The Woyingi Blog

Short Story Review: Government by Magic Spell by Saida Hagi-Dirie Herzi

Government by Magic Spell is a fascinating short story written by Somali feminist writer Saida Hagi-Dirie Herzi. This short story is not easy to find here in North America. If you have an edition of the Heinemann Book of Contemporary African Short Stories edited by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, published in 1992, then you might be in luck.  This collection brings together 20 short stories written between 1980 to 1991. However, the story is well-known among Kenyan high school students as it is part of a compilation of short stories from North and East Africa which is mandatory reading for English Literature students. This complication also contains Herzi’s other well-known short story, Against the Pleasure Principle, which confronts the practice of female circumcision. I had hoped to find out more online about Saida Hagi-Dirie Herzi, but unfortunately, like so many African authors of her generation, I cannot.

But, thanks to the BBC, more people outside of East Africa, will be familiar with this short story as it was chosen to be read as part of the BBC’s The Human Cradle Series, which featured readings of three contemporary short stories by writers from the Horn of Africa. The other short stories included Saba by Eritrean author Suleiman Addonia. According to the BBC site:

In Sulaiman Addonia’s new short story ‘Saba’, a former cinema employee decides to create a ‘cinema’ of his own inside a refugee camp. Read by Abukar Osman.

The first of three contemporary stories from the Horn of Africa – Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia.

Produced by Emma Harding

About the author: Sulaiman S.M.Y. Addonia was born in Eritrea to an Eritrean mother and an Ethiopian father. He spent his early life in a refugee camp in Sudan following the Om Hajar massacre in 1976, and in his early teens he lived and studied in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He has lived in London since 1990. His first novel, The Consquences of Love (Vintage) was published in 2009.

The second story, The Invisible Map, by Ethiopian writer Maaza Megiste, is described on the site as follows:

In Maaza Mengiste’s new short story, ‘The Invisible Map’, a young Ethiopian woman, hoping for a better life in Europe, finds herself trapped in a Libyan prison. Read by Adjoa Andoh.

The second in our series of contemporary stories from the Horn of Africa – Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia.

Produced by Emma Harding

About the author: Maaza Mengiste was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from New York University. Her debut novel, the critically acclaimed ‘Beneath the Lion’s Gaze’, has been translated into several languages and was a finalist for a Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. She teaches at NYU and currently lives in New York City.

Government by Magic Spell is the last in the series. It is wonderfully read by British Somali performance poet Yusra Warsama.

It is important to keep in mind that the story was written some time between 1980 to 1991. Described as a “satirical parable of power and corruption”, the story exposes the machinations of Somali clan politics but also holds lessons for anyone concerned about justice and democracy.

The story begins with Halima at the age of 10, who we learn, has been possessed by a jinn, better known to Westerners as Genies.  Halima had been ill for several months, but the local religious healer, or Waadad, soon discovers that the origins of her illness are supernatural. An infant jinn which she had accidentally stepped on one night in front of the bathroom has possessed her. Luckily for Halima, and soon her village, the jinn is benevolent and helpful. The people of the village soon believe that Halima’s jinn can give her the power to foretell the future and heal the sick. Halima is able to acquire a great deal of power and autonomy for a woman because of her family and clan being in awe of her jinn. Halima is able to refuse all the men who proposed marriage to her, including the Waadad. Halima’s jinn is perceived to be the reason for her clan’s worldly success and she is seen as a blessing to her family. For that reason, she is summoned from her village to the country’s capital, Mogadishu, where many of her fellow clan members have gained the most powerful positions in government. As Herzi describes:

It had all started with one of their men who had become very powerful in the government. He had called his relatives and found big government jobs for them. They, in turn, had called relatives of theirs until the government virtually had been taken over by Halima’s people. And that had meant quick riches for everyone concerned. Nor had they been very scrupulous about getting what they wanted. Anything that stood in their way had to be pushed aside or eliminated.

Halima’s fellow clan members want to use her powers in order to consolidate their political power, which they have established over a short 10 years, despite many of them being illiterate, although still taking up government positions. The capital’s water system is consolidated so that Halima can placate the jinn but also cast a spell which cures all of the capital’s residents of their curiosity, so they will no longer ask questions about the current state of their government and the actions of Halima’s clan.

We learn from the story about the belief in the power of jinn within traditional Somali Culture. The story discusses ritual sacrifices made in honour of the jinn, in order to keep them placated and for the entire clan to benefit from the jinn’s benevolence. Based on my own experience, I can vouch that belief in jinn and their ability to possess people is quite commonplace among contemporary Muslims, and still strong amongst members of the Somali diaspora. But it is interesting to conjecture how the role of jinns in traditional Muslim African cultures could be seen as a throwback to earlier pre-Islamic beliefs in ancestor spirits. In the story, we learn that the parents of Halima’s jinn even come to visit her in order to advise her on the proper care of their child. What I find truly compelling about the story is how Halima manipulates people’s fear of her jinn in order to gain power, both over her own life, which as a woman would have ordinarily been quite limited, and then political power within her clan.

Further Reading:

Government by Magic Spell by Saida Hagi-Dirie Herzi available online

African Writer Profile: Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr

Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr is a poet, playwright, essayist and short story writer. Her life has taken her from the Benin port city of Cotonou to the artistic hub of New York’s Lower East Side in the 1960s. Although retired from academia, she still works diligently as a writer and supporter of African and African diasporic artistic expression. 

I first discovered Ismaili while reading The Heinemann Book of African Women’s Poetry, edited by Malawian writers Stella and Frank Chipasula. In this book, Ismaili is listed as a Nigerian poet. However, in French-speaking circles, Ismaili is considered as a Beninois writer. 

Ismaili was born in 1941 in Cotonou, Benin. Cotonou is a port city and the largest city in Benin, often considered the country’s economic capital. Ismaili’s mother was from Benin but her father was from Kano in Northern Nigeria. Ismaili grew up with her maternal grandparents in Cotonou. She studied at her grandfather’s Koran School and at a Catholic missionary school. After her mother’s death, she was sent to a boarding school in France where she stayed for six years. At 15, she married a Nigerian who was studying in New York. She was able to get a bursary in order to study in New York as well. New York has been her home ever since. 

Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr

 

Ismaili hoped to become Africa’s first opera singer. She studied for a BA in Music at The New York College of Music as a Voice major, with a minor in literature. She also studied musical theatre at Mannes School of Music. However, Ismaili went on to study psychology because she felt that this would be more useful for an African who hoped to help shape the newly independent West Africa of the 1960s. She studied for a Masters in Social Psychology at The New School for Social Research and later obtained a PhD in Psychology from the State University of New York (SUNY). 

Eventually divorcing her husband, Ismaili worked throughout her graduate studies in order to support herself and her son Daoud Samir. However, she also partook of the local arts scene, particularly the burgeoning Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. She followed its poets, painters, and playwrights but also its dancers. She befriended the likes of Virginia Cox, Tom Feelings, Ellen Stewart, and Amiri Baraka (back when he was LeRoi Jones). She discovered the dance studio of Syvilla Fort. Fort was a leading teacher of  the Dunham technique, which was rooted in the dance traditions of Africa, Haiti, and Trinidad. She also developed her own Afro-Modern Technique, which incorporated more modern styles of dance. At this studio, Ismaili had the opportunity to  meet the young dancers, singers and actors who came to learn movement and dance. 

Ismaili went on to have a successful career in academia, both as a lecturer and administrator. She is noted for her expertise in the literary movement of the Harlem Renaissance and Negritude. She has written essays and lectured on African Writers, such as Mariama Ba, as well as African American writers such as Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. In 2000, she retired as Associate Director of the Higher Education Opportunity Program at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, a position she held for 15 years. 

Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr continues to live in Harlem and now writes full-time as well as conducting workshops, lectures, and seminars on a variety of subjects from the history of African American dance, to anti-war poetry readings. She also is asked to speak and perform at conferences across the United States as well as internationally. She is helped develop the curricula and is a faculty member of the online Masters in Creative Writing Program at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. She is the second vice-president of Pen and Brush, an organization founded in 1894 that is dedicated to supporting women working the fields of literary, visual and performing arts. 

