Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Birth of a Dream Weaver. A Writer’s Awakening | A Review by Inge Brinkman

Colonialism and nationalism are big words. So big that they may become meaningless abstractions. Through telling about his personal experiences with these overarching concepts, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o shows what possible meanings they can acquire. In the trilogy of memoirs he wrote – Dreams in a Time of War, In the House of the Interpreter and Birth of a Dream Weaver – Ngũgĩ charts the vicissitudes of life from his birth in 1938 in a peasant homestead in Limuru, Central Kenya to his admission to Leeds University in 1964.

The first book (2010) focuses on the childhood years of the author. The main ingredients are games and story-telling; Ngũgĩ’s siblings, the wives of his father and his mother’s decision to divorce; the tensions between colonial/missionary schools and local culture; and the start of the war for independence in Kenya in the 1950s.

In the House of the Interpreter (2012) tells about Ngũgĩ’s time at the prestigious Alliance High School as a teenager. In the meantime the war is a full-blown reality and the safety of the homestead is brutally destroyed as the village is razed to the ground, one his half-brothers killed, another brother fights in the forests, is then captured and detained, and his mother spends time in prison. Despite these troubling times, the young Ngũgĩ manages to pursue his education and is eventually admitted to Makerere University in Uganda.

This is where Birth of a Dream Weaver starts. Many young intellectuals from all over East Africa find themselves at Makerere in the early 1960s and already for this reason the book is an interesting read. The climate in which this important generation of African writers is formed is vividly described. We learn about Ngũgĩ’s first meetings with writers, like Peter Nazareth and Jonathan Kariara, and future politicians like Benjamin Mkapa (third President of Tanzania), and how he enters the realm of the important African literary magazines like Penpoint and Transition. Ngũgĩ receives an invitation for the famous First International Conference of Writers of English Expression in 1962, where he finds himself “among the big names of the time”: Ezekiel Mphahlele, Bloke Modisane, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Langston Hughes, etc. It is here that the debates take place that so much mark Ngũgĩ’s later career and his eventual choice to write in his native Gĩkũyũ.

Nobody is, of course, born a writer. Yet, already as a child in Dreams in a Time of War, Ngũgĩ’s love of performance and reading became apparent, and this has clearly not diminished in Birth of a Dream Weaver. The young James Ngugi, as he is then called, writes a play for the University interhall English competition, and thrills at the publication of his short story – The Fig Tree – in Penpoint in 1960. He describes how he takes a bus to Nairobi to personally deliver his first novel manuscript to the East African Literature Bureau, and the changes of its title from “Wrestling with God” to “The Black Messiah”, to be published in the end as The River Between. The first performance of his three-act play The Black Hermit is spelled out in rich detail, while in the meantime his second novel Weep not, Child is published. Although he does himself not quite understand why, he leaves his career as a journalist with Kenya’s largest newspaper The Daily Nation. He wants to weave dreams and be a writer.

All this is set against the background of friendly competition between the different Halls of Makerere University, the cockiness of the students shouting “Uncle!” at the Student Guild assemblies, not realizing they are referring to the French “Encore!” (154), and the encounters between students and staff at Makerere.

But this book would not be Ngũgĩ’s, if not politics played a major part in it. We learn about the differences in political history between Uganda and the settler colony of Kenya, and of the various resistance movements that confronted the colonial system. Of course, the so-called Mau Mau – “called by its rightful name, Land and Freedom Army” (ix) – receives ample attention, but as a Kenyan in Uganda Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o broadens the scope to include politics at a world level, discussing colonialism and racism in history.

For Ngũgĩ, politics is not a matter beyond himself and his activities; it directly impinges on him. Thus Birth of a dream weaver starts with the story of how Ngũgĩ’s prize-winning play ‘The Wound in the Heart” was refused to be performed at the Kampala National Theatre as in it it is suggested that a British officer had raped a woman during the war. “They have nothing against the play as a play, […] but they think a British officer could not do that!” (p. 4) is the explanation Ngũgĩ is offered. The author continues with narrating the Hola Massacre whereby eleven men were bludgeoned to death by British camp officers in 1959. People in Central Kenya know better than that ‘a British officer could not do that’. In the settler worldview, the lives of “the natives” are not worth mentioning, compared to animals at best.

Also in the dealings with the professors at Makerere University, race relations are a crucial factor. Some teachers indeed fulfil all the stereotypes of racist colonial attitudes, looking down on the students with patronizing condescension. Yet others prove inspiring for the young Ngũgĩ. Apart of the crucial role of his mother in pursuing his education, Ngũgĩ stresses the support of his fellow students and some of his teachers at Makerere University.

It is precisely the sense for personal detail that makes this memoir so fascinating. Instead of blanket terms and rigid categories, we get the atmosphere of the late colonial world in East Africa through daily experiences in the interactions between people. The memoir’s three broad themes – the inequalities and injustices of colonialism, the growth of a generation of African intellectuals, carrying the haunting memory of colonial violence as well as the hopes and fears for the future, and Ngũgĩ’s own start as a writer – are cleverly woven together in beautiful prose. Perhaps this will finally convince the jury to award Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Birth of a Dream Weaver. A Writer’s Awakening (London: Harvill Secker, Pinguin Vintage, 2016). 238 pp (notes + 20 photographs). The book was originally published by The New Press, September 2016.

Birth of a dreamweaver will be published in a Dutch translation in Fall 2017 under the title: De geboorte van een dromenwever (Amsterdam University Press)

– Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Dreams in a time of war: a childhood memoir (2010).
– Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, In the house of the interpreter (2012).

Inge Brinkman, African Languages and Cultures, Ghent University

This book review was published in: Africa Book Link, Fall 2017: Eastern Africa

Finding the poetry in East Africa and beyond | An article by Ruth Finnegan

Is this a poem?

I long for you, as one
Whose dhow in summer winds
Is blown adrift and lost,
Longs for land, and finds –
Again the compass tells –
A grey and empty sea.

Surely yes, this is a poem, says my heart. Yet it was not – as we literacy obsessed might think – written down. Nor was it designed for readers. It was composed and sung by a Somali lorry driver in the east of Africa. It was sung in town taverns, hummed by young men as they went about their labours, listened to with half (or more, or less) attention on the battery-operated radios and cassette-players carried by camel riders on long journeys across the desert.

It is an example of the Somali genre of poetry or literary composition known as balwo, whose development in the 1940s is credited to the singer/poet Abdi Sinimo. It is also popular in the neighboring Djibouti. The flavour is lighthearted but of profoundly felt emotion. It was popularised by the younger urban population, especially the lorry drivers. It is characterized by condensed imagery of love and nature, expressed in flowing lyrics and emotional language.

This particular brand of ‘poetry’ is not unique to Somalia and Djibouti, or to Eastern Africa. Unwritten songs or spoken words abound throughout the continent, which accompany people in their daily occupations and leisure. For instance, a Tanzanian Nyamwezi lover sings:

My love is soft and tender,
My love Saada comforts me,
My love has a voice like a fine instrument of music…

Whilst elsewhere in East Africa a cheerful love song by a young man goes (how lovely and right!)

All things in nature love one another.
The lips love the teeth,
The beard loves the chin,
And all the little ants go “brrr-r-r-r” together.

Are such songs ‘poetry’? When I embarked on the research that culminated in my Oral Literature in Africa I, like other researchers, had to face this question. The first thing I learnt was that in Africa, songs could indeed be poems: words musicalized. I should not have been surprised, however. Was this not how poetry began? Do we not speak often how equally lovely the words of hymns, Lieder or pop songs are?

So too with African songs, East African or other. When I listen to the sung words, there I find poetry. And all the better for the combination too; the arts that ancient and mediaeval thinkers so rightly joined together in the ancient concept of musica -‘sung words’. And if this is true of them, as of African literature, so too, surely, of Native American, or Indian, or Maori songs.

Sometimes these oral, unwritten, chants seem unappealing however. From the other side of the African continent, but alike in essence, take the opening (English translation) of a Ghanaian dirge:

Grandsire Gyima
with a slim but generous arm …

How – well, unpoetic! But the analysis in Nketia’s ground-breaking Funeral Dirges of the Akan People shows how each word has poetic associations and imagery, giving the whole an intense, emotional, and metaphorical depth.

I suspect that someone unacquainted with English literature would similarly find little poetry in the first line of a Shakespeare sonnet, full of ‘ordinary’ words:

Like as the waves make towards the pebbl’d shore
So do our minutes hasten to their end; …

Each word and its associations carry poetic weight. It is even more so when, as here, they are brought together in a metric line. Is not that depth and resonance of culturally recognized overtones another characteristic of poetry?

And the sound. When I look at published African poem-songs I want to read them aloud, at least in my mind. Their sound is so lovely. Not just the metre or the rhythm or the music, but the resonances within and between lines, flowing through and bringing sound and sense into the heart.

