Antoine Abel was born on November 27th 1934 in Anse Boileau on Mahe Island, the principal island of the Seychelles Archipelago. He came from a family of peasants, descendents of African slaves brought from the mainland. He had the opportunity to study in Switzerland and England and worked as an educator, eventually taking up a position at the Seychelles Teacher Training College which he held until he retired in 1986.
He is considered to be the Father of Seychelles Literature, having written novels, short stories, poetry, plays and folklore in French, English and Seychelles Creole. He was the first playwright to bring his country’s culture and Creole language to the world stage with his collection of poems Paille en queue (1969). In Paille en queue, Abel recounts his memories of childhood.
According to the Culture Department of Seychelles:
Mr. Abel was one of the most well-known and accomplished poets and writers that the country has ever produced. He was one of the pillars in the promotion of the Seychellois culture. He had a profound understanding and insight into the way of life of our people. One of the most prolific and versatile Seychellois writers and researchers working in all our national languages, he produced novels, numerous poems, plays, articles and contributed in various cultural and educational fora at both national and international level. Mr Abel was especially insightful in the use of the Seychellois cultural context in teaching, particularly the French language, being the French advisor in the Ministry of Education before joining the Ministry of Culture.
Many of Abel’s short stories feature the half-human, half-monkey Soungoula, a trickster figure popular in Seychellois folktales. He learned these folktales from the elders of his community, peasants and fishermen whose hardships he describes in his work. In 1977, Antoine became the first Seychellois writer to have works published in Europe when France’s P.J. Oswald/L’Harmattan published the novel Coco sec, Une tortue se rappelle and Contes et poèmes des Seychelles. Abel described himself as “un petit poète sans importance vivant sur une île de poésie” (English translation: A little poet without importance living on an island of poetry).
Abel’s efforts helped to inspire other Seychellois Writers by showing that their daily lives were worthy of literature. As Seychellois writer Pat Matyot writes:
I lived among lagati and cinnamon trees, but I read about oak and willow trees. I saw mynahs, tenrecs and rhinoceros beetles, but my books were about robins, squirrels and red admiral butterflies. There were no books that said anything about the Seychellois natural environment. Then came Antoine’s Paille en queue, with its forty pages of quaint little poems in French and English, many of them about fruit bats, corals, octopus, tortoises, cicadas and the southeast monsoon. Looking back at those often awkward first poems, touching in their naivety, it is not easy to explain their impact on me. But reading Antoine’s work was a milestone in my intellectual development in that it validated, so to speak, my real-life experiences. Fruit bats, octopus and sardine fishing were talked about in a book. One could write about such things. And, moreover: Seychellois, too, could write books!
After Seychelles won Independance in 1976, Creole was recognized as the national language and Abel edited over 60 titles in the language, particularly literature for children. He wrote the first novel Montann en leokri and first play Restan kamira published in Seychellois Creole.
Abel was awarded France’s Prix Mascareignes in 1979.
Antoine Abel died in 2004 after a long illness. He was buried in Anse Boileau.
Since 2007, the Festival Kreol des Seychelles yearly awards the Prix Antoine Abel in his honour.
Unfortunately, as English has taken over as the language of education and culture in Seychelles, Abel’s works in French and Creole are read less and less.
Seychelles loses Antoine Abel, poet and nature-lover by Pat Matyot (article available online)
Culture department mourns death of poet, writer Antoine Abel (article available online)
Plaidoyer pour une réhabilitation d’Antoine Abel aux Seychelles by Christophe Cassiau-Haurie (article in French available online)
Une littérature seychelloise? (article in French available online)
Antoine Abel Profile in Creole available online
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.
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.
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
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.
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)
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.”
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
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.
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)
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 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.
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
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.
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
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.