the heart of Patrice Nganang’s sprawling novel about colonialism and nationalism in early-20th century Cameroon, Mount Pleasant. Anchored around two real-life characters in Cameroonian history – King Ibrahim Njoya and Paramount Chief Charles Atangana – and a series of real-life events, such as the successive colonisation of Cameroon by the Germans, the British, and the French – Mount Pleasant is nonetheless far more imaginative than historical, and bordering – on occasion – magical realism.

Mount Pleasant is woven out of multiple storylines, framed within a dialogue between the narrator, young, American-born Cameroonian-descended anthropologist, and Sara, one of the last living links between the present, and the late-colonial history of Cameroon in the 1930s. The narrator’s fragmented academic knowledge of Cameroonian history runs up against Sara’s living memory (“Archive? My body is an archive…”), throwing up all those eternal questions about the nature of historical truth, the distortion of the colonial lens, the (un)equal and opposite distortion of nationalism, and the insufficiency of language (“Where should I put my trust? In the capricious memory of an old lady or in the colonial archives?)

Within the dialogue itself, numerous themes emerge, composed out of the combined and sometimes contradictory knowledge of the two interlocutors: there is the eponymous Mount Pleasant, built into a “house of words” and a house of stories by King Njoya, who was exiled there by the French (“Njoya’s home became a compendium of humorous and serious tales, the site of a storytelling competition that went on from morning to night…”); there is Njoya’s prior time in his capital at Foumban, attempting to negotiate his way through successive colonial powers while maintaining a precarious hold on his waning authority – even to the extent of selling out an incipient nationalist movement, and seeing its leaders put to death; and there is Joseph Ngono, brought up and educated abroad in Germany to be a good native middleman, but who is transformed into a rebel and a nationalist after a chance encounter with German racists. Anchoring the novel is Nebu, a brilliant and troubled sculptor who, we are told right at the beginning of the book, dies in painful circumstances. Nebu’s talent is shaped around the trauma of his early childhood, where art is the only means of escape:

“Nebu learnt a lot by listening when he couldn’t respond. It taught him to control his rage. Taught him to keep it, like burning metal, at a safe distance from his body and his eyes. Taught him to strike it with a hammer, striking, striking, and striking again until it grew malleable, until it took on the shape he wanted to give it: flat like a knife, oval like a bird’s body, triangular like a lion’s head. It taught him to heat up his rage, to dilute his rage, to polish his rage, to file it yes, to file it down and wipe it clean, like the metals he worked with. And Nebu polished his rage, blowing on his overheated fingers, blowing on his heart to keep it from exploding, blowing on the embers of his incandescent soul. Art is an antidote to madness.”

In a certain sense, the blocked avenues and barricaded paths that consistently prevent Nebu from realising his potential – and which ultimately lead to his death – seem like a metaphor for the soul of the individual under the suffocating grip of colonialism. Nebu’s struggle is mirrored by the struggle of King Njoya, of whom we are told – in perhaps the closest direct indictment of colonialism that Nganang allows himself the indulgence of:

“He wanted to own the world… without being owned by it?”

“To speak of the world…”

“… without being spoken for by it.”

Njoya himself is the other anchor of Mount Pleasant. His endeavour to create a written script out of oral language becomes his one chance at retaining control, his one sphere of influence into which the colonisers have not and cannot penetrate:

“Njoya realized that his experiments with pictograms and phonemes, with syllabograms and words, with tales and histories, with lives and dreams – all those experiments that had led him from anecdotes to a printing press had been possible only because, from the very start, he had given up when confronted by History’s forces.”

Writing about the Indian colonial experience, historians have observed how the home came to be seen as a realm of spiritual retreat, the one space in which the militarily and politically conquered Indians remained sovereign and self-determining (with all its attendant problems). For Njoya, that sovereign space is language, especially in the moment of his final, physical decline:

“If writing reinscribes life on earth in furtive blots of ink, Njoya’s battle against the forces that had defeated his body was waged primarily on the surface of a slate, by means of pictograms he hoped would bear fruit… If the invention of a writing system was due to his will to give form to the world’s multiple voices – much as he had done with the Shumum language, drawing on the other languages spoken around him – his grudging memory, his trembling hands, and his feeble body had taught him that now, in his chambers in Mount Pleasant, he had reached the end of a long path.”

History tells us, though, that Njoya’s efforts were doomed to failure, especially after the French invalidated the curriculum in all his schools (an incident briefly adverted to in the novel); his language died along with him, until efforts in the mid-2000s to resurrect it (although perhaps as no more than a museum piece). And it is that death that is, in turn, mirrored in the death of Nebu, who cannot – despite all his efforts – breathe life into the sculpture of his lost love:

“For death is the limit of art, isn’t it? Yet how could people have thought about suicide? And why should they have? After all, and here the French officials and their adversaries in Foumban would certainly agree, a Bamum man simply couldn’t kill himself for a reason like that.”

The characters in Mount Pleasant, ultimately, realise that happiness is open to them only if they narrow their aspirations and their world, if – in the words of Ghassan Kanafani – they make their worlds smaller “to fill it with happiness“. And it is Joseph Ngono who realises that “it is impossible to know the actual price of happiness and to remain happy” – or at least, in a land where every attempt at self-assertion faces the barrel of a gun.

Haunted by the physical, mental, and moral shackles of colonial rule, and searching for a liberation that yet has no vocabulary to speak its name (only at the end of the novel do we see a crowd “demanding nothing less than equality and freedom“), the characters of Mount Pleasant are suffocated in by a world that will soon die, before they can be rescued by another that is struggling to be born. The historical moment that Nganang captures is similar (or just prior to) the historical moment of Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk or Latifa al-Zayyat’s The Open Door (Egypt), Aamin Maalouf’s Samarkand (Iran), and Yuri Trifonov’s The Impatient Ones (Russia). The voice and setting, of course, is Nganang’s own.

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Round-up: Machado de Assis and Jennifer Makumbi

Machado de Assis, Epitaph of a Small WinnerThis novel is dedicated to “the first worm that gnawed at my flesh.” That is not a metaphor: Epitaph of a Small Winner is the fictional memoir of Braz Cubas, a late-19th century wealthy Brazilian man, and is written (literally) from beyond the grave: a posthumous memoir, so to say. That sets the tone for some truly dazzling flights of fancy, presaged by the following warning on page 10:

“The reader, like his fellows, doubtless prefers action to reflection, and doubtless he is wholly in the right. Se we shall get to it. However, I must advise him that this book is written leisurely, with the leisureliness of a man no longer troubled by the flight of time; that it is a work supinely philosophical, but of a philosophy wanting in uniformity, now austere, now playful, a thing that neither edifies nor destroys, neither inflames nor chills, and that is at once more than pastime and less than preachment.”  

