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.

Evan Maina Mwangi, The postcolonial animal. African literature and posthuman ethics | A Review by Inge Brinkman

In his new book, The Postcolonial Animal, Evan Mwangi studies the role of animals in contemporary postcolonial African literature. His aim is not to explore the way in which animals are used to represent human society, but rather more to show ‘how the animal shapes texts’ (vii), leading to a reframing of the human category. Mwangi does so from an interdisciplinary and a radical intersectional approach. In other words, he does not isolate animal studies, precisely because doing so would appear ‘to play down the problems African human populations have suffered under slavery, colonialism, and neocolonialism’ (25). So Mwangi does not accept the idea of a kind of ‘order of oppression’ (first colonized, then women, then animals…), but views these modes of oppression as interlocked, as intersecting and mutually constitutive systems of marginalization.

In this Mwangi is explicitly engaged with a ‘posthuman ethics’: his vision is that in the Anthropocene – defined as ‘the era that began when humans developed capabilities to alter geologically significant conditions and processes’ (19) – humans should take up the responsibility for the devastation they caused. At the same time, he is not sticking to ‘unnecessary binaries between humans and animals’ (ibid.). Writing from a personal interest as a vegan, his concern about meat-eating and the killing of animals is reflected in the book. On the one hand, the author is not all too radical in this, susceptible to African criticisms of the animal welfare movement as at best a Western elite affair, and at worst a racist discourse and practice that privileges animals over black fellow humans. And Mwangi is also aware of the limits of his own position; as he writes: ‘I am part of the system I am trying to replace’ (184). On the other hand, at times the vegan interpretation is taken somewhat too far. Thus Mwangi proposes to view the animal metaphors of the Swahili poet Haji Gora Haji not only as a means to criticise the greediness of the postcolonial elite, but also as a way ‘to promote vegan practices’, because a cat is advised not to steal vitoweo, a word denoting relish, side-dishes, and condiment (130). In this case, the vegan argument remains unclear and therefore appears as far-fetched to the reader.

Although the book brings together postcolonialism and posthumanism, it starts with a chapter entitled ‘Precolonial Ecological Practices’ in Africa. In this chapter, the author offers a critical assessment of the philosophical ideas of Ubuntu, seen as ‘creating a connection between each human and a broader affective ecosystem (34), but it is not clear in how far these ideas have developed as a postcolonial critique rather than actually forming part of Africa’s precolonial history. A similar remark can be made on the next chapter dealing with oral literature. As this mainly forms a reinterpretation of several children’s books (and, interestingly, Jomo Kenyatta’s Facing Mount Kenya), it is questionable in how far oral genres really form the basis of the chapter. While such choices may be defendable, the author does not sufficiently explain them. This also holds for the analysis of Black Midas, a novel by the Guyanese author Jan Carew. A brief remark is made about this: it is included mainly because the protagonist relates to his ‘African ancestry’ (176), but the analysis is in the end tied to the Guyanese landscapes and environment of the novel. Especially as some of the themes that are mentioned by Mwangi warrant more attention, it may have been better to keep the focus within the field of postcolonial African literature.

The author repeatedly warns against an image of the ‘noble savage’, holding that ‘attempts to recover a pure past also assume that precolonial African societies were static and perfect’ (49 (quote), also: 30-31, 51). With some statements about precolonial African ethics, however, the author hardly pays heed to his own warning. Thus, in Mwangi’s view, Kamba men could never have enjoyed hunting in the way Ernest Hemingway described it, unless Hemingway ‘had managed to co-opt some wayward locals in practices that would traditionally have been sanctioned against within the culture’ (48-49), implying a harmonious precolonial ethics ánd of all precolonial Africans always acting in line with these.

Despite these points to critique, Mwangi’s book is commendable for being innovative, creative, and thought-provoking. The analyses range from dogs to insects to whales, and offer insight into racism, sexuality, the postcolonial condition, queerness, and human-non-human relations. Given the author’s Kenyan background, it is logical that some East African examples are given, but the book also includes examples from South Africa, the Négritude movement, Cameroon, Nigeria, and other regions.

The text has some typos (e.g.: ‘Roach’ (Instead of Rouch, 101) and ‘postapatheid’ (156), and minor mistakes (e.g. translating the title of Pepetela’s O cão e os Caluandas (spelled without tilde) as The Dog in Luanda), but this does not diminish the highly readable writing style. All in all, this book is of interest for all those involved in postcolonial African literatures, ecocriticism, and the posthuman turn.

Evan Maina Mwangi, The postcolonial animal. African literature and posthuman ethics (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press 2019). ix + 273pp, notes, bibliography, index, 4 figures.

Prof. dr. Inge Brinkman (Ghent University)

Un entretien avec Celestina Jorge Vindes de Pépite Blues | Amber Frateur & Adja Sy

C’est le mardi 8 Septembre 2020, un après-midi nuageux dans le quartier Matongé de Bruxelles que nous avons le plaisir de parler avec Celestina Jorge Vindes, propriétaire de Pépite Blues. Pépite Blues, qui se trouve à la rue Anoul 30, est une librairie et un espace culturel où les afro-littératures sont mises à l’honneur. Celestina Jorge Vindes nous accueille et nous répond généreusement et profondément quand on l’interroge sur cette librairie et espace culturel qui incarne beaucoup d’intentions.


Pourquoi cette librairie? Quelle est son importance et quelles sont ses origines ?

Ça remonte au fait d’aimer la littérature et que de ne pas retrouver des livres que l’on a envie de lire dans les autres librairies ; en tout cas pas autant qu’on en a envie et pas dans la lumière dans laquelle on a envie de les voir. C’est l’amour de la littérature. Mais aussi l’idée qu’il y avait des histoires et des vies qui n’étaient pas représentées dans notre espace public et avec la conviction profonde que c’est aussi une partie de nous. Ce n’est pas comme des histoires exotiques que j’avais envie de ramener ici. Ce sont nos histoires et nos vies que j’avais envie de mettre à côté des autres histoires et des autres vies ici. Je pense que c’est un besoin qui est ressenti par de plus en plus de monde. En tout cas, moi, j’ai créé l’espace dans lequel j’aurais aimé aller, voilà.

Il y a surement beaucoup qui ont ressenti ce manque mais quest-ce qui vous a poussé à prendre initiative et ouvrir la librairie ?

Je pense que beaucoup de gens ressentent cette absence dans l’espace public mais je crois que chacun le ressent selon sa sensibilité. Ma sensibilité c’était la littérature. Et je pense que la littérature est un moyen par lequel on se rencontre et on fait connaissance et donc lire ou écrire ce n’est pas seulement un rapport aux mots – évidemment plus les mots sont beaux mieux c’est – mais ce n’est pas juste des jolis mots. Ce sont des expériences, ce sont des imaginaires, c’est un rapport au monde. J’avais envie et besoin de partager les univers littéraires et pensées issus de l’Afrique et de ses diasporas. Il y a pour moi comme une  nécessité à cela. Ni un luxe, ni un privilège et encore moins quelque chose de superflu.

Et, cette librairie est pour qui ?

Là, c’est une bonne question et je suis heureuse que vous me la posiez parce qu’en un an et demi que personne ne me l’a jamais posé. Parfois moi je prends l’initiative de le dire, mais en fait, c’est pour tout le monde (rit). Pour tout le monde. Pour toute personne qui pense que les gens ne vivent pas dans un monde à part. Tous ceux qui pensent qu’on peut construire un monde ensemble et qu’il n’y a pas plusieurs mondes parallèles. Il peut y avoir des mondes parallèles, mais les conséquences de ces mondes parallèles seront quand-même collectives. Et à partir d’un moment, il faut qu’on ait des espaces où se rejoignent nos différents mondes. On y gagne tous, certains y gagnent à se connaître un peu plus eux-mêmes, à voir leur reflet dans le miroir. Et d’autres y gagnent à connaître un peu plus d’autres personnes et de découvrir que ce qu’ils pensaient ne pas être leur reflet dans le miroir, l’est aussi en fait. C’est une question d’identité. L’identité, moi j’aime bien ce mot parce que – et je crois qu’on oublie toujours – il y a deux parties dans ce mot : il y a le même et l’autre. Donc, c’est pour tout le monde.

Qui sont les clients ?

Concrètement c’est tout le monde. C’était le but et je suis heureuse. Il y a aussi beaucoup de jeunes – des jeunes des tous les horizons. C’est quelque chose qui me plait. Quand je disais que j’avais envie d’être dans un lieu comme ça, ce n’est pas seulement moi en tant que femme noire, c’est tout autant qu’en tant Belge et ainsi de suite.

