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.
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.
Government by Magic Spell by Saida Hagi-Dirie Herzi available online
I recently read the short story The Winner by Ugandan writer Barbara Kimenye. The story is included in the collection Modern African Stories edited by Charles R. Larson, published by Fontana Books 1971.
About Barbara Kimenye
Barbara Kimenye was born in 1929 in England but considers herself Ugandan by birth. Kimenye began writing at an early age and put together her first newspaper when she was 11. Kimenye studied nursing in London. She married a Tanzanian and returned to Uganda in the early 1950s.
Kimenye became the private secretary of the Kabaka of Buganda, Mutesa II. Kabaka is the title given to the king of Buganda. Buganda was once an independent kingdom in what is now called Uganda. Uganda is actually the Swahili term for Buganda that was adopted by the British. Buganda is the largest traditional kingdom in Uganda and is inhabited by Uganda’s largest ethnic group the Baganda or Ganda people. The Ganda speak Luganda. Kampala, the capital of Uganda, is located in Buganda.
Kimenye was encouraged to pursue a career in journalism by Kenyan politician Tom Mboya (Barack Obama’s godfather). Kimenye went on to become a columnist for the Uganda Nation and Kenya’s Daily Nation. Kimenye is considered to be the first Black female journalist in East Africa and is one of the first Anglophone women writers to be published out of East Africa.
The short story The Winner comes from Kimenye’s collection Kalasanda(1965). The stories in this collection and Kimenye’s later collection Kalasanda Revisited(1966) follow the ordinary lives of the inhabitants of the village Kalasanda in Buganda.
Kimenye has gone on to become a prolific writer of African Children’s Literature. Her most popular series is about a boy named Moses who attends a school for boys who have been kicked out of more reputable schools for misbehaving. Moses and his friends get in to all kinds of trouble but are not really bad, just mischievous.
The elderly Pius Ndawula has won the football pools. This has totally disrupted his quiet life. Now swarms of distant relatives have converged on his home and reporters want to talk to him about his good fortune. Pius’ closest friend, Salongo, also wants Pius’ money, but for the restoration of the tomb of a great Bugandan hero, of which he is the custodian.
Pius is particularly irritated with Cousin Sarah. He doesn’t really know her or the exact nature of his relationship to her (We later learn that she is the widow of a stepson of one of his cousins, hardly a close relationship). She has begun taking over his house as if it is hers, and remarking that Pius’ needs a woman to take care of his home. Salongo warns Pius that Cousin Sarah might want to trap him into marriage.
Pius has his own dreams for the money. He wants to add a new roof on his house or perhaps build an entirely new house out of concrete blocks. He would also like to extend his coffee shamba (garden) and invest in raising hens.
Pius was initially delighted when his close family members came to visit him after hearing the news about his winnings but was overwhelmed when relations he didn’t even recognize flooded his shamba. Salongo convinces Pius that he shouldn’t tell anyone what he wants to do with his winnings-including reporters. A reporter with a Ugandan radio station attempts to get an interview out of Pius but Salongo orders him to say nothing. Cousin Sarah ends up coming to the rescue and gives an interview on Pius’ behalf. Much to his horror, she states that she plans to stay and look after him for as long as he needs her.
Pius’ friends Yosefu Mukasa comes to visit him in the evening and is shocked to see how tired Pius looks and is also surprised to be greeted by Cousin Sarah who behaves as if she is mistress of Pius’ house. Yosefu offers to have Pius stay at his house and Cousin Sarah agrees that is it a wonderful idea and packs his bags. Salongo also thinks it is a good idea so that Pius isn’t left alone over night with Cousin Sarah.
Pius spends two days with the Mukasas being taken care of by Miriamu, Yosefu’s wife. While at the Mukasas, Pius gets the unfortunate news that there has been a mistake and he has not won all the prize money but must share the original amount he thought he won with 300 other people. Much to everyone’s surprise, Pius is not that upset.
Cousin Sarah ends up clearing all of Pius’ relatives out of his house but his shamba has been wrecked by them. When Pius returns to his house he finds that Cousin Sarah is still there and has plans for the repair of his house with his winnings. She also plans to bring over her own hens. By this time, Pius has begun to like Cousin Sarah but wonders why she wants to live with him. She tells him that both her sons are married and she doesn’t feel comfortable having another woman in the house. After seeing the news that Pius had won the football pools, she remembered Pius from her wedding when he had been very helpful. She decided that he needed her help to keep away greedy relatives and to take care of his house.
At the end of the story we learn that Pius gives Salongo some money for the tomb but, much to Salongo’s chagrin, Pius has decided to marry Cousin Sarah.
The Winner is an enjoyable read. It is a simple story but Kimenye manages to weave a few references to some dramatic changes in the social life of the Ganda peoples in post-Independence Uganda. For example, we learn that certain taboos around what women can and cannot eat are being challenged:
“Salongo and he had always said that there was money in hens these days, now that the women ate eggs and chicken; not that either of them agreed with the practice. Say what you liked, women who ate chicken and eggs were fairly asking to be infertile! That woman Welfare Officer who came round snooping occasionally, tried to say it was all nonsense, that chicken meat and eggs made bigger and better babies. Well, they might look bigger and better, but nobody could deny that they were fewer! “
Pius and Salongo, as representatives of an older generation of Ganda, are not happy about such changes but that won’t stop them from trying to profit off them.
The change in women’s eating habits reflects the changes in women’s position in Ganda society in the modern era which also relates to the “take-charge” character of Cousin Sarah. Initially, Cousin Sarah’s assertiveness is seen as threatening by Pius but eventually he warms to her and realizes that he needs her. Her assertiveness actually seems to rub off on him because at the end of the story Pius is able to stand up to his friend Salongo in a way we have not seen him do before.
On a side note, I wonder if Pius’ friends Yosefu and Miriamu are meant to be Muslims. These are Muslim names and there is a Muslim population in Buganda. In the mid-19th century, under the rule of Kabaka Mutesa I, a small but significant minority of Ganda were encouraged to adopt the practice of Islam from Swahili missionaries, particularly as it was seen to be advantageous to the Buganda Kingdom to have people who could read. However, as there is no other indication that Yosefu and Miriamu are Muslim it might simply be that they have taken the Swahili versions of the Biblical names Joseph and Mary.
To learn more about the origins of Islam in Buganda I recommend reading Buganda: Religious Competition for the Kingdom in Muslim Societies in African History by David Robinson.