The Triangle – Nakisanze Segawa

The Triangle

The cover image of Nakisanze Segawa’s The Triangle.

First things first, this book is an attractive print coming in from Uganda. I rarely see the print quality of The Triangle in other Ugandan books printed at home. You will also notice the size. It’s not another short story out of Uganda. No; it’s a full 366 paged novel that is divided into two parts- Book One and Book Two (poetically speaking I would have wanted a Book Three to add to the meaning of the title). So what did I think of it after the visual impression? Read on.

 

The Triangle is a novel that is set in Buganda of the late 1800’s. It picks from real life events in the Kingdom and the actors playing in the political works of the day. The Kabaka’s family and his government, the French (Catholics), the Brits (Anglicans), the Arabs (Muslims) and the colonialists.

 

What Nakisanze tries to add is personality. She attempts this by using a range of characters such as Mwanga,  Nagawa, Kalinda, Father Leonardo, Reverend Clement, Richard, Kawaddwa and more. I believe the idea is to show the human side to the events that were happening in the kingdom at the time. However, there are a lot of characters in this novel, sometimes it’s hard keeping up with who is who.

 

I feel that should not be problematic if the characters were memorable or had depth. Or if the events were well built and transitioned with ease.

 

There seems to be a lot of on-the-surface storytelling. Revealing a lot of externalities, but little internal struggle. It’s like a robotic tale, little consciousness from the characters. The strong characters to me include Sekitto and Babirye, perhaps it’s their small role in the whole tale that makes them most believable. They act authentically.

 

The problem with picking on events that happened is that we know what happened so the writer must be very skilled at humanising the story to make us part of it and not just spectators. I wanted to be present, feeling anxiety, pain, hope, loss but I wasn’t able to most of the time.  The author fails to convincingly humanise the story.

 

The Triangle is based on very many three pronged issues. There’s Buganda’s three kings in one year; the struggle for influence between the French, the British and the Arabs; the Christians, the Arabs and the traditionalists; Kalinda, Nagawa and Mwanga.

 

The triangles are there. However, despite their historical truth, are they justified in this book?

 

Let’s take for the one that has no historical place – Kalinda, Nagawa and Mwanga. The blurb of the novel seems to be centred around the page – Kalinda, and the Kabaka’s wife – Nagawa and their “rivalry”. The blurb says “…the beauty of Mwanga’s second wife, Nagawa threatens his relationship with the Kabaka.” With this in mind, I expected some tense moments, something more than suspicion that is never fulfilled. There was a lot of mention about how the two looked at each suspiciously, but beyond that, nothing.

 

For the issue of Mwanga and the martyring of the Christians, still the author draws more from the known history and does little to impress on the reader how much a threat these people were.

 

This is where I fault the characterisation.

 

It’s hard to find a strong character in this book. We know a lot about them buy barely get to know or understand them or the stories surrounding them. When it seems a character has been built well, then their story gets to an unexpected ending or “pause”.

 

Kalinda, for example, is meant to be a key character at least according to the blurb but there’s nothing memorable about him. His homosexual relationship with Mwanga is immediately obvious but it’s just that. He makes very strange decisions that cannot be backed up by reason. When he “betrays” the Kabaka whom he loves, it is not only unprecedented but confusing seeing as he’s not particularly enthralled with his new found religion.

 

For a time, I am wondering whether I remembered the Bishop Hannington story properly. Where does Mwanga’s suspicion come from? His brutality? Is it from his smoking of drugs? Why can’t his erratic behaviour be properly documented and given flesh.

 

The foreign characters in the book also leave a lot to be desired in terms of what they bring to the story. Richard seems to be the more believable of all them all. The others get lost in translation every now and then. Reverend Clement, Father Leonardo both look like cosmetic characters.

 

There is more urgency to the story in part two where a vicious Kabaka, Kalema, takes stage. It seems the book almost came alive as it drew to a close.

 

Nonetheless, many of the stories are incongruous and move unexpectedly. There are very many dots left to the reader to connect which reduces on the ease and enjoyment of reading. Perhaps the fires in the palace, the disappearance of a page, the involvement of Ankole, the death of Bukenya should make sense but it seems like one has to first read the history of Buganda to connect these dots yet I think the book should be trying to do it the other way round – show; do not tell.