Pouvez-vous nous parler de la philosophie derrière la sélection de votre catalogue ?

Il y a deux choses auxquelles je fais attention. La première est évidemment qu’il y ait de la diversité de genre : qu’il y ait des livres d’art, les livres enfants, des albums jeunesses, de sociologie, de philosophie, des romans etc.. L’autre critère : ce ne sont pas nécessairement des livres avec lesquels je vais être toujours d’accord. Ça c’est très important pour moi qu’il y ait aussi de la diversité d’avis. Mais, quand même pas quelque chose qui véhicule quelque chose de négatif comme des stéréotypes. Ça c’est quelque chose qui me fatigue. Si ce mot n’était pas aussi chargé aujourd’hui, j’aurai dit que la perspective décoloniale est très importante pour moi. Mais, ce mot est tellement chargé aujourd’hui qu’on ne sait pas ce que les gens mettent dedans. Pour moi, décoloniale c’est tout ce qui déconstruit les rapports de domination qui partent de l’époque coloniale. C’est vraiment cette idée de déconstruction qui m’intéresse, dans le sens où on fait partie d’un monde qu’on pensait donné, qu’on pensait évident et puis on est mené à questionner toutes ces évidences, tout ce que nous croyons. Mais, je n’ai pas besoin d’être d’accord avec tous. Mais, j’ai besoin quand même qu’il y ait une dimension de recherche et de la construction de quelque chose. Et déconstruire pour moi ce n’est pas détruire. C’est questionner pour reconstruire quelque chose d’autre, quelque chose de mieux, de souhaitable.

Que voulez-vous dire par le fait que le mot ‘décolonial’ est très chargé? Qu’est-ce que vous mettez dans ‘décoloniale’ ?

Le fait colonial est une manière de vivre dans ce monde avec une certaine domination – après que vous appeliez ça coloniale, ou que vous appeliez cela autrement – c’est ce type domination qu’il faut renverser. Je ne vois pas ce qu’il y a comme avantage de vivre dans un monde – pour qui que ce soit : pour les blancs et les non-blancs – je ne vois pas quel avantage il y aurait de vivre dans un monde colonial. Parce qu’il n’y a pas de sécurité pour personne dans ce monde-là. Il n’y a de paix pour personne dans ce monde-là. Donc, moi, je pense qu’on se méprend sur le terme ‘décolonial’ qui est de croire les peuples tenus pour subalternes veulent prendre le dessus ou se venger de l’histoire.  C’est le souhait de vivre en égaux, et surtout que leur humanité et leurs droits ne soient plus questionnés ou remis en cause. L’idée est donc de  justement proposer un monde avec plus de justice. Décoloniser les sociétés, les imaginaires, c’est pour mieux penser la justice sociale.

Est-ce que vous faites des collaborations ?

Ça dépends. Cela arrive que je travaille avec des organisations, des associations, quelques institutions. Ça dépend. Là, par exemple, j’ai réalisé un événement la semaine dernière avec Malcolm Ferdinand autour de son livre Une Écologie Décoloniale – excellent ce bouquin ! Un livre très très très très important, vraiment. Je l’ai organisé en collaboration avec Présence et Actions Culturelles. Donc, quand je pense que ce sont des institutions ou des organisations qui sont en convergence avec ce monde commun que j’essaie de construire, avec grand plaisir. Mais bon, au fil des ans, j’ai aussi décidé de choisir mes partenaires. Au début, en tout cas, j’avais un côté un peu naïf: me disant si quelqu’un travaille sur ces questions-là, c’est que forcément il y a aussi cet horizon de justice sociale. Mais en fait, ce n’était pas tout à fait le cas. Maintenant je prends un peu plus le temps de connaitre les institutions avec lesquelles je travaille.

Pouvez-vous nous parler du pourquoi vous avez consacré autant d’attention et d’espace pour la sélection jeunesse ?

Oui. C’est l’une des sections – alors, elles sont toutes importantes, toutes les sections me sont chères – mais le rayon jeunesse m’est particulièrement cher. Je vais vous donner un exemple. Une fois – donc, ça fait un petit moment que j’ouvre à midi, mais auparavant, j’ouvrais à 11 h. Une fois, j’arrive ici le matin, je suis arrivée à 9 h parce qu’il m’arrive de venir un peu plus tôt et puis j’ai trouvé une dame qui attendait-là alors que j’ouvre deux heures plus tard. Elle est entrée en trombe, elle m’a dit : “est-ce que vous avez une section enfants?” Elle voulait prendre plein de livres. Et donc, je lui ai demandé un petit peu, car j’aime bien discuter avec les gens et elle m’a dit qu’avec sa petite fille, elles avaient pris un livre à la bibliothèque et il y avait une noire dans ce livre. Et comme c’était la première fois, sa petite fille de deux ans a eu peur. Donc, ça dit un peu quelque chose, je pense que le fait de se voir, ou ne pas se voir dans l’espace public construit des imaginaires différemment. Qu’est ce qui peut bien se passer pour qu’elle ait peur ? Ça dit quand même quelque chose. On parlait tout à l’heure de visibilité : d’absence, de présence. Ça dit quelque chose quand même. Cette mère est super, elle emmène son enfant à la bibliothèque. Et pour une fois qu’elle voit un noir dans un livre, elle dit “Géniale! Je vais prendre”, sa petite fille a peur. Voilà, il y a ça. Et puis, je pense que le fait de se voir permet de se construire. On a besoin encore du semblable et du différent, même quand on construit son identité. Ça permet aussi de ne pas être étonné quand, un jour, si son médecin est noir, le petit garçon blanc ne va pas être aussi étonné parce qu’il l’a vu dans un livre. Ce serait normal. Beaucoup de personnes adultes doivent se déconstruire, mais les enfants doivent se construire. Et donc, ma section jeunesse, c’est pour accompagner, donner et mettre sa petite pierre à l’édifice dans la construction des enfants de notre société.

Donc, pour vous, les livres créent des mondes et des possibilités ?

Exactement. J’aime bien le mot ‘possibilités’. C’est très drôle parce que c’est un mot que j’aime beaucoup utiliser. C’est vraiment ça. C’est ouvrir. Ça ouvre le monde, en fait, ça l’élargit.

Comment observez-vous les gens utiliser l’espace de la librairie ?

J’aime bien l’idée de ‘maison’. Il y a deux choses : au début, pendant presque une année, j’ai déjà eu des personnes qui sont rentrées ici en pleurant. Des adultes. Ça me rendait aussi émue. C’était de se dire on avait un espace qu’aurais jamais cru avoir. Et du coup, ça me rendait si émue. Et puis aussi, la deuxième partie, c’est de voir combien de personnes, celles qui viennent de plus en plus ou celles qui ne viennent pas, m’appellent pendant le COVID. “Qu’est-ce qu’on doit faire ?” “Qu’est-ce qu’on peut faire ?” “Est-ce qu’on doit donner de l’argent ? Et on viendra chercher des livres après ? Histoire que la librairie tienne.” “Si tu as besoin d’aide, appelle.” C’est vraiment devenu une communauté de la librairie. C’est notre librairie. Et moi, j’ai envie que les gens se l’approprient. J’aime bien l’idée aussi que quand on vient ici, on ose poser des questions. J’ai déjà été dans des espaces où on est mal à l’aise de poser certaines questions. Ici, parfois, il y a des débats où il y a des gens qui ne sont pas d’accord, y en a qui sont d’accord et on le dit et on en discute. Et ça, c’est très important pour moi qu’on se sente suffisamment à l’aise et suffisamment bien, qu’il y ait cette idée de maison, communauté de la librairie et une communauté très diverse, pas une communauté homogène. J’aime le fait que les gens s’approprient l’espace. Je n’ai pas spécialement envie moi d’incarner cette librairie. J’ai envie que, justement, cette communauté l’incarne. Le fait de partager tout ça, c’est de partager une vision du monde, mais aussi des visions des gens qui nous ont précédés.

Comment avez-vous vécu le confinement et la fermeture des librairies dû à la pandémie du COVID-19 ?

J’ai essayé de stresser le moins possible. Honnêtement, plus que le matériel, c’est vraiment les personnes. Les personnes me disent : “Écoute, si tu as des problèmes, nous sommes là. On va venir renflouer les caisses et ensuite on viendra, on verra sur le long terme, on ira chercher les livres.” Rien que ça. Ou “comment tu vas?” ou “est-ce que tu as besoin de quelque chose pour la librairie ? Nous sommes là”. Rien que ça. C’est ce qui m’a permis de ne pas trop m’inquiéter. D’où le fait que je disais que c’est une communauté de la librairie. Et encore une fois, ça venait vraiment de tous les côtés. Ça m’a beaucoup touchée. C’était beau, un beau monde.

