Wednesday, November 16, 2016

NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names

Author: Courtesy of Google Images

The American Mirage

           There have been a couple of exciting novels, plays and poems from the African continent that tackle the American dream. NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names is part of the literary continuum that helps to illuminate on African’s desires to chase the American dream in the hope of quenching their thirst for the allure of the western glitter. However, as the reader discovers, the journey to reaping the fruits of the American civilisation is fraught with a myriad of discoveries as espoused through the narrator’s eyes of other people’s and her own experience.
Bulawayo’s protagonist is a young girl, Darling, whose growing up in Zimbabwe shades light about the economic, political and social conditions of President Mugabe’s tyrannical rule. His rule is mocked and contrasted against that of a youthful president like Obama. Darling and her friends: Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho, and Stina exemplify the economic stratification of the nation. They live in shanties that epitomise a life of deprivation and a deeply ingrained desire to escape Zimbabwe to anywhere else in the world where the characters can discover reprieve away from such a life of daily toil.
          Rendered from the first person point of view, the novel acquires a sense of impetus owing to the fact that the story is rendered from a position of a child’s innocence. Indeed, one can argue that part of the simple language choices is indicative of a less competent language user. In any case, the child characters are between the ages of 9 and 11 years old. The writer experiments with ingenuous syntactic constructions characterised by superfluous use of conjunctions, semantic oddity through use of pleonasms such as “kill me dead” and other grammatical expressions that demonstrate a pre-teen’s language idiosyncrasies.
          Because the children are almost perpetually hungry, they devise means of survival by crossing over from their shanties in Paradise and feasting on guavas from the neighbouring suburban estate – Budapest. It is ironic that their place of abode is referred to as paradise since it does not harbour in any way the tranquil or serene environment that the word promises. The reader is quick to discover that this is not a healthy place to bring children up in: Chipo is already pregnant after being raped by her grandfather. The traumatising experience denies her a voice and she remains mute until a church experience in which Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro “immorally” prays for a woman believed to be possessed triggers off memories of what the grandfather did to her. The sexual ‘molestation’ of the churchgoer helps Chipo to open up about her wounded psych when she says that her grandfather did a similar thing to her.

          The affluence in Budapest and the fact that these houses are inhabited by whites, fuels the desires of the youngsters for a life beyond Zimbabwe. They express their political undertones and dislike for the ‘intruders’ in their country when they say that one should steal small items that they can eat or hide without being noticed. In the characteristic nature of the narrative, the pre-teens wonder what the whites were thinking in stealing not a small portion of a country but the whole country. The growing angst against the whites is escalated by the fact that they are cast as indulging in a life of extreme wealth whereas the native Zimbabweans are wallowing in dire poverty. This can be perceived as the dichotomy that pushes the violence by majority blacks against minority whites. It alludes to the political undercurrents of the time when it was reported that President Mugabe rallied the blacks to chase the whites from Zimbabwe.
          At the backdrop of such upheavals, the young Zimbabweans find solace in escapist dreams. They imagine of how life would be if they owned the houses, cars and general wealth that the whites have. They dream of escaping to England, America, Dubai, South Africa etc. as long as they can find a better life. Such escapist imaginations are captured in their children games and conversations. In their interactions, one is able to recognise the fears, the insecurity, the growing discontent and the almost rapturous violence that is brewing in the oppressed masses.
          The title of the text borrows from one of the violent scenes in the text when the children attempt to help Chipo abort. In a chilling descriptive excerpt, the children gather around Chipo armed with a collection of rocks, a tin mug of urine and a rusted clothes hanger. They suggest that they need new names so as to enact an American series in which doctors help patients. However, the reader will perhaps see the need for the characters to adopt new names in general since some of their names are bereft of any sense of tangible identity. This might be the cause of the children’s sense of deracination and perpetual desire to desert their country.
          Darling’s wish to join her aunt, Fostalina, in America comes true. However, the racial pride and prejudice denies her and many other immigrants the opportunity to enjoy their stay in America. As Darling realises, America portends a life of misery owing to the economic inequalities and the fact that the immigrants remain illegal since they hardly ever acquire the visas and permits that would hasten their integration. As a result, they result to a life of survival by working odd hours and balancing education with social life.
          The immigrants’ life in America become a tale of lies as they try their best to send money back home and to reassure the rest of their family members that they have not forgotten them. The catastrophe that unfolds is that some of them loose their brains while others resort to illegal means of survival. The struggle to keep their dreams of home intact eventually crumbles as a result of the cultural differences they encounter in the US. The emerging generations of Africans born in the US are further alienated since they do not understand their roots. Contemporary American mannerisms are captured in the colloquial expressions of the teenagers, the use of technology and other socio-economic activities.
          As the text transitions from Zimbabwe to America, one notices the shift in the narrative texture. The text leans more towards stereotypes and almost looses the magical touch of imagination and creative nuances. In an intrusive authorial voice, the writer describes the devastations of the new cultural experience, the broken dreams and the life of misery the immigrants have to endure. As the novel comes to an end, Darling describes her coming of age and the cultural experimentations she has to indulge in. Some of these are ugly memories that she would wish to quickly erase like the immoral flicks she and her friends watch in hiding in her aunt’s basement. Darling also notes that the immigrants’ marriages, whatever nature they are, are doomed to fail.
          The insecurities in the US are hard to bear, the broken cultural fabric beyond repair and the sense of hopelessness pervades and decorates their entire lives. One wonders why anyone would even wish to travel to the US in the first place. Perhaps there is a better story of the American Dream out there but at least it is not in Bulawayo’s We Need New Names. This is a text for any aspiring wannabe and for those dying for a piece of the American Dream.
NoViolet: Courtesy of Google Images