Braz Cubas takes us through his misspent youth at the University of Coimbra (“I was a harebrained scholar, superficial, tumultuous, and capricious, fond of adventures of all kinds, engaging in practical romanticism and theoretical liberalism, with complete faith in dark eyes and written constitutions…“), his early-adult melancholy at the passing of his mother (“I believe that it was then that the flower of melancholy in me began to open, this yellow, lonely, morbid flower with its subtle and inebriating perfume…”), early failures in love, and then dedicates most of the memoir to a tumultuous and caustically adulterous affair with the wife of an ambitious minor politician. The narrative is fragmented, meandering, often self-referential and full of all kinds of digressions, but sustained by a lightness of tone and a conspicuous refusal to take anything – life, love, death, politics, the world – too seriously.

Beneath the lightness of tone, however, lies an unsparing, almost savage critique of social institutions, human vanity, and human conceit(s). Sometimes, this rises to the surface in an offhand, blink-or-you’ll miss it manner (“…but if you have a profound and perspicacious mind (and I strongly suspect that you will not deny this)…”), while at other times it takes the form of a lengthier digression, which might be straight out of The Devil’s Dictionary:

“I like epitaphs; among civilized people they are an expression of a secret and pious egoism that leads men to try and rescue form death at least a shred of the soul that has passed on, with the expectation that the same will be done for them.”

Or:

“As his manner was very sharp, he had enemies who accused him of barbarity. The only fact alleged to support this charge was that he frequently committed slaves to the dungeon and that they were always dripping blood when released; but, apart from the fact that he did this only to fugitives and incorrigibles, one must remember that, as he had long been engaged in smuggling slaves into the country, he had become accustomed to long-established methods of treatment that were somewhat harsher than those practiced in the regular slave trade, and one cannot honestly attribute to a man’s basic character something that is obviously the result of a social pattern.”

There is a particularly acute deconstruction of male vanity, which has all the markings of a proto-feminist critique (“… but the man, considering himself the irresistible cause of the [adulterous] affair and the vanquisher of the other man, becomes rightfully proud…”), and moments of sudden, serious depth, that stand out because of the contrast with the rest of the novel (“at dusk one seeks in vain the fresh exhalations of the morning…”).

In its epigrammatic quick-wittedness, Epitaph of a Small Winner is reminiscent of passages from Assis’ contemporary, Oscar Wilde; in its jocular narrator making light of the world, it anticipates some of Vargas Llosa’s comic novels, such as Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter; and in its uncanny ability to draw a vast sweep in space and time simply by recounting individual events and stories, there are obvious comparisons with Garbiel Garcia Marquez. It is not difficult to see why Epitaph of a Small Winner is accepted as a classic of Brazilian literature.

(NYT review; the book is available on Amazon).

Jennifer Matumbi, Kintu 

The form of Kintu is familiar to readers of postcolonial fiction of a certain kind: the story of a nation, told through the travails of a single extended family through the generations. In terms of its story, however, Kintu is unique. Anchored around a senseless, violent death on a road in the Ugandan countryside, Kintu spans the pre-colonial kingdom of Buganda, the era of colonialism, Idi Amin’s wars, and Uganda’s transition into the 21st century. There is a sprawling cast of characters – all part of an extended family descended from a half-historical, half-legendary figure called Kintu (“Kintu” is, in fact, a central character in Bugandan creation myth), whose single misdeed many centuries ago brought down a curse that continues to dog the family. Teachers, evangelists, incestuous twins, a military leader, and many others – their lives and paths intersect, separate, entwine, separate again, and finally come together in a haunting denouement at the end of the novel. There is a smattering of magic as well, vaguely reminiscent of The Famished Road, but only vaguely.

In the Introduction to Kintu, Aaron Bady writes that Makumbi “vowed to tell the story of Uganda with colonialism placed in perspective: not to say that the colonial encounter wasn’t important, but that it wasn’t the only thing that was.” Nonetheless, for me, some of the most striking passages from the book have to do with colonialism. For instance:

“After independence, Uganda – a European artifact – was still forming as a country rather than as a kingdom in the mind of ordinary Gandas. They were lulled by the fact that Kabaka Muteesa II was made president of the new Uganda. Nontehless, most of them felt that “Uganda” should remain a kingdom for the Ganda under their kabaka so that things would go back to the way they were before Europeans came. Uganda was a patchwork of fifty or so tribes. The Ganda did not want it. The union of tribes brought no apparent advantage to them apart from a deluge of immigrants from wherever, coming to Kampala to take their land. Meanwhile, the other fifty or so tribes looked on flabbergasted as the British drew borders and told them that they were now Ugandans. Their histories, cultures, and identities were overwritten by the mispronounced name of an insufferably haughty tribe propped above them. But to the Ganda, the reality of Uganda as opposed to Buganda only sank in when, after independence, Obote overran the kabaka’s lubiri with tanks, exiling Muteesa and banning all kingdoms. The desecreation of their kingdom by foreigners paralysed the Ganda for decades.”

Even more striking is a piece of imagery developed by a teacher, lately returned from the colonial metropolis (a familiar figure in postcolonial literature), in a piece he is writing for the local magazine:

Buganda, unlike the rest of Africa, was sweet-talked onto the operating table with praises and promises. Protectorate was the plastic surgery to set the sluggish African body on a faster route to maturity. But once under chloroform, the surgeon was at liberty and did as he pleased. First he severed the hands then cut off the legs and he put the black limbs into a bin bag and disposed of them. Then he got European limbs and set upon grafting them on the black torso. When the African woke up, the European had moved into his house… Though the African was too weak to get up, he still said to the European, “I don’t like what you are doing, my friend. Please get out of my house.” But the European replied, “I am only trying to help, brother. You are still too weak and drowsy to look after your house. I will take charge in the meantime. When you’re fully recovered, I promise you will work and run twice as fast as I do… But the African body rejected the European body parts. Africa says that they are incompatible. The surgeons say that Africa discharged itself too soon from hospital – that is why it is hemorrhaging. It needs a lot more continual blood and water pumped up intravenously. The surgeons say, “Nonsense, we did the same to India, see how fast it’s running.”

And perhaps, most effective of all, the rawness of this:

“God became an idea. If there was a God then he was a racist. In anger, Miisi walked away from religion.”