Quelles sont vos souhaits, votre vision pour le futur de l’espace ?

L’espace n’a pas encore son format définitif. Je voudrais une partie néerlandaise, et anglophone plus grande que celle que j’ai. Elle a commencé à grandir. Maintenant, il y en a suffisamment pour que je commence à les introduire sur les autres étagères. Donc, ça, c’est le souhait à court terme qui fait partie vraiment de la constitution de la librairie parce que l’idée aussi était celle-là : néerlandais, anglais, français. Je me suis dit on est quand même à Bruxelles, en Belgique et que finalement, le monde commun c’était aussi ça ? J’ai envie, évidemment, que tout le monde se sente le bienvenu. Et qu’il y ait aussi plus de livres en langues africaines – ça, c’est aussi quelque chose sur laquelle je travaille. Pour l’instant, on a une maison d’édition Belge qui travaille dans des langues congolaises. Ça, c’est super, mais je voudrais en avoir plus ; d’avoir toutes ces langues aussi, c’est quelque chose qui fait partie intégrante du projet. Et vraiment, continuer de recevoir des auteurs. Jusqu’à présent, il n’y a pas un seul auteur que je peux dire “Celui-là, c’était génial et l’autre un peu moins.” Tous, tous, tous m’ont emporté. C’était à chaque fois des tourbillons. C’était des gens entiers en termes d’engagement et d’idées. C’était à chaque fois très riche. J’ai hâte que ça continue. C’est vraiment quelque chose que j’ai envie de plus en plus de vivre – et pas seulement de le vivre, de le partager aussi. Du coup, voilà ça, ce sont les perspectives pour l’instant.

Merci pour la générosité !

Merci d’être venues !

Pépite Blues, rue Anoul 30, Ixelles (Bruxelles)

Adja Sy & Amber Frateur (diplômées en études africaines à l’université de Gand)

Khama’s rebellion against history | A Review by Gitte Postel

In the driest region east of the Okavango, the Amakanko live a quiet life with their cattle, their gods and their ancestors. That is until Khama’s father, the bravest hunter between the Zambesi and the Cape, is killed by an elephant. According to custom, Khama’s uncle marries his widowed mother and takes over the household. For some reason however Khama hates his uncle, and decides to rebel against him – him and everything else.

So far, this could have been just another coming of age novel. Khama’s rebellion, however, is not the revolt of an ordinary adolescent, it is the start of a new empire. Neither is the setting just another time and place, it is the early 19th century in the Northern parts of what is now South Africa. A prolonged period of drought was scorching the country at the same time as Dingane, king of the Amazulu, terrorises his neighbours, outsiders came to plunder gold and slaves, and the first light-skinned trekkers arrived in long caravans of ox-drawn carriages, in search for a new place to settle. In these chaotic times, when many tribes started to wander and were scattered in search of water, food and safety, kingdoms were destroyed, others came to life and in the end were destroyed again – or, at least, restrained.

Khama is one of those people who knows an opportunity when he sees one. The moment his father dies, he vigorously starts training his fighting and running skills. After that he goes into hiding in the hills and in a spectacular scene steals the two young people who are meant to be sacrificed to the sun-god Mlimungu before the Amakonko men start searching for greener pastures with their cattle. Apparently Khama could not have found a better way to position himself as the future leader, the one who will do everything differently. From out of nowhere, people flock to him in his hiding place in the hills, his army almost building itself.

To some of us, readers, certain questions may arise at this point. So far we have, a little puzzled, been following Khama in everything he has been doing, expecting an explanation at some point. What exactly is it that Khama is revolting against? And how is it possible that his new allies can find him in the hills, and his enemies (of which he has many) can’t? Why do these people come to follow him anyway? He did not campaign, he did not advocate his cause. The only thing he did in public, was steal the food out of the mouth of Mlimungu, which was seen as an outrage. And why did he choose to rescue these youngsters from this cruel ritual? It is not as if Khama dislikes violent methods: he has his own soldiers eaten alive by black ants for falling asleep during their night shift, not to mention the horrors his enemies have to endure. But even in the long run, this novel does not give many answers. We hardly ever get to know what Khama thinks, we only follow him in his footsteps. We witness the birth of an empire and learn a few things in the process: how to fight, how to make arms, how to catch and prepare a hippo, how to build a hut, how to drill an army and enforce loyalty, how to intimidate the enemy at the battlefield when you are a woman, what it means to be faced with a Koyoyo challenge when you are Amakonko; and most of all: how to defeat an army that is bigger than yours. Maybe Khama did not need a real reason to revolt, maybe he just needed the opportunity, as many people who lust after power do. Or maybe we readers do not need to know his reasons. We only need to know what happened.

Khama, the novel, is probably a small revolt in itself. In 2003 Stanley Gazemba won the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature in Kenya with The Stone Hills of Maragoli (later republished in the United States as Forbidden Fruit). In this novel and several of his short stories he writes about life in rural Kenya and in the slums, giving voiceless people a beautiful voice in clear, fluent sentences. But Khama is different. Here Gazemba’s sentences are still beautiful and fluent, but more lofty. And where the characters in The stone hills open themselves up to us readers, so we can identify with them as we are used to, Khama and his friends seem to have another purpose.

Did Khama ever exist? Probably not. The publisher claims he is loosely based on the historical figure of Shaka, but the strange thing is that Shaka is also mentioned in the novel and Khama is very close to killing Shaka’s successor Dingane (here called Dungane) when the latter stands peeing in a nearby bush –  a deed that would certainly have changed the course of history. Actually, it does not matter whether or not he existed in real life. In an interesting ‘epilogue’ the story of how Khama’s empire came to an end, fictional or not, is integrated in the very non-fictional story of (cultural) dispossession in South Africa. This all makes sense if we perceive Khama as one of those African novels that is linked to a tradition of oral storytelling, by combining the real contemporary world and real history with myth and a fictional hero. The idea is that between the reader (or listener) and his or her perception of the world, the writer (narrator) creates a fictional hero who corresponds to history but is not history, so he can act as a metaphor that is larger than life.

As such, Khama serves as a metaphor for forgotten history. In the early nineteenth century there might have been one or two leaders who were called Khama, but it is quite a challenge to find any detailed information on them, which of course may prove every point that could be made about historical amnesia. Khama, as a novel, rebels against the historical mainstream, against ‘the historical old literature that [children had to] cram by root at the Mission School’ after Khama (or others like him) was forced to sell his land to mining companies desecrating the caves where the tombs of the Great, laden with gold, were hidden, guarded by spirits with flaming eyes – who surprised everybody by not showing their wrath. The story of Khama’s golden days, claims the narrator, could have been one of the stories that were told around campfires in the evening, ‘in the way history was written in the old days’. But alas, the empire building days were over, and there were too many other, more stunning stories to tell.

Khama (2020), Stanley Gazemba. New York:The Mantle, 147 pages, paperback ($14.95) | ebook ($4.95)

Dr. Gitte Postel (Independent translator)

Outside the Lines | A Review by Aneesha Puri

Ameera Patel’s Outside the Lines, situated in contemporary Johannesburg, South Africa is a raw depiction of the intermeshed nature of political and personal realities and the human connections, dreams, aspirations of choice and self-alienation that exist in their gaps and fissures. The author dexterously manages a seamless storytelling experience despite the ever-shifting narrative voices that flit between the consciousness of five characters from three different races, each having their own religious affiliations and emotional baggages that constitute their psychological interiority.

Cathleen Joseph is an embodiment of the typical, white teenage angst that one has come to identify with the iconic representation of Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. This is delineated right in the beginning of the novel when Cathleen surveys a bar and the narrative voice nonchalantly remarks, “The girls in line are all dressed the same. They’re everything that’s wrong with the world. Identical and scratching away at their individuality to become one pus-filled blob.”

On the other hand, Cathleen’s nuanced character portrayal and her bone-chilling encounter with the world of crime, courtesy of her drug addiction, become a commentary on her father, Frank Joseph’s, inadequate parenting and the dysfunctional family dynamics that they find themselves in after the loss of Cathleen’s mother and their deteriorating financial circumstances.

Flora, the Zulu maid of the Josephs, is a finely etched character who finds herself straddling the choices she has made and the ones that have been denied to her owing to her race, class and gender. Her attraction to the newly recruited, mute painter Runyararo, often compels her to re-assess her disempowered status as the single mother of a teenage boy, while inhabiting a small room filled with Josephs’ castoffs in a deserted corner of their house.