We surely demand of poetry that it should have something of this depth, of emotion, sound and sense, qualities that draw us somehow into the eternal, the universal. Blake put it so perfectly in his “Auguries of Innocence” – ‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand… ‘.

We find this depth in Africa too, east, west, south, north and in unwritten literature throughout the world.

I learnt two other lessons, both from working on my Oral Literature in Africa and, in a more immediate way, in constructing my recent Poems from Black Inked Pearl. First, that the difference that we take for granted between ‘prose’ and ‘poetry’ in our printed-text traditions, is in fact problematic and culture bound: not, as it turns out in practice, contrast but continuum. And second, that multiple factors blend together – some more, some less present, as the case may be – to make up what we might, in the end, label by the felicitous term ‘poetry’.

The former point came across only too clearly to me when faced with the problem of extracting the ‘poetry’ from my prose novel (if it is prose). This posed a startling and unexpected challenge. Interesting too. Surely separating out the poems that studded my novel should be easy? Not so! I knew from my reading about oral literature in Africa, Native America and the South Pacific that the distinction between ‘prose’ and ‘verse’ is a slim one, intersection rather than division. Indeed when I re-read my novel aloud, or go, with ears open, to other examples of ‘poetic prose’ (James Joyce or Walt Whitman or Dylan Thomas, for instance) it often sounds like poetry. Somehow, as with many African stories, it almost all feels like a kind of blank verse.

I learnt that from Sierra Leonian story-telling (Finnegan 1967). Yes there were indeed clearly distinct songs inset in many of the tales – a species of poetry. The rest I took as ‘prose’. But when I listened again to my tapes, too long neglected, – oh, in the descriptive passages what cadences, what melody of phrasing, what – yes, music! Certainly these passages were different from the ‘poems’. But neither were they, apart from the everyday-like dialogues, plain ordinary ‘prose’. They were something in between, a ‘something’ that I then realised is far from unparalleled in the world of verbal art, early or late, east or west.

It is a continuum and an ambiguity not unrelated to the controversy I was once (but thankfully no longer) embroiled in: was there traditionally ‘epic’ (conventionally assumed to be a ‘verse’ form) in Africa, or primarily ‘saga’ (similar or the same stories in prose – see Finnegan 1970/2012, chapter 4). It was a hotly fought battle. But the opposing lines were arguably drawn up on mistaken assumptions: they based themselves on a supposed position between verse and prose opposition, not taking account of continuity and overlap. For a subtle and mind-opening take on this, see the brilliant account in Okpewho 1979. My position was – and still is – that the overlap between verse and prose in ‘spoken’ words is important and inherently necessary in composing the structure and style of the form.

Or take the many praise poems of Africa, so rightly famous. Are they prose or poetry (assuming for the moment that this is indeed a two-fold choice)? The convention in recent years has been to write them in lines – as ‘poetry’. But that has depended almost wholly on the decisions by the transcriber who transformed the spoken (or in this case shouted) words into discrete lines on a printed page. Such a passage as one of the Zulu praise poems could equally be written as piece of dramatically delivered oratory, like this:

The Driver Away of the old man born of Langa’s daughter, the Ever-Ready-to-Meet-Every-Challenge, Shaka! The first born sons…

In the published version we get

The Driver Away of the old man born of Langa’s daughter,
The Ever-Ready-to-Meet-Every-Challenge.
The first born sons… (Grant 1927/9).

Nor is that choice arbitrary. There are the metaphors and images; the traditional poetic praise names with all their rich overtones; the parallelisms and rhythms; the sounded resonant echoing (in the original) of vowel and consonant; the pauses between what can be represented as separate lines; the heightened lofty style of panegyric. And when we have a description of the declaimed mode of delivery with its sense of occasion, its high note, and the special instruments and garb expected of it – why then from these many indications it is easy to conclude that, here, is a species of poetry?

So – it is just a matter of several factors not just one (as we too typographically hooked-up people may imagine: something about jagged right margins). No one can be the decider, it has to be many. Among them we must count the complexity of such interrelated aspects as music, sound, sense, imagery, sonic and poetic associations, repletion at a number of levels, local classification/genre recognition with its accepted poetic conventions; a feeling of beauty and emotional intensity, a sense of universality behind often quite ordinary words: a path for living. All these things, for me, together make up what I wish to call a poem.

But in the end, of course, none of that is enough. No single factor, that is, or even a multiplicity. Whether anywhere in Africa, Asia-Pacific, or Elizabethan England, a poem can only live in the response of the individual soul, the reader, the listener.

Bronislav W. Andrzejewski, ‘The art of the miniature in Somali poetry’, African Languages Review 6, 1967, reprinted in B W Andrzejewski, In Praise of Somali Literature, Callender Press, 2013.
Ruth Finnegan, Limba Stories and Story-Telling, Clarendon Press 1967.
Ruth Finnegan, Oral Literature in Africa, 2nd edition, Open Book, 2012. (accessible online:
Ruth Finnegan, Black Inked Pearl, a poetic novel, Garn Press, 2015.
Ruth Finnegan, Kate’s Poems from ‘Black Inked Pearl’, Callender Press, 2016.
E W Grant. ‘The izibongo of the Zulu chiefs’, Bantu Studies 3, 1927/9.
J H K Nketia, Funeral Dirges of the Akan, Achimota, 1955 (no publisher)
Hugh Tracey, ‘Behind the lyrics’, African Music 3,2,1963.

This article was published in: Africa Book Link, Fall 2017: Eastern Africa

Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun | A Review by Elizabeth Olubukola Olaoye

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun is better described as a memory, in spite of its status as a notable work of prose. The simple yet depth-imbuing prose of its narration notwithstanding, the text reverberates with recollections of people, places and pulses of events. Steven Rose’s statement that “(m)emories are our most enduring characteristics”[1] plays out so well in the narration of the aging of the female protagonist, Morayo da Silva, a retired English professor living in San Francisco. Crisscrossing Morayo’s memory lane and her present realities in this lucid prose, Sarah Ladipo Manyika proves that memory defines who we are more closely than any other single aspect of our personhood. Seldom however would one consider the barrage of memories that accompanies aging and existence on what is considered the fringe of death as one that is filled with humour, excitement, and optimism. The same way we don’t expect a mule to bring ice cream to the sun, improbable gusto and uncommon emotions drip from the pages of this thought provoking text.

Written from the first person’s point of view of several characters all connected to the protagonist of the narrative, it thrives on the inner workings of the minds of the characters; their dreams, their imaginations, their loves and hatreds as well as their remembering. This is actually more prominent in the life of our seventy-five year old protagonist who the story centres around. Morayo’s life reads like a testament of the human will’s ability to triumph over the dreariest of circumstances even in old age. Her story however thrives on her memory of places she has been, the people she has met, and the books she has read. One aspect of Morayo’s memory that is noteworthy is her memory of her home country Nigeria. Prominent in this regard is her constant reference to Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital. The city of Lagos has become a prominent feature in several post-millennial Nigerian novels due to its imposing presence in these texts not just as setting but sometimes also as a character in such texts. Lagos has featured in texts like Chris Abani’s Graceland, Sefi Atta Everything Good Will Come, Teju Cole’s Everyday is for the Thief, Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon and recently in the crime fiction, Easy Motion Tourist authored by Leye Adenle. What however sets Manyika’s narrative apart from these other texts about Lagos is the beautiful way Lagos features as a contrasting memory to San Franscisco where Morayo lives. For instance, in the opening chapter of the text the protagonist tells us that “when I open the folds of cloth I’m delighted to find the smell of Lagos markets still buried in the cotton-diesel fumes, hot palm oil, burning firewood. The smell evokes the flamboyance craziness of the megacity that was once mine in between my husband’s diplomatic postings.” (p. 4) Morayo’s vivid recollections here contrast sharply with her total forgetfulness at other times.

Apart from her memories with which she struggles at times, Morayo appears anxious about becoming senile. Determined to live life to the fullest, she prepares for her seventy-fifth birthday with several anxieties. Chief among Morayo’s anxieties over aging is her impending driving test which she is not sure to pass due to her failing sight. Communing with books and literary characters like Mrs. Dalloway and Sir Galahad, Morayo reveals more about herself; her idiosyncrasies and her extreme love for literary texts. She seems to place her literary characters on the same pedestal as actual humans and a reader who is not familiar with the texts she refers to might be lost at some point. Dripping with literary allusions, Manyika’s text invites the reader to roam in the wilderness of her literary adventures: English, Caribbean and African literature converge in the memory of Morayo, our aging but elegant protagonist.

We also perceive this aging protagonist’s character through other characters’ who the author bequeaths the gift of voice to. They sometimes illuminate Morayo’s opinions by shedding more light on her convictions and other times, their opinions differ sharply from her own and in a subtle way draw attention to her wrong judgments. Morayo’s divorced husband, Sunshine her young friend, Savage the homeless young woman she meets on the street, and the husband of one of the people she met at the old people’s home where she is recovering from a hip injury after an unexpected fall, all provide alternative versions of Morayo’s reality through their opinion of her.