 

The typos, the misspellings, are the most distracting. Nakisanze claims at the end of her book that any mistakes are hers but she owed it to the list of people she names to avoid these mistakes. The number of times rifle was spelt riffle; Kabalega being called Kabalenga, a rash being called a rush…, bitten spelt as beaten, were too many.

 

This book was ambitious. Trying to give a backstory to actual historical events is not easy. However, I think Nakisanze fails to ably handle the sheer number of events she was tackling in writ, the depth of the characters, the movement of the stories and the believability of the conflicts. I failed to get something to grab onto.

 

Frankly speaking, this novel lacked soul.

This review was written, for Turn The Page, by Joel Benjamin Ntwatwa.

Copies of this title are available for sale on Turn The Page’s online bookshop, which can be accessed by following this link.

 

The Cock Thief – Parselelo Kantai

I had to look again and again to appreciate the depth of the symbolism the writer had used!

When you’re done reading The Cock Thief, you suddenly realise it was a story full of well placed symbols. Especially perhaps if you’re not Kenyan. The short story by Parselelo Kantai is somewhat of a well written jigsaw that touches on Kenya’s politics and what maybe one man’s dream for siku mpya or alfajiri in a land other than Kenya.

It’s flattering to a Ugandan that one man may look upon this country as a new start, a new day but one must not miss the circumstances involved.

The story is set on a bus. Transit. Change. Long journeys filled with hope but also with fear and anxiety and fanciful thinking. The journey on the bus appears to me partly as one man’s meditation on what happened to the country Kenya, what happened to his tribe’s culture with the influence of colonial machinations. What happened to initial hopes of moving up the ladder. The vanity of patience.

The writer uses different means to evoke this. From hopeful appointments to positions very close to power and their eventual meaninglessness. It’s as though as he speaks of these things, he speaks of Kenya as a whole

“None of that business of climbing up the ladder of success, of spending years driving some inconsequential Ministry of Education undersecretary across the country, waiting patiently inside the car for the 1 o’clock news outside a nyama choma den in West Mugirango and hoping that Bwana Undersecretary was among the list of new presidential appointees and you therefore rose with him, futures intertwined.”

The bus’s movement too is a tell-tale of the writer’s thoughts on this journey. It’s forging ahead on the journey but not without difficulty, the engine protested, seized up, a winded child’s frantic gulps for air. There are moments it almost fails but manages to move through. Moments it is almost involved in an accident but by some power survives.

I didn’t fail to see the juxtaposition between the bus and the Mercedes Benz of the Old Man who the main persona Corporal Naiguran chauffeurs. The bus is headed to the border and goes through hills and valleys, over potholes while coughing. The Benz on the other hand has a deep hum of music transmitted from the steering wheel… It’s as though the bus represents wananchi and the Benz, the ruling class. One the difficulty of their lives, the other the ease.

However, besides the bus, the main image itself is that of the cock. I must say again that the writer’s symbolism is well thought out. A look at the Kenyan coat of arms reveals a cock – a rooster, in the middle that symbolises announcement of a new day, of a new time. Of harambee and better things. As the title denotes, you already know the cock is the subject of a theft. I really do not want to spoil this story. However I can say that again there is an attempt of the wananchi to steal the dream for themselves and run with it.

It’s a story with phrases that stick out at you, phrases that make you sad. Of fathers who die of redundancy because they have no place in the new journey their country is on. Of mzungu cattle being bathed in Palmolive soap. Of everybody leaving Kenya and lying about it because there was nothing left. Of thick buttocks, things you could hold on to when it mattered.

This to me is one story rich with its use of symbols. It’s a short read but a long thought. Everything means something bigger, something else. It’s not just a cock being stolen,  or a corporal stealing it, or hiding it in a bag on a bus, or a crescendo chorus of cocks at the border. It’s not just an “Old Man”, or a bus or a benz. It is something more. That is why this is not a one time read. It is a two-time, three-time, four-time and over and over again read till you fully appreciate the symbols. I’d recommend it for a book club discussion.