Runyararo, who has recently arrived at Johannesburg from Zimbabwe to find work and send money to his family back home, is representative of immigrant marginalization. Occupying the lowest social rung renders him susceptible to exploitation in a society where the gap between the haves and the have nots is openly brazen.

Farhana, an Indian Muslim girl whose romantic involvement with Flora’s son Zilindile results in pre-marital pregnancy, struggles to mentally and emotionally liberate herself from the reins of patriarchal tutelage as she embarks on a future ridden with uncertainties.

Lies, subterfuge and a sheer stroke of bad luck, inextricably intertwine these five lives, leaving the characters to make sense of a reality that is slowly slipping out of  their hands, one moment at a time.

Representing inter-racial and cross-cultural relationships, this genre-agnostic novel is an amalgamation of dark comedy, domestic saga, and crime thriller. It deploys the lens of intersectionality to explore the vulnerability of each character as their everyday lives unwittingly become fraught with crime, leading to an emotional paralysis they are not equipped to handle. Apart from rare moments of reverie, a sense of tragic inevitability hovers over the universe of the novel.

All the characters seem to be caught in an uncomfortable zone characterized by indecisiveness and yearning for oblivion. Patel’s middle-aged characters – Frank Joseph, Flora, and Farhana’s mother, Mrs. Bhamjee – are single parents, and find themselves trapped between the clashing cultures and alternating perspectives created by changes in their financial states and geographical relocations.

The exigencies of living compel them to travel to unchartered domains in an era where there is a constant battle between cultural standardization and heterogenization. They are expected to carry the burden of this disharmony as they try to grapple with newly available opportunities, while the traditional hierarchies of class, gender and race lurk in the background and manifest themselves in insidious forms.

Their children, Cathleen, Zilindile and Farhana, are partly haunted by the choices of their parents and seem to be claustrophobically stuck in a never-ending cycle of repression, both as perpetrators and victims. For all their purgatorial experiences, there is a conspicuous lack of self-awareness and failure to confront the crisis at hand.

Given the predetermined nature of the novel’s universe and the pessimistic tenor of the narrative voices, it is not surprising that the novel ends as it begins, with the protagonists’ failure to probe deeper into the overwhelming chaos or their persistent and almost unconscious desire to latch onto the current state of affairs.

Patel refrains from maudlinism and the characters’ tragic trajectories are represented in a visceral manner without any attempt to poeticize or render their grief aesthetically appetizing for easy consumption. In fact, baser human instincts and cruder impulses are vividly portrayed in the storyline, which not only adds to the verisimilitude of the narrative, but makes it blatant that there will not be an easy, cathartic exit for readers after finishing the novel. These characters will live on and take a life of their own in readers’ minds.

Outside the Lines (2020), Pacifica, CA: Catalyst Press, 164 pages (Originally published by Modjaji Books in 2016)

Aneesha Puri (Jesus and Mary College, Chanakyapuri, Delhi University, India.)

(This review was originally published on The Mantle platform, September 2, 2020)

Yellowbone, Ekow Duker | A Review by Beverley Jane Cornelius

Two strangers from Mthatha (South Africa) cross paths in London when they become embroiled in a well-to-do family’s argument about an antique violin (a 300-year old family heirloom). Consequently, when the violin is stolen, both South Africans travel to Nsawam (Ghana) – one returning to an ancestral home, the other hoping for a sublime musical experience – where each is compelled to confront personal crises; while the fate of the violin affects the fate of all concerned.

Yellowbone (2019) is the story of those two strangers, Karabo Bentil and André Potgieter, as they endeavour to find a sense of belonging in the world. It is a novel in three parts: each part named after the city in which the action takes place as the narrative follows its protagonists from Mthatha in South Africa, to London in England, and then on to Nsawam in Ghana.

Neither Karabo nor André have ever experienced a sense of being ‘at home’ either in a body, in a family circle or community, or in their country of birth. Through these two characters – a light-skinned girl with questionable parentage, and an eccentric, gay musician who ‘sees things’ – and within the multiple contexts of South Africa, England, and Ghana in the 21st century, the novel explores what it means to be different, or to be ‘in-between’. André Potgieter is estranged from his English father and must escape his Afrikaner mother’s cloying protectiveness so that he can confront that which makes him special and unique: not only his musical talent, but his synaesthesia, too. (The psychological term ‘synaesthesia’ refers to the phenomenon of a secondary sensory experience that occurs in addition to the sense being stimulated. For example, the experience of words and letters having colours. In this fictional character’s case, hearing exquisite music enables him to ‘see’ angels.) Karabo Bentil, brought up in South Africa by her fiercely protective mother, feels a longing to go ‘home’ to Ghana, her father’s place of origin. Ultimately, although their juxtaposed (and increasingly entangled) journeys become ever-more chaotic, they each arrive at a moment of clarity, which provides a point of departure to their respective futures.

These are weighty issues. However, the novel does not take a heavy-handed approach, nor does it become bogged down in its subject matter. With its quick pacing and use of satire, the novel entertains first, and enlightens second. Ekow Duker’s Yellowbone has a delicate balance: a book with profound and timely themes presented in the entertaining form of a rollicking crime-thriller, adventure-story, and quest narrative. The plot constantly prompts the reader to ask ‘what next?’, while simultaneously initiating serious thought about identity, gender roles, education, and im/migration. Identity is explored in terms of physical appearance, family lineage, cultural heritage, and nationality. Women characters challenge restricting gender roles, and the ever-present threat of sexual abuse. The role of education and the effects that knowledge have on an individual’s self-esteem and prospects is questioned; while the African migrant experience, within the continent and in Europe, is foregrounded.

The three parts of the book – Mthatha, London, Nsawam – are presented as instalments, each with a distinct tone that reflects the gradual emancipation of the protagonists:

We first encounter Karabo and André in Mthatha, although the two characters do not know each other at this stage (they meet for the first time in London much later in the narrative). In this section, in chapters that focus alternately on Karabo and then on André in turn, the atmosphere for each of them is claustrophobic.

Karabo Bentil adores her father, Kojo, a mathematics teacher. She is the ‘yellowbone’ of the novel’s title, a term used to refer to her light complexion. Her appearance earns her either favour or disdain, but seldom indifference from local society. And Karabo’s skin-tone is all the more noteworthy because it is not only lighter than that of her mother, Precious, but is in sharp contrast to that of Kojo, her father.

For Karabo, herself, this contrast in skin colour is a curiosity only, especially when her Ghanaian grandparents come to visit and she marvels at her grandfather’s dark skin; but for others her appearance is a matter for suspicion. Although Karabo has a light-skinned mother, some suspect that a local white farmer is, in fact, her biological father, and not the dark-skinned Kojo. Kojo’s own mother exclaims, “ ‘Karabo is lighter than a mulatto. In fact she is practically white!’ ” (12); she doubts her son’s paternity: “ ‘There are tests, Kojo! You can settle this thing once and for all’ ” (14). The first time that Karabo hears the term ‘yellowbone’ directed at her is when she encounters a group of teenaged boys as she accompanies her mother on a visit to a shaman/mystic. When she rebuffs one boy’s advances, he verbally attacks Karabo, spitting the word at her face. She notices the ambiguity in his reaction to her appearance, however: “[he] was no different to most black men she met. They grovelled at her light complexion, marked her down for a plaything, an exotic prize. […] But now [his] fascination had curdled and turned to revulsion. Or perhaps he was just as afraid of her as she was of him” (53).

André Potgieter, too, has ambiguous pangs regarding his cultural identity. His mother is an Afrikaner, his father an Englishman; but he is estranged from his father, who cannot accept a gay man as his son, nor entertain André’s gift of synaesthesia and his sensory ability to see more than the average man. Furthermore, André’s mother denounces his English heritage: she “had a factory-set resentment towards the English. It was like she forgot her son was half-English” (37). André, despite (or, perhaps, because of) this double-rejection of his English-ness, feels compelled to go to England.

In London, both Karabo and André experience a surprising sense of longing for the place they each felt compelled to leave – Mthatha – and, with the double perspective of the im/migrant, they see their former home through fresh eyes and acquire a heightened sense of their own identity.

Karabo, who is in London to study architecture on a scholarship, falls in love with a well-to-do young, Englishman, Nigel Summerscales (who, it later transpires, is one of André Potgieter’s music students). When Nigel initially takes her home to meet his mother, Karabo senses that Mrs Summerscales “merely tolerate[s] her” (167). Here, the novel satirically depicts a bigoted and privileged ‘old-money’ family (the Summerscales) falling on hard times but desperate to keep up ‘appearances’. Later, Karabo is shocked by the woman’s “red-toothed hostility”, realising that the “snide remarks Mrs Summerscales had made the first day they’d met were signposts to much deeper wells of loathing” (167). Even worse, it becomes apparent, during an argument, that Nigel shares his mother’s ingrained prejudice, leaving Karabo “bewildered and exhausted, like a fish twitching feebly on the cold floor of his prejudice. Now all she wanted was to go home” (195). She subsequently flees to Ghana, a place she has always imagined as her true home.