(Africa in Words review; Jennifer Makumbi interview; the book is available on Amazon)

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Filed under Jennifer Matumbi, Machado de Assis, Uganda

“They were eyes that stung you to tears…”: Dambudzo Marechera’s ‘The House of Hunger’

In the prefatory essay to The House of Hunger – a collection including the eponymous novella and eleven other aphoristic, semi-autobiographical sketches – the Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera sets out his relationship with the English language. “I took to the English language as a duck takes to water,” he writes:

I was therefore a keen accomplice and student in my own mental colonization. At the same time of course there was the unease, the shock of being suddenly struck by stuttering, of being deserted by the very medium I was to use in all my art. This perhaps is in the undergrowth of my experimental use of English, standing it on its head, brutalizing it into a more malleable shape for my own purposes. For a black writer the language is very racist; you have to have harrowing fights and hair-raising panga duels with the language before you can make it do all that you want it to do. It is so for the feminists. English is very male. Hence feminist writers also adopt the same tactics. This may mean discarding grammar, throwing syntax out, subverting images from within, beating the drum and cymbals of rhythm, developing torture chambers of irony and sarcasm , gas ovens of limitless black resonance.” (p. 7)

This is an interesting paragraph, because it calls to mind an old debate over whether there can be – in the words of Colm Toibin – a “language that is free and untouched by occupation.” Toibin certainly believed so when, in Love in a Dark Time, he wrote of “independent writer[s] whose true home, as I have said, is the language.” Seamus Heaney believed so, when in The Redress of Poetry he wrote of “language pure as air or water, a language which carries the reader (as the truest poetry always does) into the sensation of walking on air or swimming free.” Marechera clearly doesn’t. And his indictment of English as both racist and misogynist recalls the feminist critic Marina Warner, who wrote that “the speaking woman, her tongue freed by the ability to write as well as read, found that the emblem books were still filled with the iconology of female wantonness and frailty and their contradictory companions, fatality and power… women often had to work with the grain of misogyny, and then found the timber broke their tools.” The tools of language – image, metaphor, even words – are deeply political; and therefore, for Marechera, the choice of using a language – and then, how you use it – are political choices.

In fact, the sentence “a keen accomplice and student in my own mental colonisation” brings to mind Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s memorable indictment of “European tongues”. In Secure the Base, wa Thiong’o wrote that “within the African nations, European tongues continue to be what they were during the colonial period: the languages of power, conception and articulation of the worlds of science, technology, politics, law, commerce, administration, and even culture… every educated African who remains doggedly locked within the linguistic walls of European languages, irrespective of his avowed social vision… is part of the problem and not the solution.” However, while Thiong’o’s response to this was to stop writing in English altogether, and write in his indigenous Gikuyu language (he would then translate it himself into English), Marechera, instead, sought to engage in “discarding grammar, throwing syntax out, subverting images from within, beating the drum and cymbals of rhythm, developing torture chambers of irony and sarcasm, gas ovens of limitless black resonance…”

This shows in The House of Hunger, Marechera’s haunting, broken, almost-surrealistic narrative about growing up in pre-Independence Zimbabwe, where English becomes an instrument of distilled violence. If Robert Bridges once wrote that English civilisation “is in great measure founded upon wreckingMarechera employs metaphor, image, and word to show how the English language might be founded upon violence. For instance, in simultaneously describing the death of the narrator’s father in a railway accident, and his mother’s verbal violence upon him, Marechera writes:

“Drinking always made her smash up her words at one particular rail-crossing which – as had really happened with the old man – effectively crunched all meaning or significance which might be lying in ambush… the expletives of her train of invective smashed my body in the same way as that twentieth-century train crunched the old man into a stain.” (p. 20)

Smashed-up words, where “meaning” and “significance” are crunched: this is The House of Hunger, where “the tinfoil of my soul crinkled” (p. 28), where “the pain was the sound of slivers of glass being methodically crushed in a steel vice by a fiend whose face was like that of my old carpentry master who is now in a madhouse” (p. 37), and where “the flood of political rhetoric escaped like a cloud of steam out of my crater of a mouth, leaving me dry and without words” (p. 38).

Marechera’s themes are themes of violence – the violence of a broken, colonial society in the process of violently struggling to free itself (“I found a seed, a little seed, the smallest in the world. And its name was Hate. I buried it in my mind and watered it with tears. No seed ever had a better gardener. As it swelled and cracked into green life I felt my nation tremble, tremble in the throes of birth – and burst out bloom and branch…” (p. 29)), violence both political and personal; this, in itself, is not unusual. Violence has been depicted to great effect in books as diverse as Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathiser. However, what is unusual about The House of Hunger is violence is not merely extra-linguistic, in the content of the description, but linguistic. Even the brief moments of joy are described in metaphors of violence: “And now here he was already gripping my arm with a tongue-scalding coffee joy…” (p. 21); “I smiled, crumpling up the tinfoil of my delight” (p. 40); “the rain came down in little liquid rocks which broke on their heads with a gentleness too rapid to be anything other than overpowering. She laughed a laugh that had little sharp teeth in it and it warmed them, this biting intimacy with the rain…” (p. 118); and: “My dreams still clung defiantly to the steel wire of old memories which I no longer had the power to arrange clearly in my mind.” (p. 124)

One should not think, however, that The House of Hunger is limited to stylistic virtuosity (although, as exhibited above, Marechera’s use of language is brilliant). The underlying theme – the critique of the broken colonial society, and the broken individuals it rears – risks being submerged by Marechera’s linguistic fireworks, but there are times when it emerges forcefully, reminding us that what is at stake, beyond violence, is an indictment of an entire political, economic, and social system of oppression. For instance, at the beginning of the novella, the narrator describes the process of growing up, which can be taken to be purely an instance of existentialist doubt, but in the broader context, is clearly a comment on the manner in which the colonial regime systematically denied fulfilment to its “children of a lesser God”:

“There was however an excitement of the spirit which made us all wander about in search of that unattainable elixir which our restlessness presaged. But the search was doomed from the start because the elixir seemed to be right under our noses and yet not really there. The freedom that we craved for – as one craves for dagga or beer or cigarettes or the after-life – this was so alive in our breath and in our fingers that one became intoxicated even before one had actually found it. It was like the way a man licks his lips in his dream of a feast; the way a woman dances in her dream of a carnival; the way the old man ran like a gazelle in his yearning for the funeral games of his youth. Yet the feast, the carnival and the games were not there at all. This was the paradox whose discovery left us uneasy, sly and at best with the ache of knowing that one would never feel that way again. There were no conscious farewells to adolescence for the emptiness was deep-seated in the gut. We knew that before us lay another vast emptiness whose appetite for things living was at best wolfish.” (p. 13)

The “House of Hunger“, therefore, refers not simply to the literal hunger that colonial poverty brought with it (the narrator mentions staying in the “house of hunger”a few times in the novella, making it clear that its use is both literal and metaphorical), but a different kind of hunger, and a different kind of thirst, that social structures were designed to leave un-sated:

“All the black youth was thirsty. There was not an oasis of thought which we did not lick dry; apart from those which had been banned, whose drinking led to arrests and suchlike flea-scratchings.” (p. 12)

The distilled intensity of The House of Hunger might speak for Marechera’s short life: an education at Oxford University was cut short when, on being offered a choice between a psychiatric examination and being sent down for trying to burn down the college, he chose the latter; The House of Hunger was composed while sleeping penniless, rough and rootless in different parts of England and Wales; when it won the Guardian First Book Award, Marechera celebrated by throwing plates at the chandeliers during the award ceremony; on his return to (independent) Zimbabwe, he lived homeless and died of AIDS-related complications at the age of 35. This life of restless – and often violence – discontent – is summed up by Marechera himself, in Thought Tracks in the Snow, one of the autobiographical essays that comes at the end of The House of Hunger:

“As the plane burred into the night, leaving the Angolan coast and heading out into the void above the Atlantic, I suddenly remembered that I had, in the rude hurry of it all, left my spectacles behind. I was coming to England literally blind. The blurred shape of the other passengers was grimly glued to the screen where Clint Eastwood was once again shooting the shit out of his troubles. I was on my own, sipping a whisky, and my head was roaring with a strange emptiness. What was it really that I had left behind me? My youth was a headache burring with the engines of a great hunger that was eating up the huge chunks of empty air. I think I knew then that before me were years of desperate loneliness, and the whisky would be followed by other whiskies, other self-destructive poisons; I had nothing but books inside my head, and they were burning me, burring with the engines of hope and illusion into the endless expanse of air. Who was I leaving behind? My own prematurely grey had still sat stubbornly upon my shoulders; my family did not know where I was or whether I was alive or dead. I do not think they would have cared one way or the other had they known at that moment I was thousands of feet above the earth, hanging as it were in the emptiness which my dabbling with politics had created for me. I felt sick with everything, sick with the self-pity, sick with the Rhodesian crisis, sick! – and the whisky was followed by other whiskies and my old young man’s face stared back at me from the little window. Would Oxford University be any different – was I so sure of myself then? Dawn broke as we flew over the Bay of Biscay; and the fresh white dove’s down of breast-clouds looked from above like another revelation that would turn out, when eaten, to be stone rather than bread.” (p. 140)

Even here, at the very end, in the throes of seriousness, Marechera cannot avoid just that little dose of linguistic pyrotechnics!

Other reviews of The House of HungerThe GuardianThe Rumpus.

On Marechera more generally: The Life and Times of an African Writer (VQR).

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Filed under African Writing, Dambudzo Marechera, Uncategorized, Zimbabwe

“You just gave yourself to the dream in the rhythm…”: Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s ‘The River Between’

“And she seemed to hold him still. Not with her hands. Not with anything visible. It was something inside her. What was it? He could not divine what it was. Perhaps her laughter. He thought there was magic in it because it rang into his heart, arousing things he had never felt before. And what was that shining in her eyes? Was there a streak of sadness in them? For a time Waiyaki was afraid and looked around. His mother was watching them. He turned to Muthoni. The magic was not there any more; it had gone. In the next moment Waiyaki found himself wandering alone, blindly away from the crowd, wrestling with a hollowness inside his stomach.”

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart occupies pride of place as the post-colonial African novel dealing with the theme of the first contact between indigenous communities and colonial power, and the social disintegration that inevitably follows. But only seven years after Things Fall Apart, a young Ngugi wa Thiong’o published The River Between, his own novel dealing with similar themes. The River Between was Thiong’o’s first written novel (composed at university), and the second that he published. It is not as well-known as The Wizard of the Crow or Petals of Blood, and certainly not a novel that comes to mind when thinking of books that deal with the initial relationship between colonialism and community. This is a pity: in some ways, The River Between is an even more ambitious novel than Things Fall Apart, because it deals with an issue where the moral lines seem to be as clear as anything could be in our compromised world: female circumcision – or, as we know it, female genital mutilation.

The book begins like this:

The two ridges lay side by side. One was Kameno, the other was Makuyu. Between them was a valley. It was called the valley of life. Behind Kameno and Makuyu were many more valleys and ridges, lying without any discernible plan. They were like many sleeping lions which never woke. They just slept, the big deep sleep of their creator.

Between Kameno and Makuyu, both home to the Gikuyu people, there is an ancient rivalry, which is now exacerbated by the advent of colonialism, and the Christian religion that the colonisers bring with them. In Makuyu, Christianity has found a believer in Joshua, who has all the zeal of the convert. His proselytisation, however, creates as many enemies as it does followers; and rebellion, at last, reaches his own home. When female circumcision is banned as contrary to the Christian faith, Joshua’s daugther, Muthoni, refuses to abide by the decree, which goes to the heart of how the Gikuyu culture and way of life.

Into this milieu comes Waiyaki, the book’s ambiguous and conflicted protagonist. Waiyaki has been brought up to be the prophetic “saviour” of the people from the increasingly frequent depredations of the colonisers. Sent to be educated at the nearest missionary school – to learn the master’s tools to break down the master’s house – while retaining a firm foothold among his people, Waiyaki is the man marked to reconcile and unify the warring factions, and take on the colonisers. His chosen weapon is that of education.

However, Waiyaki will come to realise that reconciliation is not so easy. As Uzodinma Iweala remarks in his excellent introduction, while dealing with Muthoni’s own decision to undertake circumcision while remaining faithful to her father, “most utopias can accommodate only one grand vision.” Those who seek to expand them must either end in compromising, or in tragedy. And that is at the heart of The River Between.

The ambition of The River Between – as I mentioned above – is that Ngugi wa Thiong’o chooses as his site of conflict between colonial “modernity” and indigenous belief a practice that almost all of us would condemn unreservedly, both intuitively, and on careful reflection. What do the defenders of circumcision have to say for themselves? What can they possibly have to say for themselves? In Facing Mount Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta (independent Kenya’s first President) might have written that “this operation is still regarded as the very essence of an institution which has enormous educational, social, moral and religious implications… for the present it is impossible for a member of the tribe to imagine an initiation without clitoridectomy” – but surely that is no justification for something that is so obviously oppressive.

In The River Between, Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s answer is to remove the authorial voice almost entirely from the novel. Female circumcision relies entirely upon its novelistic advocates for its justification, and one of those advocates is Muthoni as well. Echoing Kenyatta, Thiong’o describes how, for Muthoni, circumcision is what gives her membership in the tribe any meaning at all; without it, she is bereft, like an atrophied limb, cut off from its body. Now, we may dismiss this as false consciousness, as internalised oppression; but Thiong’o’s Muthoni is too fiercely intelligent, too reflective, and too human for any such easy resolution. And this is the singular achievement of The River Between: Thiong’o gives us a character whom we must take seriously, whose choices we must evaluate as choices. This is particularly important because, as recent scholarship has shown, the conflict over the abolition of oppressive gender-practices between the colonisers and indigenous societies was conducted on a terrain in which any kind of agency or voice was entirely denied to those whom it was ostensibly for: women. As an Indian scholar writes, the conflict “was not so much about the specific condition of women within a definite set of social relations as it was about the political encounter between a colonial state and a supposed ‘tradition’ of a conquered people.” In this context, Muthoni’s is the absent voice, now foregrounded front and centre.