One thing that however lights this narrative is Morayo’s enthusiasm, her will to remain bright and optimistic in the face of the complex emotions of aging in an individualistic society. Making the most of every acquaintance in San Francisco, she manages to court and value her memories as she learns to let go of uncontrollable circumstances. Morayo’s time in the hospital after a fall, her lost books and her impending inability to drive; seem to challenge her natural optimism. But making the most of these challenges, and even making few more friends in the process, Morayo appears poised to embrace her old age gracefully.

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun is a delicate dramatization of the complexity of aging; the difficulties, the wrong perceptions, the misunderstandings as well as the pleasures, the joys and the possibilities embedded in it. The protagonist’s life also appears to embrace Taye Selasi’s concept of “Afropolitanism” in her popular essay Bye-Bye, Babar or What Is an Afropolitan? (2005)[2] . Being an Afropolitan, Morayo appears as “a citizen of the world”, made prominent so by what Selasi describes as “New York jargon, African ethics, and academic successes”. Packed with positive cross-cultural relations or meetings (the mailman is Chinese, the shopkeeper is Palestinian, her friend Sunshine is Indian, the homeless woman is white), Morayo seems to be a citizen of a world where diversity is strength rather than weakness. Since the narrative is woven around the life of a seventy-five year old African woman, there appears to be an age-bequeathed grace and balance in the analysis of these things. I see this narrative as an eye opener for anyone who is curious about life after retirement for single African women living in the USA.

Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika, 2016, Abuja/London: Cassava Republic, ISBN: 978-1-911115-04-5, 118pp.

[1] Steven Rose. The Making of Memory. London: Bantam Books, 1993

[2] Quoted in Rebecca Fasselt’s ““I’m not Afropolitan — I’m of the Continent”: A conversation with Yewande Omotoso” in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 2015, Vol. 50(2) 231 –246.

Elizabeth Olubukola Olaoye

L’espace urbain dans le roman africain francophone | Une critique d’Ewout Decoorne

Dans un ouvrage riche et ambitieux, Joseph Ahimann Preira plonge dans l’univers de la ville dans les littératures africaines. Plus précisément, Preira nous offre une analyse profonde de la représentation de l’espace urbain à travers la tradition romanesque de l’Afrique francophone. Avec 19 écrivains et 22 romans, le corpus étudié est particulièrement extensif. Il comprend des noms aussi divers que Ousmane Sembène, Bégong-Bodoli Betina, Aminata Sow Fall, Calixthe Beyala et Alain Mabanckou. Leurs représentations des cités africaines datent depuis l’ère coloniale ; le plus vieux roman étant Ville cruelle (1954) de Mongo Beti, le plus récent Le sous-préfet (2014) de Mosé Chimoun. Les villes qui figurent dans les récits sont perçues, nous explique la couverture, comme des espaces de rêve, de perversion et de désillusion. L’auteur, un professeur de lettres modernes basé à Ziguinchor (Sénégal), emploie des méthodes comparatistes, thématiques et sociocritiques dans ce panorama impressionnant. Ainsi, ce projet ambitieux a abouti à un ouvrage qui comprend un vaste territoire de la littérature africaine moderne, et de la critique littéraire en général.

L’auteur considère le roman comme une exploration par l’imagination du cadre social dans lequel l’ individu fonctionne, et des divisions interpersonnelles qu’il tente de surmonter. Preira voit le roman comme la forme d’art située le plus proche de la réalité sociale. Une fois cette conceptualisation du genre romanesque établie, l’auteur part à la recherche des ruptures et des continuités qui caractérisent l’histoire du roman en Afrique. Une constatation importante est le rôle dominant occupé par « la ville », aussi bien dans l’histoire littéraire que dans l’histoire politique, sociale et économique du continent. La ville touche tous les domaines de la vie, et par suite, elle touche toutes les couches sociales ainsi que toutes les sciences consacrées à l’histoire et le comportement de l’homme. Selon Preira, la ville est le lieu par excellence où plusieurs quêtes individuelles se rencontrent. Voilà donc la prépondérance de l’espace urbain dans cette forme d’art si proche de la vie quotidienne. Preira développe ses thèses dans un triple objectif – historique, social et littéraire – et ceci autour de plusieurs axes conceptuels. Premièrement, trois grandes régions littéraires sont mises en avant, à savoir l’Afrique de l’Ouest, l’Afrique Centrale et la diaspora. Deuxièmement, l’auteur reste fidèle à la périodisation classique de l’histoire africaine, divisant proprement les ères coloniale, postcoloniale et contemporaine. Les cadres théoriques appliqués sur l’interprétation des textes, par contre, semble plus multiforme et audacieux, combinant des approches psychologiques, narratologiques et sociales dans un ensemble thématiquement étendu. Le triple objectif de l’étude se reflète dans la structure de l’exposé. La première partie s’adresse aux « généralités ». Ensuite « l’impact psycho-social et littéraire de la ville » est traité d’une façon plutôt sociologique dans la deuxième partie. La troisième partie explore « l’écriture de la ville » en termes tirés du vaste territoire des sciences littéraires.

Comme introduction au corpus et objectif de la dissertation, la première partie dessine l’arrière-plan de l’étude. Chapitre un présente un catalogue des biographies et contenus des différents écrivains et romans. Ceci facilite la lecture des analyses qui suivent dans les deux parties suivantes, étant donné que cet inventaire est facilement consultable lors de la lecture. Cependant, l’introduction au concept de la ville, présenté dans le deuxième chapitre, est moins réussi. Après quelques essais définitoires sur le phénomène urbain, Preira raconte, à titre d’exemple, les histoires des villes antiques comme Alexandrie et Babylone. Intéressantes mais totalement superflues, ces leçons historiques n’ajoutent rien aux thèses développées dans le reste du livre. La description de Jérusalem comme prototype de la ville chrétienne semble d’ailleurs assez discutable. Les essentialismes consacrés aux villes africaines sans motivation scientifique satisfaisante sont tout aussi douteux. Le choix des métropoles exemplaires tirées arbitrairement de la riche histoire du continent, Méroé, Abidjan et Johannesburg entre autres, reste également sans légitimation. La description de faits non pertinents, comme une énumération des communes bamakoises, y compris leur superficie et nombre d’habitants exacte, dérange une lecture agréable.  Cependant, la première conclusion partielle lance l’idée intéressante que la métropole africaine a été conçue pour une classe moyenne inexistante. Ceci annonce déjà la déception qu’est la ville, mal adaptée aux désirs des femmes et des hommes aspirants à la libération de la capitale, un thème que plusieurs romanciers ont mis en valeur comme l’étude va le démontrer.

La deuxième partie explore l’impact de la ville sur le plan psychologique, social et littéraire. Parcourant les motivations derrière l’impressionnante urbanisation mondiale qui a caractérisé le 20e siècle, Preira situe l’espace urbain comme le passage physique aussi bien que symbolique entre la tradition et la modernité. La ville comporte toutes les illusions et désillusions auxquelles l’aspiration à une vie moderne peut mener. Comme la vie citadine promet une libération des traditions morales étouffantes et des circonstances économiques pitoyables, elle paraît inévitablement être la réponse à l’individualisme croissant qui remplace la vie commune d’autrefois. Tradition et modernité sont alors très vite représentées par des sentiments de nostalgie et de déracinement. L’auteur renvoie constamment aux textes du corpus. Ceci donne une image très forte du lien profond qui existe entre les transitions sociales et morales qu’effectuent les communautés africaines après les indépendances d’une part, et les façons dont ces changements sont captivés dans la littérature d’autre part.

Tandis que la deuxième partie part de la réalité sociale pour arriver à sa représentation littéraire, la troisième procède dans l’autre direction, fouillant « le réel » dans les textes fictifs. Ceci mène à des réflexions philosophiques intéressantes sur « la vérité historique » des textes romanesques. Ceux-ci n’entraînent, par leur nature littéraire, à première vue que des assertions mensongères. Néanmoins, nous indique Preira à travers une interprétation narratologique minutieuse, les textes peuvent bel et bien dévoiler « une vérité fictionnelle ». L’auteur démontre que la détection de ces vérités se base sur une conscience approfondie des dynamismes esthétiques, intertextuels et diachroniques qui influencent la genèse et l’appréciation des textes littéraires.

Le projet de Preira contient un large spectre thématique, ce qui lui vaut d’être remarquable, et, sans doute, admirable. Malheureusement, ou plutôt inévitablement, l’ouvrage en tant qu’étude scientifique souffre d’une telle ambition. Le maintien d’un bon équilibre entre les auteurs et leurs œuvres, les périodes parcourues, et les thèmes abordés ne semble pas toujours soutenu. De plus, l’auteur s’égare dans une taxonomie méticuleuse mais parfois artificielle des genres, symboles et effets littéraires. Vue la magnitude du projet, les analyses herméneutiques relativement superficielles sont pardonnables. Plus inconvenant par contre sont les nombreuses informations superflues, l’abondance de fautes de frappe, les négligences typographiques et les erreurs fréquentes d’ordre orthographique et grammaticale. Vue le prix considérable de € 84,90, une rédaction plus rigoureuse aurait été souhaitable. Des personnes indulgentes qui s’intéressent au roman littéraire au sens large et à sa relation avec les métropoles africaines peuvent néanmoins bien jouir de cet accomplissement estimable.