André Potgieter is similarly demeaned by Mrs Summerscales. Approached to find a buyer for her valuable violin, André had seized the chance to play the precious Guadagnini. The ecstasy of the musical experience triggered his synaesthesia and a visitation by angels. Thus, when the violin is stolen and all the clues indicate that it has been taken to Ghana, André, in his desperation to once again experience such bliss, follows Mrs Summerscales’s imperious demands that he travels to Ghana to retrieve it: “Mr Potgieter [André] is an African. He’ll find his way around […]” (205).

And, in Nsawam, he does indeed ‘find his way around’. But not only does André find his way around the Ghanaian city, he additionally finds a sense of self previously elusive. His courage has been bolstered by his urgent need to retrieve and play the violin again, which aids his ability to navigate a corrupt and chaotic prison system. This success, in turn, brings fresh confidence to André. Furthermore, with his earlier dream denuded (the dream that England would be his ‘true home’), now having returned to the African continent, albeit to a different country, a new optimism gains traction for him and a pan-African sense of identity emerges.

Karabo’s earlier visions of home dissipate, too, when she arrives in Ghana. The reality of her father’s home in Ghana contrasts starkly with what she had anticipated so that she is forced to contemplate her identity without utopian flights of fancy. Despite the profound shifts of consciousness depicted in this section of the novel, though, the narrative tone here borders on the farcical: both André and Karabo, following a bizarre turn of events, clash with police and prison officials as they trail the violin, a catalyst in both their lives. The novel, having followed a chain of events started in Mthatha, culminates gloriously at a Ghanaian prison where the country’s president, together with the entire prison population, witness André’s rapturous recital on the Guadagnini violin.

The violin provides the narrative link in Yellowbone: between André and Karabo and, later, between them and the prison chief and the entire audience at the prison recital. Initially, it is the violin as a physical object, a valuable cultural artefact, that is of common interest to the people in this story. Ultimately, though, it is the music that is created with the violin that provides a meaningful emotional and spiritual connection.

Mrs Summerscales’s impulse to hoard the valuable artefact as a commercial commodity is at odds with André Potgieter’s instinct to enjoy the beauty and pleasure that it enables. The return of André’s angels, as he plays at the prison concert, together with the embrace each audience member receives from their respective guardian angels (as Karabo witnesses in her moment of ecstasy), is a powerful – albeit whimsical – image of pure pleasure shared.

While the title of this novel, Yellowbone, hints at a focus on one character and at a core concern with an individual, inward-looking, and isolated gaze, that is a starting point only. Rather, Yellowbone is a fine example of South/African literature that opens its reach to look further afield for truth and meaning, before returning to a broadened African context for a sense of satisfaction and of renewed hope in the future.

Yellowbone (2019) is Ekow Duker’s fourth novel. Earlier titles are White Wahala (2014), Dying in New York (2014), and The God who Made Mistakes (2016).

Duker, Ekow (2019), Yellowbone. Cape Town: KWELA Books. 320pp., ISBN: 978-0-7957-0885-5
See his web page:

Beverley Jane Cornelius (PhD, English Studies, University of KwaZulu-Natal). Research focus: postcolonial literature, particularly South/African.

This book review was published in: Africa Book Link, Spring 2020

Of Paper Wives and Cowardly Existence: A Review of Chika Unigwe’s Better Never than Late | Elizabeth Olubukola Olaoye

A good writer can always imagine stories about a place she has never been to. However, for certain stories to get to the heart of the matter, the writer must know her setting and characters enough to understand their motives, to sympathetically portray their impulses, and to accurately capture their “raison d’être”. When such writers explore characters, they do so with an uncommon depth of insight that reveals desires buried beneath the surface of day to day existence. In this connection, Chika Unigwe is a writer who is no stranger to the plights of Nigerians in Europe. In her much-acclaimed novel, On Black Sisters Street, she reveals the complex and pathetic tales of Nigerian women in Belgium as they struggle to make ends meet by commodifying their bodies as prostitutes. As if extending the scope of her narrative beyond the ordeal of women of pleasure, Better Never than Late presents Nigerians of different backgrounds in Europe and how many of them remain trapped in condescending situations that ridicule their initial dreams of finding a greener pasture in Europe. She also features some stories set in Nigeria, showing some of the conditions and mindsets that plague women in Africa. Fragile masculinity, unfulfilled feminine desires, and nostalgia for home are some of the motifs explored in the stories that make up this collection.

Better Never than Late tells stories of Nigerians in Belgium.
The collection of stories – some of which are not entirely related – appears blunt, unpretentious but equally compassionate in its treatment of the Nigerian immigrant conditions in Belgium. It tears the veil of the utopic conception of Europe by many aspiring Nigerians as a place of extreme wealth and prosperity; a kind of “sugar Candy Mountain” where dreams come true. By describing several instances of dashed illusions, unexpected nostalgia, and almost suffocating loneliness, Unigwe shows that life in Europe is not always a bed of roses. It also reveals that life is complex, refusing dualities like black and white, good and bad, wise and stupid, rich and poor. Rather, the stories in this collection show an unexpected mix of competences, virtues and negative traits. Like the reversed common saying that is the title of this collection, the stories invite us to re-examine our definition of good, bad and ugly. The strength of many stories is in the drawing of virtues from historically forbidden places, in their positions that seem to echo the thought that to never have done something sometimes – in practice- holds more virtue than to have attempted them late.

In the first story, “The Transfiguration of Rapu”, Unigwe presents the existential drama of Nigerian men in psychological torment over paper-wives and real wives while trying desperately to become permanent residents in Europe. “Paper wives” are usually Belgian or other European citizens that these men marry to secure European citizenship. These are usually meant to be temporary arrangements, with the real wives always in the pipeline. The paper wives are however often ignorant of their true positions until it becomes too late to change the situation. In this particular story, Unigwe shows how the complexity of bringing in a Nigerian wife while trying to find the best moment to break the heart of the Belgian wife often backfires. Rapu, who is the real wife, in this case, cannot live freely with her husband until he has divorced his Belgian paper- wife and paid off Shylock, who helped in bringing Rapu from Nigeria. Rapu must live with Shylock and wait patiently for her husband to find a perfect timing to divorce his paper wife. But what Unigwe does in this story is to show the complexity of these arrangements: paper wives do not easily let go and staying married to a woman strictly for papers is almost impossible. Staying under the same roof, having a baby together, going on trips together can breed unexpected emotions which Nigerian men do not always want to own up to. In this particular story we see Hilde, the paper wife, becoming more than an arrangement in Gwachi’s life. While Gwachi, Rapu’s husband criticizes Hilde’s European lifestyle among his Nigerian friends, he secretly enjoys doing things with Hilde. When he finally announces his impending divorce to Hilde, Rapu, his Nigerian wife also finds love in someone else and seems to have moved on. In this story Unigwe shows how the idea that some women are paper-wives does not always work. And a woman like Rapu cannot always be counted on to wait patiently until her husband pays off the debt of her travel or for him to divorce his paper wife. Rapu gets transfigured from being the shy, jealous, and confused woman who arrives in Belgium to wait for her husband to divorce his paper wife to an independent, fun-loving wife of another man.

The second story in the collection also explores the tension between the Belgian and the Nigerian conception of life. This tension is revealed by interracial marriage. Oge is married to Gunter and their relationship, though seemingly hitch-free at first, reveals the complexity of interracial relationships. While Oge, who is Nigerian, believes that a child needs to be born before he is given a name, Gunter names their son, Jordi, while he is yet to be born. When Jordi dies, Oge is shocked to learn that her son will be cremated. Comparing this to the Nigerian custom of burying the dead, she sees the funeral as cruelty to her dead son. Instead of crying, Gunter’s Belgian relatives smile, eat and exchange pleasantries. This infuriates Oge who cannot fully accept this aspect of the Belgian culture. Despite the love that Gunter and Oge share, their cultural difference stands between them like a gulf. Unable to recover from the grief of her son’s death, Oge becomes nostalgic for her home in Africa. She can face her reality, her husband and her future only after she has made a trip back to her hometown in Nigeria. This story emphasizes how home- represented by Nigeria – with all its attendant contradictions, remains a place of healing for characters who got psychologically wounded in Europe.

