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

Book Review: Before the Birth of the Moon by V. Y. Mudimbe

Title: Before the Birth of the Moon

Author: V. Y. Mudimbe

Language: English

Translator: Marjolijn de Jager

Country: Democratic Republic of Congo

Year: 1976 (original publication), translation 1989

Genre: Fiction, Novel

Before the Birth of the Moon by Valentin Y. Mudimbe was originally written in French and published in 1976. According to the author, it is set in the mid-sixties during the tumultuous First Republic of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), during the relatively brief reign of President Joseph Kasavubu after the murder of his former Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. During the First Republic, DRC was rife with rebel movements in various provinces. The two central characters of the novel, “The Minister” and Ya, his mistress, are wrapped up in this political turmoil.

“The Minister”, is ambitious and wishes to earn favour with the President, who is never directly named. He is married with children but this doesn’t prevent him from enjoying himself with a few mistresses. One of these mistresses, Ya, he believes he is in love with but we learn that she actually finds him irritating although she appreciates his money. Ya hails from a rural area in a province where her ethnic group is now rebelling against the national government. At the beginning of the novel, Ya has no interest in this as she has come to Kinshasa to enjoy herself. Although she originally left her village in order to avoid a marriage arranged by her father and pursue college studies, she soon left school to enjoy the dazzling city life of bars and nightclubs and found a way to live off men in exchange for sexual favours. In most English descriptions of the novel Ya is described as a prostitute but I do not think this description is correct. She is more a woman who is “kept” but she feels free to pick and choose who gets to keep her. This is why she initially decides to dump “The Minister” early in the novel because she finds him irritating. “The Minister” is heartbroken. Ya isn’t. Her real lover is her female friend who “The Minister” early on perceives as his main rival. One day, men from Ya’s village break into the apartment she shares with her friend and attack her. They bring her news that her father, who was a village chief and rebel leader, has been murdered by the national government. They demand that she get back with “The Minister” and share any intelligence she can get from him with the rebels. Now, the carefree and careless Ya, finds herself in the precarious position of spy.

Ya easily returns to the welcoming arms of “The Minister” who in the interim has seen himself elevated in the government ranks and has become an initiate in a secret society which claims to be following the ancient rites of his ancestors. This involves making a human sacrifice. “The Minister” offers Ya’s friend/lover as his sacrifice, as he sees her as the main obstacle standing in the way of him truly winning Ya’s heart. He is right because in the wake of her friend’s disappearance Ya eventually succumbs to “The Minister”‘s kindness and finds herself falling in love with him, all the while sharing the political intelligence he shares with her in confidence with the rebel leaders. Ya is set up in a posh apartment in the Ngombe commune of Kinshasa, which was originally designed by Europeans for Europeans. “The Minister” lavishes her with gifts while ignoring the financial needs of his own household. This eventually leads to tragedy when his son ends up contracting an infection from his circumcision, which “The Minister’s” wife had wanted to have performed in a hospital, but she is told by “The Minister” that that is too expensive. “The Minister” refuses to see his responsiblity for his son’s death and instead blames his wife, accusing her of witchcraft. But he soon returns to the highlife of the city with Ya, taking her to parties and introducing her to various national and international dignitaries. But it is only a matter of time before Ya’s betrayal will catch up with them both.

Mudimbe’s novel is a fascinating read. Its narrative style changes from chapter to chapter , switching from the third person, to the second person (unusual in a novel) addressing Ya, to Ya’s and “The Minister’s” first person perspective. Both Ya and “The Minister” are two characters who seem to have no real loyalties either to family, religion or ethno-cultural traditions. Ya attended Roman Catholic school and still holds the churches’ officials in reverence but this does not stop her from leading a life of debauchery. She betrays “The Minister” more out of physical fear due to the constant violence of the rebel leaders than out of loyalty to her ethnicity or father. “The Minister” seems more attracted to the wealth and prestige that his government office can give him than to any real concern for his nation. It’s not even clear if he actually believes in the power of this secret society he joins and even though he loves his son, he doesn’t offer the funds to ensure that he is circumcised in a safe and clean environment nor does he follow the traditional mourning practices of his culture. Ya and “The Minister” believe they love each other but Ya betrays the “The Minister” by spying on him and he betrays her by murdering her friend and then lying about it. As with his other novels, Mudimbe explores political realities through the lives of individuals. It appears that at the heart of many of the political problems of the First Republic of DRC, he is showing is the real problem of insincerity. It is hard to know what people really stand for or really believe in. Even one the of rebel leaders who comes to harass information out of Ya, expresses contempt for the ethnic loyalties of his fellow rebels. He’s a communist and that is where his loyalty lies, although he is working with the rebels who are organizing along ethnic lines. Such cross purposes can only end in disaster and chaos.

I highly recommend reading Before the Birth of the Moon and other works by Mudimbe, both out of an interest in fine writing and the DRC.

