The History of Man – Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu (Penguin Random House South Africa, 2020) | A Review by Gitte Postel

The Catalyst Press book cover states that Ndlovu’s novel The History of Man is ‘set in a southern African country that is never named’. This is true, neither Rhodesia nor Zimbabwe is ever mentioned. But every other place in this novel can easily be located in what is now Zimbabwe: the Matopos hills in the south, where protagonist Emil Coetzee spends his happy childhood, and, some fifty kilometres further north, the city that he initially hates: Bulawayo, here consistently denoted by its nickname The City of Kings. The ceasefire date mentioned on the first page, 21-12-1979, the date which marks the end of the ‘bush war’ in which Emil Coetzee has come to play such a gruesome role, is exactly the day that was the beginning of the end of white minority rule in Zimbabwe.

Still, it does not really matter where and when this story takes place. This is not a book about Zimbabwean history, not even about British colonial history. It is the story of a man who happens to live in and love a country which he deep down feels is not really his to love – and the tragic events that leads to. As most great novelist do, Ndlovu works with big abstract notions – the limitations of linear history, the complexity of identity formation, the relationship between the individual and the state – and turns them into a single man’s story, which, in turn, sheds its light on the bigger things. Emil is part of the dynamics of British (post-)colonialism, even though he is not British – Coetzee is an Afrikaans name – which makes him somehow more suspect, but also less colonial. Or, in other words, it makes him, more than anything else, an ambiguous character, and I think that is exactly what he is meant to be. Emil’s first and last love is the savannah. But in between, in the period where he has lost touch with the elephant grass, he does not seem to be able to choose who or what he is.

This is Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu’s second novel, and it turned out to be the second of a trilogy. The first one, the acclaimed The Theory of Flight, explores, like The History of Man, how circumstances can change the experience of the self, in relation to others and to the state. But where The Theory of Flight is set in a post-colonial state and is multifaceted – it consists of several interconnected stories of a broad range of people and harbours a touch of magic realism – The History of Man is a story of one man in a colonial setting, and it is told in a collected, rational, (almost) linear fashion. In her third novel, The Quality of Mercy, released in 2022, Ndlovu tries to bridge these two worlds. Here, a black policeman who also played a minor role in The History of Man, researches the disappearance and possible death of Emil Coetzee.

At first sight, the thing Ndlovu tries to capture in The History of Man seems to be how an innocent and happy and sensitive boy can grow into a cruel man, a man who turned his back on everything he loved and lost any sense of who he is. That is also more or less what is stated in the first chapter, titled ‘Prologue’: ‘His story, if it were ever told, would have to be told chronologically, in a linear fashion, with a definite beginning, middle and end – none of that starting-in-the-middle-or-end modern nonsense. It would have to be told in that fashion because that was the only way to make any sense of the dark, grey, concrete room with his naked light bulb (…) and the man with the blood on his hands.’

Notwithstanding the deceiving title of this first chapter, this is not Ndlovu talking, it is Emil, or to be more precise: the narrator, giving voice to Emil’s thoughts. This narrator seems to comply with Emil’s wishes: his story is chronologically told – except that the Prologue, like a stuck-out tongue, is almost literally repeated in the second last chapter. But the outcome of this narration is not what Emil hoped or expected: his story still does not make sense. In the end, it turns out to be a series of seemingly unrelated events. There are moments where he feels love, and there are moments when he feels loss. There is the series of choices he made. All the important events of his life are being narrated, but that does not help to create meaning or a meaningful identity.

Especially in South African literature, a white middle-aged male protagonist whose controlling of the narrative or gaze in a novel reveals his own blind spot, has been a recurrent feature. Mehring in Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist (1974), may be one of the most famous, but another example is only a few years old: Francois Smith’s Gustav van Aardt in Die Kleinste Ramp Denkbaar (2020). What Mehring and Van Aardt have in common is that they don’t intend to look beyond their gaze, even though they vaguely recognise that something is amiss. It is only in their uncoordinated search for something else that they sort of stumble upon a deeper truth. Emil Coetzee, however, is very much aware of his own choices. He is also very much aware of his own shortcomings. He knows he is as much driven by fear as he is by love, and that his fear, especially his fear for being homeless, is the stronger force. He knows he teams up with the bullies at school because it will keep him from being bullied. He knows he is not really able to love his own son, because his softness reminds him too much of his own father, who Emil once caught wearing women’s clothes. He knows that betraying his best friend several times because of this friend’s ‘weakness’, made him, Emil, the weaker man. The only thing Emil has ever been proud of is that he created the Organization of Domestic Affairs, an institute set to recording the lives of African people. With it he tried, in his own words, to make African citizens less vulnerable by giving them a history.

Ndlovu, or the narrator, does not elaborate on why Emil is so proud of this accomplishment, or even why he feels the urge to do it. This seems to be the one flaw in this novel: for an intelligent man like Emil, his pride does not seem to make much sense. We, as readers, of course know that African citizens already had a history, a fact which is underlined throughout the book by using the name The City of Kings, a referral to the founding of Bulawayo by Ndebele King Lobengula in 1840. We know Emil Coetzee – and all the British colonial institutes that did the same thing – did not give Africans a history, only incorporated them in colonial history. His life’s work does not make them less, but more vulnerable. To Emil, however, his work is what gives his own life purpose, and it is the only thing he does not question. On a subconscious level he probably thinks it will make him less vulnerable. But one cannot help feeling that he should have known that he was wrong.

Problems arise when the bush war starts, and the colonial government becomes extremely interested in the data Emil has collected. Emil does not believe in the war, but he cannot escape being sucked into it, because he does believe in the state. When the war and the state as he knows it come to an end, he is completely lost. His story is a circular one after all: it ends where it started, at the savannah. But now there is no love, and also no fear, there is just the feeling that he has lost all humanity.

The only demerit I can find in this novel, is that the creative freedom with which Ndlovu gave room to her ideas in Theory of flight (2028), is a little lost here: she very clearly wants to make a point. Or rather: ten points. Which she does. And while doing so, Emil becomes a little less convincing as a character, at least in the last section of the novel. Nevertheless: Ndlovu convincingly pictures the absurdity and pettiness and uselessness of colonial power, its means and its moral foundations, and the psychological motivations for excessive violence within the state, while at the same time presenting us with an absorbing and intriguing, very human story. An impressive accomplishment.

Gitte Postel
Literary translator & journalist

The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa (Bloomsbury, 2022), Stephen Buoro | A Review by Christopher Hebert

Stephen Buoro’s first novel, The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa, chronicles Andy Aziza’s coming-of-age in contemporary Nigeria. Blending poetry and prose, Buoro endows his titular character with a vivid voice and personality while also tackling issues of religion, race, and migration. Furthermore, Buoro’s novel is infused with a wide range of influences and references, to include mathematics, theoretical constructs like “anifuturism,” and Western culture in the form of books and films. This makes for a highly intertextual narrative, and one that particularly reinforces the lasting impact Western media has on people across the globe. While Buoro marshals all of his interests to create a beautifully textured world, he is still able to treat each of his characters with remarkable depth and sympathy.

At the core of The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa is the relationship Andy has with his mother. The two have many disagreements, some of which relate to Andy’s obsession with Western television shows, and consequently, blonde, white women: “A fifteen-year-old African genius poet altar boy who loves blondes is not a criminal, not a racist, not a sell-out. But a sweet, cool, pitiful African boy” (Buoro 4). Andy struggles with the generational gap between himself and his mother, but he also has a deep sense of compassion for his mother’s situation, especially because his father is not around. Andy and his mother live in Kontagora, a town dominated by Muslim Hausas who fear the possibility of their home becoming “over-Christianised” (Buoro 31). An attack on their church leaves Andy’s mother disabled and confined to a wheelchair. In the aftermath of tragedy they attempt to rebuild their relationship, and it is their journey together through a mysterious past and an unstable present that shapes much of the novel.

One of the most interesting elements of the novel is Andy’s fledgling romance with Eileen, the blonde niece of Father McMahon, the community’s local missionary. Buoro unpacks issues of race and difference through Andy and Eileen’s romance—Andy is enamored with Eileen’s platinum blonde hair and her Englishness, but he feels increasingly Othered by the way she treats him, as she asks him questions like: “What happens when water touches your hair” and subscribes to many of the sexual stereotypes surrounding African men (Buoro 188). Eileen’s treatment of Andy leads him to question his own identity and how he is perceived by others, but their relationship also raises some fascinating questions when it comes to the sharing of cultural knowledge, including language. For example, after showing off her Hausa skills in public, Eileen takes Andy to the library of her hotel, which is filled with Nok sculptures and works by Hausa authors. She reveals that she has been studying the Hausa language, and that she even plans on translating some Hausa stories into English, as “Dad knows a couple of editors in London” (Buoro 191). Andy is impressed with her, and responds: “That’s really great, innit?” (191). His use of the word “innit” causes Eileen to start laughing, and she tells him not to say it again. In this moment, Buoro interrogates the unequal dynamic between African and European centers of knowledge production—Eileen sees it as her uncontested right to study Hausa and even translate Hausa texts, but when Andy appropriates British slang, it makes her uncomfortable and she orders him to stop. Another iteration of this same phenomenon is when Eileen shows Andy some pictures she has taken in Abuja. She obviously finds the subjects of her photos exotic and interesting, but to Andy they are “mundane” (Buoro 189). The cognitive dissonance that Andy experiences with Eileen, especially because of his exposure to Western culture, leaves him feeling alienated and dissatisfied, wondering if he will ever be able to truly communicate with her. Through the relationship between Eileen and Andy, Buoro effectively deconstructs the contemporary encounter between Europe and Africa to reveal that history never really belongs totally to the past.

A key strength of Buoro’s work is how he instills Andy’s character with relentless curiosity about his place in the world as an African. Andy critically examines the ways in which Africa has been disadvantaged by geography, slavery, and colonialism. In his poems, he writes of a being called HXVX who hovers over the continent and embodies “the Curse of Africa” (Buoro 50). He even argues at one point that Africa is a computer simulation: “How else could we explain the sun and hunger vs our laughter and dancing, the corruption and killings vs the churches and mosques in every corner of every neighborhood?” (Buoro 131). The counterpoint to Andy’s decidedly pessimistic outlook is his teacher and mentor Zahrah’s “Anifuturism,” which she describes as “the fusion of animism and Afrofuturism” (Buoro 49). In a novel full of a wide variety of themes, Buoro still manages to carve out a space for intellectual discussions between student and teacher that contribute to current debates in postcolonial theory. Andy’s personal philosophy and outlook toward the world is largely shaped by the existence of HXVX, and through Andy and Zahrah’s dialogues Buoro is able to represent the contemporary situation of young Africans who are aware of the lingering impacts of colonialism even as they are shaped by Western culture. Indeed, Andy and his friends occupy an impossible position, but it is their sense of humor and resilience that propels Buoro’s narrative forward.

The number of conversations that Buoro intervenes in with his novel is truly astonishing—through his compelling and well-crafted characters he engages with issues of communal violence, family relationships, and the contemporary encounter between Europe and Africa. Andy himself is the nucleus of Buoro’s text, and his novel succeeds in large part because of the deftness with which Andy is characterized. There is not a single moment that feels contrived, even as Buoro explores themes which are familiar territory for other authors, including Chris Abani and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In short, Stephen Buoro’s The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa is a thrilling and masterful debut that not only entertains, but asks important questions.

Chris Hebert
PhD candidate African Studies, Ghent University

Ancient Egyptian Animal Fables. Tree Climbing Hippos and Ennobled Mice (Brill, 2022), Jennifer Miyuki Babcock | A Review by Caroline Janssen


A humble corpus of seventy-nine limestone flakes – ostraca – and four papyri lies at the basis of this book, a study of what Jennifer Miyuki Babcock understands to be visual representations of Ancient Egyptian animal fables. The author is a professor of Art History and Archaeology in New York, and specializes in the visual arts and narratives of Ancient Egypt, an interesting combination of fields, as the book demonstrates.