Muthoni’s certainty and strength of will is a stark contrast with the ambivalent and unsure Waiyaki. Primed to belong to both worlds, he too falls victim to the totalitarianism of utopias, and finds himself struggling to belong to either:

“Again he was restless and the yearning came back to him. It filled him and shook his whole being so that he felt something in him would burst. Yearning. Yearning. Was life all a yearning and no satisfaction? Was one to live, a strange hollowness pursuing one like a malignant beast that would not let one rest? Waiyaki could not know. Perhaps nobody could ever know. You had just to be…

Waiyaki is a neat inversion of the familiar fictional trope, the “half-blood” who, straddling two worlds, emerges as an unlikely saviour. Through Waiyaki – who, again, like Muthoni, is too human to simply reduce to a type – Thiong’o demonstrates just how difficult a task that is in moments of extreme flux, where one order, backed by raw power, clashes with another, supported on nothing but memories and dreams. And it is only towards the end of the novel that we get a sense of where Thiong’o himself stands on the issue:

“A religion that took no count of people’s way of life, a religion that did not recognize spots of beauty and truths in their way of life, was useless. It would not satisfy. It would not be a living experience, a source of life and vitality. It would only maim a man’s soul, making him fanatically cling to whatever promised security, otherwise he would be lost. Perhaps that was what was wrong with Joshua. He had clothed himself with a religion decorated and smeared with everything white. He renounced his past and cut himself away from those life-giving traditions of the tribe. And because he had nothing to rest upon, something rich and firm on which to stand and grow, he had to cling with his hands to whatever the missionaries taught him promised future… if the white man’s religion made you abandon a custom and then did not give you something of equal value, you became lost.”

Here we have that flash of insight, delivered in spare, clean prose, that is such a staple of the later Thiong’o. The River Between shows us a young Thiong’o, still honing and polishing his craft, the craft that would reach its peak in a novel like The Wizard of the Crow. But for a first novel, it is still an astonishingly accomplished work, subtle, complex, and above all, humane and empathetic.

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Reading South Africa

This December, I spent three weeks in South Africa. Through the course of my life, I’ve been intellectually and emotionally involved with the country to an unusual degree. Growing up, I sneaked Donald Wood’s biography of Steve Biko from my father’s bookshelf, and read it at around the time when one’s sense of the political is just beginning to evolve. A biography of Desmond Tutu followed (somehow, I never got around to reading Long Walk to Freedom), as did Cry the Beloved Country, both while I was twelve years old. A Nadine Gordimer short story stood out in a turgid CBSE English school syllabus. In college, a friend introduced me to Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, which (expectedly) had a singularly powerful impact. And more recently, in my work as a lawyer, the South African constitutional court has shaped my thinking in ways too foundational to articulate.

So I decided to try and skim the surface of South African literature as I traipsed around Johannesburg, Soweto, the Drakensburg mountains, Durban, and Cape Town. This is what emerged:

Leonard Thompson, A History of South Africa: A historian-friend recommended this to me as the Howard Zinn of South African history writing. It’s a dense and accessible text that covers the history of South Africa from pre-colonial days to the Zuma Presidency. Zinn it is decidedly not – it reads more as a self-conscious attempt to appear balanced and objective, rather than a radical account (a particularly bizarre moment was its description of the British as having “withdrawn” from their African colonies in the 1960s). Nonetheless, it’s a very good book to read just before visiting the country, as it allows the visitor to contextualise locations and places beyond their physical appearance. It is also a good book to read before diving into famous South African literature, much of which is political, and contains coded references to some of the more notorious events of the apartheid regime. It was because I had read Thompson, for instance, that I could make sense of the references to the transition-era violence that is the centrepiece of Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying, or the 19th-Century frenzy of cattle-killing that is the subject of the same author’s The Heart of Redness.

Zakes Mda, Ways of DyingSouth Africa’s transition to democracy was not peaceful. The years 1991 to 1994 saw widespread violence. Part of it was the apartheid’s regime continuation of its previous conduct towards the African population, but a significant part of it was also Black-on-Black violence, as rival factions jockeyed for position in the coming order (this episode of South African history is unsparingly depicted in Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum). In particular, regime-supported violence by the Inkatha Freedom Party aimed at destabilising the ongoing political negotiations was particularly brutal, as was the “necklacing” of supposed political informants. 

Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying takes a scalpel to this immensely difficult topic, and what emerges is a haunting story that has resonances of Lord of the Flies (in its stark excavation of human atrocity) as well as To Kill a Mockingbird (in its refusal to abandon hope). The protagonist is Toloki, South Africa’s only “professional mourner” – a man who makes his living in an unnamed South African city by visiting (ever-increasing) funerals and mourning for the dead. During a rare Christmas-day funeral of a young boy, Toloki is reunited with Noria, a woman he once knew in his village, and who has just lost her son to the ongoing violence. Through narrative flashbacks, Toloki and Noria’s lives intertwine and come apart, until together, they try to build a life and meaning amidst the continuing wreckage. With a combination of vivid imagery (“His memories have faded from the deep yellow-ochre of the landscape, with black beetles rolling black dung down the slopes, and colourful birds swooping down to feed on the helpless insects, to a dull canvas of distant and misty grey…”), wry humour (“Toloki joined some boys who were sitting behind the church, drinking the brandy that they had stolen from the house of the minister, while he was busy saving people from fire and brimstone in the church…”), unsparing political insight that refrains from descending into polemic (“Police bullets have a strange way of ricocheting off the walls of township houses, and when they do, there is bound to be a child about whom they never miss…”), and the intensely personal (“I want to create from dreams, like you…”), Ways of Dying is a unique artistic achievement.

Zakes Mda, The Heart of Redness: One of the most controversial events in the colonial history of South Africa is the Xhosa Cattle Killing of 1856 – 1857, when, responding to the millenarian predictions of a young prophetess called Nongqawuse, members of the Xhosa people in the Eastern Cape region engaged in mass slaughter of their own cattle, and burnt their own crops. Some – “the Unbelievers” – refused to do so, and were accused of collusion with the colonisers. Zakes Mda’s The Heart of Redness explores two parallel events: Nongqawuse’s movement of 1856 – 1857 (placed in the context of the escalating conflict between the Xhosa and the colonial invaders), and a deep schism in a coastal village in the “new and democratic South Africa”, caused by the government’s plans to build a gambling casino and a water resort upon the traditional lands. In Mda’s novel, the conflict between the “Believers” and the “Unbelievers” plays itself out once more in the present day, with the descendants of the Believers now fighting to save the village from the government’s plans, while the Unbelievers celebrate the inevitable oncoming of modernity.

The Heart of Redness shifts continuously – sometimes dizzyingly – between past and present; this is exacerbated by Mda’s deliberate use of the same names for some of the protagonists. Underlying these shifts and overlaps is a now-familiar theme: the end of colonialism (and, in this case, apartheid) was less a transformation of an unjust order, and more a continuation of the same. This is highlighted by the repeated – and ironic – invocation of the “new and democratic South Africa”, and the Mda’s unsparing dissection of the conduct of the colonisers and the (colonial) conduct of the government, placed side by side:

“He had been a governor in Australia and New Zealand, they said, where his civilizing mission did many wonderful things for the natives of those countries. Of course he had to take their land in return for civilization. Civilisation is not cheap. He had written extensively about the native people of those countries, and about their plants. He had even given names to ten of their rivers, and to their mountain ranges. It did not matter that the forebears of those natives had named those rivers and mountains from time immemorial. When Ned told them about the naming of the rivers, a derisive elder had called Grey The Man Who Named Ten Rivers. And that became his name.”