In some of the stories in this collection, certain characters are featured in two or more stories simultaneously. One such character is Prosperous. The apartment that she shares with her husband is a meeting point for Nigerians who come there to eat Nigerian food, share Nigerian jokes and generally remember home. It is here that we first encounter Gwachi and Rapu of the first story. In the third story, titled “Becoming Prosperous”, Unigwe plays with the implication of this character’s name and what it means to be prosperous in Belgium. This particular story illustrates the degree of condescending that Africans have to subject themselves to, to survive in Belgium. Not only does their new position as a Black in Europe alter their possibilities, but it also alters their ideas of love and relationship. Comparing her relationship with her husband back in Nigeria to their present relationship, Prosperous discovers that survival instinct has pushed their love life to the lowest point. Not only are they unable to use their Nigerian–earned qualifications in Belgium, but the language barrier also forces them to take jobs that are beneath them:

Prosperous laughs when she recounts—as she often does to her friends—the heady expectations of their early days. I thought they’d take one look at our degrees and offer us jobs on the spot. Company cars, a company house with a massive lawn, a butler and a chef. Agu never talks of those days. It is as if the weight of remembering is too much for him to bear, but Prosperous doesn’t want to forget. Remembering keeps her on her toes. (32)

Europe, in this story and many other stories in the collection, is thus seen as a place of disillusionment. However, Unigwe also shows that characters often have a choice. Prosperous realizes that she can reject the menial job she has as a cleaner by taking Flemish lessons. That paves the way for her to become a teacher. Rather than waiting helplessly for her situation to change, she rises to the occasion and begins to take Flemish lessons, on her way to becoming prosperous.

Rapu, like several women in the narratives, is presented as someone who realizes her errors of judgment, and then uses the information available to her to rise from both patriarchal oppression and diasporic and racial specific conflicts. These women seem to arrive at their moments of epiphany when they realize they have to take their destinies into their hands. Similarly, Ego, in the story titled “Cleared for Takeoff” realizes that life in Belgium would always put her in disadvantaged employment and decides to move to London against her husband’s wish. In the same vein, after being raped in a bus by a bunch of Belgian youths in the story titled “How to Survive a Heat Wave”, Anuli finds the courage to narrate her ordeal to Prosperous and Oge, her Nigerian friends, realizing that she must be able to face this part of her reality to make peace with her future:

Añuli opens her mouth and the words that could not come out before begin to spill out, spreading out in the room, mingling with her pool of tears, releasing the clamp in her chest, relieving her of that unholy trifecta. (105)

Life in Europe is far from a bed of roses! This is Unigwe’s recurrent thematic preoccupation in many of these stories. Like On Black Sister’s Street, which shows the dilemma and the disillusionment of African ladies forced into prostitution in Belgium, this collection shows several levels of indignity that life in Europe forces Africans into. This is despite the promised glamour. Ego’s husband, who after a major injury can no longer play football and has to work in a factory, gets to his moment of epiphany after divorcing his wife. His four-year-old daughter tells him something that brings him to his senses:

’When I grow up, I’m going to be a teacher, Papa,’ Bola told me as I walked her to school. ‘But first, I have to be white, right?’ (89)

As he analyzes his daughter’s assertion, he realizes that there are no great black role models in the town he lives in for his daughter to look up to, as everyone who does respectable jobs is white. At that moment, he realizes that his life is not something his child can aspire to. Determined to correct this negative impression, he decides to give up the custody of his daughter, concluding that the mother would be a better role model. Other characters in these stories also come to these moments when they realize the missing link in their thinking on either their stay in Europe or their relationships with people in Antwerp. For instance, in “Heart is where the home is”, the protagonist’s mother laments her loneliness in Belgium where she feels isolated:

‘This is what it must feel like to be dumb. To hear and not understand. To speak and not be understood.’ (123)

It is not only the inability to communicate with people that isolates this woman, but it is also equally her daughter’s lack of friends and her inability to bond with other Nigerians. This creates a sense of hopelessness in the mother who has to be booked on a flight back to Nigeria. This happens after her daughter finds her on the floor, weeping for no particular reason. This story particularly shows the height of psychological alienation and loneliness that some Africans feel in Europe and other African diasporas. One is then plagued by the question: if life is like this in Europe, why do Africans keep trying? Some of the stories in the collection give a backdrop of life in Nigeria and portray the injustice and psychological dilemma that make people decide to leave. Many of the characters have parents who look up to them as family messiahs that will save them from the harsh reality in Nigeria where backward mindsets continue to keep people in oppressive situations. They also have the same setting in Belgium. The common element in all the stories in this collection is the candid presentation of the plight of Nigerians, both at home and abroad, who all build their hopes on countries or societies that turn out to be oppressive structures that reduce them to shadows of who they are.

Overall, these stories are beautifully crafted, showing aspects of diasporic experience that threaten not only the female character but also the masculine ego and make people take offers that are beneath their self. Like On Black Sister’s Street, this collection continues to question the logic of departing Nigeria without a clear plan on how to succeed in Europe. Unigwe’s present narrative is a great follow up on the effects of being severed from one’s roots and the psychological implication of such severance. The language is eloquent and pithy, giving short episodes of characters in their most epiphanic moments. Unigwe also adopts the conversational style where characters are revealed through dialogue as well as through internal monologues. Nigerian pidgin, which is also a marker of Nigerian communities both at home and in the Diaspora, features in this narrative giving it a unique Nigerian flavor. White people are consistently referred to as ‘Oyibo’ in this text. Characters also throw in Igbo words in between English to get to the heart of the matter in their conversations. For instance, Godwin and Agu discuss in “Cunny Man Die, Cunny Man Bury Am” about Godwin’s newly found paper wife:

‘Love nwanti nti,’ Agu teased. ‘No wound me with your
love ooo!’

Godwin snorted and said in Igbo, ‘Nwoke ma-ife o naeme.’
A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. (76)

This mix of English, Pidgin and Igbo reflects the hybrid nature of the Nigerian community in Belgium. Living within several types of consciousness, their language reflects their reality. In addition to Nigerian food and worldview, this language use is one major marker of the Nigerian identity in this collection. One story in particular is using a Nigerian pidgin expression in its title: “Cunny Man Die, Cunny Man Bury Am.” This title is significant in revealing that being cunny is not a trait that is peculiar to Nigerians. We see this as the fat paper wife overturns the table and beats Godwin in his game of deception. Godwin assumes that Tine, the fat Belgian girl is unaware of her position as a “paper wife.” However, while conversing with Prosperous, Tine reveals her awareness of Godwin’s intention:

‘I wanted a wedding. Ever since I was little. And I got my dream. I got him to spend a lot of money! ‘All those euros on a wedding, and one day when I get tired, when I stop liking him even a little… because I will one day…‘I will because my heart can only take so much, no?… When that day comes, I’ll tell him it’s over.’ She cleared her throat, shut her eyes and when she opened them, stars were dancing in them again. ‘When the time comes, whether he has his papers or not, I’ll tell him it’s over….‘I have a feeling that that day is soon. Very, very soon. There won’t be time for him to have those papers!’ (87-88)

This story questions the wisdom of male swindlers and challenges the opinion that white women fall foolishly in love. Apart from rebuffing the claim of white women’s stupidity, the story equally draws attention to the cunny nature of some white persons, especially women who are often portrayed as gullible in Nigerian circles. Unlike some of the women in the earlier novel, the women here are given more agency to make changes by confronting their pasts and facing their future with boldness. The writer seems to be saying, the harm has been done but where characters, especially women, chose to go from their epiphanic moments is solely their responsibility. Whether it is the error of assuming Ijeoma is a witch in the story entitled “Better Never than Late” or the assumption that Belgian women can be used and dumped after securing Belgian citizenship in the story entitled “Cunny Man Die, Cunny Man Bury Am”, characters must realize the limitations of their earlier assumptions and forge ahead in complex situations. Humorous and thoughtful, this collection is a brilliant addition to the corpus of narratives of the Nigerian diaspora. Like Ngozi Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah, it raises issues of Africaness and survival in the West, and how these complicate the female experience both for black and white women.

Unigwe, Chika (2019), Better Never than Late. Abuja/London: Cassava Republic, 144pp., ISBN 9781911115540

This book review was published in: Africa Book Link, Spring 2020


Suspense in Southern Africa: Mukuka Chipanta’s Five Nights Before the Summit | A Review by Gilbert Braspenning

Although typified in some blurbs as crime fiction, Mukuka Chipanta’s second novel is so much more than that: it is also a well-crafted historical novel.