As for the corpus, as a writing material, papyrus was expensive and ostraca were cheap; the latter were used for a variety of purposes. Some were ‘textual’ – letters, inventories, receipts, work journals, …- while others were ‘figurative’ and contained drawings and sketches. Many of the ostraca were ex-votos, offerings made to deities to fulfill a vow, some may have been created for educational purposes or perhaps even out of boredom, as the author suggests. A small but interesting group depicts animals acting like people – wearing clothes, playing board games, banqueting, playing music, … – and these are the focus of this investigation. The most popular animals, for this purpose, are cats, mice, canines and caprids, but there are also birds, hippopotami and lions. Jennifer Miyuki Babcock chose to exclude most pictures with primates (with the exception of the motif of the baboon and the cat), because, as she argues, their activities could be the result of animal training; they usually appear in the company of people, not in anthropomorphic animal settings like the others.

Animals play a big role in Egyptian culture, religion and daily life. In representations, they are symbols of danger, strength, power, etc. In the hieroglyphic script animal-shaped signs can carry both literal and metaphorical meanings. On paintings, they appear in real-life conditions, crying out in pain, galopping, … and even their odor can be expressed by using symbols. But the ostraca are a group apart, as the animals here engage in human behavior. This is what animals in fables do. However, linking them to specific stories is not self-evident. The original drawings are not accompanied by explanatory texts and most drawings are not backed up by a recorded story. Jennifer Miyuki Babcock leaves no stone unturned to overcome this problem.

Let the reader be warned (but not deterred): this book is a reworked dissertation, which is still palpable, and it is not an easy read. It is based on original source materials that are hard to interpret. Before one can enter the world of tree climbing hippos and ennobled mice, one is deeply immersed in academic debates. What a reader not too familiar with Ancient Egyptian history might miss, at times, is a concise historical framework before these debates start, something I would have added because this book is of interest, not only for Egyptologists, but also for other people interested in fables and story-telling in other parts of the world or other temporal settings. There are a few flaws in the register which could have been avoided – e.g., the entries hippopotami, hippopotamus and hippotamus (sic!), hippotamus and crow but no crow as an entry, … – but on the whole this is a good work. In terms of methodology, the author is a guide, who presents complex theories in an accessible way and uses them eclectically. In the course of the book we find reflections on terminology and definitions; when different interpretations of materials have been suggested pros and cons are duly weighed, conclusions are drawn after consideration, the author shares her doubts and provides tentative explanations, it is up to the reader to agree or disagree. The author argues that in order to analyze the pictures one has to contextualize them and this becomes the key to their interpretation.

The book has six chapters, each of which opens up a new perspective:

  1. Introduction to the Materials
  2. Artists and Audience: Deir el-Medina and Its Inhabitants
  3. Understanding Ancient Egyptian Aesthetic Value
  4. Constructing Visual Narratives in Ancient Egypt
  5. Animal Fables and Their Purpose
  6. Contextualising the Egyptian Imagination: Concluding Thoughts

There is an Appendix of 84 pages, with colour photos of the papyri and ostraca, a few drawings, detailed descriptions and references. Not only is this catalogue fun to browse through, it also allows the readers to see the evidence with their own eyes. This catalogue is a most valuable instrument as the materials are not easily available otherwise. Beside all the rest, this book tells us a story of archaeological evidence that was dispersed over so many museums and private collections that studying them, today, requires an odyssey. As a result of historical power relations, many small artefacts have left Egypt, and are now in the US, UK, Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, Sweden, … The whereabouts of some of the materials cannot be traced anymore, in which case a modern drawing is all that remains. Writing this book required a lot of patience and dedication, even on a material level.

Missing: the archaeological context

Sadly, an utterly relevant context was lost in modern times. The ostraca and the papyri had once belonged to the vestiges of an ancient civilization, like the remnants of temples, houses, streets, tombs, skeletons, plant and animal remains. It seems that ostraca of different kinds were found in various contexts, such as the ‘Great Pit’, houses, tombs, streets, … but no one took care to note which one came from where so that we cannot know whether those with anthropomorphized animals came from a specific context, as a group or in groups, or were found in different settings. It is believed that all of them came from Deir el-Medina, the ‘Valley of the Artisans’, near Luxor, which can be ascertained for many of these, but not for all, and that is as far as one can get. The animal drawings can hence not be linked, by their archaeological context, to domestic, funerary or religious contexts, let alone to specific owners, their houses, graves, or other possessions, contexts that could potentially have contributed to their interpretability. Had they not been robbed of this context, because of 19th century looting and substandard excavation reports, all of these vestiges could have told their story in unison. The damage done is irreversible.

Deir el-Medina and its artisans

As for the makers of the ostraca, Deir el-Medina was not a run-off-the-mill village, as the author explains. Its artisans were the ones who excavated and decorated the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings and that of the Queens. They were highly skilled and exceptional workers who also decorated tombs in their own village, with delightful scenes from every-day life. They were visually literate and educated people. Although the concept of art in contemporary European and American context has undergone a semantic shift – it now conjures up a world of individual expression, something almost transcendental, as the author explains – Jennifer Miyuki Babcock defends the position to call the products of Egyptian ‘craftmanship’ art. Artistic quality was something that was highly sought after and no one can doubt the artistic skills of the painters of Deir el-Medina.


While in search of their meaning, the author notes that the anthropomorphized drawings on the ostraca reflect elite themes and that there are recurrent motifs. One of these, that of the cat and the vulture, can be successfully connected to the myth of the “Distant Goddess”: in this story the god Thoth appears in the shape of a baboon, while the goddess Tefnut has assumed the form of a cat. The former tries to convince the latter to return to Egypt by telling her a story of a cat and a vulture. Depictions of a baboon and a cat, or of a cat and a vulture (or other birds), are thus identified as depictions of fables. The author tentatively connects the story-telling and the ostraca to celebrations during festivals for the Distant Goddess. She points out that although materials from Deir el-Medina have been found in Amarna, no such ostraca were found in the city of Akhenaten (Akhnaton), an absence that she links to the pharao’s religious reforms. The fact that the connection with the Distant Goddess myth can be ascertained, means that other motifs which include anthropomorphized animals in story-like settings, are most probably also connected to animal fables. Some depictions are very specific, such as the hippopotamus sitting in a fruit tree with a crow climbing a ladder, or a hippopotamus and a crow sitting on opposite sides of a balance. These images raise so many questions that it would be easy to convert them into story lines (how did the hippo end up in the fruit tree? why does the crow not fly but use a ladder? is he crippled and if so, whose fault was that? …). Corroborating evidence that these are indeed animal fables, not just funny pictures, is that there seems to be ‘a stock of characters and motifs’ which, as the author states, include:

  1. Elite Animals and Offering Scenes
  2. Chariot Riding
  3. Religious Scenes
  4. Agricultural and Food Production Scenes
  5. Animal Musicians
  6. the Distant Goddess and the Cat/Vulture Fable
  7. the Boy, the Cat and the Mouse
  8. the Hippopotamus and the Crow
  9. Unclear/Miscellaneous


The reconstruction of narratives based on sequences of images found on the papyri turns out to be a challenge, since the materials do not seem to have been organized in a linear way. In ‘Constructing visual narratives in Ancient Egypt’ the reader is introduced into the conceptual world and theories of narratology and their application to visual materials. The author argues that we should look beyond the modern bias, that narratives should be presented in a linear sequence. To investigate how stories are presented in the visual arts of Ancient Egypt, she looks into paintings in tombs which depict the road to afterlife. She incorporates the idea of Assmann, that myths are organized around ‘nuclei’ (larger themes) which could be combined into ‘narrative constellations’ in oral story-telling, and wonders whether the ostraca were ‘icons’ that could be arranged and rearranged, during performances. Tentatively, she points out that in the 18th century, in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, lukasa memory boards were used by story-tellers (boards with beads, shells and metal) as a mnemonic device. Could the ostraca have had a similar function? The world of the Ancient Egyptian story-tellers is another lost dimension, but the author, as said, leaves no stone unturned to find relevant contexts and ideas which help us imagine how the texts might have functioned.

Interpreting the social implications of the fables is another topic that is covered, and here too we see how the author gains information from contextualizing the materials. Several ostraca reverse the roles of preys and predators, e.g., they depict mice who are being served by cats. Interpreting such scenes is not unambiguous and the author shows us a range of possibilities. Is role reversal a sign of rebellion against the existing social hierarchy? Not necessarily so, according to Jennifer Miyuki Babcock. She argues that the population of Deir el-Medina had more direct ways to express their dissatisfaction if needed; as evidence she adduces the fact that the first recorded strike ever was a sit-in near the mortuary temple of Ramasses II. She also denies that the pictures with the human-like animals are satirical or blasphemous representations of religious ceremonies. She points out that in the Book of the Dead, mice are presented as divine; the priest is a jackal. Blurred boundaries between humans and animals are omnipresent in Egyptian religion. It is by comparison with other materials from Egypt (Prophecies of Neferty, Admonitions of an Egyptian Sage) and near-by regions such as Mesopotamia and Greece that she finds reason to believe that stories about social upheaval and chaos could well end in a restoration and celebration of existing power relations.


The ostraca and papyri are silent witnesses of the history of human imagination. To unmute them the author contextualized what she saw. The patience and dedication that was put into this scholarly work has paid off; she has definitely shed light on the interpretability of these images and there is a lot to discover in this book. Although the study is focused on a better understanding of Ancient Egyptian materials, it is relevant for a variety of readers. It shows us a road that lies ahead, one that runs in two directions. For one thing, it reminds us that research in fields like Assyriology and Egyptology that helps us interpret drawings on limestone flakes also urges us to deconstruct the myth of the Greek miracle, of Aesops who appear out of the blue. ‘Unmuted histories’ that are the results of archaeological, anthropological and textual explorations, are starting to shed light on the relations between cultures and on captivating literary networks. Historical power relations have created disbalanced views of the past. Contemporary research tells us to revise such views. Meanwhile, creativity and imagination keep doing their work, because subconsciously, when reflecting on this need to bring more balance in the reconstruction of the fragmented history of humanity, the image of the heavy hippo and the light-weighted crow, who struggled to find a balance, comes to my mind. An ancient fable whose original context is clouded is trying to rewrite itself in a contemporary setting, which is what fables do.

For all these reasons I recommend this book.

Caroline Janssen (Ghent University)

Interview with Noo Saro-Wiwa on her recent memoir Looking for Transwonderland | by Elizabeth Olaoye

Noo Saro Wiwa is a Nigerian- British Travel writer who Condé Nast Traveler Magazine listed as one of the 30 most influential women travelers. She was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, and raised in England, where she attended King’s College London and then Colombia University in New York. She has contributed book reviews, travel, opinion, and analysis articles for The Guardian newspaper, The Financial TimesThe Times Literary SupplementCity AM, Chatham House, and The New York Times, among others. Although her genre is non-fiction, the keenness of her vision and her ability to look at ordinary everyday realities with an artistic vision makes her travel memoir, Looking for Tanswonderland: Travels in Nigeria, a great reference point in the discussion of narratives set in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital. I discovered this memoir while writing my dissertation on the gendered portrayal of Lagos in contemporary narratives and find it fascinating. I asked if Noo would answer some questions on the text, and she agreed. I’m excited to share some of her responses here:

To what extent is Looking for Transwonderland a non-fictional work? Are there fictional elements in the narrative? If yes, can you give examples?
The book is 100% non-fictional. I take great pride in reporting my experiences faithfully. Real life is more interesting than fiction, especially in places like Nigeria. The only times I tweak names or details is to protect someone’s privacy, particularly for safety reasons.

Did you have to change names to conceal identities?
Yes, see above.