Joseph Ahimann Preira, L’espace urbain dans le roman africain francophone (Sarrebruck : Éditions Universitaires Européennes 2016). ISBN 9783841610782 ; Disponible sur ; 388 p.

Ewout Decoorne

“This is Johussleburg and everyone here is suffering from affluenza” | A Review of Niq Mhlongo’s Affluenza by Kirby Mania

Niq Mhlongo’s recent collection of eleven arresting stories, Affluenza, is his fourth offering published by Kwela Books. The celebrated author of Dog Eat Dog (2004), After Tears (2007), and Way Back Home (2013), Mhlongo is known for his gritty take on the various maladies plaguing post-apartheid society. This comes to the fore most prominently in the titular story of the collection, an intoxicating study of the pathology of aspirant wealth. Mhlongo painstakingly catalogues his characters’ sartorial choices, their alcoholic poisons as well as the types of motorcars they drive. Remarking on the excesses of “Joburg people”, Fana – the protagonist of the story “Affluenza” – notes with a healthy serving of scorn that “Almost every black person pretends to be rich while staying in a rented room” (p.138). Yet, this contempt for others’ improvident habits soon turns inwards as he remembers, “Didn’t he just pay for the ladies’ expensive drinks with his credit card when he already skipped two instalments on his car? Who was he to judge?” (p.138)

Throughout the collection Mhlongo provides us with a cross-section of contemporary (and up and coming) middle class black South Africa. It is a study in the foibles and challenges of the newly minted black bourgeoisie and, as such, many of the stories’ ensemble of characters find themselves hanging in the balance, uncertain and at risk –  thus representing members of an aspirant culture, who in having gained a little, are haunted by the possibility that they now have something to lose. Scams, theft, accidents, and brutality seem to follow in the footsteps of money – where both haves and have nots seem to suffer the consequences that arise from the precarious divisions driven by the acquisition of wealth. Mhlongo is a social commentator, providing a new, raw voice to speak in unapologetic terms about this prickly territory. He extends an unflinching authorial gaze and, in the process, considers various unlikeable characters who lie (“The Baby Shower”), conceal (“Catching the Sun”), adulterate, impregnate and betray (see “My Name is Peaches”) and who deny paternity as a means of soothing a fragile male ego (“Goliwood Drama”). In “The Baby Shower”, a father and husband recounts how his wife after repeated miscarriages, steals a relative’s infant and passes the child off as her own. Grotesque accidents whether by train, car or beast, a farm invasion (“The Warning Sign”) and a criminal trial litter the collection. It indicates a society under siege – where bodily risk and death lurk across every page. In “Passport and Dreadlocks” – a story that considers belonging, identity, and the hustle for a better life – the character, Two-Boy, is brutally relieved of his passport as well as his dreadlocks. For him, it is a fait accompli that “People steal anything nowadays here in Jozi” (p.145). It is also a world in which sex and death are intimately connected, whether through foolishness (with its intimation of HIV in “The Dark End of the Street”), or unbridled desires, seen most clearly in the ending of “Affluenza”, where the promise of nubile flesh leads to imminent threat to life.

However, the overriding weakness of the collection is the unnecessary inclusion of twists and revelations at the end of many respective narrative arcs that read as gimmicky at best, and tawdry at worst. This overreliance on tragedy and spectacle cheapened the affective power of what otherwise would be a refreshingly unvarnished portrayal of contemporary South African society. The quieter, more nuanced stories with a subtler (anti-)climax work far better on the level of content and form. The weakest stories by far are “The Gumboot Dancer” and “Betrayal in the Wilderness”, for slightly different reasons. The dialogue in the former is completely unconvincing, too practiced where talking heads argue over tolerance and homophobia; whereas, the latter story’s leopard attack on a European tourist feels too obvious as part of some forced ecopolitical commentary.

The most compelling story in the collection, “Four Blocks Away”, is also its most understated. This is where Mhlongo’s merit as a writer shines. The story concerns a gumboot dancer on a cultural exchange programme in the United States who visits Washington DC on the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration. After a talk and performance at Howard University, the protagonist meets up with a female friend named Siri. A night of beer drinking and marijuana smoking leads to the promise of sex, but Siri adamant that our gumboot dancer purchases condoms first, thereby expresses the following refrain, “No glove, no love” (p.40). No condoms can be found in the lobby, but the dancer is directed to a pharmacy four blocks away. Nothing deters the protagonist from this potential conquest, who summarily embarks barefoot in a bathrobe down the street with an “erection that projected ahead of [him] like a stolen rhino horn” (p.41). Funny and clever, delicately inscribing America’s problematic race relations into the plotline, the story works as compelling satire of both North America and South African societies. The humorous incongruity of a barefoot, bath-robed South African trying to convince a pair of American cops who stop him for supposed public indecency (but really, because he is an unfamiliar black man) to allow him to buys a pack of condoms outside the local CVS pharmacy four blocks down the road from the Hilton Hotel where a young blonde awaits him is delightfully narrated. Yet, despite this levity, the story’s account of the man’s willful and indomitable desire to reach climax is thwarted at the end, ending in anticlimax. It is this lack of consummation, the void, the dashed hopes, and frustrated sexual desire which gives the story its strength. The gumboot dancer’s quest for condoms in the middle of the night in deep winter in a foreign country, with a run in with the police, has all come to naught. In some ways, this sans-embellished emptiness, an affective void, speaks more clearly and forcefully to the collection’s title, than many of the more sensationally violent and brutal stories that accompany it in this complex and diverse volume.

Mhlongo, Niq. Affluenza. Cape Town: Kwela Books, 2016, ISBN 9780795706967, 192pp.

Kirby Mania
This review was published in: Africa Book Link, Spring 2017

Mukuka Chipanta’s “A Casualty of Power” | A Review by Gilbert Braspenning

The Story

A Casualty of Power is set in Chipanta’s home country Zambia, between 2005 and 2012, and portrays a country in moral decay: corruption, greed, torture and treason rule over society. And, as in many other postcolonial African novels, it is especially ordinary people who suffer from these conditions. Therefore, the novel may leave the reader rather pessimistic, but it is a very gripping and well written story.

The protagonist of the novel, Hamoonga, a journalism student in Lusaka, gets involved with the rich businesswoman Lulu, with unexpected and, as it later appears, devastating consequences. It turns out that Lulu is forced to run errands for a high government official, Minister Zulu, and one evening,  Hamoonga witnesses her picking up a packet which has to be delivered in Johannesburg.

After the packet, presumably containing drugs, has been lost at Johannesburg airport, Lulu disappears to avoid repercussions. But Mr. Zulu and his allies assume a conspiracy between Lulu and Hamoonga and the latter is picked up and tortured to extort a confession. Although innocent, he has to spend several years in jail, which he eventually leaves as a broken man.

After his release, Hamoonga ends up working in a copper mine managed by Chinese. Working conditions in the mines are appalling and gradually, unrest develops with miners harassing supervisors and calling out slogans like ‘Zambia for Zambians’ and ‘Chinese leave the country’. The miners go on strike and in the negotiations with the Chinese mine leaders and the government, Hamoonga takes up the role of delegation leader. However, faced with associates of Minister Zulu, he realises that the so-called negotiations are a sham.

A former prison ‘friend’ of Hamoonga persuades him to take part in a meeting to discuss actions against local leaders and the government, but after the meeting a fire breaks out  and Hamoonga and his comrades are accused of starting the fire. Hamoonga is able to flee and, realising that his life is in danger, hopes to get away as far as possible.  On his flight, he is confronted by his earlier assailants and, consumed by feelings of pain, anger, loss and futility, he is unable to contain his rage and takes revenge

(…) for all the little people, for all those like him, all those who had suffered so egregiously at the hands of people like this man and those he worked for – these people and all they represented: power, greed, hegemony, and corruption. This was a statement he needed to make for all Africans. This was a statement for all ordinary African people tired of tyranny in all its forms, tired of lies, the empty promises and empty bellies, tired of propaganda and deception. (p.192)

The (Political) Context

Chipanta’s novel clearly stands in a rich tradition of African fiction in which ordinary people pay the price for the greed, the corruption and the malice of the powerful, the riches and the authorities. However, most of the works in this tradition hail from countries like Congo, Kenya, Nigeria or Zimbabwe where corruption and despotism were presumed, by most people, to be much worse than in Zambia.