Detective Maxwell Chanda, head of the Special Crimes Investigation Unit, is tasked with the investigation of the brutal murders of Laura and Henry Hinckley, a white British couple living on a farm just outside Lusaka.

Maxwell, or Max, is under great pressure from his superiors to solve the case within five days, as at that moment the Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit is due to take place in Zambia. This summit is headed by Queen Elizabeth herself and British Intelligence is putting high pressure on the Zambian authorities to clear up the case before the queen arrives. The British authorities even threaten to cancel the queen’s visit if the murder case is not solved within five days. And this would not only be a shame for Zambia and president Kaunda, but would also thoroughly harm the relations between Great Britain and Zambia.

But, as it turns out, the reason for British Intelligence to urge for a quick roundup of the culprits is twofold: on the one hand they don’t want the murder case to loom around – in the press- during the impending Queen’s visit; but on the other hand they don’t want the real truth around the Hinckley murders to come out; as soon as detective Chanda discovers that there’s a white hand involved in the murders, he is forced – via his superior Chief Mbewe, but indirectly by M16 – to close the case. For British Intelligence, however, the case is closed as soon as some black culprits have been arrested.

Nevertheless, for the reader – and detective Chanda alike – the case is not closed at all; at the end of the novel you are left with a huge feeling of injustice; injustice because, as with many cold cases where politics is involved, it is only the petty criminals that are convicted whereas the real perpetrators get off scot-free. Mukuka Chipanta leaves the reader regretting that the story has ended, but in the meantime with hope that justice will be done in his next book. As reader, you hope for a quick sequel to Five Nights Before the Summit. The suspense is actually suspended until Chipanta’s next novel.

Just as in a good crime novel, the suspense builds up very well. Apart from the rich narrative, this suspense is for a major part the result of the rather short consecutive chapters, each one embodying a perspective shift at the right moment. Also flash back is a proven means to, temporarily, ease the suspense at the right moment. In Chipanta’s new novel this technique is often used to describe the personal history of his characters. There are, for example, extensive flash backs on the cot death of Maxwell Chanda’s daughter, Lindiwe, and its consequences for Max’s relationship with his wife Mavis, on Laura and Henry Hinckley’s life, and on the years Paul Mutamina and Amos Mushili – two of the criminals that attacked the Hinckley Farm – spent together in prison.
Apart from the fact that these flash backs ensure a necessary ease of suspense, they provide an intense character portrayal of the protagonists. This intensity makes the novel, and its characters, roam around in your head, long after you’ve finished reading it.

Apart from being a mind-gripping and fast-paced crime novel, Five Nights Before the Summit is a thorough portrayal of an independent postcolonial nation in which the former colonizer still has a determining grip on politics, society and economy. It is the story of a proud independent Zambia, but machinated and infiltrated by the British in all sectors of economy, particularly in the mining industry.

Whereas the infiltration of the Chinese in the copper mine business provides a central theme in A Casualty of Power – Chipanta’s first novel – it is the interference of the British (and British Intelligence) with the gemstone business that plays a major role in his second novel; As with A Casualty of Power, Five Nights Before the Summit could be read as an ultimate cry for justice in Zambia.

Another similarity among the two novels is that the borderline between reality and fiction is blurred: the storyline in both novels follows historical developments in Zambia, shows events that really took place, and portrays historical figures. Regarding Five Nights Before the Summit for example, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit really took place in Lusaka in 1979, graced by Queen Elizabeth and chaired by Kenneth Kaunda, and some characters, like Rab Butler, a British politician and Henry Hinckley’s uncle, really did exist.

As the reader, you wonder all the time what’s real, and what’s fiction. And this in turn provides another kind of suspense: it triggers your curiosity about the past and present political and social situation in Zambia; did some farm murders really take place just before the 1979 summit? Was the political and judiciary Zambian system indeed so corrupt as described in Chipanta’s novel? And how did the situation develop afterwards in Zambia and in postcolonial Africa? Is the system, in one way or another, still infiltrated by British Intelligence? After finishing Five Nights Before the Summit I caught myself – like a true detective – looking for clues on the internet. For example, the end of the plot seems to be suspended to a next novel, real insight in the actual political situation is likewise suspended. Reading Five Nights Before the Summit is like having a good aperitif; it satisfies your hunger temporarily but leaves you longing for the main dish even more. If this is what a good historical novel has to induce, than Mukuka Chipanta has written one.

In a broader sense, as in many great African novels from the seventies and eighties, this work addresses the shortcomings of a young nation state: decay, a poor population, corruption, and a weak police and judicial system.

Apart from being a deftly crafted detective story Mukuka Chipanta’s second book is an historical novel at its best. There is no better typification of the novel than that of the publisher on the back cover: ‘Five Nights Before the Summit offers a rich tapestry of context and character in a story that engages the reader in the pursuit of justice.’.

Chipanta, Mukuka (2019), Five Nights Before the Summit. Harare: Weaver Press, 206p., ISBN 9781779223616

Gilbert Braspenning (Editor Africa Book Link)

This book review was published in: Africa Book link, Spring 2020

Ancient Egyptian Literature | A Review by Muff Andersson

Ancient Egyptian Literature (2019), Miriam Lichtheim (Ed.), University of California Press, 872p., ISBN: 9780520305847

Who was the imagined readership of the pyramid and coffin texts? Did ancient Egyptians carve their autobiographies in the tombs for the living or the dead? What does their papyri poetry tell us about their society, can their sarcophagi stories compare to diary writing? What is missing in the writing that is useful to the ur-text debate?

Lichtheim’s magnificent work raises many questions and unearths 13 genres, with more to be spotted. Hopefully the University of California Press will market this work beyond the tested Egyptian history and literature courses for which the 1973 and subsequent editions were prescribed. This reprint, which combines the three ealier volumes, retains the 2005 forewords by Antonio Loprieno (Vol 1), Hans-W. Fischer-Elfert (Vol 2) and J. G. Manning (Vol 3).

Ancient Egyptian literature – mortuary literature from the pyramids and coffins – brings thoroughly modern concepts. California University is not short of literary theorists to package these with brand new textual insights in shouts on the cover and updated introductions. The Press could remarket the book for media and genre studies, African and English literature courses, overhaul it for general audiences.

Probably every lay person’s idea of Egyptian writing is hieroglyphics: animals and beetles, eyes and people. Less is known of Egyptian cursive writing on the tombs, coffins, stela, and papyri. Lichtheim worked with translations by various scholars of hieratic cursive writing from the First Dynasty to demotic in the later period.

Lichtheim’s preface, dated 1971, noted that ancient literatures have purpose, determination of which helps identify the age of the text – to commemorate, instruct, exhort, celebrate, and lament (p4). I’m sure she would enjoy a challenge if she were still alive since some of this literature appears to be for pure entertainment.

She looked at what she called ‘works of the imagination’ ranging from 3000 BC to AD 395 in the three combined volumes. All have in common inscriptions, instructions, spells, hymns and prayers, autobiography and fictional genres, written in prose, poetry and a mixture of both.

Volume 1 deals with the Old Kingdom (3000 BC – 2135), the transition to the Middle Kingdom (2135 – 2040 BC) and the Middle Kingdom (2040 – 1650). Here Lichtheim documented changes in inscriptions in the private Old Kingdom tombs. The dead arrived in their resting places with lists of foods, medicines and materials and of celebrations they wanted observed, like this example from Princess Ni-Sedjer-Kai:
‘May offerings be given her on the New Year’s feast, the Thoth feast, the First-of-the-Year feast, the wag-feast, the Sokar feast, the Great Flame feast, the Brazier feast
the Procession-of-Min feast, the monthly sadj-feast, the Beginning-of-the-Month feast, the Beginning-of-the-Half-Month feast, every feast, every day, to the royal daughter, the royal ornament, Ni-sedjer-kai.’ [Fifth Dynasty] (p48)

Alongside such a list, another list spelt out the deceased’s position in society, ancestry and worth. Shrewd poets – date of interventions uncertain – replaced these lists with the more fashionable and shorter Prayers for Offerings or simply Offerings.
Writers tweaked details of the dead’s ranks and titles and another tomb-text genre took off – the narcissistic autobiography. It stayed in vogue for the next two millennia. An example from Weni’s autobiography (indeed, hagiography since a ghost-writer from the Sixth Dynasty penned it) shows the mix of poetry and prose:

‘This army returned in safety,
It had ravaged the Sand-dwellers’ land.
This army returned in safety,
It had flattened the sand-dwellers’ land.
This army returned in safety,
It had sacked its strongholds.
This army returned in safety,
It had cut down its figs, its vines. [etc] (p53)
…His majesty praised me for it beyond anything. His majesty sent me to lead this army five times, to attack the land of the Sand-dwellers as often as they rebelled, with these troops. I acted so that his majesty praised me [for it beyond anything].’ (p53)