 

Running – Jackie Lebo

Little do we know about the Kenyan runners that every year, every four years achieve another racing feat. Outside of Kenya, we keep seeing these black men and women who simply cannot fail to win at races, especially long distance races.

When I first picked up the book I thought it was fiction. Most of the works I read are fiction. However it was not until I decided to Google the names in the book that I found, they exist in real life and this is a story that brings to light their stories and backstories.

Jackie Lebo’s “Running” begins humbly enough

“THIS IS A STORY about running. It started out as a story about my family, but as it always happens, the unintended tales a narrative unravels are often the most compelling.”

The narrative started still in the summer of 2004 where Jackie Lebo was on a history mining mission in Kenya.  The unintended tale seems to flow from the Athens Summer Olympics in 2004, backwards into Kenya’s pre-independence land history and forward to the story of a one, Elias Kiptum Maindi and his search for athletic success.

Even if the story is about running, it is not one that puts you on tension. Whether that is a good thing remains for the reader to decide. That said, there are two issues being well held in tension, Kenya’s successful “running” history outside home and it’s divisive land problems at home.

“I was living in the States at the time and distance gave us an acute hunger for stories from home – we devoured Kenyan newspapers. The back of The Daily Nation, had three steeplechasers in all their winning glory, uncontroversial and celebrated by all Kenyans. The front carried far more gripping news: the hundred year lease on the Maasai agreements of 1904 AND 1911 were up, and the Maasai were agitating for the return of their lands.”

The controversial issues are not limited to land. There are more and they are tagged to the effects of the colonial system. Education also divides the people. Those who go to school leave “home” work undone. However, when education pervades the society, unemployment issues crop up and then social issues like drinking also crop up. To our main focus Elias, it is these that drive him to running.

The writer’s narration on how land issues affected their family and why they live where they live at the moment, close to the running capital of Kenya Iten leads us to the new tale about runners, about Elias and his journey.

I can see how the unintended tales happen. There are always points like the writer’s home, Moiben being close to Iten that sets off a new tale.

Iten is referred to as the running capital of Kenya. The writer takes some time to paint it with his words. Beautifully. You might smell the air, sit in its small restaurants and order mandazi. It could be any other small town in Kenya except in those other towns, you will not find

“…the runners, hundreds of them, seen early in the morning in groups as large as forty on the side roads, wearing the latest athletic gear, multicoloured spandex and breathable shirts of every global sports brand available – Adidas, Nike, Fila, Mizuno, Puma, and Asics.”

It is a different kind of town. It is very local yet very international with fortunes tied to far off places – London, Chicago, Seoul, Fukuoka and Rio… .The writer finds this connection intriguing, noting one week she might be cheering on a runner on a TV screen and the next seated behind him on a matatu.

It’s here that Elias’s story starts. I cannot help but always look back to the opening line and see how Elias comes into the tale. We started from a television to a newspaper, to a search for history, to a town and finally to a runner. From this point the writer follows Elias on his journey; the effect of the controversial matters like land, education, unemployment on his chosen career; the runner’s own enduring pursuit of the career. His chancing on established runners, his relationship with his father and how it takes him to the cusp of greatness.

The short story, I feel, is Jackie Lebo’s tribute to Kenya’s runners, a sympathy with Kenyans and the problems that arose from colonial settlers, the enduring land and evolving culture of Kenya, and a hope birthing experiment for another Kenyan who might want to follow the path of runners.

As I said, the book itself is not a sprint, neither is it a marathon, it’s somewhere in between but calmly tells the unknown tale of Kenya’s runners.

Poetry In Motion – Mulumba Ivan Matthias.

poetry-in-motion

Mulumba Ivan Matthias’ Poetry In Nature.

Mulumba’s first poetry collection is relatively an easy read. Comprising 51 poems on 58 pages, it’s separated into 5 sections; Rhythm and Rhymes, Cakes and Candles, Riddles of Fortune, Thorns and Roses, and Gospel Truth.