I know you write travel narratives. Have you tried or considered fiction?
I’ve considered it, but I find it much harder than non-fiction. Maybe one day.

The idea of a Transwonderland is fascinating, especially considering the linguistic possibilities in the word. Moreso, an amusement park in Ibadan has a name close to that. What exactly did you mean by transwonderland?
Transwonderland is the name of the dilapidated amusement park in Ibadan. My book title is a metaphor for my search for that touristy side of Nigeria, which I wanted to explore as a way of disassociating from the painful memories of my father’s death at the hands of the military regime. But I found that the touristy side, such as Transwonderland amusement park, was often rundown: neglected natural reserves and safari parks, etc.

The memoir says that, “being Nigerian can be the most embarrassing of burdens.” This statement is about Nigerian travelers’ cacophony at Gatwick Airport. Can you discuss this further? How often do you experience this burden? Is it physical or psychological? Has this something to do with the physical location or the attitude of the people?
Nigerians are constantly embarrassed by the failures of our government. Our diaspora contains some of the most successful immigrant groups in countries like the United States. We have so many smart, talented people, yet as a nation Nigeria is not worth the sum of its parts. Decades of poor governance has led to poverty, a lack of education, an increase in criminality, and a mistrust of authority (the latter demonstrated by that cacophony at Gatwick airport). Unfortunately, that’s the image of Nigeria in the eyes of the world. When you tell people you’re Nigerian you can often see the hidden disdain, or at least lack of admiration, in people’s eyes.

I noticed that the extreme religiosity of Nigerians repeatedly features in your memoir. Do you see this as a kind of agency for Lagos’s powerless people or a manifestation of sanctimony ecstasy?
The extreme religiosity is a result of economic failure caused by perennial corruption and structural adjustment policies in the 1980s. Nigerians began to import the ‘prosperity gospel’ from the United States (white Americans invented it) as a coping mechanism. Every society, be it in Europe, the Americas or Asia, responds to poverty in its own way in order to survive financially and psychologically.

Do you think it’s paradoxical that you refer to yourself as a tourist in your own country?
No, tourists can be domestic or foreign. I would say most people haven’t seen the beauty spots in their own countries, which is a shame.

Would you travel to Lagos again? Why or why not?
I touch base with Lagos at least once every two years as I have friends and family there.

What do you detest most about Lagos?
It’s too noisy. Constant music everywhere you go; you can’t escape it. There are almost no public spaces to enjoy quiet contemplation or meditation.

What do you love most about the city?
Like all major cities, it’s big and full of energy. There’s lots going on, always new developments (architecturally, culturally, etc.). Things are always changing.

Taiye Selasi describes Afroplolitans as Africans of the world. Recently, scholars have been knocking heads on the privileged position that tempers Afropolitan narratives. A travel writer fits that description. Do you view yourself as an Afropolitan?
If the definition of an Afropolitan is an African who owns a passport and does a job that enables them to travel easily to other countries, then yes I’m an Afropolitan. There aren’t many such people. Having a British passport puts me in a very privileged position, and I never taken it for granted. I know the struggles that Nigerian passport holders have. It affects their ability to work, study or simply explore different parts of the world.

Are there potentials in Lagos that are not being harnessed right now?
Yes. Every human being has potential, and if the government is not investing in them (through education) then their potential is not being fulfilled. In Lagos – and Nigeria as a whole – there are millions of potential entrepreneurs, astronauts, teachers, lawyers, journalists. But instead they are living parallel lives as impoverished, struggling citizens.

Do you think that the spatial structures of the city (Lagos) are not neutral? Do you think it would have been easier to navigate the city as a man? How does Lagos treat women?
To be honest, it’s hard to answer this question as I don’t live there. I find Lagos easy to navigate as a short-term visitor with dollars in her pocket and an Uber app on her phone. Living there, however, is another matter.

Have you visited any other place that created the same feelings that you had in Lagos? Did any other city present similar precarious situations?
Lagos is pretty unique. I’ve been to massive cities like Manila and Cairo, but their infrastructure always seems slightly better than Lagos. But maybe that’s only because I haven’t seen their poorest areas.

What do you think about the presence of the supernatural in the African psyche as manifested in our movies and literature?
It’s important that literature and movies reflect our psyche – it’s what makes it authentic. The supernatural can be confusing and inaccessible to non-African audiences when production values are poor, but when such themes are explored by talented artists like Akwaeke Emezi, Wole Soyinka or Nnedi Okarafor it’s great.

Elizabeth Olaoye
Idaho State University

Chinua Achebe and the Igbo-African World: Between Fiction, Fact and Historical Representation (Lexington Books, 2022), Chima J. Korieh and Ijeoma C. Nwajiaku (Eds.) | A Review by James J. Davis

During the 1991-1992 academic year, the Division of the Humanities of the College of Arts and Sciences at Howard University, with grant-funding from the National Endowment of the Humanities, restructured its two-semester core course entitled “Introduction to Humanities I and II”. The overall goal was to revise and expand the course content to include in the Humanities curriculum non-western literary historiography and cultural trajectories. Howard, like some other North American universities, quickly decided to include Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart as the exemplary novel to represent the wide expanse of African literatures written in English. Project administrators purchased a copy of Lindfors’ Approaches to Teaching Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (Modern Language Association, 1991) for the faculty who would teach a section of the Humanities course. I was one of them. While there is no explicit reference to that work in the volume reviewed here, this reviewer believes that, in many ways, it is a comprehensive sequel to that publication and to the proliferation of other published scholarship heretofore on Achebe’s work.     

After a quite engaging introduction by editors Korieh and Nwajiaku, the volume is divided into three parts. Part I “Chinua Achebe and Igbo-African Realities” includes 6 chapters (essays); Part II “Chinua Achebe and the Politics of Representation” includes 4 chapters; and Part III “Achebe, History, and the National Question” comprises 5. The editors offer the following rationale for the division: “The rationale behind this division is that, although some aspects of the Igbo experience can be addressed in their relationship to African and Nigerian culture, unique contextual circumstances warrant such division” (p. 4). The 15 essays are authored by scholars representing a variety of fields in the humanities, social sciences, theology, and communications. This gives way to different hermeneutical approaches and to a variety of sometimes conflicting interpretations of Achebe’s perception, presentation, and representation of historical facts, hence the subtitle of the volume: Between Fiction, Fact and Historical Representation.  

By all accounts, this volume is indeed a welcome and timely addition to studies on Achebe’s literary works and persona because it takes us from chapter to chapter to a deeper understanding and fresh and new-fangled analyses of his work. Achebe’s efforts to unveil artistically the social, political, religious, male-female relations and the general psychological environment of the Igbo people are lauded, but they are examined critically and comprehensively to offer varying ways of reading and appreciating his artistry. In general, this volume makes a gargantuan contribution to African Studies, Igbo Studies, and cross-cultural literacy. The novice student as well as the seasoned scholar of African Literatures and Cultures will gain invaluable insights from reading the thought-provoking introduction and the 15 elucidating chapters followed by an excellent index of names, topics and themes.

James J. Davis (Howard University)

Eye Brother Horn (Catalyst Press, 2022) Bridget Pitt | A Review by Beverley Jane Cornelius

Eye Brother Horn (2023) by Bridget Pitt, is the story of two brothers who, though devoted to each other, are at odds with the world, each in his own way. Daniel and Moses are the sons of an English Reverend at a Christian mission station in Natal[1] in the mid- to late-1800s. While Daniel, the biological son, experiences debilitating sensitivity to the natural world around him because of a painful empathy with the animals he sees hunted, Moses, the adopted son, feels torn between two cultures without a sense of belonging to either. Both boys dream of travelling to England where each hopes to become his own man. But their patriarchal benefactor challenges their bond and their aspirations.

The novel begins – in Part One 1862 to 1864 Bhejane – with a clash between hu/man and nature when the baby, Daniel, and his carer, Nomsa, survive a close encounter with a rhinoceros: “Two tons of bone and muscle hurtle towards the women gathering grass for weaving. Their grass bundles fly up as they flee screaming” (Pitt 2022:1). Nomsa, with the baby strapped to her back, trips and falls leaving her and the baby helpless with the rhino looming over them. But having lunged at them three times, the rhino retreats. Daniel is unharmed yet forever affected, with “a look of strangeness in his eye, as if he’d been lost in distant worlds” (1).

This opening scene foregrounds not only the tension between hu/man and nature but between all the disparate forces at play here: at Umzinyathi Mission there is an intersection – sometimes a melding, sometimes a clash – of culture, religion, language. For example, while Daniel’s father, the reverend of the mission station, calls their survival of the rhino encounter a miracle, there are other theories amongst the local inhabitants, “including witchcraft, ancestral intervention, and good luck” (2).

These events at Imzinyathi occur within the greater context of British colonialism. The positioning of this local scene within the broader frame of colonialism is illustrated by Cousin Roland, a character who epitomises colonial ideology with his words and deeds, while illustrating – through his mobility between India, Africa, and Britain – the range of the British Empire at the time.

The author forestalls a dominating coloniser’s narrative, however, by foregrounding language from the outset. isiZulu is seamlessly blended into the narrative, beginning with Reverend Whitaker’s moniker, “umfundisi, the teacher” (2) and the way that the boy, Daniel, is spoken about following the incident with the rhino: he is thereafter known as “inkonyane likabhejane: the Rhino’s child” (2). Throughout the book, though explanatory phrases in English at times follow the use of isiZulu, the reader (if not familiar with isiZulu) is left in most instances to infer the meaning without explanation. Thus, blended language is seamlessly incorporated in the novel, giving the narrative an authentic context, a sense of place, time, and culture; as well as making prominent the inevitable entanglement of language and culture, and the formation of a transcultural and/or liminal space in a colonised place. In this context, though, there is disparity and conflict; the novel examines, with this story of brothers, the oppositions inherent in colonial discourse, which “at the very least, […] creates a deep conflict of consciousness of the colonised” (Ashcroft, Griffiths, & Tiffin 2007:37).

The boys are inseparable in their early youth, only becoming aware as they grow that there are differences between them: one is a biological son, the other adopted, one is white and English, one is black and Zulu. This brings into sharp relief in the novel, the division at the time between the white Englishman and the colonial subject, the illogical disparity and inequality, the foundations of which are the “[r]ules of inclusion and exclusion [of colonial discourse that] operate on the assumption of the superiority of the colonizer’s culture, history, language, art, political structures, social conventions, and the assertion of the need for the colonized to be ‘raised up’ through colonial contact” (Ashcroft, Griffiths, & Tiffin 2007:37).

Ultimately, these ‘rules’ will force the boys apart, but not because they are binary opposites of each other; rather, because neither Daniel nor Moses can live by these prescribed rules, each with his own reasons for subverting his expected role. Thus, the novel explores the theme of the ‘in-between’ space, which is occupied by ‘hybrid’ characters in a cross-cultural situation, by deviating from expected or cliched characterisation.

This is signaled early in the narrative – in Part Two 1871 The Python and the Gun – when the word ‘birthright’ “erupts between [Daniel and Moses], like the sudden blast of a trumpet, like a call to arms” (50) in a childish squabble about their 13th birthday presents.

Though Daniel uses the word ‘birthright’ in the argument, subsequently he in fact subverts his role as a colonial Englishman: instead of assuming the guise exemplified by his missionary father or landowner uncle, he clings instead to his ‘birthright’ as a young man born and raised on the continent of Africa. He has an affinity with his natural environment, rejecting patriarchal, colonial culture. He is emotionally sensitive and spiritually curious. Moses is more pragmatic; he is fascinated with science. As the boys grow older, the divide between the adjacent worlds they straddle becomes more apparent: on the one hand there is a traditional African existence with the environment, on the other there is the modern emphasis of change and ‘progress’ that is being imposed by the colonising force.