About the Author:

Valentin Y. Mudimbe was born in 1941 in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He is the Norman Ivey White Professor of Literature at Duke University. The following biography comes from his Faculty Page at Duke University:

Newman Ivey White Professor of Literature at Duke University, V.Y. Mudimbe received his Doctorat en Philosophie et Lettres from the Catholic University of Louvain in 1970. In 1997, he became Doctor Honoris Causa at Université Paris VII Diderot, and in 2006, became Doctor Honoris Causa at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. Before coming to Duke, he taught at the Universities of Louvain, Paris-Nanterre, Zaire, Stanford, and at Haverford College. Among his publications are three collections of poetry, four novels, as well as books in applied linguistics, philosophy, and social sciences. His most recent publications include: L’Odeur du père (1982), The Invention of Africa (1988), Parables and Fables (1991), The Idea of Africa (1994), and Tales of Faith (1997). He is the editor of The Surreptitious Speech (1992), Nations, Identities, Cultures (1997), Diaspora and Immigration (1999), and editor of a forthcoming encyclopedia on African religions and philosophy. He is also former General Secretary of SAPINA (the Society for African Philosophy in North America) and co-editor with Robert Bates and Jean O’Barr of Africa and the Disciplines (1993).

V.Y. Mudimbe is a Membre Honoraire Correspondant de l’Académie Royale des Sciences d’Outre Mer (Belgium); a Member of the Société américaine de philosophie de langue française; as well as of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, and the World Institute for Advanced Phenomenological Research and Learning. He has also served as Chairman of the Board of African Philosophy, and since 2000, as the Chairman of the International African Institute (SOAS, University of London). His interests are in phenomenology and structuralism, with a focus on the practice of everyday language. He regularly teaches on French existentialism, theories of difference, phenomenology, ancient Greek geography, and African themes.

Further Reading:

Review of the novel in The New York Times by R. McNight available online

Book Review: The Afersata by Sahle Sellassie

Posted in Ethiopian Literature, Gurage, Heinemann African Writers' Series, Novels by the woyingi blogger on March 29, 2011

The Afersata An Ethiopian Novel by Sahle Sellassie was published by Heinemann African Writers’ Series in 1969. It is unfortunately currently out of print. It is dedicated to the memory of the author’s father. It is quite a short novel (90 pages).

The novel begins with the hut of villager Namaga burning down due to arson. In order to discover who is the culprit, Namaga demands an Afersata. An Afersata (an Amharic word)  is a traditional form of court proceeding aimed at getting at the truth of a matter. Every male member of a village is required to participate, no matter what their social status, and is asked if he is the culprit, if he knows who the culprit is, or if he has any knowledge related to the crime. He must swear an oath on the lives of his offspring, the most valued possession of a peasant farmer. But the novel is really a reflection on the current state of tenant farming in Southern Ethiopia among the Gurage people, an ethnic minority to which the author of the novel, Sellassie, belongs. Originally written in English, the novel spends a lot of time explaining cultural customs and seems aimed at both an international audience and city dwellers from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, who do not know very much about the situation of rural farming communities in general, and of ethnic minority farming communities in particular.

The cover of the book, illustrated by Portuguese artist Pedro Guedes, son of artist Pancho Guedes, portrays the opening scenes from the novel as villagers try to save Namaga’s hut and his possessions from the fire. On the page opposite the first page of the novel, there is an illustration by renowned Ethiopian artist Ale Felege-Salam, which portrays The Afersata, with the elders and villagers gathered around a large tree.

Selected passages from the novel:

In the following passage, Sellassie describes how the local tax collector or Cheka Shum often was paid writing documents for illiterate villagers-by liquor.

In the villages like those of Wudma there are no bars. But some of the village women brew local beer, mead and arake in their spare time. The stronger the liquor they brew the more they are appreciated. If no liquor is available in the villages then the official would have his mule saddles and would ride to the town where the sub-district court is located and have his fill there. Or he would simply ask a young man from the village to go and get it for him from the town. It is rare, however, that the officials spend money from their own pockets to buy liquor. They get it free of charge from those who have some pending cases to be settled. Page 9

Much of the novel is social criticism of both traditional Ethiopian social institutions and current government policies of the ruling ethnic group (the Amhara). The following passage is a criticism of the institution of dedje tenat:

The age-old institution known as dedje tenat or asking for favour, an institution that has benumbed the creative spirit of the people, has always been common not only in higher circles but also in the lower echelons. The institution of dedje tenat calls for loyalty on the part of the favour-seeker and benevolence on the part of the giver. So as a result a person’s sense of achievement and reward, as well as his initiative and his creative spirit are crushed. Page 11

Sellassie criticizes the social structure of traditional village life. Through my reading in African Literature, I’ve found it interesting that in many traditional African communities, craftsmen and artisans, such as blacksmiths, are actually seen as be amongst the lowest of the low. This is also true in the Gurage village portrayed in this novel as depicted in the following passage:

Despite the inconveniences created by the Afersata, members of the submerged class considered it a privilege to attend the meeting. As far as they were concerned it was a new step towards the recognition of their civil status. Formerly they were outcasts who lived on the fringe of village society because of the trade they practised. As wood-workers, leather-workers and metal-workers they were despised and pushed aside from all social and civil activities.