Home to Harlem 

In her essay, Slightly autobiographical: the 1960s on the Lower East Side, Ismaili reminisces about what it was like to live in an area that was a centre of African American artistic innovation in the 1960s. Ismaili, like many of the artists who lived in the Lower East Side, came for the low rents. But she soon found an environment that would help develop her own literary impulses even if it presented many frustrations. For a single mother, an African, a Muslim, and an independent-minded woman, the Black artistic scene in the Lower East Side of the 1960s could be inhospitable to say the least. She writes

For me this was a painful time. I was separating from my husband for the first time. Alone, with a small boy, trying to complete graduate school and write, I felt very estranged at times from my ebon scribes and painters. They made it clear they were not interested in me because I was Black, African, and too ethnic; i.e., |not beautiful.’ Besides, I did not do drugs or drink. In fact, cigarette smoke made my eyes tear and my throat choke. To add fat to the fire, I had strong opinions and was extremely independent. These were the ’60s, and Black men were coming into their own. Black women had to understand their manly needs, walk ten paces behind, submit to male authority. We were not to question a man’s work, even if it were incorrect. We were to dress “African,” assume the persona of “The Motherland,” and raise little revolutionaries. Most of all, we were to remain unconditionally loyal to the Black man and never, under any circumstance, be seen in intimate association with a White man. This, of course, was in stark contrast to the behavior of almost all of the men I knew–excuse me, brothers–who had not a single “significant other” but several White women as lovers and wives. 

But Ismaili also found friends and supporters. There was the great sculptor Valerie Maynard, who babysat for Ismaili in exchange for having Ismaili and her son pose for her. There was artist and children’s book illustrator Tom Feelings who encouraged Ismaili’s writing. About him she writes

Tom was my best friend, my soul brother. (We used terms like that then.) I told him of my feelings of rejection and isolation in the midst of parties and other social events. He always understood and helped me understand the fear and difficulty Black men had when asked for something they had historically been denied–fraternity with sisters. (I might add that sisters had difficulties among themselves, too. We often cast a “cut-eye” at one another when “possibility” was in our midst.) But Tom always encouraged me. In fact, he was responsible for my coming to my first Umbra meeting and for my first publication in the now-defunct Liberator. He said that, in the final analysis, all that mattered was The Work. We have remained friends, sister/brother, for more than twenty-five years. 

There was Ellen Stewart, founder of the La Mama Experimental Theatre Club, who also encouraged Ismaili to write, but in her own voice. Ismaili recalls Stewart’s feedback on a play she wrote

My friends told her I was a writer and had written a play, which Ellen asked to see. Embarrassed but eager for her comments, I took it to her. “Do you know this?” she asked. “Have you experienced this?” It was a small piece fueled by the issues of the 60–racism and Southern oppression. I was crushed because I thought her inquiry was a negation of my work and my ability. She saw that, and spoke slowly to me, sharing her experiences of having been born and raised in the South. Then she said, “Little Sister” (I was so elated that I almost didn’t hear the rest of it) “you can write; there is no question. That is not the issue. The issue is truth and artistic honesty.” She urged me to produce a reality fueled by my own thoughts, in my own words. We ended with her saying, “When you have something you feel you want me to read, let me have it.” She was, and continues to be, true to her words. Whenever and wherever I see her subsequently, she always calls me “Little Sister” and asks about my work. 

It must have been difficult for Ismaili to be an African among so many African Americans to find and keep her own creative voice rooted in her own experience as a West African. Although amongst Blacks, she was still an outsider because of her African and Muslim identity. African Americans were discovering their own stories and their own unique ways of telling them. But these were still American stories, written for Americans. It must have been perplexing for Ismaili to figure out who she was writing about as well as who she was writing for. 

Life in exile 

The alienation facing West African women writers is expressed in Ismaili’s essay, West African Women and Exile: City, University, and Dislocated Village. The intended readership of this essay is other Western-educated West African women who are torn between “back Home” and life in exile in the West. Ismaili writes

This paper has evolved from conversations with sisters from “Home.” We mourn our “Exile.” With enthusiasm of a born-again [Christian], we return “Home” with our degrees, earnest and eager to “work.” Then we come face to face with socio-political constraints of our nations. Run squarely afoul of Senior Lecturers who remained in the trenches while we were abroad, frolicking in the lands of plenty. Our personal expectations, our family pressures, societal restrictions on women are some of our greatest enemies. Things we took for granted before are now luxuries. Assigned readings being fulfilled are dependent not only on financial resources of students but the availability of books in the libraries and the country. Simple needs, xeroxing machines and paper, faxes, and now complex telecommunication systems and computers, are seen as extravagant and often are prohibitive. Intellectual famine confronts us with all its grisly remnants; empty library shelves, university censorship and hoarding. Books on the illegal market at twice the price offer little salvation. Defeated or overwhelmed by it all, we send out triplicate resumes and write all former professors to come to our aid in getting us the heck out of our “Homes” as soon as possible. We come back to former host countries, to universities where we are able to earn a decent wage and maintain a tolerable standard of living. 

Exile is not always the romantic notion of heroic revolutionaries. It is a place of uncertainty, pain, frustration and anger. The struggle to maintain one’s sobriety and to support the family is waged in tears with one self and the kindred at “Home.” It is real and deeply felt when one reads of massive five-year projects to introduce village women to water purification and social development. Hard to bear are those embedded memories of things we saw as children. Our experiences and rites of passage, stories we heard, all are negated by those amongst whom we have learned and possibly been influenced. 

You get a glimpse at the dilemmas that must have plagued Ismaili as a lecturer in African Literature with the following passage

It is getting late. We must prepare a lecture for a graduate seminar on “Sisterhood Within Polygamous Compounds.” In our central heated homes, we choose each reference to silence the anticipated negative response our students have formulated. We call each other with our concepts of female language and how it operates in Aminata Sow Fall’s novels. We stray from the immediacy of the subject as we reminisce. How clearly we see Sall Niang in her chair, beautiful and big. We laugh knowingly or, as we have learned, as is said in the parlance of psychological terminology. We connect with her as she uses a winnowing basket to count her money. The flow of conversation is not hindered. Schooled fingers are computerized eyes that separate coins according to value. We can see the wide spread of her lap forming a printed cloth carpet for her computations. This woman is familiar to us because she is in fact, an aunt, mother, neighbor who never seemed to understand she wasn’t our mother when it came to scolding. 

It must be frustrating to teach people in an objective and coldly academic way about works of literature that reflect one’s own lived experience. For West African women writers, there is the added frustration of having to defend “Africa”, “African Traditions” and “African men” from students and colleagues who tend to look down on non-Western communities out of racism and ignorance. But on the other hand, these women are frustrated with the corrupt governments in their countries of origin and the patriarchal structures that subjugate women; but these are the types of conversations West African women would prefer to have with each other, not with their students. The need for sisterhood to make this exile livable comes through in this essay. Ismaili writes about her first meeting with fellow West African writer, Ama Ata Aidoo

I see her today as I saw her over twenty years ago. She was already a writer of note, and was here on a research fellowship. I was in graduate school hanging on by weekly pinching from wages to pay my tuition. I was walking down the Avenue of the Americas and W 4th Street. Just about to turn down Cornelia St. to walk two more blocks to my four-flight walk-up flat. Out of the African Cosmos, a voice came. “O-wee sister.” I was relieved of my anger over an undeserved grade by this intrusion. There was a full-bodied woman with a huge head-tie and a buba over a pair of Blue Jeans! Well, her face was so full of smiles, I almost cried. We embraced. I was asked about myself. I told her where I was from and why I was in New York. She told me who she was and why she was here. 

While living in exile, West African women are able to connect across national, ethnic, and religious lines, united by the common cultures of West Africa and a need to commune with who have been equally displaced and who understand the longing for home, the nostalgia for the past, the financial pressures of family “back home”, and the frustrations of coping with Western racism and ignorance. 

On Ismaili’s poem Solange 

My favourite poem by Ismaili is Solange. It can be found in The Heinemann Book of African Women’s Poetry. The poem is about Solange, a young of French and West African descent. Because I myself am of mixed parentage, I like to find literary works that meditate on this experience. In the poem, Ismaili rhymes Solange with melange, which means “mixture” in French. Solange is fair-skinned but troubled by her more “African” physical features from her flat nose, her curly hair, and her protruding backside. Although the poet keeps reminding Solange that she is beautiful, she doesn’t believe it. Solange “frets” over her African physical traits. She can try to control her curly hair by using chemicals to straighten it. She can try to control her backside by trying to “strap the buttocks that/will not flatten/inside a Chanel line.” But there is nothing she can do about her lips and her nose, and, as the poet contemplates “What is a face with those?” My favourite passage in the poem is the following: 

Your eyes are Parisian dreams 

and your hair has a mind of its own 

like you. 

