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A book for a gift

14 Nov

It has been a long time since I last updated this blog. My sister Phui has kindly called my attention to this fact. Talking of my sister, she has also recently given me a book for a gift, knowing my love for books. Thanks a lot dear sis!

The book is entitled “The devil that danced on the water” by Aminata Forna.


It tells the story of her search for the truth of her father’s fate, Mohamed Forna, who had been told that for Africa “politics and violence are inseparable”. Her father abandoned his medical career to enter into the volatile politics of Sierra Leone in the 1960’s. A brilliant and impeccable man, he became finance minister under Siaka Stevens, the then president.

As I am still reading the book, a complete review is impossible at this point!

But a promise is a promise, a review is coming once I have finished reading. At least I owe that much to my dear sis!


Review: The African child by Camara Laye

10 Aug

Perhaps this is the second best written African book that I have read recently, after Alan Paton’s Cry the beloved country. Set in Guinea, Laye takes us on a fun-filled, nostalgic journey into his boyhood life in one of the villages in his country. The result is something special; portraying the African community in the pre-colonial era.

 He presents the customs and beliefs of his people in the context of the day-to-day life as seen through his eyes. His approach endears the reader to the boy’s parents and his friends and his life in general. He alternates his home as a child between his home in Kouroussa and his grandmother’s home in Tindican. He goes to school, watches the fields with his friends, participates in the harvest, etc.

At fifteen, he undergoes the rite of circumcision, the sign of entrance into manhood. After this, he acquires his own hut.

Thereafter, he goes to Conakry for technical studies, befriends Marie, who becomes his girlfriend. He goes back home for his holidays. He wins a scholarship to study in France, extremely sad to leave all that he loves behind.

Published in 1954 as L’Enfant Noir and appearing in English the following year, The African child is a great read. It is considered one of the best novels to come out French-speaking Africa.


Review: How to write about Africa by Binyavanga Wainaina

7 Jun

(Read this essay here)

Binyavanga Wainaina is a Kenyan writer. He won the 2002 Caine Prize for his short story “Discovering Home”. He is the founding editor of Kwani? (So What?), a literary magazine.

This is a satirical essay about the common prejudices held by foreigners or non Africans (who write books) about Africa. According to them, “Real Africa” is where it is “hot and steamy”, with “thin people who are starving”, their “prominent ribs” showing, waiting for food from the West. Much of Africa’s plight is brought to light: the landscape, the tribal practices (FGM), corruption, name it. Africans are helpless, only other people can right things; the West is Africa’s Messiah.

No wonder anyone who wishes to publish a book about Africa(to raise awareness) must interview the conservationist, the people on the ground, who have lived from first hand, the African experience. These people are to be found in their “30,000 acre game ranch or conservation area”, but one must not make the mistake of asking them how much they pay their labourers.

Wainaina offers advice of how to increase sales: mentioning the light in Africa, the sunset, having a photo of “a heroic looking conservationalist” on the front cover, describing how one has come to love Africa, and cannot live without her etc.

This essay makes for some awesome read, lots of laughter and much thought.

It made me remember the first time I interacted with non-Africans and the questions they asked: if I had a pet lion, whether there are leopards on the streets, if I had ever ridden an elephant and whether I had met so-and-so who lives in Congo(I am Kenyan). For them, Africa is one country, teeming with game, with wide open spaces lots of heat, and  all manner of diseases.

I could see the incredulous faces as I explained the cold mornings (numb fingers, teeth chattering) going to school on a July morning in the highlands.

For sure, I have only seen lions, leopards and elephants in the game reserves and parks. Not in the backyard, and certainly not in the streets.  There are no tigers in Africa, thank you very much. Even a five-year old boy could tell you as much.

Oh, Africa!

Review: Cry, the beloved country by Alan Paton

29 May

I must admit that I was on the verge of crying several times while I was reading this book. Take me seriously; I rarely shed tears over a book, but this one almost made me cry.

The book tells the sad and simple story of Kumalo, a black Anglican priest from the countryside, gone to look for his son in the city:Johannesburg. His search leads him to a labyrinth of murder, prostitution, illicit brews, slum living etc. When he realizes the depth of things affecting his own family,(his son and sister) he almost loses hope. He meets Msimangu, a fellow priest, whose friendship sustains him in the seemingly futile search. The book ends full of hope, although justice is done (I don’t want to spoil the book for those who have not read!)