This divide is brought into sharp focus – in Part Three 1871 to 1876 Evolution – on a visit (with the church) to King Mpande. Here, Moses is immersed in Zulu culture, experiences the heritage he has been denied through his upbringing; he confronts the notion that he can never feel a sense of complete belonging to either the mission station or to the Zulu nation. Instead, he puts his faith in science, eschewing local customs and spiritualities.

Thus, with the goal of pursuing a scientific education in England, Moses withstands great hardship – in Part Four 1877 to 1978 The Silence – while Daniel, contrastingly, is crushed by the injustices of their lives. Through the boys’ respective responses to their mission station upbringing, the novel (reminiscent, perhaps, of Lewis Nkosi’s (1986) Mating Birds, and Farida Karodia’s (1991) A Shattering of Silence) examines the impact of Christian colonial mission stations in southern Africa. Contrasted with their father Rev Whitaker’s zeal is his cousin Sir Roland’s attitude that “the real world is a little different from a mission station” (177). When Roland attempts to break the bond between the two boys, at pains for Daniel to understand that Moses is not his brother, Daniel emphatically clings to his belief that “Moses is [his] brother everywhere,” not only when they are at the mission station (212).

These tensions mount in Part Five 1878 My Brother Everywhere: between the two brothers, between them and Sir Roland, between the various thematic forces in the novel (for example, religion vs African spirituality; coloniser vs colonised; hu/man vs environment). The brothers’ bond is tested by the choice to either give up or go on: to return to their father’s mission station or to continue under Sir Roland’s patronage and eventually acquire an education in England. Moses is prepared to endure saying, “[i]f this farm has taught me anything, it’s that there’s no place in this colony for me. The AmaZulu think I’m a peculiar black umlungu, and the abelungu think I’m an impudent over-educated native” (232). For Daniel, though, endurance becomes impossible. He is in physical agony while on the hunting safari, in Part Six 1878 The Black Imfolozi, because of his empathy with animals whose fear and pain he feels – physically – when they are hunted and shot. Here Pitt juxtaposes magical realism, African Knowledge Systems (AKS), and African spirituality: Daniel describes his “body-jumping” (72, 134, 263, 307), during which he seems to enter and feel the animal’s pain, as something almost unbearable. He seeks help from a powerful sangoma. He is predisposed to accept the intervention of African spirituality from the ‘mystic’, having witnessed his mother’s healing through traditional medicine when he was a child (she was cured with the leaves and bark of the isibhaha tree). This particular sangoma is a specialist who, he is told, is “a doctor who enables the ancient spirits to speak to you with the whistling voices of the birds” (272). She explains how Daniel could free himself of his ability/affliction through ritual. Ultimately, overwhelmed by pain and injustice, Daniel takes matters into his own hands – in Part Seven 1879 Eye Brother Horn –with devastating consequences.


In tracking the boys’ trajectory from childhood to early adulthood, while highlighting the effects of colonialism and of Christianity in the region, there is also a mapping of the ecological effects of colonial land use.

Pitt’s environmental concerns are the golden thread in this text. Though not overt, the environment is the dynamic backdrop to this bildungsroman.

Throughout the novel – from the opening scene where women gathering grasses are accosted by an angry rhinoceros, to the final paragraphs in which a dog chases a sandpiper, and the gift of clay animals is given – elements of the natural environment are a touchstone. The “more-than-human” (Ashcroft, Griffiths, & Tiffin 2007:71) is considered from multiple perspectives to show the effects of colonial enterprises on the landscape, and the subsequent effects on traditional, indigenous lifestyles.

As they travel across Natal to reach Sir Roland’s sugar estate, for example, they witness how much of the land is under crops of “coffee, cotton, and sugar cane” (194) where “[y]ou can almost hear the march of the sugarcane as it consumes ever widening tracts of grassland and forest to grow more sugar,” (194). They come across small traditional villages – umuzi – with “rising mounds of beehive huts surrounded by small fields of corn and vegetables” that are affected by the “pressing of the English farmers around them” and where there is the worry that, “[s]oon there will be no more place to graze our cattle” (195).

Felling trees to make way for sugarcane on Roland’s estate, Daniel considers how “the stumps and brush will be burned, the land will be ploughed and all traces of that chattering web of former lives will sink beneath the sugarcane” (210). He wonders: “does this stump remember being a tree […] does the earth remember the feel of the elephants’ feet?” (210).


Eye Brother Horn is a compelling examination of the effects of colonisation on people and the environment, that is, on the human and the ‘more-than-human’; as well as an exploration of the life-changing impact of Christian missionary interventions in Natal. With its portrayal of brothers whose fates subvert stereotypically expected roles, it questions the in/ability to intervene in human and ‘extra-human’ lives and is a call to more conscious and empathetic interactions.

Bridget Pitt (2022) Eye Brother Horn | Catalyst Press | ISBN 978-1-946395-76-4


Beverley Jane Cornelius is a lecturer at University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN).


Ashcroft, Bill, Griffiths, Gareth, Tiffin, Helen. 2007. Post-colonial Studies: The Key Concepts (second edition). New York: Routledge.

Karodia, Farida. 1993. A Shattering of Silence. Johannesburg: Heinemann.

Nkosi, Lewis. Mating Birds. New York: St Martins Press.

Pitt, Bridget. 2022. Eye Brother Horn. El Paso: Catalyst Press.

[1] Natal is today known as KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), a province of the Republic of South Africa.

Afterlives (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020). Abdulrazak Gurnah | A Review by Annachiara Raia

Long-listed for both the 2021 Orwell Prize for Political Fiction and the Walter Scott Prize, Afterlives is the tenth novel by Zanzibar-born Abdulrazak Gurnah, who was awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature. This award has been regarded as “a family win” for East African writers or, more broadly, for Gurnah’s many devoted readers worldwide. As Kenyan writer Yvonne Owuor puts it in an interview with Meg Arenberg, “Gurnah is like the favorite uncle who is rather shy; thus there is extra pride that he is finally being discovered.”[1]

Arenberg has also aptly pointed out, however, that the right award has been given for the wrong reason: “The Nobel Prize committee in Stockholm pigeonholed the complex and cosmopolitan work of the Zanzibar novelist in conventional East/West terms—terms he’s always rejected.”[2]  In fact, in all the novels the author has written since the late 1980s, the conventional notions of “East vs. West” or “world literature writer” are ceded in favor of multiple and relational cartographies. A prime example of this is Paradise (1994), a novel detailing the caravan trade of Tanganyika before World War I, which “has been most acclaimed and discussed for its subtle but elegantly intertwined narrative of shifting maps”[3] (Vierke, forthcoming).

Clustered in four parts and comprising fifteen chapters, Afterlives leads the reader through “extended passages on the cruelties of the Kaiserreich inflicted in Deutsch-Ostafrika —which encompassed Tanganyika (now mainland Tanzania).”[4] The book cover depicts an Askari soldier of the German East African Schutztruppe in uniform, including a tarboosh with the Imperial Eagle badge.[5]

How Gurnah de-centers geopolitical maps and treaties and European historical accounts in Afterlives reveals one of the writer’s most exquisite talents: that of narrating the ordinary lives of people grappling with the haunting presence of colonialism and interconnected human woundedness, or, as Maaza Mengiste puts it, struggling with “what remains in the aftermath of so much devastation.”  Therefore, one might ask, what does remain in such afterlives? In order to find out, the reader is led on a journey with Gurnah’s characters, their social struggles and passages of self-discoveries. As poignantly put by Mohineet Kaur Boparai, Gurnah “does what history does not, which is to reach into the recesses of lived experience.”[6]

Krieg. Vita. War. “Who are we fighting?”[7]

We collect fragments of what remained in the aftermath of the German occupation by following the stories of two veterans of the Schhutztruppe, Hamza and Ilyas, and their different yet entangled final destinations in life: the former in the town where he had lived as a child, the other in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp outside Berlin.

“At the very end of the war, when we were all exhausted and half-mad from the bloodletting and cruelty we had been steeped in for years,” Hamza is healed by Frau Pastor – as she is referred to in the book – and realizes how much they all risked their lives “for these vainglorious warmongers.” (Afterlives, 265). He strolls around different cities (Mwanza, Kampala, Nairobi, Mombasa) with no particular destination in mind, carrying with him nothing but two German books (Friedrich Schiller’s Musen-Almanach für das Jahr 1798 and Heinrich Heine’s Zur Geschichte der Religion und Philosophie in Deutschland). He eventually falls in love with and marries Afiya; they name their child Ilyas after Afiya’s brother, who was lost in the war.

From the beginning, the reader is immersed in typical Swahili biographical cartographies through the story of Khalifa and his father Qassim, who hailed from Gujurat but came to the Swahili coast of Africa on receiving an offer to join a bookkeeping team. Though Khalifa does not look Indian, his father married an African woman and always remained loyal to her: “Yes, yes, my father was an Indian. I don’t look it, hey?” (Afterlives, 3). Khalifa is the oldest character in the novel. His biography, retold via flashbacks, is entangled with historical events, bigger and smaller battles,  as reflected in the following episodes.

When Khalifa begins studying mathematics, bookkeeping, and some basic English vocabulary with a private tutor, he is around eleven years old, exactly when “the Germans arrived in the town” and the al Bushiri revolt began (Afterlives, 5).

“The Germans and the British and the French and the Belgians and the Portuguese and the Italians and whoever else had already had their congress and drawn their maps and signed their treaties, so this resistance was neither here nor there. The revolt was suppressed by Colonel Wissmann and his newly formed schutztruppe” (Afterlives, 5).

By the time Khalifa is completing his period with the tutor, “the Germans were engaged in another war, this time with the Wahehe a long way in the south. They too were reluctant to accept German rule and proved more stubborn than al Bushiri, inflicting unexpectedly heavy casualties on the schutztruppe who responded with great determination and ruthlessness.” (Afterlives, 5).

During their baraza evening on Khalifa’s porch, we are introduced to the concerns of that time,  “with rumors of the coming conflict with the British, which people were saying was going to be a big war, not like the small ones before against the Arabs and the Waswahili and the Wahehe and the Wanyamezi and the Wameru and all the others. Those were terrible enough but this is going to be a big war!” (Afterlives, 41).

“Uncle Ilyas is wounded at the Battle of Mahiwa in October 1917. (“I was there,” Hamza says. “It was a terrible battle.”)” (Afterlives, 274).

The character of Ilyas is introduced to the reader first as a “a friend of the manager, the great German lord himself. He speaks German as if it’s his native language” (Afterlives, 21). Through his conversations with Hamza, however, we hear more about his childhood: that he had to run away from home as a child, was kidnapped by a Shangaan Askari at the train station, and was eventually released and cared for by a German, after which he was sent to a German mission school, where—“don’t tell anyone”—he was made to pray like a Christian (Afterlives, 22). Mnafiki is thus what Hamza calls Ilyas, or “hypocrite,” an intertextual reference to sura 63 of the Quran, called Al-Munāfiqūn (“The Hypocrites”).

In one passage, we learn about Ilyas’s perspective on German kindness, which is met with hoots of laughter from the others, thinking there is no one as stern as a German: “Listen, just because one German has been kind to you does not change what has happened here over the years. […] In the thirty years or so they have occupied this land, the Germans have killed so many people that the country is littered with skulls and bones and the earth is soggy with blood. I am not exaggerating.” (Afterlives, 41). But Ilyas—of whom we lose track after he announces his plans to volunteer for the Schutztruppe—believes that his friend is in fact exaggerating.

Baba Khalifa, as a sensitive man who bears the burden of other people’s troubles and dies quietly at the age of 64, plays an intriguing role in the story; as the omniscient narrator witnesses him aptly say of Ilyas, “Maybe he had started to think of himself as a German or maybe he always wanted to be an askari.  The reality was that he was always on the point of stumbling. You could not imagine someone more generous nor anyone more self-deluded than Ilyas.” (Afterlives, 199).