Sometimes it would be French 

Sometimes it would be Cassamance

Solange, like many women of mixed race, is struggling with trying to fit a Western standard of beauty. She is made up of “A little bit of this and/a little bit of that”. Although she may be considered beautiful, particularly in an African context where fair-skin is coveted, she will never fit into the French ideals of beauty she seems to be aspiring to. Solange has not yet accepted that she is beautiful on her own terms. 

Further Reading: 

Profile available online 

Interview (2005) in French available online 

Rice Keepers: A Play by Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr published by African World Press 

Website of Pen and Brush Inc. 

Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr’s Writing available online: 

Poems available online 

Slightly autobiographical: the 1960s on the Lower East Side - Lower East Side Retrospective (Essay published in the African American Review available online) 

West African Women in Exile: City, University and Dislocated Village (Essay published in Jenda: A Journal of Culture and African Women Studies available online)

Book Review: Daughter of Mumbi by Charity Wanjiku Waciuma

Posted in African Literature, African Women Writers, Countries: Kenya, Kenyan Literature, Memoirs, Peoples: Kikuyu, Reviews by the woyingi blogger on September 8, 2010

 Daughter of Mumbi by Charity Wanjiku Waciuma

East African Publishing House, Nairobi, Kenya, 1969

During my visits to used book stores across the country, I am often happy to find African literature that is now out of print. Charity Waciuma’s memoir of growing up in colonial Kenya is one of those finds. This memoir covers Charity’s childhood and youth growing up during the ‘Mau Mau’ Emergency. The book is dedicated to the memory of her father, who was murdered during the Emergency. The book also full of information about Kikuyu history and traditions as well as Charity’s own reflections on how these traditions changed in the face of British colonial policy and Christian missionary activities.

Charity Waciuma is a Kenyan writer of children’s books; her books include Mweru, The Ostrich Girl (1966), The Golden Feather (196), and Merry-Making (1972). An excerpt of The Daughter of Mumbi can be found in the 1983 collection “Unwinding Threads: Writing by Women in Africa”, edited by Charlotte H. Bruner, and published by Heinemann as part of its African Writers Series.

The title of the memoir, Daughter of Mumbi, is a reference to the Kikuyu origin myth. According to Kikuyu tradition, Mumbi is the name of the founding mother of the Kikuyu people.

In the first chapter, Names, we learn how Charity got her Kikuyu name, Wanjiku. She writes:

In our country names are not chosen haphazardly; they are vitally bound up with being the sort of person you are. Any name includes many people who are now dead, others who are living, and those who are still not born. It binds its owner deep into Kikuyu history, beyond the oldest man with the longest memory. All our relatives to the furthest extent of the family, their actions, their lives and their children are an intrinsic part of our being alive, of being human, of being African, of being Kikuyu. (page 8)       

Charity, as her father’s third daughter, was supposed to be named Waithira (the beautiful) after her eldest aunt on her father’s side according to Kikuyu custom, however as this aunt had died before Charity was born and one of Charity’s cousins who had been named after this aunt had died as well, the clan elders believed that Charity would die too if she was given this name. So, it was decided that she would be named Wanjiku (the gossip), after her father’s younger sister. Kikuyu naming traditions are quite elaborate and involve taking names from both the father’s and mother’s families. Kikuyu have no fixed family name in the European sense. Individuals are usually referred to as the daughter of, mother of or wife of. (For example, renowned Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiongo’s son, who is also a writer, is named Mukoma wa Ngugi, meaning Mukoma son of Ngugi). Charity’s last name Waciuma (beads) is actually a nickname given to her grandmother’s father who had so many goats, a sign of weath in Kikuyu culture, that they called him beads because he had as many goats as beads in a necklace.

Charity’s father met an itinerant Christian missionary and decided that Christianity was for him. He had to run away from his village in order to study at the Church of Scotland Mission School at Tumu-tumu. After six months, he returned home but he was severely beaten by Charity’s grandfather, so he returned to the Mission School. He only returned again after another five years, in order to ask Charity’s grandfather to pay the bride price to the family of Charity’s mother, Wangui, who was a fellow runaway and student at the Mission School. Charity’s grandfather refused. Charity’s parents were married instead with the help of the missionaries and the money raised by two years of Charity’s father working as a carpenter for the Mission.

Charity learns about Kikuyu history and tradition at the feet of her grandfather, who, despite having rejected her father for becoming a Christian, eventually accepted his son and his new family back in to the fold. I wonder if many other early Kikuyu Christians must have lost their knowledge of their heritage because their families were less accepting. Charity reminisces:

My brothers, my sisters and I used to visit my grandmother every week after finishing Sunday School at the Church of Scotland Mission. When he heard where we had just come from, my grandfather would stand up and curse. “The young people of today have no respect for our god who dwells on Kirinyaga—Mount Kenya. He is the god of our forefather, Gikuyu, who lived at Mukuweini-wa-Gathanga in what the muthungu (European) has named Fort Hall District. Gikuyu lived there with his wife Mumbi and his nine daughters—Waithira, the beautiful, Wanjiku, the gossip, Njeri, the devoted, Wanjiru, the generous, Wairimu, the dullard, Wangui, the clever, Wambui, the talker, Wangari, the farmer, Wamuyu, the hardworking. (page 12)

Charity’s grandfather believes in the prophecies of Mugo wa Kibiru. According to Kikuyu tradition, Mugo wa Kirbiru forsaw the devastation that the Europeans would bring to the Kikuyu people. He is said to have foreseen such details as the building of the Uganda Railway and the coming of jiggers, insects that eat away at people’s feet that are believed to have been brought by the Europeans. Charity and her siblings often have to dig these insects out of their grandmother’s feet during their visits to her.

Charity’s grandfather is polygamous. His first wife, Charity’s grandmother, is Kikuyu but his second wife is a Maasai woman who her grandfather captured during a raid on a Maasai village. Reflecting on the subject of polygamy, Charity writes:

For myself, I decided against polygamy, but its rights and wrongs are still being argued continually and furiously in our schools and colleges and debating clubs. There seems to have been a time in our society when there were many more women than men, possibly as a result of raidings. Under these circumstances polygamy may be socially good. Even today our women like to get someone to help them with the hard work of the farm and the house. Polygamy is clearly second nature to most Kikuyu men. I hate it because it hurts the position and dignity of women and exaggerates the selfishness of men. But, however things go, it will be many decades before it genuinely comes to an end in Kenya. (pages 11-12)

In the second chapter, More of Grandfather’s Legends, her grandfather recounts a story of a bloody battle between Maasai and Kikuyu. In the third chapter, Doctors All, Charity discusses the difficulties faced by her father, who was trained as a health inspector, as he tries to convince the local people to trust in Western medicine instead of the cures of local traditional healers (Charity calls them “witchdoctors” and holds them in contempt, even deliberately playing pranks on them as a child by manipulating their superstitions). At one point, plague spreads through the village and instead of encouraging his people to be inoculated as Charity’s father had asked, the local chief tells them to go hide in ant-eaters’ holes. When people continue to die, the chief eventually tells his people to get inoculated at the dispensary run by Charity’s father. The District Commissioner soon disposes of this chief and replaces him with a young Catholic schoolteacher who is more amenable to Charity’s father’s wishes.

In the forth chapter, Muma: Yesterday’s Law, we learn about the local village court in Charity’s village that was preceded over by court elders, who themselves were appointed by the colonial government. The court was based on both colonial law as well as traditional Kikuyu law. Charity has memories of interacting with prisoners such as members of the independent African Christian Church, the Dini ya Israel:

Many of the prisoners were members of the Dini ya Israel, an independent Christian church. They wore long white robes. The men wore turbans and did not shave, like the Sikhs of India. They did not believe in the use of medicine. If God wanted to punish his children by making them sick man should not interfere. Similarly they opposed soil conservation. When God constructed the world he knew what he was doing and it was presumptuous to try and alter it. They therefore came into conflict with the administration which was trying to persuade the people to preserve their land by making terraces to hold up the red soil’s rush down the hillside in the rains.