This book is interesting in many ways. First, it is set in the 1940’s-1950, a very strategic time inSouth Africaas far as racial awareness is concerned. In fact, it was Paton’s book that raised awareness about the apartheid inSouth Africa. When Kumalo travels from Ndotsheni toJohannesburg, he goes in the black compartment; there are two exits from the courtroom, as per the custom, which is rarely breached, if at all.

At the same time, Paton presents circumstances in the book in which these same customs are breached. When the people refuse to use the public transport (used mainly by blacks) enmasse to protest against increased fares, many white people offer lifts in their cars. The friendship that develops between Kumalo and Mr. Jarvis is incredible. It is interesting that Mr. Jarvis lived on his farm in the countryside, employing many black people, but he shook hands for the first time with a black person at his son’s funeral.

Secondly, it gives a valuable insight of the origin of such problems as slums and crime, a reality in many African cities. Definitely, each country is unique, but it is the same phenomenon all the same. When the youth leave their homes and head for the city, the leave behind their tribal customs that were their moral foundation, and according to the author, this is why so many of them end up in crime. The initiative that Kumalo comes up with to educate the people about proper farming methods, irrigation etc will at least make the farms productive once more and maybe not too many of the youth will flock to the city, looking for something to do with themselves.

Although it really sounds like an updated issue (black rights), the book is written in a poetic manner, such that it is impossible not to be moved (maybe this is the reason why I was on the verge of tears). The conversations are beautiful; they feel, at least to me, as though the characters were speaking in Zulu expressed in English!

Lastly, I could not resist the urge to add a paragraph (that gives the book its name) that I really like: Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.

It is for these reasons that I think Cry, the beloved country deserves to be among the 20th century classics.

A little something about a Swahili book

9 Apr

Way back in high school, Siku Njema was a must read for students taking Swahili language and literature in Kenya. Recently, I had  the good fortune of reading the  book again. I was pleasantly surprised. Its most interesting feature is the beautiful language employed, and after its release in 1996, made it win instant acclaim.

The book is set in Tanzania where the main character, Kongowea, grows up. It so happens that his mother, Zainabu Makame, a Taarab singer, is a single parent and has a photograph of one whom she later tells him that is his dad. The author, (Ken Walibora)  in immaculate Swahili, tells the story of Kongowea Mswahili’s effort to survive and make headway in his life against all odds. His mother dies and most people he can trust are very jealous of his talent in the Swahili language as well as his success in school. His mother passes away and he has to take on the long journey in pursuit of his father, well into another country: Kenya.

The book allows one to appreciate the life of struggle as understood and lived by many in East Africa. The fact that he is alone and has to fend for himself is not a far-fetched idea, at least in this part of the world. Many children actually do so because of HIV, after their parents have died.

There is just one flaw: Kongowea is too lucky and too good that he fails to convince us of his reality. When he needs to escape Tanzania because of death threats that he is receiving, he just manages to escape on time. When his money is stolen on the ship, he just manages to get help from one of the passengers, and many other examples of this kind. Nevertheless, maybe the author wants him to prosper due to his goodness of heart.

The main character is from a single parent. He was born out of wedlock and he faces ridicule in school as a result of this. He is called mwanaharamu: something to the effect of illegal child, one born out of illicit relations. Nevertheless, he is a good person, perhaps too good, and we are left wondering, as he himself does. The act is haramu, but the person is not.

On African literature

1 Apr

Many of my non-African friends have never read any book written by an African. Many of my African friends consider African literature as something outdated; only to be studied in high school, and that’s that. What a pity. I was left pondering. I felt that I ought to so something about it. That’s why I am sharing this.

The river between by Ngugi wa Thiong’o

This is what amazon says about the book:

Christian missionaries attempt to outlaw the female circumcision ritual and in the process create a terrible rift between the two Kikuyu communities on either side of the river. The people are torn between those who believe in Western/Christian education and the opportunities it will offer, and those who feel that only unquestioned loyalty to past traditions will save them. The growing conflict brings tragedy to a pair of young lovers who attempted to bridge the deepening chasm.

Now, I am Kikuyu, and I thought that my point of view is interesting.

The book is set in two ridges, between which flows the river, Honia river. Honia in Kikuyu means to heal.The two Kikuyu ridges are called Makuyu and Kameno. It is there that the girls go to fetch water for their livelihood, it is there that Nyambura takes refuge in prayer when she is lonely and lacks the strength to go on, it is there that Waiyaki at the end of the book, calls the people in his attempt to unite them, although his efforts will be tested by the decision of the Kiama, which will decide his fate and Nyambura’s. The reader is left in suspense as to the outcome.