It is striking to see how only after the war does Hamza realize how the soldiers in the service of the German officer risked their lives “for these vainglorious warmongers.” (Afterlives, 265). During the war itself, the enthusiasm of being a soldier and fighting for the so-called governor of the Mdachi (“Germans”) resonates in this interpolated song:

It was not really a song, more like a sung conversation, delivered to a jaunty marching tempo with an explosive response at the end of every phrase (Afterlives, 52) :

Tumefanya fungo na Mjarumani, tayari.           We have joined the Germans. We’re ready?
Tayari!                                                                       We’re ready!
Askari wa balozi wa Mdachi, tayari.                    We are soldiers of the governors of the Mdachi
Tayari!                                                                       We’re ready!
Tutampigania bila hofu.                                        We will fight for him without fear.
Bila hofu!                                                                  Without fear!
Tutawatisha adui wajue hofu.                              We will terrify our enemies and fill them with   fear,
Wajue hofu!                                                              We’ll fill them with fear!

(Afterlives, 52)

The culture of brutality that the above excerpt illustrates is also reflected in several highly mimetic conversations, in which Swahili mingles with German,  Arabic, and Bantu languages such as Kinyamwezi[8] and Kiswahili:

Unfahamu? [Do you understand?] Every order was shouted and accompanied by abuse. Ndio bwana. [Yes, sir.] (Afterlives, 60).

This is our Zivilisierungsmission. [] We have come here to civilise you. Unafahamu? [Do you understand?] (Afterlives, 65).

Among various other demeaning comments, we find “you are a bunch of washenzi,” (Afterlives, 51). where washenzi means “barbaric, indigenous from the mainland”;[9] don’t swing your hips like a shoga,” (Afterlives, 51), where shoga refers to “very close female friends”;[10] and hataki mavi yenu ndani ya boma lake, “He doesn’t want your shit inside his camp.” (Afterlives, 54).

Swahili is mixed with German in the phrase haya schnell, when Hamza is ordered to lower his suruali (“trousers”) in front of the medical officer. (Afterlives, 57). The Arabic bil-askari  (which means “like a proper soldier”) is highlighted as the exact mold in which the ombasha wants to train them. Specific threats also stand out vividly, such as “If it is not clean you will suffer kiboko na matusi in front of everyone, hamsa ishirin […] Twenty-five strokes of the cane on your fat buttocks.” (Afterlives, 58).

In fact, what remains in the aftermath of these entangled narratives are the many scars of “ignorance and narrowmindedness” (Afterlives, 105) and the overall culture of brutality that the writer recounts, happening in the so-called boma la mzungu (“the white man’s camp”) (Afterlives, 54) as well as in domestic contexts: a broken hand inflicted by an uncle in his own home as he believes that learning to write is wrong, or being slapped, ambiguously touched, injured, or accused of terrible misdeeds by the Feldwebel.

We see how “the brave little things” (Afterlives, 199) —like being able to write a note on a scrap of paper saying Kaniumiza. Nisaidie. (“He hurt me. Help me.”) or running off to war (Afterlives, 46, 199, 205–6) —enable one to drift somewhere else or rescue one’s own life. The novel indeed illustrates how the past is always at hand, and only time and love will be able to heal the scars and unite the wounded.

The scars after love

“So I don’t have any people to tell you about.  I lost them when I was very young and I don’t know what I can tell you about  … you want me to tell you about myself as if I have a complete story but all I have are fragments which are snagged by troubling gaps, things I would have asked about if I could, moments that ended too soon or were inconclusive.”

(Afterlives, 206)

In the last section of the book, the reader is immersed in the season of Ramadan, a period of fasting during which, in the novel, the scars will be recounted via the tender lovemaking and relationship between Afiya and Hamza. When Afiya slips into Hamza’s room, “whose door he had left ajar,” (Afterlives, 196) we hear more from both characters: “how brutal the culture was,” (Afterlives, 200) where the scar on Hamza’s hip comes from, and how he was healed by that “Frau Doktor” over more than two years in Kilemba.

Interestingly, the love story between the two characters starts with a piece of poetry that Hamza translates from German into Swahili, relying on the Musen-Almanach für das Jahr 1798 that the German officer had given him.

Hamza takes the first four lines of Schiller’s “Das Geheimnis” and translates them for Afiya:

Sie konnte mir kein Wörtchen sagen,                               Alijaribu kulisema neno moja, lakini hakuweza
Zu viele Lauscher waren wach,                                           Kuna wasikilizi wengi karibu,
Den Blick nur durft ich schüchtern fragen,                      Lakini jicho langu la hofu limeona bila tafuti
Und wohl verstand ich, was er sprach.                              Lugha ghani jicho lake linasema.

Recurring cycles

The final chapters map out the war between the UK and Germany that has started in September. It is a period in which the administration has started publishing the Kiswahili monthly newspaper Mambo Leo, in which the people read all sorts of news, sport and health issues included, because “the government wants all of us to be healthy so that we can work harder”; (Afterlives, 225) the content provides a counterpoint to local healing rituals, such as the hakim visiting Afiya’s son Ilyas and helping him to “drink” the Quran through verses washed from a glided plate, (Afterlives, 252) or the shekiya ceremony with its scented candles, incense burners, and “perfume, drumming and stupid wailing,” as Hamza would describe such “nonsense.”  (Afterlives, 255-57).

Despite Afiya’s superficial lack of interest in knowing what might have happened to the brother she lost, as if history can be conclusive—“What can we find out? […] What happened has happened” ((Afterlives, 202) —it is her son who, through German archival records, eventually traces Ilyas’s long journey to his death, which takes place in a concentration camp in 1942.  His request to view the archives of the magazine and photo journal Kolonie und Heimat, stored in Koblenz, allow us to discover that Ilyas was marching with the Reichskolonialbund, a Nazi Party organization that wanted the colonies back, restored to Germany.  To conclude, through Ilyas remarks “I knew nothing about a recolonizing movement,” (Afterlives, 271), we are duly invited to recall Giambattista Vico’s recurring cycles and reread how the Nazi Lebensraum did not only entail the Ukraine and Poland.

[1] BookRising. Yvonne Owuor on Abdulrazak Gurnah

[2] Latest from Meg Arenberg:

[3] Clarissa Vierke (forthcoming). “Zanzibari Worlds: A Relational Reading of Abdulrazak Gurnah’s By the Sea and Adam Shafi Adam’s Vuta n’kuvute.”

[4] Sean James Bosman (2021): Afterlives, Eastern African Literary and Cultural Studies, DOI: 10.1080/23277408.2021.1970872, p. 1.

[5] A picture of an Askari uniform, kept at the German Historical Museum, Berlin, can be found here: Photograph: John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images.

[6] Mohineet Kaur Boparai (2021). The Fiction of Abdulrazak Gurnah. Journeys through Subalternity and Agency. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, p. 2–3.

[7] Afterlives, 80

[8] Kinyamwezi is a Bantu language of western Tanzania. Being mother tongue of at least one million people, its main speaking-area is the town of Tabora. (Mganga, C. & Schadeberg, T. C. 1992. Kinyamwezi: Grammar, Texts, Vocabulary. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe.)

[9] Sacleux 1939: 602.

[10] Sacleux 1939: 843.

This review was published in Africa Book Link, Spring 2022

Charis Olszok, 2020: The Libyan Novel. Humans, Animals and the Poetics of Vulnerability | A Review by Caroline Janssen

For many people, the Libyan novel – and the country it represents – is largely a terra incognita, a place where ancient cartographers masking their ignorance would have written ‘hic sunt leones’ (‘here … there are lions’). This is regrettable; Charis Olszok’s study is a most welcome and relevant addition in the field of literary studies.

A basic understanding of Libyan history, in modern times, is essential to grasp the essence of its novels. The country itself is a modern construct. After the collapse of the Ottoman empire, Italians established two colonies in North Africa that were subsequently united into one state. Italian colonial rule (1911-1943) was replaced by a British military administration (1943-1951), after which one single king, Idris al-Sanusi (1951-1969) sat on the throne of the independent kingdom of Libya. His rule was overthrown by a military coup which brought Libya’s most influential and notorious leader to power: Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi. From 1969 until 2011, when he was deposed and killed, he retained a firm grip on the country. His ideologies, dictatorship and ruthless methods to stay in power, combined with the oil boom and rapid urbanization, reshaped the landscape and brought profound change to the every-day lives of the people of Libya. Although there was a flicker of hope for a more open society after his downfall, rival governments, factions and militias soon filled the void, creating an even more chaotic and unpredictable environment. Young authors who now started to write openly about atrocities and trauma, were bullied online and faced death threats. It is in such difficult circumstances that Libya’s creative writers sought to express their concerns in ways carefully laid bare in Charis Olszok’s ‘The Libyan Novel. Humans, Animals and the Poetics of Vulnerability.’

This book is not an easy read but I highly recommend it because it is important and enjoyable.

First of all, as said, it fills a real gap. Even among academics specialized in Arabic literature, Libyan novels have remained largely under the radar.

Second, the focus on poetic vulnerability is a fortunate choice because it opens windows for a better understanding of the realities of the Libyan population. This is not a dry overview of authors and their works; through the stories of novelists like Al-Nayhum, al-Kuni, al-Faqih, al-Ghazal, Razan al-Maghrabi and others, the beauty and the horrors of the country come to life. Charis Olszok opens up multiple perspectives and her work illustrates how reading contemporary fiction can help create awareness, empathy and sympathy. Her book offers an intimate if sometimes gloomy portrayal of the precarious lives of the people of Libya, of tribals and city dwellers, Arabs and blacks, and their struggles with poverty, oppression, environmental hazards, neglect and other issues, as unfolded by its novelists. It tells us how a population was ‘othered’ within its own land – as second-class citizens under colonial rule, and labelled as ‘stray dogs’, ‘rats’ or ‘cockroaches’ by its dictator. It shows us la condition humaine et animale in a country full of suffering.

Third, it highlights ‘narrative fragility’ in a world dominated by censorship and brutal repression. The author unfolds how in al-Qadhafi’s Libya, any reference to contemporary issues was a no-go zone for creative writers. In the name of revolution, libraries and bookstores were emptied and books were burned. Authors were stigmatised as ‘enemies of the revolution’ and maltreated. The political conditions affected their lives and had an impact on their creations. They could simply not describe the present in realistic terms. In response, they turned to the past, and used fantasies, symbols and allusions to express their concerns. Expect a book with dramatic story lines, fables, metamorphoses, transformations, hybrids, the suffering of all creatures, man and animal …. The relevance of this book exceeds the regional level. It is a book about the challenges of authors who are fettered by the chains of a totalitarian regime, silenced and oppressed, an example of a literature driven to the margin (as the author eloquently expresses it). It tells us the story of writers, who, faced with ‘difficulty of story’, find a refuge in ‘allegorical darkness.’ This book shows us the effects of oppression, pollution, deprivation and other calamities of modern times.

Fourth, the book reads as a celebration of overlapping cultural heritages. In Libyan literature, sources of inspiration range from prehistoric rock art to Tripoli’s Girl and Gazelle statue, from Genesis to folk stories full of jinns, donkeys and wolves, from the tales of Classical Antiquity to the Qur’an, from Arabic classics to World literature. This is also true for the orientation of this study. These heritages do not appear as separate entities, but form a stream in which cultures interconnect and intersect. Libya’s novels thus seem to be embedded in a continuum of texts. The citations at the beginning of the chapters draw upon different cultural layers and include sources ranging from the Qur’ān (There is no nation that crawls on the face of the earth, no bird on the wing, but they are nations like you (…) to Ovid’s metamorphoses (Libya became a desert, the heat drying up her moisture. Then the nymphs with dishevelled hair wept bitterly for their lakes and fountains); from Kafka (There I sleep the sweet sleep of tranquillity, of satisfied desire, of achieved ambition: for I possess a house) to Santner (It is almost as if one were to ask whether Benjamin’s angel of history was capable of a good laugh amid all that wreckage piling up before his eyes). These lines invite the reader to ponder on what follows, to practice slow reading, to sit back and relish.