Zambia, didn’t seem to fit into this picture up until now, certainly not the Zambia led by president Levy Mwanawasa, who during his legislature (2001-2008) tried to counter corruption excesses that occurred under the previous Chiluba government. Mwanawasa’s successor, Rupiah Banda, however dismantled much of the anticorruption effort put into place by his predecessor and from 2008 onwards, when Michael Sata started his presidency, the strain on democratization was even increased:

(…) the Sata government increasingly is using its powers for ill, South Africa’s Mail & Guardian recently reported: “Opposition leaders arrested, youth meetings banned, political rallies blocked by riot police, allegations of judicial interference and ministerial corruption, smear campaigns in government media and threats and lawsuits against journalists are not part of the image most people have of Zambia, supposedly one of Africa’s most peaceful democracies.” (Democracy is under challenge in Zambia, by Doung Bandow, on:, January 2013)

A Casualty of Power suggests that the described abuses, tortures and malevolences have really taken place in Zambia and probably continue to take place. In that sense one could read the book as an ultimate cry for justice and democracy in Zambia and the rest of Africa, which to my knowledge, makes it the first Zambian novel that underscores this important plea.


The book is mainly a plea from The Wretched of the Earth – to quote the seminal work of Frantz Fanon – depicted also in the works of Ngῦgῖ wa Thiong’o, Nuruddin Farah and Ousmane Sembene, to mention only a few.

But, contrary to these notable writers of engaged literature, Chipanta also delves deeply into the minds of the powerful, the oppressors, in that way humanizing these characters. Apart from the protagonist’s character, particularly the characters of Lulu, Mr. and Mrs. Zulu and of Jinan, Hamoonga’s Chinese supervisor in the copper mine, are depicted in a powerful manner. It particularly shows that they too have families, sorrows, misfortunes and that they are also – for a great part – victims of a corrupt, autocratic system.

The fact that the chapters are told from different perspectives – although mostly from that of Hamoonga – surely facilitates this effect. Chapter 12 for instance tells us about Jinan’s family and how he came to work in the Zambian copper mines:

It was now five years since Jinan had left to work in the Zambian copper mines. Over the years, he wrote Li Ming letters that would arrive about once a month. (…) In her letters she described how Tao was growing up fast, and wrote of conversations with their son in great detail. She talked about how Tao was asking more and more questions about his father ad when his father would return. (…) Every year she sent Jinan a picture of Tao and every year Jinan marvelled at how rapidly his son was growing up.(p.123,124)

The strength of A Casualty of Power is that it tells a revealing story, from different perspectives and in a well designed language. In plain sentences and phrases the author is able to create a characteristic atmosphere; an atmosphere of a country in disarray, yet with inhabitants like the brave Hamoonga who is willing to fight for justice and holds the dreams of a nation, just like copper does for Zambia:
To say that mining is the lifeblood of the country would be an understatement: it is the lifeblood, the heart, the liver, the kidneys, and the brain of Zambia. Life begins and ends with copper, the red gold, the chalice that holds the dreams of a nation. (p. 135-136)

A Casualty of Power is Mukuka Chipanta’s first novel. He is an aerospace engineer by profession and on his own website he writes that “building airplanes is much like crafting a story. Both require patiently weaving together a patchwork of ideas to hopefully create something of beauty”. With A Casualty of Power he has surely created something of beauty. I’m looking forward to his next creation.

A Casualty of Power, by Mukuka Chipanta, Harare: Weaver Press, 2016, ISBN Paperback: 9781779222978, ISBN ePub: 9781779222985, 216pp.

Gilbert Braspenning

This review was published in: Africa Book Link, Spring 2017

Les littératures de la Corne de l’Afrique. Regards croisés – Paola Ranzini (dir.) | Une critique par Ewout Decoorne

La Corne de l’Afrique, une région aussi diverse que distincte, reste jusqu’à présent sous-représentée dans les ouvrages scientifiques consacrés aux littératures africaines. Une contribution visant à explorer les multiples expressions littéraires issues des quatre États actuels qui constituent la Corne (à savoir l’Éthiopie, la Somalie, l’Érythrée et la Djibouti) et de la diaspora en Europe (principalement en Italie), et ceci dans un volume de grande ampleur thématique, est donc plus que bienvenue. Comme l’indique le sous-titre, ce livre nous présente des regards croisés. Il s’agit de regards extérieurs, provenant de propos des historiens, chercheurs, journalistes, mais aussi de regards venus de l’intérieur du métier littéraire, jetés par des écrivains situés aussi bien dans la Corne de l’Afrique qu’ailleurs. Ainsi, la notion de pluralité fonctionne comme pierre angulaire dans le développement des thèses différentes explorées dans ce vaste projet. Ne vous attendez donc pas à un survol introductoire qui effectue un trajet linéaire, traversant des périodes historiques successives et incluant d’une façon balancée tous les espaces culturels de la Corne. Il s’agit plutôt d’un florilège, composé des meilleures contributions scientifiques récentes, qui constituent ensemble une introduction élaborée qui comprend les multiples traditions littéraires de la Corne et de la diaspora d’une manière aussi polymorphe que l’apparence des littératures de la Corne elle-même.

Les auteurs de l’avant-propos, Olivier Favier et Anna Proto Pisani, soulignent avant tout leur perspective transnationale et multidisciplinaire en explorant les relations littéraires qu’entretiennent l’Europe et la Corne, et les États de la Corne entre eux. La migration transcontinentale comme phénomène actuel déclenché pour la plus grande partie dès l’époque coloniale, et par conséquent la notion de l’exil, fonctionnent ainsi à la fois comme lien géographique, culturel et historique. Un deuxième point de départ concerne la conceptualisation de l’auteur comme intermédiaire intellectuel qui diffuse les idées de sa communauté d’origine à travers des frontières aussi bien politiques que mentales. La prise de parole des auteurs, et surtout des écrivains femmes, est vu comme un engagement qui dépasse les soucis individuels, mais devient un militantisme au service des causes collectives. Cet ouvrage veut comprendre la transformation du discours littéraire qu’entreprennent des textes dans leur trajet de la Corne jusqu’à la diaspora dans toute son envergure. La structure du livre suit cette démarche.

Dans une première partie, Didier Morin, spécialiste des langues et littératures de la Corne, fournit une introduction historique. À cause de l’ampleur de cette entreprise, vu la grande diversité culturelle, thématique et typologique que manifestent les littératures de la Corne, ce chapitre semble devenir trop dense pour faciliter une lecture confortable par les non-initiés. Surtout les passages qui expliquent les technicités des traditions poétiques semblent parfois abstraits. Les explorations théoriques du dynamisme entre la scripturalité et l’oralité risquent de sauter du coq-à-l’âne. L’abondance de termes en orthographe phonétique et d’extraits non-traduits en anglais et en italien intensifie encore le degré de complexité. Tout de même, les éclaircissements profonds de la situation linguistique, de la configuration politique, des fonctions sociales de la poésie et des performances à travers le temps et de la genèse de « la Corne de l’Afrique » comme dénomination d’une catégorie culturelle bien définie restent indispensables pour soutenir les thèses élaborées dans les chapitres suivants. Surtout l’attention consacrée aux transpositions culturelles, religieuses et linguistiques, c’est-à-dire aux influences postérieures des traditions anciennes, permet d’apprécier plus profondément les voix exilées, porteuses de sentiments nostalgiques et schizophrènes selon Morin, comme l’on peut le signaler chez de célèbres exilés comme Nuruddin Farah, Ayaan Hirsi Ali ou Waris Dirie.

Les chapitres qui constituent la deuxième partie explorent ces « voix de la diaspora » en grand détail. William Souny commence par examiner d’une façon très claire l’essentialisme somalien de la « nation de poètes », une conception quasi mythique qu’on peut retracer jusqu’au fameux orientaliste Richard Burton. Souny identifie des expressions de soomaalinnimo (somalité) traversant des frontières nationales, de diverses modes de communication (y compris internet), des agendas politiques divergents et finalement la division entre les sexes. À titre d’illustration du raisonnement étendu d’une voix exilée, Madelena Gonzalez explore les différents niveaux narratologiques dans ce qu’elle appelle une « esthétique du doute » dans la trilogie Du sang au soleil de Nuruddin Farah. Élaborant sur les modèles théoriques établis par des chercheurs de signature postmoderniste et postcolonialiste, Gonzalez cherche à démontrer comment cette esthétique aliénante sert comme outil de résistance à l’autorité monolithique, élément si caractérisant des dictatures comme la Somalie de Siyaad Barre. Bernard Urbani, ensuite, nous présente sa lecture d’une autre trilogie, celle de l’écrivain djiboutien Abdourahman Ali Waberi. S’inscrivant dans une littérature-monde, l’œuvre de Waberi remet en question les vérités nationalistes et les identités plurielles par l’usage de références intertextuelles, de réflexions mystificatrices et de l’adoption de la langue de l’Autre, notamment le français. Ce nouvel espace littéraire qui révise la nation et la langue comme éléments définitoires est exploré dans un excellent essai par Daniele Comberiati, dans lequel il tente de trouver une place pour les concepts de maison, patrie et nation au sein de la littérature italienne postcoloniale. Comberiati complexifie des assertions courantes concernant la littérature italienne contemporaine en se reposant fortement sur les idées postcolonialistes de, entre autres, Homi Bhabha, et en soutenant une ré-conceptualisation de la littérature à base d’une taxonomie basée sur des contrastes générationnels. Les processus littéraires en cours dans cet espace postcolonial sont bien concrétisés grâce aux témoignages fournis par Simone Brioni dans un prochain chapitre. Sa contribution parle de trois œuvres artistiques dont deux documentaires auxquels Brioni lui-même a collaboré comme co-auteure.