And:

“After the chief has introduced the visitors, Lefa Leballo makes a brief speech. He tells the villagers how lucky they are to be living in a new and democratic South Africa where the key word is transparency. In the bad old days, such projects would be done without consulting them at all. So, in the same spirit that the government has respected them by consulting them, they must also show respect to these important visitors, by not voicing the objections that he heard some of the villagers were having about a project of such national importance.”

Much like Ways of Dying, Mda’s accomplishment is to yank off the democratic mask of a coercive State apparatus and the existing economic and political order, while preserving the integrity of the novel, and refusing the temptation of the polemic. And much like Ways of Dying, he does this with intensely-written characters, and deeply evocative prose:

“Qukezwa sings in such beautiful colours. Soft colours like the ochre of the yellow gullies. Reassuring colours of the earth. Red. Hot colours like blazing fire. Deep blue. Deep green. Colours of the valleys and the ocean. Cool colours like the rain of summer sliding down a pair of naked bodies… she sings in soft pastel colours, this Qukezwa. In crude and glaring colours. And in bright glossy colours. In subdued colours of the newly turned fields. All at the same time.”

Lewis Nkosi, Underground People: At one level, Lewis Nkosi’s Underground People is a political thriller. It is set in Tabanyane, a thinly-fictionalised village at the northern border of South Africa, in the period just before the transition (1988? 1989?), when the thinly-fictionalised “National Liberation Movement” is simultaneously pursuing guerrilla warfare against the apartheid regime, and attempting to engage in back-channel negotiations. Cornelius Molapo, a teacher and an ideologue of the NLM, is selected by the Movement to travel to Tabanyane (his birthplace), and take charge of an incipient armed rebellion against the regime, as well as the local chief. To facilitate his departure from Johannesburg, the NLM enacts Molapo’s “disappearance” from his home. As the disappeared teacher becomes a cause celebre abroad, the (even more) thinly-fictionalised “Human Rights International” gets involved, and sends Anthony Ferguson, a white South African who left his country fifteen years ago, to investigate the “disappearance.” The action shifts between the cloying environs of Johannesburg, and the forests of Tabanyane, where the long-suppressed contradictions of the apartheid regime are about to explode into catastrophic violence.

What sets Underground People apart from a regular political novel (and it is a very good political novel – fast-paced, intricate, and with a twist-of-the-knife ending) is the depth that Nkosi gives to his characters. Anthony Ferguson as the white liberal South African, uneasily attempting to straddle two worlds, and ending up utterly ineffectual in both; Joe Bulame, the NLM operative, a paradoxical blend of principles and opportunism; Princess Madi, an equally paradoxical blend of liberation ideology and conservatism; and of course, Molapo himself, who begins his career among the “Underground People” utterly unfit for the role, but gradually finds himself growing into it. For a novel that is unashamedly political, Nkosi’s characters – on both sides of the divide, even the police officers upholding the apartheid regime – are sympathetic, and cannot be reduced to caricatures. And nor are the characters’ personal lives submerged by the novel’s politics – quite the opposite. In fact, some of the book’s most beautiful passages are about the characters’ personal lives; these, for instance, about Molapo’s failed marriage:

“… he was overcome by a profound depression at the thought of the crouching beast of failure which slouched at the heart of every human affection.”

And:

“… like many husbands his whole life was built on an illusion and this illusion was designed to fulfil no other function save the propping up of a personality that was in the process of disintegration.”

Achmat Dangor, Bitter FruitIn Zbigniew Herbert’s poem, Elegy of Fortinbras, the eponymous Fortinbras ends by standing over the corpse of Hamlet and saying “what I shall leave will not be worth a tragedy.” In Achmat Dangor’s Bitter Fruit, as South Africa transitions from the extraordinary days of the struggle to the ordinariness of a post-colonial existence, the protagonists of the struggle find themselves fading into oblivion and irrelevance, and a crumbling family is denied even the comfort of invoking tragedy to give its disintegration a sense of grandeur:

“Perhaps history had dwindled away. Their lives, Lydia’s and Silas’s, the whole country’s, had become ordinary things. Not worth recording any longer, not worth the few precious moments of her busy day.”

In the fashion of Arial Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, Bitter Fruit begins with Silas Ali accidentally running into Du Boise, a former policeman who had, many years before, during apartheid, raped Silas’ wife, Lydia. The revelation shatters the uneasy equilibrium that has long existed between Silas, Lydia, and their son Michael. Even as Silas struggles with South Africa’s troubled past in his capacity as trouble-shooter for the embattled Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he is unable to come to terms with his own history:

“He knew then, several years before he encountered Du Boise in a shopping mall, that Lydia really wanted to explore some hidden pain, perhaps not of her rape, but to journey through the darkness of the silent years that had ensued between them. He was not capable of such an ordeal, he acknowledged. It would require an immersion in words he was not familiar with, words that did not seek to blur memory, to lessen the pain, but to sharpen all of those things. He was trained to find consensus, even if meant not acknowledging the ‘truth’ in all its unflattering nakedness. Hell, he had an important job, liaising between the Ministry of Justice and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was his task to ensure that everyone concerned remained objective, the TRC’s supporters and its opponents, that they considered the law above all, and did not allow their emotions to sway them. What would happen if he broke his own golden rule and delved into the turmoil of memories that the events of those days would undoubtedly unleash?”

This paragraph is at the heart of Bitter Fruit, a subtle yet immensely powerful interweaving of the personal and the political, and an exploration of the overwhelming weight of history that can suffocate both an individual and a nation. Bitter Fruit moves seamlessly between the two, and uses each to illuminate the dark corners of the other. Through some extraordinarily evocative prose (“her joy pressed like a dead flower between her unsmiling lips“; “frontiers of emotion without twilight“; “Did the slow crumbling of their relationship begin there, the relentless tides of their different histories start their corrosive wearing away of love?”; “Affection flickers once more, a brief, candlewick flame that hisses and goes out.”), Dangor paints both a family and a country trapped in a web of constraint, primarily of their own making.

In its uninhibited – yet perceptive – exploration of sexuality, Bitter Fruit reminds one of Philip Roth; in its unsparing description of a family slowly – yet inevitably – coming apart, it has echoes of Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey into Night; and in the subtlety with which it explores human relationships, it makes one think of Julian Barnes. A combination of the three creates a novel, reading which is an almost visceral experience, and which lingers to haunt you long after you have put it down.

Damon Galgut, In a Strange RoomPossibly the strangest – and saddest – book in this list. In a Strange Room is not, strictly, about South Africa, although the narrator is South African, and a small part of the action takes place in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Rather, it is about solitude and rootlessness, both physical and emotional. In a Strange Room is a collection of three stories; in each, the narrator – switching between a contemporaneous first-person voice and a later third-person voice – begins with undertaking a journey of escape (from his country? himself?), while being ironically aware of the impossibility of such an undertaking:

“And maybe that is the true reason for this journey, by shedding all the ballast of familiar life they are each trying to recapture a sensation of weightlessness they remember but perhaps never lived, in memory more than anywhere else traveling is like free-fall, or flight.”