Fifth, there is the image of Libya itself. The cultural and intellectual awareness of the novelists forms a sharp contrast with the lawlessness and chaos which have befallen the country ‘like a black plague’, which shapes the way the country is perceived abroad. It is an antidote against stereotypes.

Sixth, this book is an excellent piece of scholarship. It approaches Libyan literature with modern methods and insights from the field of literary studies, Arabic and Islamic studies, ecocriticism, animal studies and other fields of interest. One will find references to Barthes and other specialized reading, original Arabic terms in transliteration, and many cross-references. The bibliography is solid. Primary sources have been used abundantly, in Arabic and other languages. Libyan literature is not confined to the Arabic language but authors expressing themselves in other tongues are included as well.

Finally, Charis Olszok is not only a scholar with a PhD in Arabic literature and a person with a vision, she is also a gifted translator whose mastery of the language shines through the pages of this book. The choice of words and imagery is bold at times. The beautiful, dense and pregnant style lends it literary quality. Titles and subtitles have been crafted with care and tickle our curiosity (Introduction: A country of others; Part I: Survival, 1. Animal Fable in Novels of Survival; 2. The Primordial Turn; Part II Signs and Cityscapes: 3. A God’s Wide Land: War, Melancholy and the Camel; 4. Absent Stories in the Urban Novel; Part III: Children of the land: 5. Too-Long-a-Tale; 6. ‘Une histoire de mouche’: the Libyan Novel in Other Voices; Afterword: Breaking fevers and strange metamorphoses).

A few highlights may illustrate what has been said above and give the reader a first impression. The book opens with ‘Umar al-Kiddi’s (1959-) story ‘The wonderful short life of the dog Ramadan’. In it, a Libyan rescue dog stands in the spotlight. A Dutch lady pays a fortune to make him leave the country as an illegal migrant crossing to Lampedusa. His story goes viral and he becomes the hero of animal rights’ activists and the object of a commercial circus; when he dies, he is honoured, in the Netherlands, with a state funeral. It is the invisibility of all but the fate of this dog – the blindness for the suffering of humans – that lends the story its power. Inadvertedly, my thoughts drifted here when I read about the airlift of a group of cats and dogs from a shelter in Afghanistan, during the last days of the chaotic exodus of foreign troops, in August 2021, when so many vulnerable Afghan allies and collaborators were left behind.

Beautiful too is to see the literary fantasies surrounding the iconic statue of the (nude) Girl and the Gazelle, which dates back to the times of Italian occupation and used to sit in a fountain on the Gazelle Roundabout in Tripoli. The selected texts show how a beloved monument grows into a literary motif, that, like, e.g., camels, horses and wildlife depicted in pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, undergoes transformations in ever changing stories. Having read the book one fully understands the shock that was felt, when in 2014 the nude statue was veiled, hit by a mortar shell which left a hole in the girl’s stomach, and finally went up into thin air (was she destroyed? hidden somewhere, to salvage her?). That same year Muhammad al-Na‘as (1991-) wrote a short story which was awarded the Khalifa al-Fakhri prize in 2015. Its title, Majnun Ghazala (‘the madman of Ghazala/ the gazelle’), is reminiscent of Majnun Leila, an old story about a man who loses his mind over his infatuation with a woman named Leila (this story too has manifold interpretations, some of which with mystic dimensions). In Majnun Ghazala the naked woman caressing the gazelle becomes the focal point of a police man’s obsession. Having come from a village, he resents the city dwellers and is disturbed by the condemning and lusting gazes she attracts. In the cracks of the bronze he sees her desire to escape; in the eyes of the gazelle he reads a cry for help. His dream is to save them. The author observes: They all passed her by: Italians; Italianised Libyans; Arabised Libyans; Africanised Libyans and Libyanised Libyans. Four-wheel drives sped by, and men with clubs, Kalashnikovs and heavy artillery. People wrote for her and against her, and jokes and anecdotes were spun around her. A Shaykh in a mosque called for her to be covered with a niqab. Another called for her to be destroyed. An intellectual wrote a poem about her, and another wrote a story. And so the Arabs continued to quarrel over their women (p. 230).

This is just a small sample of what to expect. Readers be warned: the Girl and the Gazelle may have disappeared from the roundabout, but she can still crush your heart while lamenting the fate of her people. The book may sketch a gloomy picture at times, but it shows, above all, the resilience of creativity and the relevance of literary works for the cohesion of a modern society.

Prof. dr. Caroline Janssen (Ghent University)

This review was published in: Africa Book Link, Fall 2021

Young Blood (Catalyst Press, 2021) Sifiso Mzobe | A Review by Beverley Jane Cornelius

“I remember the year I turned seventeen as the year of stubborn seasons.” (7) So begins Sifiso Mzobe’s novel, Young Blood, which follows the turbulent coming-of-age of a young man, Sipho, over the course of one pivotal year in his life – the year that he is 17.

Describing the seasons as ‘stubborn’ because they did not quite follow the usual pattern, he attempts to explain how that year was different from all others. “Summer lasted well into autumn, and autumn annexed half of winter. It was hot in May and cold in November” (7). Weather is the least of his concerns, though; he is confronted, more pressingly, with the changes and choices that the inevitable cycles of life demand. Reaching a personal crossroads, as he unwittingly (perhaps naïvely) slides into the parallel reality of criminality and violence, Sipho considers the seasons of life that his father and his ancestors before him have weathered in order for them to reach a satisfying stage of maturity and contentment. To reach the next stage of his own maturity, Sipho must embark on a “troubled quest for identity” (Baldick 2008:35), which begins in this bildungsroman when he meets up with a childhood friend.

Musa has just returned to Durban from Johannesburg, ‘the City of Gold’, displaying signs of tantalizing new affluence: “His return from Johannesburg – dressed fresh in Versace, in a car considered the holy grail of BMWs in the township – was drenched in a glorious ‘I have made it’ glow” (15). The renewal of this friendship between Sipho and Musa, sets in motion a chain of events both exhilarating and terrifying and, in the telling of their tale, the novel explores the precarious lives of young men in urban contemporary South Africa. The juxtapositioning of these two characters allows for an examination of the various forces that can shape or sway young people as they develop: for example, the family unit and the community, positive and negative role models, education and sport, as well as spirituality or religion.

Sipho and Musa had become friends when they were boys. But despite being bright – “blessed with an absorbent brain” (34) – Musa has had little luck in life. His life contrasts in several important ways with Sipho’s. Sipho’s family is poor but both father and mother are present in his (and his younger sister’s) life, and they live together in a humble but orderly and loving home in the township. Musa, contrastingly, had come to live on the other side of the stream that separates the township from the ‘shantytown’ (an informal settlement called ‘Power’) with an ‘aunt’ (not, in fact, a blood-relative, but a friend of his late mother) and a number of other children, when he “lost both his parents to tuberculosis the year he turned ten” (33). In the kindly ‘aunt’s’ overcrowded household, Musa had grown up too quickly, then dropped out of school to leave Durban on a sudden whim: “I am going to Joburg. I hear things are better there” (35). He returns to Durban “a year and six months” (35) later, just as Sipho himself gives up on school.

Although Sipho, like Musa, also abandons his schooling, he is not cast adrift because he is ‘apprenticed’ to his father, a backyard (self-employed) mechanic. Sipho’s skills as a mechanic and as a driver would assure him a steady income. But those same skills become useful to Musa because, as becomes apparent when he returns to Durban, he is now a criminal involved with a sophisticated car-theft syndicate. Musa draws Sipho into the world of crime by using him – while paying him handsomely – to modify stolen cars, dismantle anti-theft devices, and to sometimes drive the getaway car on hijacking sprees. The lure of quick money and “the rapid upward social mobility that high-level criminal activity allows” (Wessels 2016:87) is too strong for Sipho to resist. Furthermore, the attractions of high-octane criminal life are understood in the novel as not only financially lucrative but, even more addictively, as a way of coming ‘fully alive’, albeit briefly. Infused with adrenalin, Mzobe’s detailed and exhilarating depictions of high-speed driving make plain the attractions of this car-focused, outlaw life:  whether it be at street ‘parties’ where drivers show off their skills – “drift, spin, do whatever. Bang your system to the maximum” (18) – or during terrifying rapid get-aways from hijackings and point-blank assassinations, or when simply cruising the highways and beachfront roads of the city.

Within months of Musa’s return to Durban, Sipho has succumbed to the dubious glamour of criminality and excess; and his life is on a downward spiral alongside his friend’s (who has already served jail time). But after facing several crisis points – such as the death of their fellow-thief, Vusi – and with the underlying foundation of love and support that his parents provide, Sipho is given the chance to turn his life around.

Because Sipho has the support of his immediate and extended family, he is able to benefit from their collective wisdom and experience. The importance of storytelling is foregrounded in Mzobe’s novel: Sipho is the recipient of experience and wisdom through the stories his father and uncles tell about themselves, about each other, and about their ancestors before them. But Musa does not have that benefit because he is fatherless, as are many of the young men in Sipho’s sphere: “Of the twelve houses in my street [he says], only two had father figures. Most of my friends in 2524 Close grew up without fathers” (64). However, for young men cast adrift in a country (and by extension, in a world,) where fathers are too often absent, Mzobe’s novel serves that same function: the function of ‘mentor’ to its readers; the novel serves the function of “time-binding”, which is the human process of transmitting the knowledge gained from experience, through the generations (Korzybski 1921).

Ultimately, and somewhat serendipitously, Sipho has the opportunity to turn away from crime – as his father had also done earlier in his life – and to, instead, turn to education and hard work as a more satisfying and meaningful way of life. This is what I most appreciated about this book, Mzobe’s ability to build the tension related to the fragility of the gangster’s hold on life, while simultaneously witnessing (through Sipho’s eyes) the beauty and sadness of ageing. In a scene near the end of the novel there is a tender moment when Sipho watches his father wash up after a day of hard work: “Maybe it was the shadows of the outside light on my father’s face. He was as meticulous as ever while he washed his hands, but that night I saw a frailty to his outline, a slowness to the whole process” (194). Whether Sipho chooses to ‘crash and burn’ or to, instead, slow down and live, is the question that draws the reader through the novel. At the end of “the year of stubborn seasons” (7), Sipho makes his choice.


Sifiso Mzobe is a South African author and journalist based in Durban, South Africa. Young Blood was his debut novel. First published in South Africa in 2010, the novel has garnered much love and accolade. It was the winner of the Herman Charles Bosman Prize for English Literature in 2011 and, in the same year, also won the Sunday Times Prize for Fiction, as well as the South African Literary Award (SALA) for First Time Published Author. Mzobe has since published a collection of short stories, Searching for Simphiwe (2020).

Young Blood is published by Catalyst Press: Vinton Texas in April 2021.


Beverley Jane Cornelius:



Baldick, C. 2008. Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford University Press: New York
Korzybski, Alfred. 1921. Manhood of Humanity. E P Dutton & Co: New York.
Mzobe, Sifiso. 2021. Young Blood. Catalyst Press: Vinton, Texas.
Mzobe, Sifiso. 2010. Young Blood. Kwela Books: Cape Town.
Wessels, Michael. 2016. “Sifiso Mzobe’s Young Blood: Spaces of getting and becoming in post-apartheid Durban”, Scutiny2, 21(1):87-101.