Une grande partie, c’est-à-dire trois chapitres successifs, est consacrée à une discussion profonde du roman et de la performance Regina di fiori e di perle (Reine de fleurs et de perles) de l’écrivaine italo-éthiopienne Gabriella Ghermandi. Les deux premiers chapitres se penchent respectivement sur la version écrite du roman et sa transformation sur scène. Anna Proto Pisani et Paola Ranzini, les auteures correspondantes des deux études, présentent un exposé exhaustif et fortement plausible sur cet ouvrage intriguant de Ghermandi. Elles mettent vigoureusement en valeur la prolixité méthodologique propagée à travers le livre entier, ce qui reflète la continuité littéraire qui relie langue, culture et société. Un troisième chapitre présente des extraits du roman en traduction. Regina di fiori e di perle, l’histoire d’une fille ayant comme devoir la transmission du passé éthiopien en Italie à travers des histoires, sert comme parfaite illustration de la conceptualisation de la littérature que ce livre nous présente. Les tensions entre l’exil, la migration et la tradition y sont explorés dans un discours qui, dans ses préoccupations éthiques et esthétiques, allie la terre d’origine et le pays d’accueil, la tradition et la modernité, la narration écrite et orale… Les extraits tirés de l’œuvre de Ghermandi, et aussi du recueil de récits Fra-intendimenti de Kaha Mohamed Aden avec les multiples exemples entrelacés à travers les chapitres, enrichissent la rencontre du lecteur avec la complexité et la profondeur des textes littéraires.

La troisième partie du livre concerne les « regards européens » sur la Corne. Olivier Favier étudie l’image familière et stéréotypée de la Corne comme un enfer éternel à travers quatre écrivains-reporteurs européens qui, chacun de sa propre manière, ont dépeint ce coin de l’Afrique dans leur écriture. Une entreprise avec beaucoup de potentiel qui manque néanmoins d’esprit synthétisant cultivé dans les chapitres précédents. Le dernier chapitre reproduit le témoignage du journaliste Léonard Vincent sur le fait d’écrire sur l’Érythrée, un pays quasi totalitaire qui interdit toute entreprise journaliste libre. De cette raison, Vincent parle de « trafiquer dans l’inconnu ». Son regard, comme celui de Brioni, provient de l’intérieur du processus littéraire.

En tournant la dernière page, le lecteur a parcouru une grande partie de l’univers des littératures de la Corne. Tout l’éventail de genres pratiqués, de personnes impliquées et de traditions soutenues a été dévoilé dans une narration aussi hybride que la conceptualisation de l’objet d’étude. La remise en question des catégories préétablies qui définissent trop souvent nos idées préconçues sur la littérature en générale, et de la Corne de l’Afrique en particulier, reste sans doute le plus grand accomplissement de cette étude. Cependant, à certains moments, le livre comme entité unique risque de s’égarer dans cette configuration fluide. Certains chapitres contribuent peu aux thèses élaborées dans l’avant-propos. Ceci ne veut certainement pas dire qu’ils sont superflus. Il s’agit avant tout d’une sélection inévitablement arbitraire d’essais, de textes littéraires et de témoignages provenant du vaste champ littéraire de la Corne. Grâce à cette ampleur, Les littératures de la Corne de l’Afrique est un instrument convenable pour les dilettantes et étudiants désireux de découvrir les littératures peu connues de cette région. À condition peut-être que le lecteur soit prêt à adopter une perspective sur la littérature aussi hybride que celle exemplifiée ingénieusement par les auteurs.

Paola Ranzini (dir.), Les littératures de la Corne de l’Afrique. Regards croisés (Paris : Éditions Karthala 2016). ISBN 9782811114893 ; Disponible sur ;
308 p.

Ewout Decoorne

The Yearning –  Mohale Mashigo | A Review by Beverley Jane Cornelius

“The Yearning never stops till we embrace everything that brought us here. In our quiet denial, The Yearning devours us,” explains the narrator and protagonist at the beginning of Mohale Mashigo’s novel, The Yearning (2016). Marubini Khumalo tells the story of how she comes to learn about the secrets of her own past in order to embrace a deeper meaning of life. It is a tale of trauma revisited, not only her own trauma, but also that of her family and her community.

‘Yearning’— with a capital ‘Y’— is central to Marubini’s tale. Yet the nature and object of these feelings of longing are not explained at the outset, and she, herself, is initially unaware that there are hidden desires and traumas submerged in the deep recesses of her psyche. However, within the 185 pages of the novel, which is divided into five sections, Mashigo, the author, systematically introduces the protagonist’s latent longings, searches for their origins, and proposes their satisfying resolution.

Marubini appears to be a thoroughly modern and emancipated, 21st century South African woman: successful in her marketing career, confident in her sexuality and her relationship, and happy in her friendships, she is enjoying life. Until uncanny experiences begin to unsettle and disrupt her contentment. A series of strange events begins with the glimpse of something not-quite-seen out of the corner of her eye as she works quietly at home one evening, a dark and ominous presence that threatens her equilibrium and has her questioning her sanity. As these episodes become more persistent it is impossible to brush them aside merely as symptoms of work related stress.

On one occasion a particularly menacing visitation manifests in a seizure that renders Marubini unconscious for two days. She wakes with bandaged wrists, unable to explain the cause of the lacerations — attempted suicide is suspected — and her family and friends become wary of her mental state. Here, the author skillfully depicts the feelings of isolation that compound the suffering of those with mental ill health, and their need for meaningful engagement and empathy. Mashigo furthermore explores the relationship between psychiatry and spirituality. Despite (or perhaps because of) the intervention of a psychiatrist, Marubini’s strange experiences persist, prompting a process of determined questioning about the past that leaves her emotionally exposed and vulnerable. The juxtapositioning of strength and vulnerability is foreshadowed by the book’s striking cover design: it bears the image of a woman’s eye staring directly at the camera with a steadfast, determined gaze that, simultaneously, renders her vulnerable.

Ultimately, the protagonist has no choice but to explore her past.  As the voices in her head prompt fractured but insistent memories, Marubini visits her childhood home in Johannesburg asking the questions that have thus far been avoided. Questions, for example, about her father’s sudden death.  As she moves physically between Cape Town and Johannesburg in the narrative present, she also imaginatively revisits these same places at an earlier time: she remembers walking the streets of Johannesburg with her father, for example, listening to her grandfather’s stories on the verandah of their house, and participating in a traditional rite of passage into womanhood at her maternal grandmother’s rural village home in the north of South Africa. Most importantly, she remembers — now, more vividly — her father’s and paternal grandmother’s practices as traditional spiritual healers (known locally as sangoma). Finally, it is with her much younger brother, Simphiwe, that Marubini finds a resonating understanding. A talented artist, he uncannily captures the images of Marubini’s dreams, nightmares, and visions in his drawings.

In this exploration of ancient spirituality and African tradition, then, the author raises the question of how profound practices are to be incorporated into African life in the 21st century. The novel presents an entanglement of spirituality and political affinity, and of traditional and modern practices, and highlights the questions and responses prompted by the cultural overlapping and integration of blended South African communities. These are the issues that Marubini grapples within a narrative that progresses from a prologue, ‘The Yearning’, through four chapters — ‘The Name’, ‘The Father’, ‘The Son’ and ‘The Holy Spirit’ — and ends with a suitably titled concluding epilogue, ‘Amen’, which indicates an embrace of ‘everything that brought us here’.

Gradually, by recognizing ancient spiritual and traditional practices, together with modern psychotherapy and family counsel, Marubini is able to ‘embrace everything that brought [us/her] here’.  She is able, as a consequence, to face the unresolved traumas of her past; and, because there is no longer a ‘quiet denial’, the feelings of yearning cannot ‘devour’ her or dominate her life.

The Yearning examines profound themes and its subject matter may appear dark at times, but it is by no means a sombre read as the author has employed an accessible and enjoyable tone. The contemporary setting and characters are carefully rendered and recognizable, which is enhanced by the natural dialogue. The more serious concerns of the narrative are offset by the normal concerns of a modern young woman, including platonic and romantic relationships, sex (here Mashigo has a deft touch), and the politics of family gatherings. The pacing of the action is consistent and there is a steady intensity to the introduction and processing of traumatic memories, leading to a satisfying conclusion. The Yearning is a well-balanced and thoughtful novel.