Loprieno, in his foreword, delightfully describes this literary style: ‘If prose is to poetry as walking is to dancing, the intermediate style may be compared to the formal parade step.’ (p41)

Middle Kingdom inscriptions and autobiographies are triumphalist. Ancient Egyptians would be snug in today’s celebrity culture and easily sell themselves on social media. Take Priest Horemkhauf’s Stela, circa 1650 BC: ‘I, an excellent dignitary on earth, shall be an excellent spirit (‘akh’) in the necropolis, since I have given bread to the hungry, clothes to the naked, and have nourished my brothers…’ (p172)

On to another genre from the Sixth Dynasty: The Pyramid Texts. Kings believed they would resurrect after they died, journey peacefully through the afterlife and then join the company of gods. The Pyramid texts contain glowing references to various nobles’ competencies and deeds. This leader is brave in battle. This mayor provided grain during famine. This king is a good negotiator. Of what relevance are these texts today? Well, such themes still run through modern African oral tradition and are carried forward by griots. In South Africa before a African leader begins a speech at a traditional gathering or parliament, a praise singer runs ahead of him boasting – in one of the country’s eleven languages – of the leader’s background, his ancestors and his bravery as perhaps, a freedom fighter in the struggle. Praise singers hail the current President Cyril Ramaphosa’s negotiating skills as a former trade unionist.

Another major literary genre (Old and Middle Kingdoms) comes from the Instructions in Wisdom, or simply Instructions, which Lichtheim called ‘Didactic literature’ – ‘how to’ poems of advice about living the best life, behaviour in marriage, rules of common decency, respect for elders and prayer. In these lines from Ptahhotep’s instruction to his son (late Sixth Dynasty), I have noted a similar tone to modern ‘advice’ poems like Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata (1927):
‘If you are a man who leads
Listen calmly to the speech of one who pleads
Don’t stop him from purging his body
Of that which he planned to tell
A man in distress wants to pour out his heart …’ (Verse 17, p103)

Like the Instruction to Merikare (late Eighteenth Dynasty) Lichtheim regarded this as Pseudepigrapha and the emergence of a new genre (p136). She considered pseudepigrapha ‘propagandistic works composed by priests disguised as royal inscriptions of much earlier times, the pur­pose of the disguise being to enhance their authority.’ (p691)

Much Middle Kingdom’s didactic literature was written, she said, on the theme of ‘national distress’. In an Instruction a king advises his son that the threat of assassination is ever-present; a man complains that his ba, (life force) wants to abandon him because the man is suicidal, and there is a fascinating prophesy, The Complaints of Khakheperre-Sonb, written between 1897 – 1878 BC.

‘Had I unknown phrases,
Sayings that are strange,
Novel, untried words,
Free of repetition;
Not transmitted sayings,
Spoken by the ancestors!
I wring out my body of what it holds,
In releasing all my words;
For what was said is repetition,
When what was said is said.
Ancestor’s words are nothing to boast of,
They are found by those who come after.’ (p189)

Lichtheim did not analyse this first stanza. Her interpretation began in later verses, wherein lay the theme of anarchy and dis­tress. Today’s African literature scholars might well read the first verse as indication that shamanic practices were in place in Ancient Egypt. Ancestors give advice or predictions to the living sometimes through strange languages while an individual is in trance state.

If as Aristotle taught there are a limited number of plots, then the fiction yielded in the coffin literature will delight story lovers. My observation is that The Eloquent Peasant is precursor to Scheherazade. The fast-talking peasant with the smooth lines keeps a high steward sufficiently entertained, in episodes, to avoid severe punishment.

In the Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor a stranded man strikes up a conversation with a philosophical, rich and lonely snake on an island. The sailor makes extravagant promises in exchange for the snake’s help. The cynical snake advises him not to make promises and provides a boat and gifts. The sailor returns home, presents the gifts to his king and later muses: ‘Who would give water at dawn to a goose that will be slaughtered in the morning?’ (p264) I imagine this as the messages recaptured centuries later in both ‘quest’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’ stories. Imagine Voyage and return meets The Frog Prince.

A Nineteenth Dynasty wit delivers satire on a graveyard papyrus. How unhappy are all tradesmen. Carpenters, jewellery-makers and fishermen are miserable. The only worthwhile profession is ‘a scribe’ who is his own boss. (p236).

Volume II, the New Kingdom (1550 – 1080)

Lichtheim in her 1974 introduction to the volume said the textual output in the New Kingdom was greater than that in the Old and Middle Kingdoms. She subdivided Egyptian poetry into ‘hymnic, lyric, didactic, and narrative.’ (p315).

She revealed the first example of a narrative epic poem in the canon and argued that the hymns in this era broke new ground stylistically. (p312)

By now the ancients had rewritten and edited coffin texts into chapters and we find them reworked and transformed into The Book of the Dead which now appears in verse in papyrus scrolls – spells and rituals to win eternal life, retain one’s head, ensure air and water, transform into a falcon and judgments from the gods.

Writers continue to sing their own praises in Twentieth Dynasty papyri explaining a school system teaching young boys to become professional scribes. (p497) A scribe’s ‘advice to an unwilling pupil’: ‘You are worse than the desert antelope that lives by running. It spends no day in plowing. Never at all does it tread on the threshing-floor. It lives on the oxen’s labor, without entering among them. But though I spend the day telling you “Write,” it seems like a plague to you. Writing is very pleasant!’ (p500) ‘Be a scribe! Your body will be sleek; your hand will be soft. You will not flicker like a flame … For there is not the bone of a man in you.’ (p501)

The New Kingdom yielded well-crafted love poems, for example:
‘The voice of the wild goose shrills,
It is caught by its bait;
My love of you pervades me,
I cannot loosen it.
I shall retrieve my nets,
But what do I tell my mother,
To whom I go daily,
Laden with bird catch?
I have spread no snares today,
I am caught in my love of you!’ (p523)

I would classify another genre as a Morality tale though Lichtheim simply calls it a tale. The two brothers does not end well for the woman who tries to seduce her husband’s younger brother, or for the brothers driven to evil actions. (p547)

Volume III, the later period (1080 BC – AD 395).

If this part of the review seems shorter than that of Volume I and II it is partly because the style of the texts in the first half of the section continue in exactly the tradition of Volumes I and II with autobiograhies, hymns and prayers.
For this reason it is not as exciting as the second part of the volume.

JG Manning states in his foreword to the 2006 edition (dated 2005, and reprinted here) that nearly all of the Demotic literary texts in the second half of Volume III was derived from one region of Egypt, the Fayyum, ‘because the villages and the cemeteries in which papyri have been found were abandoned in the later Roman period, or just afterward, thus leaving thousands of texts, documents as well as literature, undisturbed.’ (p583)

Lichtheim uncovered animal fables on papyri, suggesting that the lion and mouse’s encounter in the final episode of the The Lion in Search of Man recurred in a briefer form in the Aesop’s Fables. (p765)

Modern scholars will find that Egyptian texts in the later period are less insular than those appearing earlier. Adventurers visit the underworld, writers mention Nubians (east Africans) and Assyrians (then from Mesopotamia), compare Greek and Egyptian cultures in Greco-Roman Egypt, talk of Amazons (originally from Libya) and ‘the land of the women’.

The two remaining texts run at great length. The Instruction of Ankhsheshonq, incorporating reams of humorous maxims and proverbs from the Ptolemaic period is 28 pages long (p768 – 796), and The Instruction of Papyrus Insinger containing proverbs from the Roman period is 38 pages (p797 – 835).

Umberto Eco, when he wrote about the ‘already said’ would have chuckled over these colourful maxims that began life in a coffin on Egyptian papyri: ‘the friend of an idiot is an idiot’; ‘A crocodile does not die of worry, it dies of hunger’ and ‘A cat that loves fruit hates him who eats it’.

Although the form of some of the coffin texts chosen for reproduction is sometimes repetitive, Lichtheim’s work is timeless and essential reading for students of African literature.

It raises many questions, is enjoyable and brings both a sense of intrigue and entertainment to a world that many might have thought closed to them – Egyptian mortuary literature.

Dr Muff Andersson
Independent academic and writer
MA, PhD University of the Witwatersrand
Author of Intertextuality, Violence and Memory in Yizo Yizo (2009), Brill University Press; Bite of the Banshee (2005), STE Publishers; Music in the Mix (1981), Raven Press

This book review is published in: Africa Book Link, Fall 2019