The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi (The New Press, 2020) / Kenda Mũiyũru: Rũgano rwa Gĩkũyũ na Mũmbi (East African Educational Publishers, 2018) | A Review by Annachiara Raia

So this is not history, it is a revelation;

A revelation of love
A revelation of hope
A revelation of perseverance
A revelation of bravery
A revelation of knowledge

Kwa ũguo rũũrũ ti hithitũrĩ ni kĩguũrĩrio

Kĩguũrĩrio kĩa wendo
Kĩguũrĩrio kĩa mĩwhoko
Kĩguũrĩrio kĩa ũmĩrĩru
Kĩguũrĩrio kĩa ũkamba
Kĩguũrĩrio kĩa ũmenio

After decades of producing fiction, plays, memoirs, and essays, earning thirteen honorary doctorates and a UCI Medal, distinguished professor of English and comparative literature and literary and social activist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o returns to the printed page to bring us the epic of his own people, and he does so for his first time in a fully-fledged poetic prose verse publication.

The title The Perfect Nine refers to nine daughters, who in fact were ten in number—hence, the “perfect nine.” It retells an origin myth: that of the founding parents of the Gĩkũyũ people’s ten clans, their mother Mũmbi and father Gĩkũyũ; the ten clans are named for their ten daughters, each of whom was matriarch of a clan.

Introduction: “The landscape was beautiful”

The book takes the reader to Kenya, and is set around Kere-Nyaga, the Gĩkũyũ name for Mount Kenya, which means “that which possesses brightness, or mountain of brightness” (Kenyatta 1953 (1938), 234).  Kere-Nyaga is the second-highest mountain in Africa (after Kilimanjaro, Tanzania), and is regarded as one of the mountains of the moon, a mythical mountain, where people are enabled to “perform their magic and traditional ceremonies in undisturbed serenity, facing Mount Kenya” (Kenyatta 1953 (1938), xxi). Deferring to the original name of Mount Kenya allows us to understand the mountain’s connection with the Supreme Being, called Ngai or Mulungu, whom the Gĩkũyũ address in prayers and sacrifices as Mwene-Nyaga, which means “possessor of brightness” (“Owner of Ostrich Whiteness”, ibid., 19). As later explained by the first president of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, “The mountain of brightness is believed by the Gĩkũyũ to be Ngai’s official resting-place, and in their prayers they turn towards Kere-Nyaga and, with their hands raised towards it, they offer their sacrifices, taking the mountain to be the holy earthly dwelling-place of Ngai.”[1] Kenyororokero na kehuroko kia Mwene-Nyaga—literally, “descending and resting- or dwelling-place of God” (Kenyatta, 1953 (1938) 234).

It is on the mountaintop of  Kere-Nyaga that God put the first man (Gĩkũyũ) and woman (Mũmbi), and “from where they surveyed the lands around” (wa Thiong’o 2020, ix). Of these lands, Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi arrived safely at a place called Mũkũrũwe-inĩ, remarkable for its landscape, which became their home and for which they chanted their gratitude to the Supreme Giver through a hymn interpolated into the epic—the first out of several that the epic features. The hymn is recited as follows:

Owner of Ostrich Whiteness, we praise you
For this brightness around us,
This soil, these rivers and numerous hills,
And these animals of different kinds.(Prologue, 11)
Mwene Nyaga nĩ twakũgatha
Nĩ ũthaka ũyũ wakenga ta kĩ,
Tĩĩri ũyũ njũũĩ na irĩma nyingĩ
O na nyamũ mithemba mĩingĩ
(Matemo, 8)

This beautiful hymn is a hymn to God, to life, and to nature, which is appreciated in all its beauty and complexity. After Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi’s hymn, the narrator offers his own hymn of gratitude, imploring the Supreme Giver to bestow peace on his heart so that he may recount the tale of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi and their Perfect Nine: “exactly the way the wind whispered it to my soul / when once / I stood on a hill watching swallows flying in the air” (Prologue, 11).


Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi’s nine daughters have no brothers, and their father and mother have taught them to do everything by themselves: how to make weapons, defend themselves, build houses; they are well rounded (“theirs was the union of mind, heart and hands”), and beyond that, they are beautiful. Their powerful self-reliance and wholesome beauty, which are known all over the world, make the perfect nine daughters “seem to be the original feminists” (wa Thiong’o 2020, x).

Not introducing the daughters by name would be an egregious oversight in any critical analysis of Ngũgĩ’s epic. Names, as the author himself asserts, are the first points of identity—followed by one’s mother tongue, which is a carrier of cultural memory. Their names are Wanjirũ (the oldest), matriarch of the Anjirũ clan who “it is said once put a curse on a hyena”; Wambũi, matriarch of the Mbũi clan, “who once rode a zebra to war and led an army to victory”; Wanjikũ, matriarch of the Agacikũ clan, who loves work, cares for her own personal freedom, and knows all about healing herbs; Wangũi, matriarch of the Thiegeni clan, who has been singing since she was in her mother’s womb, and whose voice all the birds to gather to hear; Waithĩra, matriarch of the Thĩra clan, who is very diligent, attentive, and fair; Njeri, matriarch of the Cera clan, who “reasons in search of justice”; Mwĩthaga, matriarch of the Ethaga clan, which swears by her other name, Nymabura, “a name given for her rainmaking powers”; Wairimũ, matriarch of the Thigia clan, who adds decorations to the pots she makes and patterns to the things she invents; Wangarĩ, matriarch of the Ngarĩ clan, who has the courage and quickness of a leopard, with similarly bright eyes; and Warigia, matriarch of the Mũyũ clan, the tenth of the daughters, whose name means “the last”, with crippled legs and extremely good with arrows; who gave birth, unmarried, at her parents’ home.

When the equally beautiful girls all come of marrying age, their father Gĩkũyũ goes back to the mountaintop to ask God to provide suitable husbands. It is then that, on waking one morning, the family finds ninety-nine men who have travelled to their home in Mũkũrũwe-inĩ from all corners of the world: “it was the beauty of the fame of these nine that brought them there” (ibid., 51)—the silhouette of an existing  beauty that, day after day and night after night, would never abandon their mind.

The ninety-nine decide to fight among themselves, and the last nine suitors remaining will wed the daughters. Swords are drawn and rivals challenged among the ninety-nine, each of whom begins claiming that his own home region is superior to the others (57). The ninety-nine men’s plan is not well received by the family of Mũmbi and Gĩkũyũ, who do not want any blood to be spilled over their daughters because, as Gĩkũyũ adds, “war destroys lives whereas peace restores” them, and while “the warrior and the warrior bring home trophies of tears (Mũrũi na mũrũi mainũkagia kĩrĩro, 38) / the peacemaker and the peacemaker bring home trophies of laughter (Wathayũ na thayũ mainũkagia mĩtheko. 38);  Mũmbi and Gĩkũyũ summon the ninety-nine—and others—to “embrace in friendship / to embrace the human within us / The human like the divine, has many names, but its / real name is Human” (61). Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi invite the men to build their own dwellings: “As soon as the sun appears in the morning, you begin. By the time the sun goes to sleep, you will have to put up ten huts. Nine men into each hut. And each of the huts will be named after one of the Perfect Nine” (69).

Soon a dispute has arisen among the daughters, who all find themselves with one particular man as their first choice. Mũmbi reproaches them recalling that “When the heart finds its target, the head will decide. Never fight over a man” (78). Consequently, several tests are given to each group of ten chaperoned by one of the nine daughters, like making clothes, climbing trees, starting a fire by drilling into hard stones or sticks, and throwing spears. The last day is a test of archery skills, during which Gĩkũyũ wants the men to show his daughters how good they are at shooting arrows straight into the eye of a tree. All the groups succeed equally, but once the shooting distance is increased, it is hardly possible to see the eye. Astoundingly, Warigia is the only one who manages to shoot one arrow after another, and each arrow hits the eye of the tree: “The men looked at each other, wondering how she could do this on crippled legs.”

Afterwards, Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi want the groups to embark on a journey to the mountain of the moon, to walk the path they had walked and drink the water they had drunk. The daughters and their respective groups are given a mission: to find Mwengeca, the king of human-eating ogres, who is said to have hair that grows in the very middle of his tongue. Gĩkũyũ tells them the following words: “I want you to wrestle him to the ground, capture his tongue, and pull out the hair. / The hair that cures all will restore full power to Warigia’s legs” (90).

The journey to the mountain of the moon sees the ninety-nine leaving home as “an immature lot,” and after a period spanning an untold number of weeks or seasons, those who have made their way back home are “a mature lot,” only nineteen in number (171). The ninety-nine have to face a plethora of challenges along the path to the mountain of the moon, from the minor irritation of mosquitos, red ants, and tsetse flies, to crocodiles and other humans, who pose the greatest danger of all with their machetes, spears, clubs, and arrows. Climbing the mountain and withstanding the cold is yet another challenge, but as the line reads, “There is no power stronger than the power of hope” (109).

The convoy’s first great achievement is when, determined to scale the mountain, they finally manage to arrive at the mountaintop, scoop up some of the white moon, and put it into their gourds, their fingers freezing as if bitten by the whiteness itself. While climbing down, they are described filling their gourds with holy water at the lakes, wonderfully mixing it with moon, and exclaiming “Victory, victory!”

There are six episodes dedicated solely to hostile encounters and fights with ogres of all species. The experiences they gain from those encounters and losses teach them a lesson, as they say on arriving home:

“And now we know that ogres don’t dwell in tales alone / And that, though different in types and colours, all are human-eaters. / Their challenges taught us that without continuous vigilance, we shall fall.” (172)

The first encounter is with a bodiless ogre with a magical tongue, who faces off against Wanjirũ and her own strong, arrogant, and defiant tongue (117). When his long, wide tongue wraps itself around the tree, Wanjirũ shouts “Now!” and arrows pin his tongue to the tree. The daughters pierce his eyes and pluck his magical hair, but do not hurt his body as they cannot see it. Itis Kĩhara who jumps on his magical tongue and pulls out the hair, prompting Mwengeca to “let out a blood-curdling scream” (118). “For Warigia!” Kĩhara shouts. The reader will discover only later (172–74) that pulling out the hair has restored the use of the beautiful legs of the last-born Warigia, who stayed home from the journey;

The encounter with the bodiless “Cure-All Ogre” Mwengeca is not the only duel that the groups face. In chapter 11, the reader witnesses another arduous duel, which on the one hand inspires sorrow for those who died—three men die when the ogre splits their heads against a tree—and on the other, admiration for one of the perfect nine, Wangarĩ, who, “trembling with rage and proud defiance” as the ogre of endless darkness is advancing toward her, causes the darkness to retreat ignominiously with her words, “I dare you to come near me, and I will clear you with the light of a leopard’s eyes” (126) while lighting a fire.

Chapter 12 opens with another mysterious encounter: a creature with three legs and three arms who breathes smoke and fire from his mouths and nose, incinerating all the plants around him. Mwĩthaga is asked as the price for letting them go, but instead, she suggests that her sisters climb a fig tree, a mythical tree in Gĩkũyũ culture, and, also assuming a position where the flames cannot reach her, Mwĩthaga starts mocking the creature by singing a rain song; she then chants further incantations to induce rain, and it starts raining. The epic describes the beautiful scene of “leaves amplifying the sound of rain.” Interestingly, the sound of the rain in the original Gĩkũyũ is rendered as cococococo, with the entire verse reading as follows: macoya thĩ magambage cococococo (87). This powerfully evocative sound combined with the rain itself makes the Ogre of Fire and Fury run away. Sadly, this duel also costs the group some losses: while the nine manage to run at a fair pace, some of the men are not able to run as swiftly, and die when the flames reach them. Their mourning reaches its apex in the line, “Our pain was deepened by our knowing that we could not stop to help them” (133).

Other ogres of the forest step on the feet of the nine daughters and their male troop during their journey, like the Ogre of Endless Tears, the Ogre of Floods, the Ogre That Shat Without Stopping, the Bloodthirsty Ogre and the Squint-Eyed Ogre—also known as the Ogre of the Big Bag, because it never fills up. The convoy also witnesses the transformation of one ogre into a vulture (wamahuru) and another into a large hyena (wamahiti), who begins following them.