If the Ethiopian peasants could not improve their material life over the centuries it was probably because they could not enjoy fully the fruits of their labour; and if material progress stagnated it was probably because the creators of material civilization were despised. The man who carved wood, the man who tanned leather and the blacksmith who forged iron into utensils was an inferior creature by the fallacious logic of the ignorant. Page 15-16

Melesse a civil servant living in Addis Ababa and the uncle of Beshir, the suspected arsonist, is asked by his friend and fellow civil servant Tekle to visit the Gurage village. Tekle, an Amhara, has been interested in visiting a Gurage village ever since he studied them as a student of social science in Addis Ababa. Melesse is reluctant because he is worried that seeing a Gurage village will make him sad and nostalgic. As I said at the beginning of this review, I feel that Sellassie was writing this novel to be read by people like Tekle, people who have lived mainly in the city or amongst the dominant ethnic groups of Ethiopia. As is demonstrated in this passage, these people do not know very much about the Gurage and do not think highly of them:

Tekle: I used to think that the Gurage were simply porters in Addis, shoe-shiners and pedlars. Now I see a people with a distinct culture and a respectable way of life.

Melesse: You are not the only person who has a wrong image of my folks. Half of the town dwellers have the same ideas as you had before. And besides you still don’t know much about my folks. You have so far seen only the insignificant symbols of their culture.

Before the unification and centralization of Ethiopia in the nineteenth century the Gurage lived in a stateless society. Laws were made directly by the people themselves as in the old Greek city states. The chiefs and the elders certainly played the most important role in this matter, but the assembly under the tree was open to anyone who wished to be present and give his opinion about any matter concerning society as a whole. There was no established army to defend that stateless society, but society as a whole was responsible for any crime committed by an individual. Thus, if a person murdered another, either he would be exiled from his motherland or his tribe would contribute money for him to pay the blood price. This type of collective responsiblity is still practiced elsewhere in Ethiopia. The institution of Afersata, for instance, is based on the philosophy of collective responsiblity. Pages 50-51

The position of women is also reflected on in the novel, however at no time are any of the women in the novel named, they are only referred to based on their relationship with a man, for example, Namaga’s wife, Beshir’s wife, Melesse’s mother. Women are not required to attend The Afersata, something which actually makes no sense considering that women are just as capable as men of committing crimes.

About Sahle Sellassie

According to his biography on the back of this novel:

Sahle Sellassie Berhane Mariam was born in 1936. He has studied at the University College in Addis Ababa, l’Universite d’Aix-Marseille and at the University of California, Los Angeles. He contributed short stories and articles in English and Amharic to publications in Ethiopia. Shinega’s Village, a novel written in Chaha, has been published in English by the University of California Press, and Wotat Yifredew, a novel in Amharic, appeared in Addis Ababa. His historical novel Warrior King about the Emperor Teodoros will appear in 1974.

After completing his M.A. in Political Science from the University of California, Sellassie returned to Ethiopia in 1964 where he worked for the British Embassy as a translator. His major work  in Amharic is Bassha Qitaw (1986), about the war with Italy (1935–41). In 1983, he has translated A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens and in 1987.

I find it fascinating that Sellassie wrote a novel, Shinega’s Village: Scenes from Ethiopian Life, in Chaha, a dialect of Gurage. It was translated into English by Wolf Leslau, a Polish Jewish Professor from the University of California, Los Angeles, who received the Haile Selassie Prize for Ethiopian Studies from Haile Selassie himself . Obviously, Sellassie was trying to write something almost exclusively for his own people, as many people in Ethiopia would not have been able to read Chaha. It is clear to me that Sellassie sees one of the goals of his literary output as highlighting the experience of his people, both for themselves by writing in their own language, although as is highlighted in the novel The Afersata, many are not literate; for an international audience; but most importantly for Ethiopians from the dominant ethnic groups. I was recently asked by two Ethiopian students of Ethiopian Literature written in English what I felt the main theme of Ethiopian Literature written in English is. Frankly, I have no idea as I haven’t read all Ethiopian Literature written in English, however, I do feel that for Sellassie, writing in English meant reaching an international audience but also reaching an educated Ethiopian audience through a language that, in the Ethiopian context, put everyone on a level playing field-English. This may seem ironic for Western readers but as Ethiopia was never colonized by Britain (although there were definitely some British imperialist excursions, the most dramatic one actually precipitated the suicide of Emperor Teodoros II) English has less negative associations with it than Amharic might to someone from an Ethiopian ethnic minority like the Gurage. As many Ethiopian ethnic minorities have to learn Amharic as a second language because it is the language of the dominant ethnic group, the government, and the Church, Amharic speakers have to learn English as a second language. Therefore, as English is no one’s mother tongue, to read in it is to read on a level playing field. I would love to hear others’ reflections on this.

Further Reading:

The Afersata-an Ethiopian novel-valid and resonant by A. Gagiano (book review available online)

African Writer Profile: Antoine Abel

Posted in African Writer Profiles, Countries: Seychelles, Seychellois Literature by the woyingi blogger on March 6, 2011

Antoine Abel

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.

Further Reading:

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

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