Monday, October 31, 2016

Education in Kenya: Who wants to be a Professor anyway?

(From the archives: Memories from South African Reminiscences in 2014/2015)
Image courtesy of Google images
An interesting spectacle unfolded during the last three days as I attended a doctoral supervision training course at UFS (University of the Free State Bloemfontein) aimed at strengthening and enhancing the quality of doctoral research in South Africa. It suddenly dawned on me that a society’s values are best measured depending on where its money is invested. Suffice to note that a good number of developed economies invest a colossal sum of their money in building human capital through educational programmes. The inverse is true for developing countries whose resources seem to get wasted through a political class hell-bent on attaining highest honours on self-aggrandisement and economic enrichment.
For example, Kenya has a small number of quality doctorates in relation to its population compared to a preferable sample ratio of 100 doctorates per one million individuals. The trickledown effect is that educational standards are adversely affected. As a result, instead of having the most qualified personnel teaching pre-schoolers and early grade children, the reverse is witnessed. In Kenya, the more qualified you are, the less likely you are to teach lower cadres of students. Indeed, most professors are stuck in teaching doctoral students, or handling administrative tasks, thus denying young scholars the opportunity to benefit from their knowledge.
In an ideal environment, a professor should be the one teaching children and helping to nurture and horn the educational skills of a future generation. However, in most developing countries, this task is delegated to people who failed in school because the career is associated with poor pay and lack of respect or recognition. It is thus not surprising to realise that there is a dialectic relationship between the quality of education amongst the majority of people who happen to be poor and their masterly of language skills or other pedagogical matters.
On the contrary, those who can afford to enrol their children in expensive schools, begin to reap the benefits of a quality education system that, so to speak, unfairly advantages their children over those from poor backgrounds. Essentially this means that expensive schools have the capacity to attract and retain highly qualified personnel as opposed to public schools that have to rely on meagre government funding. Thus, it might be possible to surmise that our educational system is largely discriminating and responsible for exacerbating the social stratification of our nation.
What would it take for a country like Kenya to have qualified professors to teach kindergarten kids? As it is, many undergraduates will finish their first degree without imbibing or sipping from the fountains of professors’ wisdom. And therein lies our educational tragedy. I am not in any way postulating that people with master’s degrees or PhD’s are not qualified, no way! My argument is simply meant to underscore the fact that the years invested in research and dissemination of knowledge percolates into the making of the individual thereby making him/her a better academician.
Besides, if the Kenyan educational environment was conducive, apportioning adequate resources in terms of time and money, many people would venture into the profession. Unfortunately, being a teacher in a Kenyan context is something that most of us disdain and look down upon. There is no question that societal demands have pushed many a young person to escape the academic path lest they wallow in eternal miasmic conditions of poverty. It is thus prudent for us to rethink the values of education and to appreciate the different demands that societal responsibilities will exert on us. In this way, we will equip ourselves with different skills and pursue different careers with our heads held high.
Image courtesy of Google images
Indeed, we need to re-invest in the education sector. We need to retrain our children that education is important. Although there are high achievers in the society who are school dropouts, our children need to be in the know that pursuing education does not mean putting one’s goals to an end. Rather, it means that education becomes a means to help them to better focus and crystallise their vision and goals. Maybe it is high time we stopped being paranoid about education and respected this noble profession if we actually belief in the sanctity of human growth and a holistic society.
Back to by doctoral supervision course. At least I learnt one important issue regarding power play in connection to supervision – education can make or break someone’s future! Consequently, if we are not careful, our educational pursuits as a country will end up breaking our kids’ souls instead of transforming them into inspired qualified beings capable of discovering innovative solutions to our social, political and economic woes. I hope that the next time we talk to our kids about what they want to be when they grow up we will think about the need for a quality educational system that can propel them to be what they visualise in their dreams and fantasies.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Class Struggles in "Of Goats and Poisoned Oranges"