One very symbolic chapter is chapter 16, titled “Ogres in White Masks,” which echoes Franz Fanon’s masterpiece Black Skin, White Masks. The convoy spots two attractive humans, a man and a woman, who resemble twins, with complexions the colour of chalk, chalk-white clothes, and long, straight, and soft-looking hair falling on their backs. Madness claims each of them as they begin to desire the duo’s chalk-hued beauty. Wanjikũ and Kĩhara are the only ones who stand firm, resist temptation, and prevent the others from becoming the slaves of “the ogres in chalky masks” (marimũ ma irembeko cia mũnyũ, 100). Wanjikũ’s words to her sisters contemplate and philosophize black beauty:

“Don’t despise the beads you are wearing for the ones worn by another. / Don’t give up the four in your hand for the eight in the hands of another. / Since when does chalk beauty beat black beauty? (Wamũnyũ aakĩririe Kairũ ũthaka rĩ?, 98) / How can we abandon the men with whom we have suffered / For somebody we don’t even know? / Chalk?  (Nĩ ũndũ wa mũnyũ mwerũ?, 99) / Have we forgotten the admonition from Mother Mũmbi? / Let our eyes return to those whose character has been proven by deeds.” (164–65)

The epic comes to an end with the blessings that Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi confer on each couple who bring the gourd and place it at their feet: “May this water wash away all impurities in the path of your life together” (177). Gĩkũyũ welcomes all the men, who are no longer strangers in the house. Every nine days, a marriage ceremony takes place: the first is that of Wanjirũ and Njirũ, while the last, the marriage of Warigia and Kĩhara, never takes place, eclipsed by a tragedy that takes Warigia’s husband-to-be.

Storytelling, language, and writing style

We encountered so many wonders that
Even now, as I recount these stories,
I feel I am talking about dreams, or
Nightmares that make one sweat on waking. (157)

The Perfect Nine
’s original language of composition is Gĩkũyũ, a Bantu language spoken in the area between Nyeri and Nairobi, Kenya. The Gĩkũyũ edition also includes digital pictures by Julius Maina. It is not the first work the writer has composed in his mother tongue[2]; he has been writing in Gikuyu since the 1970s. In fact, the turning point for Ngũgĩ came as he recounts it in several works (Decolonising the Mind and Birth of A Dream Weaver, “On Writing in Gĩkũyũ”) after he attended the Conference of African Writers of English Expression at Makerere University in 1962 where renown writers like Shaaban Robert –  writing in Swahili –  or Daniel O. Fagunwa – writing in Yoruba –  were not attending the conference of “African Writers” just because their works were not in English. Yet The Perfect Nine is Ngũgĩ’s first epic, whose original Gĩkũyũ title is Kenda Mũiyũru: Rũgano rwa Gĩkũyũ na Mũmbi (Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers, 2018).

The fact that we call this work an “epic” both helps and hinders us in comprehending the book’s genre, its verbal style and conventions. Approaching The Perfect Nine as an epic, the reader will certainly discern a few characteristics of the genre, such as its being poetic, narrative, heroic, and legendary (see Johnson 1980). On the other hand, the term used in the Gĩkũyũ title, namely rũgano,  sheds light on its other stylistic characteristics. Rũgano is the closest genre to fiction, Ngũgĩ explains, but it could also suggest a historical narrative. “Kũgana rũgano—‘to tell a story’—can mean either of those, but specifically means retelling of well-known stories such as fables. The art is in the telling, not the fact of the story. As the writer says in his acknowledgments, the story of the origins of his own people’s culture is a narrative that has been told and retold, like many other mythical tales (the story of Adam and Eve, the Genesis creation myth, Greek cosmogonical accounts, the Mande creation myth). As he once said, “This is our own story. I am retelling it in my own way.”

Ngũgĩ has gracefully recast this myth in poetic prose verse for the first time, by creating something completely new. On one hand, he continues his tendency with allegorical writing – already started in Matigari in which characters stand for all the veterans –  but on the other hand, he goes more decidedly away from realism and tries to create an all-time narrative, a myth of origin. The author reframes it in humanist terms – beauty, unity, humanism and peace – and typically epic virtues, like courage and stamina. At the basis of his retelling, he has used the quest for beauty “as an ideal of living, as the motive force behind migrations of African peoples. The epic came to me one night as a revelation of ideals of quest, courage, perseverance, unity, family, and the sense of the divine, in human struggles with nature and nurture” (Notes on The Perfect Nine, x).

The motif of quest and beauty, aside from being praised in the epic’s prelude, where the author tells about the fame of the nine’s beauty which spread  and travelled widely to Ethiopia and Egypt by means of nine ostriches who, with nine trumpets, announce the nine’s birth (see chapter 4, “The Wind and the Ostrich”), becomes palpable also at the very end of The Perfect Nine, where Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi powerfully proclaim, “Don’t look for me in wicked deeds, […] in theft and robbery, […] in senseless violence, […] in meaningless wars; Look for me in the water, […] in the wind, […] in love, […] in unity […] among the helping, […] among the oppressed, […] among the seekers of justice, […] among those building the nation in the name of the human.” (226–27).

This quest and call to find the beauty and the beautiful ones, aside being praised from the beginning, when for instance at the opening of chapter three, the author recites: “Those who had eaten more salt in this world tried to broker peace: Lay down your swords, young men. The beautiful one will always be born. Reasoning with the heart is better than rioting with the sword. Win hearts with good deeds, not with golden swords.” (23), both stands in contrast to, and is reminiscent of, the lack of beauty and reasoning with the heart that the Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah aimed to draw attention to in his The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1969), by which, rather than being surrounded with love, beauty, and justice, people were just overwhelmed by post-independence disillusionment at the devastating failures of political and social life.

In both authors, one can find a clear interest and profound interpretation of the phrase “The Beautiful One”. To Egyptologists, this epithet is a praise name for one of the most central figures in Ancient Egyptian culture, namely Osiris, who—as Ayi Kwei Armah notes in a preface to a new edition of The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born published by Per Ankh—represents “a sorrowful reminder of our human vulnerability to division, fragmentation and degeneration, and at the same time a symbol of our equally human capacity for unity, cooperative action, and creative regeneration.”[3]

Building on this quest for the beautiful one is Ngũgĩ’s own oratory and storytelling, which, as he says, draws from the wellspring of his own artistic imagination, and is an integral part of his creative expression. As attested elsewhere, the oral context of Gĩkũyũ literature and “its relevance to the building of our nation cannot be questioned”; “many people recognise that the development and the future of a nation depend on the ability of that nation to create a people firmly rooted in the best of its traditions. Such as people are proud of themselves as individuals and as a nation” (Mutahi & Kabira 1987, 1).

The stories of ogres (Ng’ano Cia Marimũ in Gĩkũyũ)—widespread among the Pokomo and Gĩkũyũ of Kenya and the Iraqw of Tanzania—as well as animal characters, like “brutes of prey” such as lions, leopards, and hyenas—are all familiar characters in oral literature, livening up storytelling evenings around the fireside without electricity during Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s own childhood at the house of his father’s eldest wife  in Kenya. The stories he listened to formed the cultural lens through which he could see and interpret man’s own struggles and victories in the real world.

As he narrates in his memoirs (see Dreams in a Time of War or Decolonising the Mind), during those evenings, “We children would re-tell stories the following day to other children who worked in the fields picking the pyrethrum flowers, tea-leaves or coffee beans of our European and African landlords. […] Our appreciation of the suggestive magical power of language was reinforced by the games we played with words through riddles, proverbs transpositions of syllables, or through nonsensical but musically arranged words. So we learnt the music of our language on top of the content” (Thiong’o 1986, 11).

Ngũgĩ’s alchemy of his own mother tongue, the music and magical power of his language, the “”sense of engagement”[4] that he finds when writing in Gĩkũyũ, can be exemplified in the epic, when the author has to translate the sound of the rain, expressed in Gĩkũyũ through the “nonsensical but musically arranged words” cococococo, untranslatable ideophone in the English rendition.

The writer’s care and sensitivity toward words and their melody are also discernible in other parts of the epic, with such verses as “the forests and the mountains echoed with the melodies and the words and the rhythms” (9).

The epic narrative is paused not only by several songs—to the Supreme Giver, the sun, the rain—but also by several wise sayings, like “One can never complain about that which one has freely chosen” (71), “Hurry hurry hardly gets things right” (116), or the powerful “Don’t burn your bridges” (209).

In their quest for beauty, the nine often serve as first-person narrators who, even when far from their parents on their daily adventures in the forest of the ogres, address Mũmbi and Gĩkũyũ in unison with the plural “you”: “from an early age you taught us to walk and run” (133); “As you always taught us, to every closure, there’s a disclosure” (139); “He was an ogre just like those under Mwengeca’s rule, or those you always told us about in our evenings of storytelling” (145).

One might wonder if and where there lies some political intent in his ardour to retell the myth of his own people, and we may dare to read between the lines a silent intent to decolonize the myth of the tribes and, by extension, the idea of beauty. The Perfect Nine reads also as a parable of humanism and tolerance, where through a political and social allegory, the writer is passing on the message to us. On the other hand, we can also consider political this great project to defy the novel and reconfiguring new narrative modes beyond it by exploring a poetic prose as its form, mythical characters as protagonists and a mythical landscape.

A desideratum for forthcoming editions of The Perfect Nine and other African-language books would be the publication of more bilingual editions (in Gĩkũyũ and Amharic, Arabic, Hebrew, Kiswahili, or Hindi)[5], in order to allow the republic of letters and translation to come ever closer to each other. May the epic of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi cross these bridges and travel beyond its homeland.


Ayi Kwei Armah. 1973 (1969). The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. London: Heinemann.

———. 1976. Wema Hawajazaliwa. Translation by Abdilatif Abdalla. Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers.

Biersteker, Ann. 2000. “Gikuyu Literature: Development from Early Christian Writings to Ngũgĩ’s Later               Novels” in Abiola, F. Irene & Gikandi, Simon (eds.) The Cambridge History of African and       Caribbean Literature, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 306–328.

Cantalupo, Charles. 1982. The World of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press

Thiongo, N. wa. 1985. “On Writing in Gikuyu.” Research in African Literatures 16.4: 151–56.

———. 1986. Decolonising the Mind. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

———. 2006. Birth of a Dream Weaver: A Writer’s Awakening. London: Harvill Secker.

———. 2010. Dreams in a Time of War. A Childhood Memoir. New York: Anchor Books.

Fanon, Franz. 1975.  Peau noire, masques blancs. Paris: Edition du Seuil.

Johnson, John W. 1980. “Yes, Virginia, There Is an Epic in Africa,” Research in African Literatures 11.3: 308–326.

Kabira, Wanjikũ Mũkabi & Mutahi, E. Karega. 1993. Gĩkũyũ Oral Literature. Nairobi: East African        Educational Publishers.

[1] Jomo Kenyatta’s work Facing Mount Kenya (1938) has been a source of inspiration for Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s writing. (See Biersteker, A. 2004.)

[2] To name but a few: the play co-authored by Ngũgĩ wa Miriĩ, Ngaahika Ndeenda: Ithaako rĩa Ngerekano (‘I will marry when I want’) (Nairobi: Heinemann, 1980) , the novel written while he was in prison Caitaani Mũtharaba-inĩ. (‘Devil on the Cross’) (Nairobi: Heinemann, 1980), Matigari ma Njirũũngi (Nairobi: Heinemann, 1986), and the heftiest novel in Gikuyu ever: Mũrogi wa Kagogo.

[3] The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, quoted in New African, August–September 2009.

[4] See the author’s own words and interview with Charles Cantalupo (The World of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press, 1982).

[5] The translation from Gikuyu in Swahili will be prepared by Ndirangu Wachanga and edited by eminent Swahili poet Abdilatif Abdalla. It will be published by East African Educational Publishers, Nairobi.