Thursday, November 23, 2017

Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa Mohamed

This is a biography done by a daughter as a tribute to her father. In an ironic twist, the novel revels in a relationship between a father and the son; it hardly dwells on fathers and daughters. One might be tempted to argue that this is occasioned by the patriarchal context of its setting. However, this is a story of an epic journey of self-discovery, an odyssey to re-discover meaning in life, a quest to chart a way forward into a future of hope after a past of grotesque disillusionment.
Black Mamba Boy is a coming of age story of Jama Guure who, abandoned by the father a romantic Somali man, determines right at a tender age to search for his father – thirsting for affirmation and a sense of identity. Jama is especially pained by the suffering occasioned by the father’s absence both on himself and worse still his mother. The journey starts around the 1930s when Jama’s mother dies. He is lonely, hungry, angry and destitute. The country at large, the continent and the world has gone into war. The young man has to wade the waters of a war-torn country, traverse the continent on foot and confront all manner of danger in pursuit of his father. Ironically, when he is about to meet his father, he receives news of his demise further shattering his nascent hopes of a better future.
Using the knowledge he has from recollections of conversations with his late mother, Jama is determined to overcome all odds and make of himself a better man. Although he is most times discouraged, he appears stubbornly persistent sometimes relying on his naivety as a child to sail through some of the turbulent moments. In one instance, he asks a fellow traveler how far Eritrea is only to be told that it is three years walking distance away. It is only way after that Jama consciously confronts the restless spirit of his adventure when he encounters Musa who lives in Palestine helping Somali pilgrims find their way to other parts of the world. Jama is concerned that such an intelligent person is getting wasted through drunkenness and desperation. Musa’s precarious misery jolts Jama to the realisation that not even a mad man could abandon what he had on the advice of a ghost as he had himself done.
I believe that this story is deeply embedded in African myth. Jama is named after a totem – his mother had an encounter with a black mamba snake and she opined this to be a lucky charm for Jama. Indeed, Jama’s life appears peppered by luck. He overcomes the streets, joins the Italians in the war, is traumatised by a near encounter with death, sees his closest friends die in the process, but Jama still emerges resilient. At one moment, Shidane, a childhood friend is gruesomely tortured to death by the Italian police and disposed like garbage to rot and be feasted on by the hyenas. The novel vivifies the dehumanising nature of war and the permanent scars we have to live with.
In his endeavour to become a better father than his biological father had been, Jama has to confront his rite of passage in a most confounding way. He encounters a beautiful girl, Bethlehem, whom he falls in love with. In fact, Bethlehem, Jama’s mother and other female characters in this story, point out that women are strongly-willed and not weaklings as some might assume. They make decisions and come across as principled individuals who do not shy away from their life’s pursuits. In the case of Bethlehem, she proposes to Jama and when he appears hesitant she prevails on him to marry her. It is only much later that Jama discovers he has become a father. The overwhelming guilt compels him to abandon his pursuit of wealth in the high seas and foreign continents to sojourn back home to become a better father than his father had been.

Black Mamba Boy is an incredible story. Picture the journey on foot of teenagers traversing from Palestine through the Red Sea into Egypt. However, the story speaks volumes about those who live in the margins of the society. A lot of communal help is demonstrated in the story as those that are poor help each other to overcome the odds and live another day to tell the story of their life. The narrative highlights the migratory nature of the Somali community over the years; it underscores the motivation behind their restlessness. According to Jibreel, “Everywhere I go I meet Somalis,” he says, “always from the north, standing at a crossroads, looking up to the sky for direction; the poor souls never know where they are going. They all say the same thing; there is nothing in our country, I’ll go back when I can afford some camels.” Their country has over the times been afflicted not just by human conflict, but also heavily by the devastating nature of the environment: unending drought, famine, incorrigible poverty etc.
One would be persuaded to read this story as the ultimate narrative on the quest for a home. It brings forth the debate on whether home is a physical geographical place or whether it is in our psychology. In the wanderings of Jama, we are confronted with this ultimate dilemma as Jama has to reject an adoptive father in Idea, be rejected in Egypt but adamantly make a detour back there and obtain a British passport, sail across the world but ultimately yearn to go back to the arms of his young family. Jama’s rejection of Idea as a father is premised on his argument that “He knew that he could not bear the betrayal of exchanging his real father for another.” This is a story of a fractured society, one that has splintered the lives of its people and scattered them in an almost irreparable nature.
I am amazed by how Nadifa Mohamed succeeds to paint the picture of resilience in her father, a spirit of optimism that survives all manner of devastation and discovers the beauty of family re-union. This is a tale of hope against all of odds. The narrative is musical, it is revealing; it is moving, it is traumatising; it is disturbing, it is appealing. At the end of it all, the reader finds that there is something uniquely appealing irrespective of the social background one comes from. I personally found that I could connect with the text and hope that this is possible for other readers too.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Life’s Possibilities amidst Apartheid’s Trauma - Rossouw's What Will People Say