However, he soon finds himself entwined with the lives and journeys of others, whether as a “follower” (Story 1), a “lover” (Story 2″, or a “guardian” (Story 3). These relationships – which are contained, constrained, unfulfilled, and ultimately end in devastation – come to define both himself, and his journey (a hiking trip across Lesotho, a frantic dash across southern Africa, and a futile, weaving tour around southern India). And each relationship is characterised by a failure of language (“why is violence always so easy to imagine but tenderness stays locked in words for me?“; “He would like to say something, the perfect single word that contains how he feels, but there isn’t any such word“; “… perhaps everything comes down to one silence too many), the impossibility of closure (“… there are still times, walking on a country road alone, when he would not be surprised to see a dark figure in the distance, coming towards him“; “the journey hasn’t ended where he wanted it to, it has frayed out instead into endless ambiguities and nuances, like a path that divides and divides endlessly, growing fainter all the time“; “Whatever they say, it is in breezy phrases like these, phrases without content, or perhaps too much“;), and, ultimately, the impossibility of any kind of permanence, an idea that is reflected in the very act of traveling (quick glimpses of other lives that glance off his in a tiny collision of images…”):

“A journey is a gesture inscribed in space, it vanishes even as it’s made. You go from one place to another place, and on to somewhere else again, and already behind you there is no trace that you were ever there. The roads you went down yesterday are full of different people now, none of them knows who you are. In the room you slept in last night a stranger lies in the bed. Dust covers over your footprints, the marks of your fingers are wiped off the door, from the floor and table the bits and pieces of evidence that you might have dropped are swept up and thrown away and they never come back again. The very air closes behind you like water and soon your presence, which felt so weighty and permanent, has completely gone. Things happen once only and are never repeated, never return. Except in memory.”

Athol Fugard, Plays (1) (Contemporary Classics Edition): This volume features five of Fugard’s plays: The Road to MeccaA Place with the PigsMy Children! My Africa!Playland, and Valley Song. It is an interesting collection, which showcases different aspects of Fugard’s work, at various places along the personal/political spectrum. The Road to Mecca is about the troubled relationship between an ageing woman and a young social worker, and is a powerful story about how art can be a woman’s means of escape from repressive social structures (‘Never light a candle carelessly, and be sure you know what you’re doing when you blow one out…’); A Place with the Pigs is a curious play, a take on the real-life Pavel Navrovsky, a Soviet army deserter in World War II, who spent the next forty-one years hiding in a pig-sty (“… leaden footed little seconds, sluggish minutes, reluctant hours, tedious days, monotonous months and then, only then, the years crawling past like old tortoises.“) My Children! My Africa! is the most explicitly political play in the collection, exploring a doomed friendship between a Thami and Isabel, a black and a white student, at the time when student protests against the Bantu system of education are reaching their crescendo (“The ‘revolution’ has only just begun, and you’re already word-perfect.”). Playland intertwines the personal and the political, consisting entirely of a conversation between a white Afrikaner who fought against SWAPO, and a black African who killed a white man for raping his fiancee (If I forgive you, then I must forgive Andries Jacobus de Lange, and if I forgive him, then I must ask God to forgive me… and then what is left? Nothing! I sit here wit nothing… tonight… tomorrow… all my days and all my nights… nothing!“). And Valley Song – the only play in the collection written after the end of apartheid – (unsurprisingly) deals with the slow erosion of the old ways, and the birth-pangs of the new, through the relationship between a grandfather and his talented grand-daughter, who cannot wait to leave the quiet backwaters for a life in Johannesburg.

One feature of Fugard’s play is the extreme minimalism when it comes to the number of characters. In each of the play, there are either two or three characters. Consequently, there is great stress on dialogue, on the slow unfolding of the inter-personal relationships, and on the characters themselves. For the most part, this works well, since Fugard is particularly good at building up to a crescendo through dialogue, and also at investing his characters with great depth. At times I was reminded of Brian Friel (especially plays such as Faith Healer, which has three characters and is written only in a monologue), although (most) of the plays in this collection are significantly more optimistic about the human condition than Friel’s work. For all that, the subtle exploration of individual human relationships in the backdrop of apartheid – which (apart from My Children! My Africa!) remains in the background, out of sight yet always sensed – makes this collection particularly valuable.

Dikgang Moseneke, My Own LiberatorA bit of non-fiction – a memoir – to wrap things up, but the story it tells is more than a match for any work of fiction. In 1963, Dikgang Moseneke was fifteen years old when he was convicted of sabotage against the apartheid regime, and sentenced to a ten-year prison term on Robben Island. At Robben Island, he completed a degree in literature and political science, and taught himself law. He was also part of a prison hunger-strike, which resulted in a substantial amelioration of prison conditions, one of which was permission to play sport – and he then became the head of the Robben Island prisoners’ football association. After serving his ten-year sentence, Moseneke was then subjected to a five-year long banning order that confined him to his parents’ home; nonetheless, he successfully completed a law degree, got married, and started the fourth black law firm in Pretoria. He sued the Law Society for refusing to admit him as an attorney, and won. He was a founder-member of the Black Lawyers’ Association, and as State repression intensified in the 1980s, he defended scores of anti-apartheid activists in court. Moseneke survived two assassination attempts, became the Deputy President of the Pan-African Congress (PAC) during the transition years, served on the drafting committee of the Interim Constitution, was one of the two chairpersons of the Electoral Commission overseeing South Africa’s first ever democratic election (alongside Johann Kriegler), then became the Chairperson of Telkom (the State-owned telecommunications company), represented Winnie Mandela against Nelson Mandela when he sacked her from his cabinet, and finally, in 2001, was appointed as a judge (and subsequently, Deputy Chief Justice) of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, where he served until 2016.

By any standards, this is a truly extraordinary life. From the daily prison schedule at Robben Island to last-ditch negotiations to persuade the reluctant Inkatha Freedom Party to participate in the 1994 elections, from fighting against preventive detention in the apartheid courts to writing an important judgment on joint criminal liability for the Constitutional Court, Moseneke’s memoir is a fascinating account of a tumultuous half-century by a person who not only had a ringside view, but was an active participant and a shaper of things amidst all the tumult.

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Connections: George Orwell and Zakes Mda

“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.”

  • George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

“She sings in glaring colours. In violent colours. Colours of gore. Colours of today and of yesterday. Dreamy colours. Colours that paint nightmares on barren landscapes. She haunts yesterday’s reefs and ridges with redness. And from these a man who is great at naming emerges. He once named ten rivers. Now he rides wildly throughout kwaXhosa, shouting at the top his voice, declaring to everyone who cares to listen, “Finally I have pacified Xhosaland!”

Pacified homesteads are in ruins. Pacified men register themselves as pacified labourers in emerging towns. Pacified men in their emaciated thousands. Pacified women remain to tend the soil and build pacified families. When pacified men return, their homesteads have been moved elsewhere, and crammed into tiny pacified villages. Their pacified fields have become rich settler farmlands.”

