Friday, February 15, 2019

Finding Colombia by Kinyanjui Kombani

Finding Colombia seeks to satiate an innate desire in young readers for a world where their agemates self-actualise themselves. You see, the beauty of stories for young people is that it is peppered by adventure, conquests, a general search for answers on why things are the way they are etc. Hence, the word “finding” in the title heralds a journey of discovery and invites/conscripts the young reader into a conspiratorial quest for Colombia. It is a trip that most young persons would definitely excurse.
This is the story of Lex, the main character, a young man who is addicted to a drug nicknamed Jet Lee. Jet Lee is inhaled and its fumes are believed to knock one out in seconds hence its fame with many a young people. It is one among many other drugs that the youth in the text are cast as struggling with. Indeed, much of what they gather in form of alms is wasted on the same. The beauty with the plotting of this story is that it is fast paced from the beginning to the end. Lex experiences the ricocheting of a bullet against the wall as it buzzes past his ear missing him by a whisker. This initial encounter with law enforcers, Lex’s attempt to escape, his eventual capture and admission into a rehabilitation centre to help with investigations to nab a notorious drug lord provides the backdrop for an exciting read.
 Lex’s story resonates with the reader. It is about a young man who loses his breadwinner – mother – and he has to fend for himself in the streets. Life in the streets is unforgiving and Lex soon becomes hooked to drugs in an attempt to quell the hunger pains and in most cases unforgiving weather patterns. Lex’s suffering draws the sympathy of the reader as we come to terms with his deteriorating values. Unlike some common adventure stories I grew up with, like Nancy Drew Series or Hardy Boys Series, where the heroes or heroines are either from middle class or are well off, Lex is just a street kid. The odds appear to be against him and this unlikely hero becomes the more appealing to the reader.
In his characteristic nature, Kombani deliberately avoids dwelling on the message. In African communities we are often than not socialised into telling moralistic stories hell-bend to bestow particular morals. Ironically, Kombani’s effort to entertain the reader unwittingly also conveys themes thereby underlying in the story. For instance, Lex’s life portrays the dangers of dalliance with drugs and warns youth against quick fix solutions to life’s problems. The reader also deduces that human beings can easily be beguiled by cons in our midst like Angela does to Lex. Angela has been the most supportive person in the rehabilitation centre but inadvertently Lex discovers that she is the Colombia he has been seeking all the time.
Finding Colombia is not just a journey of self-discovery for Lex, it is the story of youth of today and their woes. As the characters in the story keep repeating, “one day at a time” is the mantra by which we should all live. At a time that young people are wont to seek for shortcuts to make it in life, Finding Colombia warns us that all that glitters is not, after all, gold. We have to, each, deal with our personal problems before we can set out to fix the world or society at large.
In this story, the youth will discover varied characters who represent different facets of who they are. They will cherish the adrenaline of Lex’s run for his life, but they will also have to reckon with the hardship/suffering of recovery from drug addiction and the long journey to re-establish societal connections in an unforgiving society. This is best epitomised by Brian alias Moses who chews on grass imagining it is khat. However, this is a story of promise and unmeasurable possibilities since an unlikely young person literally rises from the ashes like the phoenix.
Kombani won the 2018 Burt award for African Literature for Finding Colombia and rightfully so. Lex’s attempt to resolve the puzzle of the drug dealer who has eluded detectives for long is recipe for a good reader since the odds are against him. First, he is not educated and secondly, he is just a street urchin clueless of the happenings around him. The ability to weave a plot around Lex and granting him a foil in Angela, the unlikely villain of the story, creates sufficient suspense to assuage the reader’s appetite through the twists and turns of Lex’s involvement with detectives, up to the climax and denouement of the story. Please determine to finding time oops Colombia to read and enjoy in the process.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi

I can’t remember ever having taken such a long time to read a novel! It has been so terrible that I cannot even recollect how long I took to read Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go. I suspect I might have taken well over three months with long stretches away from the story. A busy schedule would be the easiest scape goat but I must admit I found the text rather a slow read especially the early pages. But please do not mistake me, the novel isn’t boring in the sense of the word!  
There has been an increase in stories of immigrants and Ghana Must Go adds to the statistics. I sincerely pray that African writers are not striving to whet the appetite of some Western fetish for a certain type of literature. Ghana Must Go is a story of Kweku Sai a Ghanaian married to Folasad√© Savage. Between them, they have four ‘talented’ children: Olu, Kehinde, Taiwo and Sadie. Olu takes after his father by becoming a distinguished surgeon whilst Kehinde is a famous artist. Taiwo and Sadie have their brilliant set of skills and the reader could easily mistake the writer for projecting near perfect children until the story unfolds and we unpack the various sets of character for each. In the pair of twins, Kehinde and Taiwo, the reader catches a glimpse of some African mythos but this is hardly explored any further.
In this story, it is tragic what befalls Kweku Sai at his place of work. The stark reality of subtle racism and him being a victim of capitalism in which he is sacrificed to appease a hospital benefactor speaks of the unfair treatment of immigrants of African descent. Having worked so hard to earn a reputation and honour, Kweku Sai is unable to reconcile himself with the job loss nor manage the patriarchal expectations and he results to putting up a face until the day his son, Kehinde, witnesses the father being ejected from the hospital in humiliatingly embarrassing circumstances. The event is devastating for both the son and father and Kweku Sai decides to abandon the family.
Kweku Sai’s job loss and his failure to confront the reality speaks of his tragic character. He spends a lot of money on his lawyer hoping to win but miserably fails to get reinstated. Having squandered his savings and with no energy to seek for a job elsewhere, he chooses to go back home – Ghana. The wife, Savage, is left with the difficult duty of bringing up the children single-handedly. One cannot fail to empathise with her especially being privy to the fact that she forsook an opportunity to pursue law at Yale in order to support Sai and to bring up their children. Sai’s loss of a lifetime career is catastrophic but not as devastating as Savage’s sense of betrayal when Sai walks out on her and their children. The formidable sense of kinship that has been established in their family teeters on the precipice of tumbling down overnight.
Image courtesy of images
Fola’s being left by Sai rekindles bitter memories of her childhood and the trauma of the loss of her mother and later father. The tropes of leaving and being left begin to manifest more emphatically in her life with the departure of Sai. Fola sends Kehinde and Taiwo to Nigeria hoping that they would attend a better school only to expose them to the destructive life of sexual abuse of children in the hands of their uncle. Although she had best intentions at heart, this act fractures her relationship with her daughter, Taiwo, irreparably since the latter blames the mother of negligence. Sai’s family bond disintegrates further and the siblings appear to have no human connection with each other. It is clear that the family is deeply wounded and traumatised but no one is willing to confront the reality.
When the death of Sai happens, the family has to confront its demons and travel back to Ghana to lay the father cum husband to rest: to seek to heal and hopefully rediscover the meaning in life as they reconnect severed bonds. Throughout the text, the reader feels that the writer glosses over character’s hurts, emotions and aspirations. There is a sense of shallowness in the way particular events, occurrences and experiences are handled. For instance, it is not clear whether Sai remarried or not. Fola’s emotions, dreams and achievements are masked throughout and overshadowed by those of the children and the husband alike. Indeed, Fola is not given an opportunity to deal with her tragic childhood and neither does she get a chance to be openly angry with her husband; to confront him in person and pour out her anger. The children too are not allowed to explore their lives deeply and one feels as though the writer barely attended to their individual reticence.
The novel’s title is borrowed from a historical political tiff between Nigeria and Ghana in which Ghanaians were expelled from Nigeria in 1983. However, I didn’t read anything much into this since there is more focus in the novel on the religious conflict and killings in Nigeria.
In any case, my thoughts about the story are all jumbled up. I cannot help it now that I spread my reading of the story far and wide. However, one thing is clear for me: immigrant literature symbolises for us tropes of leaving, being left – never ending acts of departure. In all this the reader is warned that nothing is permanent and although we might remain forever nostalgic about destinations or pasts that we have come from, futures we may never behold as ours, we cannot ever really feel at home in either of the places we depart from or arrive at since we are always on the move. In fact, one can argue that each one of us is an immigrant of sorts in our various spheres of life. This is a largely symbolic novel reflecting the tribulations of an immigrant family and their efforts to reconnect severed relationships in a bid to live normal lives. There is an intense sense of rootlessness, insecurity, pressure, yearning to belong yet at the same time severely alienated. However, is there really anything ‘normal’ and what in essence is ‘normal’ anyway? Ghana Must (just) Go!!