Rehana Rossouw’s What Will People Say was shortlisted for the 2015 Etisalat Prize for Literature. It is a story of contradictions: pitting excitement vis-à-vis violence as unleashed through the Apartheid regime and especially in the agitation for independence in South Africa. But with the attainment of independence there is a glimmer of hope lurking in the shadows of the trail of trauma as unleashed through colour segregation.
The novel vividly portrays the trauma meted out on the blacks and the coloureds. The effects of segregation are particularly unnerving when the reader observes the lives of certain communities and how discrimination has messed up their day to day activities. The story explores the various ways through which trauma is manifested especially in the lives of Cape Town inhabitants – in the infamous Cape Flats. It lays bare white peoples privileges and in the process shows how the wounds of segregation fester and eventually burst open in the form of repressed anger, violence, dehumanisation and alienation among others.
Without an opportunity to express their troubles, coupled with the impotent knowledge of their inability to singlehandedly confront the white oppressor, both the blacks and coloureds turn against each other with a vengeance that is self-destructive. The cruelty and savagery in their actions is a demonstration of what years of oppression have nurtured and nourished – a spirit of self-loathing and an inbuilt anathema for humanity.
Indeed, the novel’s themes are hinged on this triple axis of oppression, alienation and retribution. The insanity of the prevailing atmosphere is aptly captured in the family of the Fouries. Magda Fourie, the wife and mother, escapes into church and its dogma of waiting for a better after-life. In fact, the title of the novel is conceived from her pretence when she lives a life of lies and denies the family from being true to their feelings because she is afraid about “what will people say”. One can argue that the title is based on the coloured’s stereotype of being obsessed with societal expectations at the expense of individual freedom. Thus, Magda pretends that all is well with her family even when she knows that things have taken a turn for the worst. In her fear, we read the human folly of vanity, pride and an obsession with material things which eventually blinds us to the more immediate human need for acceptance, love, understanding, and appreciation.
When the Fourie family begins to disintegrate, slowly but surely, the reader is acutely aware that the inevitable will happen – there shall be death in the family and this is not a romantic novel after all! Anthony, the only son in the family, is coerced into a gang through a traumatising initiation rite in which he is forced to partake of the gang raping of his sister’s best friend Shirley. Although the father musters courage to take him for therapy sessions when the trauma makes him mute, it is a bit too late to salvage him. He is eventually murdered in cold blood by fellow gang members when he reneges on the gang expectations bestowed upon him.
Nicky Fourie, the middle child, the bright one and the hope of the family is disturbed by the immense responsibility and expectations that the rest of the family have on her. Her father believes that she can become a lawyer and her mother has an overwhelming trust that Nicky is the moral superintendent of the family. However, when things go wrong, everyone is forced to confront their worst fears. Nicky finally ends up being a social worker, the parents split and she has to stay with the mother since her boyfriend Kevin departs for Jorburg to attend to bigger nationalistic problems. Indeed, it is in Nicky, Suzette, her mother and other female characters that the strong gender agenda is embedded.
The father, Neville, who has always believed himself to be a hen-pecked man, constantly nagged by the wife to become more active in church finds solace in the arms of their neighbour, Moira – the very woman who has been perceived to epitomise immorality since she has five children from five different fathers. The eldest daughter Suzette, drops from school pre-maturely but somehow through her individual fortitude discovers success in the world of beauty and modelling. On the flipside, her success is marred by the revelation that part of the success comes from white privilege connections!
It is in Ougat and his gang of teenagers – drug addicted zombies, that we visualise the palpable anger, frustration and overall disillusionment in the text. Indeed, the very rape of Shirley is symbolic of a society that is demented. We also discover that even the whites suffer from addiction when Suzette’ white boyfriend Neville has to be taken into rehab. It appears that discrimination is a double-edged sword since when the blacks and coloureds suffer from it, the whites also suffer from insecurity and other related forms of violence as unleashed in retaliation by those discriminated against. This is a society on the verge of self-destruction!
The novel asks a fundamental question: do black parents care more about their reputation as opposed to the well-being of their children? It is clear from this text that when people lose the very essence of their humanity then it is right to conclude that “people got a democratic right to fuck up their lives” since as Kevin says the people have “got used to their oppression, they don’t know any other way” (307). However, there is a glimmer of hope when the individuals become conscious of the need to change the status quo. They begin to look for possibilities, strife to obtain their rights and also agitate for a better society. It is possible to rebuild the society but a concerted effort towards healing is a must. It is possible not to worry about what people will say but the reader has to engage the text in order to agree or disagree with this!