In the week or so that they were kept in the local jail I learned many hymns and prayers from them. Too soon they were taken away to the higher court at Fort Hall administrative centre. On the way there, and indeed wherever they went, they sang their hymns, attracting the attention of all the people, especially the children. They always aroused great interest and they made many converts. (page 37)

I was curious to find out more about the Dini ya Israel. I couldn’t find any African Independent Church with this exact name, however, I did find information on the African Israel Nineveh Church, that was founded by Kenyan David Kivuli in 1942 and that is now one of the largest independent Christian churches in East Africa. If readers could confirm that this church is the same church as the Dini ya Israel Charity discusses, it would be much appreciated.

Charity has the change to observe court proceedings and chat with the court policeman who won’t respond to her when she asks if he takes bribes. Often, if the court elders could not draw their own conclusions about an accused innocence or guilt they would ask the accused to take an oath. This would involve getting the accused to slaughter a goat and swear that if he or she is not telling the truth he or she would be crushed like the goat they were slaughtering. It would be believed that if a person were lying he or she would be dead within a week. Of course, people who didn’t really believe in the power of Kikuyu traditions any longer could easily take the oath without fearing any real consequences. Many of the cases at the court were from young women demanding that the young men who got them pregnant admit that they were the fathers. As Charity reflects: “The younger educated men did not believe in the oaths and did not fear their power. Mostly they used to take the oath to deny their responsibility for the pregnancies of the girls who came to accuse them in the court. (page 40)” It is from observing the proceedings of such cases that Charity discovers how babies are really made. Her parents had always told her that babies were bought at the hospital.

Charity begins to reflect on the injustices of the Kenyan colonial government when she befriends older youth who are beginning to question the lack of education available in Kenya and the corruption of the courts.

Kiarie, who was at Makerere College, Kampala, in Uganda, told us all about his university, the studies, the students, the teachers and the people who lived in the town. He told us about the Kingdom of Buganda; how they had their own King, the Kabaka Mutesa, and their own government. Some of us thought he was making fun of us, so Ndegwa asked, “Do they have their own courts and Elders?” And he said, “Yes. And in their District Council meetings they don’t have a White chairman. Well, they really have some sort of ‘uhuru’—freedom.”

“Are many of them educated?”

“Yes, of course. They have many more schools and colleges than we do. I assure you it will take long before Kenya has so many schools.”

“Why do they have all these things, while we haven’t?”

“Mostly because there are hardly any settlers there and when the British Imperial Government arrived they found them with their own Kingdom.”

For a few minutes we got down to our washing, singing traditional songs as we worked. Then Ndegwa asked suddenly, “Have you heard about my father’s land case? You know he can’t take the oath because he is Christian and he won’t bribe the court Elders for the same reason. He can’t afford to pay for the appeal to the District Commissioner’s court if he loses.”

“My boy,” Kiarie replied with the weighty air of one who knows the world, “we all know how corrupt these so-called Elders have become. Judgment in a case these days depends on who has the longest purse. The poorer party always loses even if he is telling the truth—which he probably is. Corruption is gradually killing the helpless old people without money. In the old days the Elders were never bribed and corruption was strictly suppressed. You know at that time the Elders were elected by the people but now the Administration appoints these corrupted old men. They are not interested in the affairs of the ordinary African. All they want is to get rich quick, at the expense of their poor fellows who have no voice or power at all.” (pages 42-43)

In the fifth chapter, The Shamba, we learn that despite not respecting the healing methods of the “witchdoctors”, Charity’s father does rely on them to cast spells to protect his farmland from thieves—and it worked. Charity also observes the plight of the local people who worked on the coffee plantations of the Europeans for meager wages. Kenyans were forbidden to plant cash crops like coffee for a long time and then when permitted by the colonial authorities they had to plant a different variety and were subject to stricter regulations for its cultivation than the European settlers. Charity is also exited by news of the Ethiopian King visiting Kenya. She was surprised to learn that there was actually an African Christian King and she dreamed some day of meeting him and visiting Ethiopia.

In the sixth chapter, Itega and Irua, Charity discusses the challenges she and her sisters face because her parents refuse to have them circumcised as is Kikuyu custom. Charity’s grandfather is deeply shamed and has to face pressure from fellow elders to have his granddaughters circumcised. Unlike Charity’s parents, many other Christian Kikuyu in the village had their daughters circumcised. She writes:

About this time, we lost many of our good friends when they went through the circumcision ceremony. Because we Christian girls had not” been to the river” we were unclean. We were not decent respectable people and mothers would not have the shame of letting their daughters be seen in our company. It was believed that a girl who was uncircumcised would case the death of the circumcised husband. Moreover, an uncircumcised woman would be barren.” (page 61)

In the seventh chapter, Sunday, Charity relates her and her sisters growing boredom at church and the harassment they face from other girls their age because they are not circumcised. In order to entertain her sisters, Charity tells them a story based on a real incident:

The stranger went to the dispensary, where he found Miko the dresser. He demanded to see Waciuma. ‘I don’t know where he is,’ Miko replied. ‘You show me where he is,’ shouted the stranger, grabbing Miko’s shirt and slapping him on the face.

“Who are you?’ Miko asked the stranger.

“My name is Bartholomew, and I have been terribly beaten and burned by your people because I am Luo. I just came here to pay a visit. Some men across the river invited me to their home and while we were drinking they started abusing me; then they beat me. I cannot tell why,’ he concluded bitterly.

“Do you know why they beat you?” Miko said. “Because you are rude and very proud.” Then he slapped him on the face, and blood flowed from the stranger’s burned cheek.

“Just then daddy arrived. “Why did you slap this man and who is he?” “His name is Bartholomew and he is a Luo,” Miko told daddy.

“ Are you a Luo?” daddy asked Bartholomew, still looking at Miko. Then he slapped Miko so hard that later he said his fingers pained him. Miko fell down, and daddy did not help him up. He held Bartholomew’s hand, took him into the dispensary, and treated his woulds.” (pages 70-71)

I am not sure what the origins of animosity between the Luo and Kikuyu are but this incident seems to demonstrate that these tensions predate the conflicts over ethnic representation in the post-independence Kenyan government. Barack Obama’s father, Barack Obama Senior, was a Luo politician as was Tom Mboya.

to be continued…

Further Reading:

A Puppet on a String: The Manipulation and Nationalization of the Female Body in the “Female Circumcision Crisis” of Colonial Kenya by Sarah Boulanger (essay available online)

Alda de Espirito Santo (1926-2010)

African writers from former Portuguese colonies probably have had the hardest time getting international recognition.  Alda de Espirito Santo is hardly known outside of the Portuguese-speaking world. But neither is most of the literature from her homeland of Sao Tome and Principe, where she is known as “The Mother of the Nation.”

Alda de Espirito Santo

Born in 1926 in Trindade to the prominent Espirito Santo family, Alda attended school in Lisbon, Portugal in the 1940s. There she experienced racism such as being called “monkey”. Her earliest writing was actually a feminist article published in a 1949 issue of Mensagem (Message), the journal of the Casa dos Estudantes do Imperio (The House of the Students of the Empire). Casa was initially supported by Portugal’s Salazar government; however it was actually a place where African students received their anti-colonial and Marxist education as they discussed politics and literature. It was at Casa that Alda had the opportunity to connect with the leaders of African resistance movements to Portuguese colonialism such as Guinea-Bissau’s Amilcar Cabral, Angola’s Agostinho Neto and Mario de Andrade, who published her poetry in his collection Caderno: A Collection of Poetry by Portuguese Speaking Black African Writers. The Casa was eventually shut down by Portuguese secret police in 1964.

Alda left her university studies and returned to Sao Tome in 1951 as an ardent nationalist who longed to see the independence of her country from Portugal. She began working as a school teacher, which was also her mother’s profession.

As the descendants of freed slaves, the Creole population in Sao Tome, called Forros,  had always refused manual fieldwork on the cocoa plantations as they considered it slave labour. After slavery was abolished, labour on the plantations was usually performed by indentured labour/contracted labour from the African mainland. The Governor of Sao Tome, Carlos de Sousa Gorgulho, had planned to force members of Sao Tome’s Creole population to labour on the island’s cocoa estates in order to address the demand for labour. In protest, members of the Creole community began to spontaneously revolt against these plans. On February 3, 1953, in Batepa, just north of Trindade, an officer was killed by a machete. Governor Gorgulho ordered the suppression of the revolt. This was carried out by police and African contract workers.