The Yearning (2016) is Mohale Mashigo’s debut novel, published by Picador Africa, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, ISBN 978-1-77010-484-6

This book review was published in: Africa Book Link, Winter 2016-2017

Dunia Yao. Utopia/Dystopia in Swahili Fiction – Clarissa Vierke and Katharina Greven (Eds.) | A Review by Anja Oed

Recent years have seen a renewed scholarly interest in utopian and/or dystopian literary writing more generally. With regard to postcolonial and, most specifically, African literature, Keith Booker was one of the first to comment on the fact that “while “[p]ostcolonial writers, actively engaged in the construction of cultural identities for their new societies, often include strong utopian elements in their work … actual experience in the postcolonial world has been anything but utopian” (1995: 58). As he argued, “[i]t thus may not be entirely surprising that recent postcolonial literature has taken a powerfully dystopian turn”. Likewise, Ralph Pordzik, observed an “unexpected new departure” (my translation) for dystopian fiction since the beginning of the 1990s (2002: 10). According to Booker, “[t]his phenomenon is particularly pro­nounced in African fiction” (1995: 58). In the same vein, Abiola Irele noted that “the postcolonial condition has determined a strong dystopian current” in 21st century African novels, the objective of which is “a new discourse of dissidence […] aimed at uncovering the pa­tho­­logies of gov­ern­­­ance that have con­tri­buted so massively to the tragic unfolding of the post­co­lo­nial con­di­tion in Africa” (2009: 10).

The volume co-edited by Clarissa Vierke and Katharina Greven addresses a trend in Swahili literature and, most specifically, Swahili novels since the 1990s, which are often referred to as “new” or “experimental novels” and many of which resonate with aspects of utopian and/or dystopian writing. Dunia Yao, the 2006 novel by Said Ahmed Mohamed evoked in the volume’s title, represents, as the editors say, an “important example of the trend”, being set in a constructed, distant future world and offering “views on nightmarish sceneries of devastation and chaos”. However, the specific focus on utopia/dystopia in Swahili fiction, as indicated by the title of the book, is not shared by all authors who have contributed to the volume. This may partly be explained by the fact that the volume is based on a colloquium (Bayreuth, 2012) in honour of Said Ahmed Mohamed, to whom the book is also dedicated. His work appears to be identified with both the new, experimental novels and the dystopian trend in recent Swahili fiction to such a degree that any topic related to his work more generally might have seemed to naturally fall within the range of the focus of the book. The editors of the volume recognise Said Ahmed Mohamed as  “the most versatile contemporary Swahili writer” (p. 20) who, under the name of Said Khamis, was Professor of Literatures in African Languages at the University of Bayreuth in Germany for many years.

The volume is divided in three parts, preceded by an introduction. In the introduction, the editors highlight the current dystopian trend in contemporary Swahili fiction and delineate the aims of the book. Most specifically, the volume is concerned with the aesthetic as well as the sociocritical dimension of the new, experimental Swahili novels.

The first part of the volume is entitled “A ‘new’ trend: perspectives of literary history” and comprises three chapters. Lutz Diegner’s focus is on the overall achievement of Said Ahmed Mohamed as a “committed writer”, an “opulent rhetorician” and a “valiant artist” (p. 32), which he discusses with close reference to all of this writer’s eight novels published at the time the colloquium was held. Mikhail D. Gromov is concerned with the new Swahili novel and its distinctive features more generally, which, according to him, include “the traits inherent to dystopia as a literary genre” (68). Most specifically, he examines the ways in which the new Swahili novel in Kenya intertextually relates to but also differs from its counterpart and predecessor in Tanzania as well as works in Swahili by earlier Kenyan writers. He argues that one of the distinct features of Kenyan Swahili novels is that they “seem to stress more the dystopian nature of present-day political reality, rather than to give a general philosophical overview and perspective of human existence” (p. 68). The chapter by Clarissa Vierke is the only one in this section which specifically and coherently relates to the overall topic of the volume. Against the backdrop of “nightmarish” representations of cityscapes in 21st-century African literature more generally (p. 75), she explores Said Ahmed Mohamed’s 2001 novel Babu Alipofufuka as an example of the employment of “the unhomely city” as a literary figuration in more recent Swahili dystopian literature. Tracing this figuration back to earlier Swahili texts she claims that “[b]oth dystopia as a narrative pattern as well as the ‘unhomely’ city are part of a Swahili intellectual history” (p. 88).

The second part presents “Readings of the novel beyond realism” and also comprises three chapters. Elena Bertoncini more generally discusses postmodern characteristics in Swahili fiction and drama “instead of discussing fictional dystopias” (p. 105), wanting to avoid overlaps with what either she or others have said elsewhere. She points out that the works she examines “employ a postmodernist approach to draw a nightmarish future of destruction for African societies” (p. 105) and notes that “utopia/dystopia and heterotopia” are among “the features associated with postmodernism”, which she exemplifies with regard to at least some of the texts she discusses (p. 107). Alena Rettová’s chapter is concerned with “departures from literary realism” in more recent Swahili fiction as well as their philosophical, ethical, political and economic implications (p. 113). While her discussion of mimesis on the one hand and magical realism on the other has a strong theoretical orientation relevant beyond the Swahili context, her analysis focuses, most specifically, on Said Ahmed Mohamed’s Baba Alipofufuka.

Peter Simatei, in turn, explicitly relates the association of Baba Alipofufuka with magical realism to what he calls the novel’s “utopian/dystopian impulses”. He argues that the novel “construct[s] a dystopia that Tanzania and other African countries have, or would become, as a result of unfettered globalisation”, and “imagines the utopic foundations of such a world” (p. 147).

The third part of the volume – the only whose title explicitly relates to the topic of utopia/utopia – is headed “Utopia as socially committed narrative” and comprises four chapters. Abdilatif Abdalla and Geoffrey Kitula King’ei, whose chapters are written in Swahili and for information on which I have had to rely on the editors’ introduction, both “concentrate on realist writing, to expand the view on the novel beyond the ‘new’ trend, offering a base for comparison but also to challenge the neat dichotomy between realist and magic-realist writing” (p. 18). Abdilatif Abdalla highlights “the sociopolitical dimension of the realist Swahili novel”. He suggests that its ability to “offer a panoramic view of society […] is an important means to change it” (p. 18). Geoffrey Kitula King’ei, in turn, examines “the utopian aspect in Said Ahmed Mohamed”, stressing the responsibility of writers “to critically react to social dismay” in but also beyond their own society (p. 18). Most specifically, he analyses Said Ahmed Mohamed’s “particular use of language and imagery” in ‘Sikate Tamaa (p. 19), an anthology of poetry.

Magdalina N. Wafula’s chapter relates the concepts of utopia and dystopia to the theme of generational conflict in Said Ahmed Mohamed’s Dunia Yao. She concludes that “[b]y envisioning a utopian past and contrasting it with the dystopian present, the [novel’s] ‘implied author’ attempts to come to terms with the marked differences between the colonial, postcolonial and postmodern realities in most […] African countries” (p. 198). Her chapter also contains a longer section on magical realism with regard to Dunia Yao, which, as she suggests, “has been utilized to depict the utopia/dystopia dichotomy manifested in the generational conflicts” in the novel (p. 206). Ken Walibora Waliaula, whose chapter also focuses on Dunia Yao, takes up the riddle posed by the novel’s title, “Their World”, asking which and whose world is meant and whether there is “an antithesis to this dunia yao” (p. 211). His analysis is playfully staged as “unravelling the mystery of Dunia Yao” (p. 224). He concludes that the household of Ndi, the novel’s protagonist, should be perceived “as a national allegory of a nation imagining itself as ‘developing’, whether it is Zanzibar, where the author was born, or any other African country” (p. 224). In his final sentence, he suggests that in a sense, Dunia Yao might even “be said to be the autobiography of Mohamed, his world and our world” (p. 225). In a way, this seems a fitting conclusion to this volume as a whole, whose first chapter represents an “Appraisal of Said Ahmed Mohamed’s novels” and all of whose chapters – as the editors highlight in the introduction – “focus on at least one of his writings”, or even exclusively on one or more of his works (p. 20).

As a scholar with a strong research interest in African-language literatures I emphatically welcome book-length studies as well as edited volumes on topics in literary criticism on creative writing in specific African languages and I am, therefore, most delighted to see the publication of this volume. I have a minor issue with the fact that the editors substantiate the relevance of its thematic focus by claiming that African-language literatures have not “been described in terms of their utopian/dystopian perspectives” (p. 8). On the one hand, this may well be true, especially in view of the fact that research on this topic in African literatures more generally (i.e., including literature in the former colonial languages) has likewise been rare. On the other hand, as research on African-language literatures might very well be produced in an African language, scholars would, in my opinion, be well advised to avoid claims like this. Apart from inadvertently marginalising literary criticism conducted in African languages such claims seem to imply that research on a topic in literature in one specific African language is not a valid enough project in itself but somehow requires to be made more widely relevant with reference to literatures in other, or even all, African languages. In fact, the volume itself, with two of ten chapters written in Swahili, serves as an excellent reminder of the fact that literary research produced in the same African language as the object of study is not always the exception and may even be a preferred option, co-existing with research in internationally more accessible languages such as English or French.