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Dancing the Cultural & Environmental Tune in Kulet's The Elephant Dance

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It is uncommon to come across a text with a title such as “the elephant dance”. But Kulet has done so in his latest novel. Published by Longhorn through its subsidiary Sasa Sema, The Elephant Dance appears to perfect Kulet’s desire for environmental and cultural conservation. This is a fete he had attempted to accomplish through Vanishing Herds. I liked the latter text but now as a reader I am compelled to take sides and thus, I cast my vote for the forma as a better read – I just can’t tell what that text did to me!

In The Elephant Dance, Kulet’s writing has attained a more complex demeanour and a sense of refinement on the part of the writer. I would without a doubt refer to this text as Kulet’s acme as a creative writer. Kulet is able to synthesise a multiplicity of issues in a deft manner such that the reader is not consciously worried of keeping track of the same: environmental conservation, the genealogy of Ogieks and other indigenous communities in Kenya, insecurity, poaching, corruption, courtship, education among others.
This is a story of contemporary business empires and an illumination of how some of them are constructed through money laundering, corrupt business deals and generally with disregard for morals – humanity. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (SMA) are the owners of a thriving business empire driven by the desire to amass wealth at all costs even if this means a total decimation of wildlife. They connive with a local minority community by enlisting the services of ilmorok…. to camouflage their evil pursuits of elephant tusks and rhino horns among other illegal wildlife trophies.
It will take the courage of a young teenage boy, Reson with his elder brother Sena and their uncle Pesi with the help of a feared officer Regina Naitore and her assistant Leah Naipande to rout their bloated egos and cripple their poaching syndicate. What begins as a simple effort for recognition on the part of Reson as a renown hunter in his indigenous community grows into a respected image of the self when he discovers the poachers and leads his brother and uncle to their hideout and to the discovery of the massacre of their beloved animals. The culmination of the arrest of the poachers is symbolic of his coming of age as a young man within the context of his community but it is also the coming of age of the patriarchal structures of his indigenous community.
With a fine stroke of the pen, Kulet remains true to his calling of cultural and environmental preservation. Perhaps afraid of the global trends of the destruction of flora and fauna in the characteristic wantonness of men, the writer hopes that his fiction will serve as a clarion call to tame the insatiable appetite of humans. Infused in this story is a subtle struggle for women emancipation. Although it is not openly articulated, the reader discovers that the young ladies in the story have a raring spirit that makes them daring enough to declare their feelings for the young men in a tradition where it is assumed that such open demonstrations would appear taboo. On the contrary, this attempt at women affirmation is dampened by the competition between two girls who are seeking for Sena to cast a benevolent eye on them. It depicts them as desperate whilst appearing to make the man come across as indispensable.
This text highlights how international syndicates connive with corrupt local individuals to rob local communities their cultural heritage and wealth. Such individuals are driven by a selfish ambition to amass wealth at all costs. Indeed, they would not think twice even if the environment was decimated in a day. The way the poachers massacre the buffaloes and the elephants is an indication of such human greed. They butcher more buffaloes for meat than they would be able to consume and even when they consume, it is with the intention to waste as opposed to the local community’s policy of hunting to meet basic needs.
In this text, the reader is able to see the culpability of local communities when they are lured into a business they know little about. The Ilmirisho are proof of this when they get engaged to hunt on behalf of SMA. A long tradition of deprivation and discrimination appears as a catalyst for the motivation to engage in unscrupulous activities when the local people are provided with ‘modern’ clothes and other paraphernalia in the name of civilisation. They abandon their mores and unknowingly participate in activities that threaten the core of their very being. With no alternative means of survival, it is almost given that once the community destroys the forest, then they sound the death knell of their very existence. 
A hearty congratulation to Henry Ole Kulet for wining "The Text Book Centre Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature 2017" Adult Category for this novel. 

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