During the repression that followed, forros were rounded up, some burnt alive trying to hide in a coca drier, and many taken to a forced labour camp at Fernao Dias. Prominent forros such as Salustino Graca and sympathetic white planters were deported to Principe. Physical and psychological torture was used, with the nortorious former prisoner Ze Mulato, from the Ponta Figo plantation, the most feared. (The Brandt Guide to San Tome and Principe by Kathleen Becker, p. 7)

Ze Mulatto, who is referenced in Alda’s poem , “Where are the men chased away by the mad wind?”, was an agricultural worker named Jose Joaquim who had been convicted of murder. The suppression of the 1953 revolt in San Tome led to one of the bloodiest actions against civilians in the history of modern Portuguese colonialism.

In one of the most notorious incidents, of the 46 people crammed into a cell intended to hold only ten, only 18 survived the night. It remains unknown how many died in total; the often-cited figure of 1,032 deaths is taken to be largely symbolic as the last two digits reference the day and month of the beginning of the massacre: 3/2/1953. (The Brandt Guide to San Tome and Principe by Kathleen Becker, p. 7)

Alda’s mother was also imprisoned at this time. While working with a Portuguese lawyer, Alda helped to collect testimonials from survivors of the massacres.

In the poem “Where are the men chased away by the mad wind?”, she writes:

Ze Mulatto in the annals of the wharf

Executing men

Amidst the thump of falling bodies.

Ah! Ze Mulatto, Ze Mullatto

Your victims cry out for revenge.

And the sea, the sea of Fernao Dias

That has swallowed up those human lives

The sea is red with blood.

This poem, as well as a few others, is available in English Translation in The Heinemann Book of African Women’s Poetry edited by Frank and Stella Chipasula. Unfortunately, this book is itself out of print.

This massacre was a catalyst for Sao Tome and Principe’s independence movement.

In Sao Tome, February 3 is still commemorated by youth marches, speeches and storytelling at Fernao Dias.

Alda was imprisoned from 1965 to 1966 as a subversive. Alda was a member of the Political Bureau of the Movement for the Liberation of Sao Tome e Principe and was in the transitional government that led Sao Tome e Principe to independence. From 1975 to 1978, she was the Minister of Culture and Education. From 1978 to 1980, she was Minister of Education, Social Affairs and Culture. She was the first woman to become President of the National Assembly of Sao Tome e Principe, making her the Deputy Head of State. She was also the founder of the National Union of Writers and Artists of Sao Tome. The lyrics of Sao Tome e Principe’s national anthem, Independencia total, were written by Alda.

Alda de Espirito Santo died in Luanda, Angola where she had been taken for emergency treatment. The government of Sao Tome e Principe declared five days of mourning in honour of her passing.

Literary critic Caetano da Rosa says: “Alda Espirito Santo’s poetry consists of a two-coordinate system: on the one hand the protest against injustice, on the other hand the hope for a better world. The island’s historical stages of development thus frequently define the setting of her poems. Her discourse is determined as well by Marxist as by folkloristic elements and influences.” Angolan writer, Pepetela, considered her death a “great loss” for Portuguese Literature.

Further Reading:

Le massacre de février 1953 à São Tomé by. G. Seibert (article in French available online)

Ossobo: Essays on the Literature of Sao Tome and Principe by Donald Burness

Neglected or Forgotten Authors of Lusophone Africa by Gerald M. Moser (article available online)

Book Review: Zahrah, The Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu

Posted in African Literature, African Women Writers, Nigerian Literature, Novels, Reviews, Young Adult Fiction by the woyingi blogger on August 1, 2010

Zahrah, the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu

Graphia Books, 2005

“A fantastical travelogue into the unknown of a young girl’s fears, and the magical world that surrounds her town. Written in the spirit of Clive Barker’s Abarat, with a contemporary African sensibility. Okorafor-Mbachu’s imagination is delightful.” Nalo Hopkinson

If Jamaican Canadian Fantasy writher Nalo Hopkinson recommends something, I’m going to read it. I wasn’t disappointed by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu’s novel Zahrah, The Windseeker, although it did leave me wanting more. The novel is ideal for young adults. It is the winner of the 2008 Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa (Although published in the United States in 2005, it was only published in Nigeria in 2008). There are elements of it that reminded me of Alice in Wonderland. Zahrah, The Windseeker is a simple tale, which I think would translate well into a graphic novel or animated film. The story begins with Zahrah, who is in early adolescence, and lives in the Ooni Kingdom on the planet Ginen.  Reflecting on her birth, she explains:

When I was born, my mother took one look at me and laughed.

“She’s…dada,” said the doctor, looking surprised.

“I can see that,” my mother replied with a smile. She took me in her arms and gently touched one of the thick clumps of hair growing from my little head. I had dadalocks, and woven inside each one of those clumps was a skinny, light green vine. Contrary to what a lot of people think, these vines didn’t sprout directly from my head. Instead, they were more like plants that had attached themselves to my hair as I grew inside my mother’s womb. Imagine that! To be born with vines growing in your hair! But that’s the nature of dada people, like myself. (p. vii)

Zahrah, The Windseeker is a fascinating book, particularly as an example of African fantasy and science fiction. Okorafor-Mbachu, a Nigerian American, incorporates several aspects of traditional Southern Nigerian culture into the book. For example, Zahrah’s mother is a  market woman, a very common occupation for women in Southern Nigeria. The central city of the Ooni Kingdom is Ile-Ife, which is also one of the most important cities in Southern Nigeria, often seen as the city of origin for several ethno-cultural communities in Nigeria. Zahrah regularly reads about a superhero named Chukwu; Chukwu means infinite power and is the name given to the supreme deity by Igbos.

Another wonderful aspect of the novel is how the people of Ooni Kingdom incorporate technology with nature. Computer Operating Systems are grown, so are buildings of all kinds, including sky scrappers. The best parts of the book are the descriptions of the Ooni Kingdom itself. This is why I think that Zahrah, The Windseeker, would work best as a graphic novel or animated film or, at least, an illustrated text.

Our planet Ginen, is a world of vegetation; there isn’t one part of it that’s not touched by plants, trees, vines, grasses, or bushes. At least this is what explorers who claim to have traveled all the way around the world say. Cutting down trees or attempting to clear plots of land is a waste energy. Within days, things will creep back in. But the people of Ooni don’t bother to fight nature. Instead, they try to team up with it. This is one of the old ways that the people of Ooni have not forgotten.

However, there are times when people avoid nature at all costs. My small town of Kirki is right on the border of the Forbidden Greeny Jungle, a vast untamed wilderness that covers thousands of miles. No one ever thinks of venturing there. It’s full of the most savage madness. As the old saying goes. “You go into the forbidden jungle and even your ghost won’t come out.”

In Kirki, where fear of the unknown was strong and where so much of the past had been pushed aside and forgotten, my dada hair was like a big red badge on my forehead that said, “I don’t fit in and never will.” It kind of made me like the forbidden jungle. (p. xii)

We follow Zahrah as she enters puberty and discovers that she has the power to fly. But there is no one to ask about her ability as she doesn’t know other people who have dadalocks. At the instigation of her best friend Dari, the only person she’s told her secret to, she ventures into the forbidden Dark Market were she meets Nsibi, a fellow dada whose parents come from far away lands. She assures her that there is nothing wrong with her ability and that she should practice it more.

Dari once again encourages Zahrah to break the rules and travel into the Forbidden Greeny Jungle where she can practice flying without fear of being observed. But when Dari is poisoned by one of the many strange creatures in the Forbidden Greeny Jungle, Zahrah must abandon all her fears and travel alone deep into the Forbidden Greeny Jungle to find a cure. There she encounters many bizarre, deadly, and helpful creatures that have never been encountered by residents of the Ooni Kingdom before.

I just wished that we would have had a chance to learn more about why people in the Ooni Kingdom had lost so much knowledge of their past. Also, just where is the Planet Ginen and what is its relationship to Earth? In the novel, Earth is actually a legendary place, something that Dari, in his studies of mysterious and forbidden things, is curious to learn more about. I would have felt better as a reader if when finishing this novel, I was assured that this was the beginning of a series and some of these mysteries would be solved over the course of a few books. But, Zahrah, The Windseeker appears to be a stand alone novel, however the Planet Ginen and the Ooni Kingdom do appear in other works by Okorafor-Mbachu so if you want answers, I guess you have to look there.