It is one thing to start a story with a lot of promise and yet another to bring it to a fulfilling clincher at the end. I feel as if Ciku Kimeria’s Of Goats and Poisoned Oranges has left me with a series of unresolved or else loose ends that could have done with some polishing. But who am I that is yet to reconstruct a coherent opening to novel to say so?
Kimeria presents a story whose opening is so riveting that I was at once reminded of Ng’ang’a Mbugua’s Terrorists of the Aberdare. In Mbugua’s case, the story opens when the protagonist has arrived in heaven and is trying to get acclimatised to the new surroundings. For her part, Kimeria borrows a similar but doubly different angle. The narrator reckons: "It really is a strange situation to find oneself in - that of attending your own funeral. If anyone told me that the day would come when I would get to listen to my own eulogy, see old lost friends shed a tear and notice the absence of those I had assumed would be at my funeral, I would have thought them mad."
Of Goats and Poisoned Oranges demonstrates the superficial lives of Kenya’s middle class and pokes fun at attempts to bridge the gap between the low class and members of the middle class. This is vividly brought out in the marriage between Wambui, the novel’s protagonist, and Njogu, the antagonist. It is a fairy tale of a relationship that was never meant to be and one that miserably and tragically comes to an end when Njogu murders Wambui after she physically effaces her existence by feigning her death.
One could argue that this is a modern narrative reliving the times of urban populations and their socio-economic struggles. Njogu marries into money and begins to make an identity for himself. Unfortunately, this is overshadowed by his poor upbringing and the fact that he has married into a rich family. Consequently, he is not Njogu the man he would wish to be but the Njogu married to Wambui. It is a crisis of identity that drives him into seclusion when his marriage first alienates his family and friends and then forces him into a stage-managed lifestyle that he loathes. One could even propose that he feels emasculated as a man.
The unfolding of the story reveals the different life perspectives modern couples have as a result of their upbringing and the kinds of tussles this can create. Told from a multiplicity of voices, Of Goats and Poisoned Oranges allows each character to reveal their inner desires and fears by telling it all – the bare knuckle way. The conflict between Wambui and Njogu is given impetus by the appearance of Nyambura, Njogu’s mistress, in the picture.
A few flashes of suspense will keep the reader going as s/he strives to find out how the trickery of the couple upon each other will turn out. The lies that married couples keep are unravelled and the reader is made to reassess his/her postulations about marriage. Indeed, the text revels in the stereotype that a nagging wife is the sole bearer of the responsibility for her cheating husband. It also preys on the thinking that a couple can be discordant if the lady is rich and the man is poor. But you have to read the novel and decide for yourself.
However, I must give the story credit for the fact that it gives women a kind of agency. Although it is not well captured/brought out, one feels that the women somehow have a sense of control over their bodies, that is, their sexuality. The fact that the women also have money, apart from the few who have to rely on the men to provide for them, attests to the fact that women are consistently getting economically empowered in contemporary urban societies.
One of the best ways in which the women demonstrate independency is when they choose to have children without letting Njogu know that he is unable to sire. Hence, King’ori and Njogu jr. are not sons of Njogu, at least not in a biological sense. In this way, Kimeria enables the women to decide how they will be defined in their own terms. But I fault the text for being artificial in the way it tackles perceptions about poverty. I felt like the writer tried too hard to capture the sensibilities of a poor man and his ambitions. The descriptions about Kibera come across as too shallow and devoid of any meaningful depiction of slum dwellings.
One will have to grab a copy of the text to be their own jury. For me, it is just another read not necessarily for critical studies but one that can help to while away the time. It is not necessarily humorous but some may find it so on the contrary. I trust that you will enjoy it.

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