English- or French-language literary criticism on literatures in African languages obviously plays a significant role in increasing the latters’ international visibility and enhancing their accessibility as well as the possibility of comparative analyses. While access to literary criticism of works written in a particular African language does not, of course, render it unnecessary to read those works for oneself, preferably even in the original language, it may afford international literary scholars a more balanced and sophisticated view of African literature and the numerous and extremely diverse literary traditions assembled under its umbrella. As English- and French-language criticism on African-language literatures implies a (most welcome) invitation to wider, international scholarly readerships, an edited volume should clearly indicate which language/s it is written in, regardless of how natural, legitimate and desirable literary criticism in African languages in principle is. While the publishers’ website does specify that the book comprises contributions written in English as well as Swahili neither the book’s title nor its back blurb indicate this fact. Once again, this is, of course, a very minor issue. Also, the “Overview of the content” section in the editors’ introduction does include a few sentences on the two chapters written in Swahili. Additionally, it might have been helpful to provide English-language abstracts of these chapters to allow readers not familiar with the Swahili language a more detailed insight into the two authors’ lines of argument.

All in all, the volume represents an important and valuable contribution to a growing body of book-length critical studies of topics in Swahili literary discourse. By focusing on more recent developments in Swahili literary history, it provides a fascinating perspective on aspects of, as well as critical discourse on, the aesthetics and sociocritical concerns of contemporary Swahili literature. This makes it relevant not only to scholars of Swahili literature but of African literatures more generally. To international scholars primarily interested in utopia/dystopia research, the volume may be of more limited interest, as not all chapters (including some of the otherwise most profound ones) specifically address this topic or do so only indirectly or in passing (Diegner, Rettová, Abdalla, Waliaula). Some chapters approach it from a much wider perspective, as only one among several aspects of the “new” or postmodern Swahili novel/literature (Gromov, Bertoncini). The chapters which do explicitly focus on specific aspects of Swahili literature in relation to the utopia/dystopia theme vary in terms of theoretical foundation and analytical depth. Even so, however, the volume fills a major gap, drawing attention to the perhaps obvious, but sometimes underestimated fact that African-language literatures partake of and creatively interact with global discourses and paradigms in multiple ways. In this respect, it enhances future comparative research.

Works cited:

Booker, M. Keith, 1995: “African literature and the world system: dystopian fiction, collective experience, and the postcolonial condition”. In: Research in African Literatures 26, 4, 58-75.

Irele, F. Abiola, 2009: “Introduction: perspectives on the African novel”. In: F. Abiola Irele (ed.): The Cambridge Companion to the African Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1-14.

Pordzik, Ralph, 2002: “Utopischer und post-utopischer Diskurs in den neuen englisch­spra­chi­gen Literaturen”. In: Ralph Pordzik and Hans Ulrich Seeber (eds.): Utopie und Dystopie in den neuen englischen Literaturen. Heidelberg: Winter, 9-26.

Clarissa Vierke and Katharina Greven (Eds.), Dunia Yao. Utopia/Dystopia in Swahili Fiction, Cologne: Rüdiger Köppe, 2016, ISBN: 978-3-89645-736-3, 232 pp.

This book review was published in: Africa Book Link, Winter 2016-2017

The Woman Next Door – Yewande Omotoso | A Review by Katharine Geldenhuys

The Woman Next Door is Yewande Omotoso’s second novel. It follows five years after Bom Boy, for which she won the South African Literary Award for a First-time Published Author, as well as being short-listed for the South African Sunday Times Fiction Prize.

The launch for The Woman Next Door took place on a chilly evening early in May at Book Lovers in Melville, Johannesburg. The venue was packed, and at this cosy and intimate event, Omotoso was in conversation with Elinor Sisulu, author of Walter and Albertina Sisulu: In Our Lifetime (for which Sisulu won the 2003 Noma Award for Publishing in Africa).

Sisulu applauded Omotoso’s latest literary offering, reserving specific praise for the editing of the text, which speaks to Omotoso’s refined writing style. Omotoso pointed out that the manuscript underwent a number of re-writes and edits and expressed her belief in the importance of authors being open to constructive criticism. Sisulu heartily agreed with this opinion, noting it as an important part of the writing process which can only enhance the final literary product (and one which is sometimes unfortunately ignored).

The text is indeed technically easy to read with inter-twining story-lines that flow effortlessly despite the alternating perspectives of the protagonists and the shifts between past and present. The ease with which one reads this text, together with a judicious use of gentle humour, belies the challenging themes which Omotoso confronts in her narrative. A thought-provoking and effective juxtaposition between style and subject matter is thus produced.

The book jacket blurb begins with an apparently neat categorisation of the two protagonists: “Hortensia James and Marion Agostino are neighbours. One is black, one white.” As we journey through the stories of their lives, however, Omotoso skilfully unravels any associated pre-conceptions the reader may have.

Each of the elderly female protagonists is “the woman next door” for the other, and each woman embodies the “other” and a source of discomfort for her neighbour. Through their openly adversarial relationship, Omotoso tackles the fraught social issues of race, gender, ageing, financial and social privilege, and land ownership/re-distribution within the personal and personalised spaces of Hortensia and Marion. Indeed, as Kwanele Sosibo has noted:

“Omotoso’s training as an architect is evident in the book’s premise. Hortensia and Marion’s coldness is played out behind closed doors, so to speak. Their moments of introspection and their eventual attempts at redemption play out in the richly textured descriptions of their living spaces.”[1]

Both Hortensia and Marion have had successful careers during a time when most women were home-makers. Marion was an architect and Hortensia, a textile designer. They have achieved in industries which aim at the creation of beautiful and harmonious living spaces. Ironically, their successes in their respective industries are not echoed in their own home lives, despite the fact that both live in lovely houses in an exclusive Cape Town suburb. Disillusionment and disappointments in married and family life have saddened and embittered both.

During the book launch discussion, Omotoso expressed her unease with the human urge to pigeon-hole one another into pre-conceived categories. Omotoso herself, resists easy, neat categorisation. As the daughter of a Barbadian mother and Nigerian father, she was born in Barbados and raised in Nigeria, but has lived in South Africa since 1992. As such, she asserts her tendency to identify with the outsider/loner and pointed out her proclivity towards portraying such characters in her work.

She explored the eccentric loner, Leke Denton, in her debut novel, Bom Boy. As the son of a white mother and Nigerian father, he is raised by adoptive white parents in South Africa and struggles find his place within society. The experience of the outsider is considered in very different ways in The Woman Next Door, this time from divergent perspectives of Hortensia and Marion. Both elderly female protagonists endure the strain of being the outsider in various ways, and to different degrees, throughout their lives.

Hortensia is portrayed as the more obvious “outsider”, having been a poor Barbadian immigrant in England who marries an Englishman in the early 1950s, moves to Nigeria and finally settles, as an independently wealthy woman, in an exclusive (predominantly white) neighbourhood in Cape Town. In many ways, she is the more strongly-developed and successful of the two, although both Hortensia and Marion have had to withstand the disapproving attitudes towards determined and successful career women in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

Marion is the daughter of poor Jewish exiles who strive to ignore their roots and work their way up in Cape Town society. Later in life, Marion is forced to confront her own racial prejudices, loss of social standing, and familial estrangement which comes with the associated senses of guilt, shame and alienation. Issues concerning marriage and motherhood are not romanticised, and the negative physical and social aspects of ageing are aptly portrayed.[2]

Omotoso develops Hortensia and Marion in ways which elicit the reader’s empathy with them whilst never allowing one to lose sight of the quite palpable flaws of both. The narrative is engaging and provocative without slipping into didactic moralising: the reader is left to make his/her own judgements. The whole is at turns humorous, exultant and heart-rending, and the ending avoids idealistic glibness by being both hopeful and realistic.

In my opinion, Yewande Omotoso achieves a rare feat with The Woman Next Door: a text worthy of scholarly attention which deals with contentious social issues, whilst still being an entertaining read.

Omotoso, Yewande. 2016. The Woman Next Door. London: Penguin Random House. 279pp. ISBN 978-1-78474-034-4


[1] Sosibo, K. 13 May 2016. Neighbourly complicity: Yewande Omotoso’s The Woman Next Door. Mail & Guardian On-line.

[2] Omotoso is currently working on her third novel, tentatively titled Sleeping Not Dreaming, where she intends to scrutinise more closely society’s narrow conceptions of motherhood.

This book review was published in: Africa Book Link, Fall 2016