Further Reading:

Review of Zahrah, The Windseeker on Strange Horizons

Excerpt from Zahrah, The Windseeker available online

Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu’s Website

Profile of Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu by Publishers’ Weekly

African Writer Profile: Neshani Andreas

Neshani Andreas was born in 1964 in Walvis Bay, Namibia’s most important port city. At this time in Namibia’s history, it was a colony of South Africa, subject to discriminatory aparteid laws. Neshani’s parents worked in a fish factory and raised eight children. Neshani trained as a teacher at Ongwediva Training College and taught English, history, and business economics from 1988 to 1992 in a school in rural northern Namibia, where her first novel The Purple Violet of Oshaantu is set. Neshani completed this novel soon after her move to Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, where she went to take a post-graduate degree in education at the newly established University of Namibia While working part-time with the American Peace Corps, Neshani met a Peace Corps volunteer, Reed Dickson, who read her early writing and encouraged her to continue. Neshani said: “This was one of the most treasured moments in my life. I had met the first person in my life who showed interest and understanding in my writing.’

The Purple Violet of Oshaantu was a direct result of Reed Dickson’s encouragement. The novel is inspired by Neshani’s work in the rural communities of Namibia’s north, where women are often left on there own to run small farms as their husbands work far away in mines or in the cities. The story is narrated by Mee Ali, who tells us about her friendship with Mee Kauna. Mee Ali is happily married to Michael but Mee Kauna faces constantly physical abuse from her husband Shange, who also cheats on her. Unlike most other Namibian novels which focus on Namibia’s resistance movement to South African occuptation and aparteid, Neshani’s novel focuses on issues related to women’s rights, domestic violence, friendship, marriage, romantic love, AIDS, crop growing, African Christianity, and traditional customs as they relate to widowhood.

Neshani Andreas

Neshani completed the manuscript for the novel in 1999 and presented it to Namibian publisher, Jane Katjavivi, who presented it to the African Writers Series. The novel was published in 2001 in the Heinemann African Writers Series. Neshani is the first Namibian to be included in this series and this novel is the only Namibian novel that is widely available internationally. The novel has been included in the English Literature curriculum for secondary schools in Zimbabwe.

Neshani currently works as a programme officer for the Forum of African Women Educationalists in Namibia (FAWENA), an organization that creates educational opportunities for girls and women. Neshani continues to write, despite the obstacles faced by Namibian writers, writing in a country where the literary culture is still in its infancy. She has recently finished her second novel.

Neshani on writing:

Writing is a lonely business. You write alone, and you never know if anybody will ever read what you write. I could never stop writing. It is with me every day, I never forget it. I edit in my mind whatever I hear or read. I pick up what people say, how they say it, I pick up words, expressions …

Neshani on writing in Namibia:

Namibia was a new country, people were still talking about the struggle, about exile and returning home. Writers were expected to write about great events, to glorify the past and the present, to glorify people. My struggle was different. I was not involved in high-profile political activities. I had to write about other things: travelling in overcrowded minibuses, selling and buying at markets, about sickness, witchcraft and church, about ordinary things.

Writing is still not encouraged by Namibian society, it is not regarded as a respectable job, as something that has any benefit.

Excerpt from The Purple Violet of Oshaantu:

Men who beat women are the ones who cannot stand up against other men,’ Mukwankala concluded. She made us think. Shange was feared in the village, but he had never beaten anybody except his wife. His brothers beat people all the time, but Shange, no. Why was he feared if he had never beaten anybody? Any man? The curious customers stood there, holding their breaths in anticipation of the unthinkable. Her age must have saved her. Shange could have humiliated her there and then in front of everybody. But this time Shange was humiliated. He wished the earth would part below him so he could disappear. Nobody made any attempt to stop Mukwankala from insulting him. Some were even quietly happy that he had been told to stop abusing his wife.

When I heard that Mukwankala had confronted Shange at the cuca shop, in public, I was scared to death. Although I admired her act of bravery, I thought it might cause more trouble than good. I thought that once Kauna came home, Shange would kill her.

Further Reading:

Neshani Andreas: A Passion for Writing, Interview 2004 available online

As Honest and Realistic as Possible: The Namibian Writer, Neshani Andreas by Helen Fallon available online

African Writer Profile: Sarah Mkhonza

Sarah Mkhonza

Swazi Writer Sarah Mkhonza was forced to leave her country of Swaziland and seek asylum in the United States.

Swaziland is a small, landlocked country located within the borders of South Africa. It was colonized by the British and assembles ethnic groups of Nguni origin that in the 19th Century pledged their allegiance to a chieftain of the Dlamini clan, whose descendents are now the royal family of Swaziland.

Sarah earned her PhD in English from Michigan State University in 1996. She returned to Swaziland and became a professor of English and linguistics as the University of Swaziland. She also wrote columns in the newspapers The Swazi Sun and The Observer. Her articles were often written in the style of “journalistic fiction”, short stories based on real life situations. In this way, Mkhonza hoped to highlight the plight of the oppressed, particularly women, by engaging a wider readership. As some of her writings were critical of Swaziland’s absolute monarchy, Sarah was told to stop writing and as she refused she was subject to harassment, threats, assault and the robbery and vandalism of her university office, that resulted the destruction of some of her manuscripts.

In 2003, Dr. Mkhonza arrived in the United States on a fellowship from the Scholar’s Rescue Fund and began teaching at the Center for Women’s Intercultural Leadership at St. Mary’s College. She received political asylum in the US in 2005.

In 2006, Sarah lived in Ithaca with one of her two sons and as a resident of Ithaca’s City of Asylum Writers in residence program, which is part of the North American Network of Cities of Asylum. This residency included a stint as a visiting professor of African Studies and English at Cornell University, where she taught a course in Introductory Zulu.

She has founded the Association of African Woman and the African Book Fund Group at Michigan State University that sends books to the University of Swaziland and other African education institutions.

In a 2006 interview, Sarah states “I didn’t attach writing to politics; I just thought it was important to inform Swazis about certain simple things that can be harmful.”

Mkhonza is the daughter of a domestic worker and her novels and stories focus on the lives of Swaziland’s poor working class.

She has written many poems, short stories and three novels: Pains of a Maid, What the Future Holds, and most recently Weeding the Flowerbeds.

On writing about Swaziland:

I want to help people understand Swaziland. It’s different from South Africa. You could say “apartheid in South Africa” and everybody jumps. There is gold there; there is no gold in Swaziland. It’s like an outback. Nobody cares because, after all, there are only one million people there. There are many reasons why the world can ignore that situation.

Sarah Mkhonza on the subject of “journalistic fiction”:

To me, it means fiction that addresses a particular issue at a particular time – that informs people about things that are happening that they may not be paying attention to. You focus people’s attention, the way you would focus a camera, and say, Let’s think about this. It is fiction because you use a genre that allows you to create characters that [readers] can relate to and who are going to speak about what is happening in the society. There’s a lot of domestic violence in Swaziland. That’s a story of something that happened to a real woman – my niece. She went to her family; she talked about the fact that she was being abused. This was a young woman who didn’t even know she had the option to walk away. In the end, she dies. People die and they are not accounted for. With fiction, you are able to make society see that we have created structures that do not serve people. In her case, the newspaper article was small. What abusers sometimes do is go and bribe [a legal clerk] to steal the docket and throw it away so that when the information is needed, it’s not there. She suffered one of those cases.  If I write for a newspaper, it’s different from writing a short story and putting it in a drawer at the office. It gets used. And it gets into the records of the country because newspapers are not destroyed; somebody has an archive. One day somebody will pay attention to that.

In an interview with Ithaca Times in 2006, Sarah Mkhonza discussed why women should write:

IT: For one of your columns, you approached women at work and on the street and asked them to contribute to a fictional story about a man who abandons his responsibilities at home and keeps a second wife across the river. When the women in his family confront him, he storms out, and so the story becomes a public way of addressing him.

SM: I carried a sample of writing – an introduction to the character – and asked women to respond to it. About 25 women [returned the assignment]. I realized that I didn’t know all the issues that affected women; I was just writing from the perspective of one woman.
Women play into being censored sometimes. I was observing how women react when they are asked to write. They don’t think they are writers. They think that being a writer is a big thing that is up there in the clouds. [After reading the column] a high school student wrote a very long letter saying that she now understood why women should write, and then she wrote about the situation that was happening in her own family.