The river can be said to be between the two factions of those who embrace Christianity and those who wish to conserve the purity of the tribe. Materially, it is the source of life for the people who live on either side: they get their livelihood from it. Joshua and a few others embrace Christianity full swing, throwing overboard all their customs as they consider them sinful. Kabonyi, after breaking away from the Christians, is one of the most vehement supporters towards the conservation of tribal customs. Chege and his son Waiyaki stand in the middle: in the river itself. They descend from the great prophet: Mugo wa Kibiro. Chege sends his son to the Siriani mission to learn the white man’s education, and Waiyaki once enters Joshua’s church to hear his sermon. Yet they are the two people who understand the fact that since the coming of the white man, the people of the ridges cannot continue to live the way they did before. They must endeavour to learn what he knows in their effort to survive. Yet, they cannot throw away all that is their cultural heritage because then, they will be like a tree without roots, which is destined to destruction.

The author presents many themes, among them is the strife caused by the coming of the white man: the missionaries make converts and hence the new Christians abandon their customs and rituals. Then the Government imposes on the people taxes, takes their land, forces them to work etc.

Nevertheless, through the vision of the young man Waiyaki, he presents the idea of education as what will be useful for the people, after they unite and tell the white man “Go!” Waiyaki, at the end of the book, realizes that the people do not merely need education, but political freedom first. In order to get their leader, the Kiama must decide his fate. Will Kabonyi and Kamau overcome such strong passions as envy or their overly concern about the purity of the tribe? Will they demand the circumcision of Nyambura? What is the fate of Christianity in the land: do the people become like Joshua and his fiery band or are the attempts of Muthoni to be a Christian and still live according to the customs of the tribe successful? Such and many similar questions pass through the reader’s mind after reading the book. But perhaps the answer lies in the conduct of each one of the readers (especially African readers) and not the characters in the book.

Out of Africa

30 Mar

This continent (Africa) is too big to describe. It is a whole ocean, a planet apart, a heterogeneous cosmos and of extraordinary richness. Only out of a reductionist convention do we say: Africa. In reality, save for the geographic name, Africa doesn’t exist.

So screams Ryszard Kapusinski’s book: Ebony. It is not about Africa, he goes on to explain, but about some people he met there and their experiences together: life with the nomads, revolutions, Zanzibar, the clan structure, Amin Dada, living in the slums, catching malaria, the little histories of the people’s fight to survive day after day, etc. Each of the paragraphs composes the vivid mosaic of a world pregnant with expectation.

The author is a renowned journalist who has travelled on many occasions to many countries in Africa: Ghana, Zanzibar, Rwanda, Uganda, Benin, Tanzania, Nigeria, Kenya, Sudan etc. He had the rare chance to witness the handover of power from the European colonizers to the natives. In his journeys, he avoided the official routes, the palaces, the beaches and the hotels, important figures, welcoming ceremonies and politics. He has lived with the nomads and in slums, suffered thirst in the Sahara and caught the much feared malaria, and survived.

Kapusinski, who has been called the best reporter of the century, thus emerges with an extraordinary work that confirms his profound and penetrating look at the so-called Dark Continent. In the words of Lawrence Wescher, this work is somewhere between Kafka and García Márquez.

And this book is in my hands. I wanted to share a small section of what can be named as

The notion of time: European vs. African mentality.

“The European and the African have completely different and opposed notions of time, they perceive it in different ways and their attitudes towards it are equally distinct.

The European is convinced that time functions independently of man, its existence is objective, and in a certain way, exterior to him. Man is its slave; he depends on it, and is its subordinate. In order to function, he has to observe all its laws, principles and norms. He has to respect terms, dates, days and hours. He moves within the structure of time; which imposes on him its rigor, norms and exigencies. Between man and time, a broad conflict is produced, that ends with the defeat of man: time annihilates him.

The African, on the other hand, perceives time as something open, elastic and subjective. Man is the one who influences it, its course and its rhythm. It is perceived as a consequence of our acts and disappears if we ignore it. It is something under our influence, it is a passive reality and above all, dependent on man. In reality, that means that if you go to a village where a function was to take place, look around and see no one, the question “when will the event take place?” is useless. The response is already known: when the people come.”

Interesting. I wonder what you make of it.