Friday, December 22, 2017

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

I have finished reading Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers and it has left me with a myriad of unresolved issues at the back of my mind. Why should we suffer so much in life? Are the things we yearn for worth the sacrifices we make in life? Probably, I should not have listened to the varied voices of friends and colleagues who saw me reading the text and commented on the same. A good number said it was a good read, a good number said they disliked it! What does one do in such a conflicted situation?
You read! That is it! Just read.
Despite the many years of involvement in the reading of literary works and many warnings not to judge a book by its cover, I just did that with Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers. Though, I don’t mind since it probably behoves the beautiful story within since I liked the narrative despite having some misgivings about a few standpoints the author takes. For starters, I loved Mbue’s choice of migrants as her main characters and delving into their day to day struggles to highlight the predicament that most migrants find themselves in when they arrive in America. On the contrary, I disliked the marital conflict between Jende and Neni, it appears undeveloped.
Jende Jonga is due for an interview with a Wall Street Executive, Clark Edwards who works for the Lehman Brothers and requires a chauffeur. The economic disparity is at once visible as Jende feels uncomfortable in a cheap suit when he encounters his future to be boss. The reader is immediately aware of Clark’s busy schedules when he hurriedly takes Jende through the interview. We are also able to take note that if it was not for a good recommendation Jende would probably not have had this opportunity in the first place. This is especially so owing to his lack of valid papers to be in the USA.
Like other stories most of us hear about the USA, Behold the Dreamers satiates our hunger for juicy stories about how migrants survive in America and how they are treated by those who wield power and are in control of the means of production. Jende is a Cameroonian migrant married to Neni and living with their son Liomi. Much later in the story they are lucky to have a daughter, Timba. What the reader discovers is that neither the citizens nor the migrants have an easy time in America. The American dream appears elusive for everyone even those we would assume have everything like the Edwards family.
Jende is plagued by the fear of deportation. The power play in the American society has usurped his African machismo and as he answers sir to his boss, Jende comes across as socially conflicted. His African socialisation would have him comfortably provide for his family but the geographical displacement positions him in a precarious situation where he has to forfeit traditional authoritarianism if he has to fit within the new world order fate has placed him into. Although Neni, his wife, is supportive, the reader can attest to the tension, the frustration and the fear many migrants have to live with. When the Lehman empire collapses and people begin losing their jobs because of the economic recession, the tension in the story becomes palpable.
As a reader, I started fearing for Jende especially because it does not look like he would get permit to stay in the USA and also because his lawyer comes across as unreliable. However, the most important aspect that becomes his turning point is the death of his father. It comes at a time when Jende is at the end of his wits. He has despaired obtaining a better paying job since the Edwards relieved him from his chauffeur job. Juggling between two poorly paying jobs of washing dishes, suffering from excruciating pain owed to fatigue, stress, and staring at imminent deportation is enough to break Jende’s will.
Although Jende and his family have tried their best to sustain relationships with friends and some relatives both in America and back home, the void of being away from home – Africa – cannot be filled by quick visits to or by friends, occasional parties or telephone conversations. When Jende receives the sad news of the demise of his father, he resolutely decides to end his struggle to obtain papers to legally stay in America. He makes up his mind abut going back to Limbe, his home town in Cameroon. This is the one time that Jende comes across as being sure of where his destiny lies.
Neni’s pursuit for education hits a dead end since she cannot get a good recommendation for a scholarship opportunity. Unlike Jende, she appears determined to stay in America irrespective of the odds against them. It is in her passion for America and the dream it beholds that she badly clashes with Jende. Their different opinions threaten to break their marriage and for the first-time gender issues play out when Jende violently beats Neni and almost gets into trouble when a concerned neighbour comes to check in on them. Also, the church is unable to sooth Neni’s disturbed spirit but at least she discovers some respite from sharing with Natasha the pastor in the church.
One can argue that Mbue falls victim of stereotypes and retelling a story that is overtold. But the ability to enable the reader to connect with the emotional turmoil of the characters makes it possible to read the story from a different perspective and to appreciate it for what it is: a story of unfulfilled dreams. These dreams need not necessarily be unfulfilled in the American context; it could be a metaphor of the tenuous things in life that we endlessly chase only to be crushed and destroyed in the process. Jende is ‘lucky’ to realise that: “I don’t like what my life has become in this country. I don’t know how long I can continue living like this, Neni. The suffering in Limbe was bad, but this one here, right now…it’s more than I can take.” (306) A few lines further Jende argues that there is only so much suffering that a man can take and for that he throws in the towel to the greatest dismay of his wife.
In this story, the reader perceives a balanced view of the characters. The Edwardses have their own set of problems since Clark is sucked up into the cutthroat business thereby neglecting his family. Indeed, his wife Cindy ends up dying presumably because of alcohol abuse and the frustration of trying too much to belong. Mbue seems to suggest that the grass might not necessarily be greener on the other side. It is with mixed emotions that the reader witnesses Jende’s sojourn back to his home country and hopefully yearns for the family to rediscover its roots and be able to settle and re-establish a different set of rhythm with which to enjoy life in Africa as opposed to one in America.
Please read Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers: you might just discover what all the fuss about America is!!

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