In this same interview, Sarah Mkhonza discusses the tradition of the Reed Dance in Swazliland:

IT: Earlier this month, Swaziland held its annual Reed Dance, in which young unmarried women, carrying freshly cut reeds, perform before the royal family. King Mswati has 13 wives, some of whom were selected during this event, which has been strongly criticized by rights activists. Can you put this custom in perspective?

SM: The way the monarchy has used Swazi culture is working against the people. Initially, the Reed Dance was supposed to be the celebration of puberty. But that has changed. It has lost its meaning in today’s age, in my opinion. All the trivial things about who you are as a woman are the ones that are being hyped. If it wasn’t about show but about grooming the inside, then we wouldn’t have a problem.
As a Swazi, I can’t say do away with it because I know you can never have another activity that brings young people together so they can have national pride, they can have the pride to be women. Walking together for a day to pick the reeds creates the feeling that you belong to a group. African culture makes you want to be in a group. Individuality is not supported as it is here.

IT: It is estimated that about a third of Swazi adults aged 15 to 49 are infected with HIV, one of the highest rates in the world. I read an article in which an AIDS counselor said that the Reed Dance, because it celebrates chastity, is an especially important tool in the age of AIDS.
SM: If I am saying, Please, try to stick to one partner whom you know and who is faithful to you, and then a big festival is on television and the king comes with 13 wives, how am I able to send my message? Some people have the power to erase everything you’ve talked about.
If Swaziland is #1 on the AIDS list, and we are calling people to come and be beautiful, which of the two are we serving: supporting HIV or doing away with HIV? Because we cannot be doing both with this, we cannot. You want to [ask the girls]: Do you know yourself away from this crowd; do you know who you are? Do you know where you are going if you get involved with a man who is not wearing a condom? Things like that are never addressed at these functions. We cannot now say that it does the function we want it to do – to make the woman strong inside.

Further Reading:

The Hands that Hold the Urn Now (Short Story available online)

Excerpt from her story “Eyes are moving” available online

My story is on the leaves (Poem available online)

The Sunday Emergency (Poem available online)

Interview (2006) available online

Audio Interview (2008) available online

The Woyingi Blogger’s Review: What the Future Holds by Sarah Mkhonza

Sarah Mkhona’s Blog

Book Review: What The Future Holds by Sarah Mkhonza

The novel What the Future Holds by Sarah Mkhonza was originally published in 1989 by Macmillian Education Publishers as part of their Pacesetters Series. All the novels in this series deal with contemporary issues and problems in a way that is particularly designed to interest African young adults.

Writer Sarah Mkhonza was born in 1957 in Swaziland. She was a lecturer in English at the University of Swaziland until she was forced into  exile in the United States (See: The Woyingi Blogger’s African Writer Profile: Sarah Mkhonza).

What the Future Holds follows the life of Lobenguni “Kiki” Mkhatshwa, a young Swazi woman of Nguni descent who, at the beginning of the novel, has brought her baby into town to confront the child’s father, Menzi Dlamini (Dlamini is a common Swazi clan name), at his place of work, in order to ensure that he pays child support.

We then flash back to 1961, before Kiki was born, and meet her mother, LaMsibi, and father, Gezani, who struggle to make a life for themselves as farmers in a small village in the Maphakane valley. Gezani is determined to ensure that his child has a better life than he has so he decides to have her educated. Gezani is a traditional Nguni who does not approve of Christianity and the foreign missionaries who bring it. However, he does appreciate the need for Swazi children to be able to read and write, and only missionary schools provide this education. Despite having convinced his father to disown her twenty years earlier when she converted to Christianity, Gezani seeks out his sister, Saraphina, a teacher at a missionary school, and asks that she takes in Kiki and sends her to school. Gezani then decides to leave his homestead and go back to working in the mines of Johannesburg in order to pay for Kiki’s education.

Kiki’s grows up deprived of the love and attention of her parents. Her aunt is cold and abusive as are the teachers at school. Kiki’s need for love and attention makes her an easy target for Menzi’s advances.

The novel reminded me of other novels and memoirs from Southern Africa I have read that depict the struggle of women who, due to the lack of work in their own regions, have to survive while the men in their families travel far away for work. These novels usually also depict the contraints that traditional African culture places on women, particularly widows who are often left destitute as they have few inheritance rights and are sometimes themselves “inherited” by their husbands’ brothers. Kiki’s mother, LaMsibi, who according to custom should be taken as a wife by one of her husbands’ brothers when Gezani is reported to have died in a mining accident, is rejected because she is a Christian (Gezani’s family is very traditional).

What I found really interesting was the writer’s depiction of Gezani’s visits to a sangoma. Sangomas are traditional Southern African spiritual leaders who are believed to have the power to interpret the will of an individual’s ancestors. Many Southern Africans, and many people who still follow their indigeneous spiritual traditions, believe that their ancestors are still involved in their lives and can influence their forturne, for better or for worse.

I was happy to be able to get a hold of this novel as there is very little literature available in North America from Swaziland. I look forward to reading other works by Sarah Mkhonza, who has written other novels, short stories, and poems.

Excerpts from the novel:

On the plight of African Women (pp 6-7)

Kiki arrived at the river, fetched the water and was soon on her way home. She walked, the sunset behind her, a silhouette of an upright young woman with a clay pot on her head-the typical image of an African woman. For the first time the weight of the clay pot pressing down on her became a conscious reality, a force that she had to sustain against the laws of gravity. Just then it struck her vividly that African women are heavily loaded. On their heads they carry the heavy burdens of firewood and clay pots; in their hands they carry bags; on their backs they carry babies; and their front carries the load of man in procreation. Their hearts are heavily loaded with burdens of sorrow. All this is because their worth is measured in terms of the number of burdens they can carry. Even beasts have an easier task.

Gezani’s reflections on Christianity and education (p. 31)

He felt like an unwanted symbol of the old world in this land of the educated and holy. Although he resented the new religion, he had to accept that the education it had brought was a necessity. He had seen black people in Johannesburg working in offices doing jobs he could never dream of doing. Even in the government offices in Mbabane, only educated Swazis worked with the white people and he had seen black nurses in the hospitals. Yes, he had to admit that education was a force with which every Swazi had to reckon if they were to achieve in life; without it, they were losers. This is what their chief had said, and so had the King.

Gezani consults a South African sangoma to find the cause of his misfortunes (pp 82-83)

The sangoma’s interpretation was that his ancestors would defend Gezani in all hardships which lay ahead. He pointed to a bone and said, ‘I can see anger in the bone, an ancestor’s sharp spear is pointing towards the bone of death.’

Gezani racked his mind trying to think who it could be. Suddenly he remembered, ‘Msingetse! Oh, yes! It was Msingetse! He was tall and could get as angry as a lion. But why is he angry?’ he asked, his forehead puckering as he looked at the sangoma for an answer.

‘Let us find out,’ he replied, picking up the bones and then throwing them down in the same manner as before. ‘You see, not only your great, great grandfather is angry, even your neighbour is very angry.’…..

‘But what can I do to avert his anger?’ Gezani asked, desperate for a solution.

‘There is very little I can help you with. If you can find someone to pray for you it would help. The best thing of course would be to go to his grave and talk to him after slaughtering a beast to appease him. Propitiation always helps in such cases.’

Book Review: Second Class Citizen by Buchi Emecheta

Second-Class Citizen by Buchi Emecheta, Flamingo 1989

Buchi Emecheta is one of Nigeria’s most well-known writers. She managed to raise her five children on her own, go to university, eventually achieving a Ph.D from the University of London, and write over 20 novels, plays, and short stories. She was honoured with the Order of the British Empire in 2005.

Emecheta was born on July 21, 1944 in Lagos, Nigeria. Her parents were Ibos who had left the Ibo town of Ibusa (Igbuzo in Ibo) located in what is now called Delta State. She moved to London, England to join her husband in 1962. Second-Class Citizen (1974), her first published novel, is semi-autobiographical, based on her childhood in Lagos and early life in London with her husband before she divorced him.

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Buchi Emecheta

Adah, the character based on Buchi, is smart and determined to study despite the fact that there is not much means or will to have her educated particularly after her father dies. Adah eventually marries Francis and together they move to London, England in the early sixties. Life is hard. Not only is there racism which makes it difficult to find accommodations, but Francis himself becomes Adah’s greatest obstacle.