  • Zakes Mda, The Heart of Redness

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“Such a meaningless thing as the judgment of history…”: Ahmadou Kourouma’s ‘Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote’

“You are now considered to be the breakwater on which founder the waves of international communism surging towards Africa. The media and public opinion in the Free World no longer have the right to criticize you. One does not demoralize a solder fighting at the front by criticizing the way he handles his rifle.”

There is a point in Ahmadou Kourouma’s Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote when the first elected President of the newly-independent Republique du Golfe is attempting to resist the coup that will soon cost him his position and his life. If he is killed, he says to his advisers, “it would mean that everything I have learned is sham, lies, that all my spiritual leaders have lied to me. It would mean that Africa is a sham, a lie; that talismans and sacrifices are worthless. It is unthinkable, impossible. It cannot be true.” There is something particularly poignant about “it would mean that Africa is a sham” at the moment of the strangulation of a fledgeling African democracy, a collateral casualty in Cold War politics, and a moment that occurs and recurs in the actual late-20th century history of the continent. If Africa, at that point, symbolises a long history of colonialism, resistance, and (ultimately) liberation, then the guns and soldiers that surround the Presidential Palace represent the “sham” that liberation ultimately turns out to be.

Waiting for the Wild Beasts is a story of that sham. It is narrated over six nights – “six vigils” – by Bingo, a griot and his “responder”, Tiecoura, in the presence of Koyaga, ‘President-Dictator’ of the Republique du Golfe, his ‘Minister of Orientation’, and seven most celebrated hunters of the Republic. Tiecoura, like the court jesters of the medieval European kings, “can do as he wishes, everything is permitted him, and nothing that he does goes unpardoned.” Through the course of the six vigils, then, the griot and his responder (with various interjections by the Minister) recount the personal history of Koyaga in the form of a donsomana (a performed epic) which, inevitably, becomes the history of the Republique du Golfe, and a searing indictment both of colonialism and of the betrayal of the post-colonial promise.

In his essay on Virgil’s Aeneid, Adam Parry highlights the “two voices” of the Roman epic: the dominant register, which celebrates conquest and imperium, linking Aeneas to Augustus, but also a counterpoint, a submerged register that questions and undermines that narrative. In Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote, there are not two, but three voices that complicate the narrative. The dominant register is the griot’s donsomana, which is essentially a praise-song. Its form requires vaulting hyperbole and exaggeration, (deliberately) performed to such an extent that it overleaps itself and falls upon the side of disbelief. Koyaga is made out to be a man with superhuman powers, protected by the magic of his mother and a seer; his exploits while serving in the French army in Indochina, his violently successful ascent to the Presidency of the Republique du Golfe, and his surviving multiple assassination attempts, are all attributed to magic. The coup that ends with the murder of the elected President Santos is depicted as a clash between two powerful shamans, hurling magic at each other. But even as these stories are told, the griot also provides his audience the other, more prosaic explanations (political intrigue, betrayal, outright violence, chance), while ostensibly debunking them as the invention of bitter and jealous political opponents. And even beyond these two voices contained within the donsomana, Tiecoura takes advantage of the latitude offered him to – occasionally – disrupt the praise-song by speaking some blunt home-truths to power:

Koyaga, you have many faults, grave faults. You were, you are as tyrannous as a savage beast, as untruthful as an echo, as brutal as a lightning strike, as murderous as a lycaon, as emasculating as a castrator, as populist as a griot, as corrupt as a louse, as libidinous as a pair of ducks. You are… You are… You have many other faults which if one were to try to expound them all, catalogue each one at a stroke, it would surely tear one’s mouth at the corners. So specifies the responder, redoubling his jeers, which draw a good-natured smile from him they appear to insult.”

These three registers mingle, alternate and disrupt each other, never quite allowing the reader to settle. What emerges from them is a highly effective – and unsparing – critique of mid-20th century African history. Like Ngugi wa Thiong’o in The Wizard of the Crow (which was written ten years after Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote), Kourouma is painfully aware of the ‘Free World’s’ Cold War-induced complicity in creating and propping up African dictatorships:

De Gaulle succeeded in granting independence without decolonizing. He succeeded in this by inventing and supporting presidents of republics who referred to themselves as fathers of the nation, architects of the independence of their countries, when in fact they had done nothing to win independence for their republics and were not the real masters, the true leaders of their peoples.”

This is a familiar theme, described eloquently by Chinua Achebe’s memoir of the Biafran War, There Was a Country. Recounting the manner in which the elections leading up to the independence of Nigeria were rigged by the outgoing British colonialists, Achebe writes that “In a sense, Nigerian independence came with a British governor general in command, and, one might say, popular faith in genuine democracy was compromised from birth.”

And yet, Kourouma is also keenly aware of the risks in letting this origin story become determinative of the future, and of reducing causality to a linear sequence in a manner that absolves the leaders of post-colonial African nations from the burdens of moral judgment. This comes through with particular brilliance in the griot‘s account of Koyaga’s visit to four other African dictators, who have devised various stratagems for staying in power. In particular, this is how one of them deals with an alleged communist plot against his government:

“Remembering the precepts of the Qur’an, the Emperor ordered the regiment to beat them to death before cutting off their hands, as the Belgians had routinely done in Congo, and their ears, as the French had done in Oubangui-Chari…”

In one sentence, the griot locates the origins of this particularly brutal kind of political violence in colonialism, while making it clear that the moral culpability of the doer is in no way mitigated by this history. Not only that, there is also an equally keen awareness of how that history is invoked in discourse to at least attempt to hide, or distract from, that moral culpability. While maintaining a brutally repressive regime, Koyaga memorialises the day of his father’s death as “the Feast of the Victims of Colonialism“, a moment of heavy irony where historical trauma is pressed into service for propping up a social order that exhibits many of the same tendencies that it claims to repudiate.

There is a very similar moment in The Wizard of the Crow, where a regime member’s response to external criticism is to say “Racists… putting as much hatred as he could into his voice”. The transition from reckoning with colonialism and racism for emancipatory purposes to a veil for hiding oppression is brutal and unforgiving, made all the more starker by the wry, self-aware, bleakly humorous tone that characterises both Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote and The Wizard of the Crow.

The story of the Republique du Golfe is a thinly-fictionalised history of post-Independence Togo, although Togo is never mentioned. And yet, lest the fiction appear too remote, from time to time Kourouma drops in real countries and real people, as if just to remind us that this is real, this actually happened. French political interference, American and British Cold War machinations, Gaddafi and Idi Amin’s ‘African solidarity’, all play walk-on roles, and even the IMF’s notorious ‘Structural Adjustment Programmes’ enter an appearance, making it all too clear that despite its allegorical style, Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote is anything but an allegory. It is the true story of an imagined future that turned out to be – in one of the many acute proverbs that line the tale –  “as untruthful as an echo.”

 

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Filed under African Writing, Ahmadou Kourouma, Ivory Coast