Adah is the primary breadwinner for the young and growing family with her job as a librarian. Francis becomes physically abusive towards Adah and cheats on her. Although Francis is definitely portrayed to be an obnoxious bully it is clear that Adah doesn’t entirely hate him. She understands why he’s ended up this way: “Francis was not a bad man, just a man who could no longer cope with the over-demanding society he found himself in. (p. 110)” This is sadly probably true for many immigrant men or any man who does not have the ability to cope with failure and the setbacks and challenges of life. But why do men often need to feel power over someone in order to feel better about themselves? Where does this need come from?

Adah is a survivor and this novel is the story of her survival. It is also a fascinating portrait of Black immigrant life in sixties London. Despite what could be quite depressing subject matter, Second Class Citizen is actually an easy read and more often than not quite funny. I have actually reread Second Class Citizen several times and I never stop finding great character portraits and home truths.

Interesting Passages from the novel:

Adah is a Christian but her husband is a Jehovah’s Witness. But he wasn’t always a Jehovah’s Witness. While at the maternity ward Adah meets a women who waited 17 years to have her first child. Adah wonders what Francis would have done if it had taken 17 years for her to give him a son:

Suppose she had had to wait seventeen years for all that? She would have either died of psychological pressures or another wife would have been bought for Francis. He would have declared himself a Moslem, for he was once a Moslem when he was younger. Francis was like the Vicar of Bray. He changed his religion to suit his whims. When he realized that equipping Adah with birth-control gear would release her from the bondage of child-bearing, Francis went Catholic. When he started failing his examinations and was feeling very inferior to his fellow Nigerians, he became a Jehovah’s Witness. (p. 122)

Adah befriends Janet, a young Cockney girl who is the wife of a Muslim Nigerian, Mr. Babalola. He is hardly an endearing character. In the following passage, one of the sources of the conflict between Southerners (predominantly Christian) and Northerners (predominantly Muslim) is outlined, of course with a Southern Ibo bias.

Mr. Babalola had come to England, just like Francis and Adah, to study. But, unlike Adah and Francis, he had been single, and had a Northern Nigerian Scholarship. This meant that he had more money to spend, because the Northerners, unlike the over-educated Southerners, would do anything to encourage the men to really get educated so that they could come home and obtain the jobs in the North which were then going to the Southerners. Mr. Babalola was, therefore, a very rich student.
Rumour had it that he had a glossy flat and was always entertaining. This was no surprise to anyone who knew the Northerners. They liked to spend their money, to really enjoy what they had, and to them what they had was theirs only today, not tomorrow or the day after. Allah would take care of the future. That was certainly Babalola’s philosophy of life. (p. 52-53)

Janet, who gets pregnant at sixteen by a West Indian, gets kicked out by her parents because she refuses to give up her baby. Babalola ends up taking her in and using her as a party favour for his friends. As Emecheta writes: “…Janet was being offered to any black man who wanted to know how a white woman looked undressed. Most of Adah’s neighbours had had their sexual adventures with Janet.”

However, this all changes when a broke Babalola (His Northern Nigerian Scholarship is inexplicably revoked) realizes that Janet can receive enough social assistance for herself and her baby to pay his rent. Babalola decides to keep Janet all to himself and she bears him a child. Babalola, like Francis, seems content to depend on women financially, while still treating these women like servants.

Adah reflects on being the child of Ibos from Ibuza living in Lagos:

Well, Adah thought she was eight at the time when her mother and all the other society women were busying themselves to welcome the very first lawyer to their town Ibuza. Whenever Adah was told that Ibuza was her own, she found it difficult to understand. Her parents, she was told, came from Ibuza, and so did many of her aunts and uncles. Ibuza, she was told, was a beautiful town. She had been taught at an early age that the people of Ibuza were friendly, that the food there was fresh, the spring water was pure and the air was clean. The virtues of Ibuza were praised so much that Adah came to regard being born in a God=forsaken place like Lagos as a misfortune. Her parents said that Lagos was a bad place, bad for bringing up children because here they picked up the Yoruba-Ngbati accent.(p 7-8)

Adah reflects on her social isolation in England and how this relates to domestic abuse:

In England, she couldn’t go to her neighbour and babble out troubles as she would have done in Lagos, she had learned not to talk about her unhappiness to those with whom she worked, for this was a society where nobody was interested in the problems of others. If you could not bear your problems any more, you could always do away with yourself. That was allowed, too. Attempted suicide was not regarded as a sin. It was a way of attracting attention to one’s unfortunate situation. And whose attention do you attract? The attention of paid listeners. Listeners who make you feel that you are an object to be studied, diagnosed, charted and tabulated. Listeners who refer to you as ‘a case’. You don’t have the old woman next door who, on hearing an argument going on between a wife and husband, would come in to slap the husband, telling him off and all that, knowing that her words would be respected because she was old and experienced. (p. 72-73)

Adah reflects on the role of religion in her life in England:

There was no time to go to church and pray. Not in England. It took her years to erase the image of the Nigerian church which usually had a festive air. In England, especially in London, ‘church’ was a big grey building with stained-glass windows, high ornamental ceilings, very cold, full of rows and rows of empty chairs, with the voice of the vicar droning from the distant pulpit, crying like the voice of John the Baptist lost in the wilderness. In London, churches were cheerless.
She could not go to any of them because it made her cry to see such beautiful places of worship empty when, in Nigeria, you could hardly get a seat if you came late. You had to stand outside and follow the service through a microphone. But you were happy through it all, you were encouraged to bellow out the songs-that bellowing took away some of your sorrows. Because most of the hymns seem to be written by psychologists. One was always sure of singing or hearing something that would come near to the problem you had in mind before coming to church. In England you were robbed of such comfort.
London, having thus killed Adah’s congregational God, created instead a personal God who loomed large and really alive. She did not have to go to church to see this One
. (p. 164-165)

African Writer Profile: Dayo Forster

Dayo Forster was born and raised in Banjul, the capital of Gambia. She had to leave Gambia at 18 to pursue a university education because at the time there were no universities in Gambia.
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Dayo Forster

Dayo comes from a family of Aku, otherwise known as Krios. The Aku originated from Krios who came from Sierra Leone in the 19th Century. The Krio are a mixture of recently freed slaves who were liberated from slave ships intercepted by the British in West Africa and freed slaves returning from the diaspora from such places as the US, the Caribbean and Nova Scotia.  Many of the freed slaves were of Yoruba descent, which is why it is common to find Krios with Yoruba names, like Dayo.

Dayo studied statistics and computing at the London School of Economics.

Dayo had always been an avid reader but she took up writing late in life.

On her website she writes:

I took up writing aged 35, while living in America, essentially to figure out a way of expressing opinions and publishing essays on various topics. I stumbled into fiction while attending a writing workshop. The optional assignment was to extend a character in a story someone else had written. I tried it – and was bowled over by the power of virtual reality – the ability to create someone else’s world and be able to view everything through that person’s eyes. And to feel God-like, able to make things happen, yet be sensitive enough to continue to inhabit a character’s skin.

To learn more about Dayo’s relationship with literature, read her piece “a short life in literature”.

Dayo went on to publish a short story in Kwani?, a Kenyan literary journal. She would later participate in the 2006 Caine African Writer’s Workshop. The short story she wrote for the workshop would be published in the 2006 Caine Prize for African Writing Anthology, The Obituary Tango.  The short story she wrote for Kwani? would lead her to write her first novel, “Reading the Ceiling”.

“Reading the Ceiling” follows the three possible trajectories that the life of its heroine, Ayodele, could take based on who she chooses to lose her virginity to when she is 18 years old.

Dayo is the first Gambian woman to get an international publishing contract. She was able to achieve this with the help of her contacts in the Kenyan literary scene.

In her interview with Molara Wood she says:

In Kenya where I’m based, I went along to monthly meetings organised by Kwani? I read the first chapter of my manuscript and got lots of helpful feedback. Binyavanga Wainaina (2002 Caine winner and Kwani? founder) recommended some agents; the first one I contacted, signed me. I wrote the first draft while in the US, in 4 months; the whole process was wonderful and quick. If I hadn’t been living in Kenya, it would have been difficult to complete this book. I do thank Kenya for that. There were a few people who were selfless.

“Reading the Ceiling” was shortlisted for Best First Book in the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize-Africa Region.

Dayo Forster speaks Krio, Wolof, Kiswahili and French.

She is currently working on her second novel.

Further Reading:

Dayo Forster’s Website

An Interview with Dayo Forster about her book “Reading the Ceiling” from African Loft

An Interview with Dayo Forster by Nigerian writer Molara Wood

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