In Rhythm and Rhymes, he covers different areas of social life, its vices and virtues and where the lines are too thin to see a difference.

In Letter to the Pontiff, I feel Mulumba was at his most candid, most honest and most artistic in the entire collection. It’s not so much the rhyme as the symbols he picks on in this poem to relay one Priest’s struggle with priesthood.

Phrases like;
…academy of celibacy 
has kept me alive in faith
but dead to the world…” 
after which he makes a strong point and says 
“Food is aplenty and so is my flesh

noting the struggle he faces in his existence that should be heavenly but is presently carnal.

In Musambwa and the Moon, he tackles the old age stories of mermaids in Buganda culture in three short, but impeccable stanzas showing poetry is indeed about economy of words.

There are many other poems he pens that talk about unexpected topics like sports, secondary school sosh, and then more common aspects like history, culture and more. He is very bold when he pens down “Groans From The Cathedral” in which he recounts a murder/rape scene in a cathedral.

In Cakes and Candles, Mulumba seems to be celebrating particular people. It’s the shortest section with four poems.

In Riddles of Fortune, he continues his social commentaries on different topics like the government, war, poverty, alcohol.

However I feel he best expresses his art in Thorns and Roses, which is a section dedicated to love and sex. His imagination and craft seems to get a high when he talks about this particular topic. In poems like OdysseyMemories, Symphony from the shadows, his poetry becomes more vivid. (Either that or my imagination seems to go on a tangent). In my opinion it is his most intriguing exploit because when he sums up with the section Gospel Truth you get the feeling it is more like an ordinance rather than an expression of real tribute.

And that’s part of my criticism. In his more thrilling poems, Mulumba seems to be himself because you can identify with what he’s talking about. His images make sense, his sentence structure too. It doesn’t seem belaboured like some poems where he might have chosen a theme and decided to write about it.

Secondly, I feel that he uses inverted sentences a little too often. Phrases like At the sinking sun I gaze, Inside me fear kindled, Traffic policemen in the shadows stand and more. Not every poem has them, but a lot of them do, and the more I came across them the more I felt that Mulumba was not being as creative as he really is.

Nonetheless, I commend Mulumba on this first collection. There’s a lot of poetic device one can enjoy in the collection.

Mulumba’s book is available for purchase on the bookstore section of Turn The Page.

 

Kintu – Jennifer Makumbi

So he was sacrificed at the altar of knowledge?’ Kusi tries to reconcile her mother and aunt.
‘For knowing and refusing to know,’ her aunt says confidently.

Is this how Nigerians felt when “Things Fall Apart” or “No Longer at Ease” were released? Is it how the Kenyans felt when “Carcase for Hounds” or “The River Between” were released?

When you ask Google what famous Ugandan novels she knows, she will give you ten names. Only ten names as opposed to the twenty plus of Nigeria or Kenya. One of these ten is Kintu. I can understand why.

For much of the books written by African writers, there is a great chronicling of local history and profiling culture. In fact this is not just African writers, it is writers everywhere. This is why we probably know more about Victorian lifestyle than Ugandan pre-1900 lifestyle. We’ve read more of it than our own.

When you start to read Kintu, you are thrown into a hot scene that showcases one of the worst vices of Ugandan society, “mob justice”. It’s a seemingly random death but a death at the beginning of a book spells a lot of story, as we all know.

Jennifer has a very captivating style of writing. I have seen it in another piece of her work -“Let’s Tell This Story Properly”. Her plot is not structured chronologically. It moves back and forth like a dream but is the kind of dream that has a proper beginning and a meaningful ending.

What she takes us through is a shared story woven over two hundred and fifty-four years. It tells the circumstances of six characters and how their history defines them.

The story is particularly gripping because it talks about home, Uganda, Buganda. It is so gripping because there are so many places it describes that I can walk to now and stand in. Like Mulago. Makerere College School. Bunga. Masaka. Places I have been to. It is gripping because the culture is something I can relate with: The effect of religion, campus life, etc. What’s more is that it tries to explain the reasons to so many unanswered questions in our minds.

It’s a tale of African mysticism that can easily steal your sleep and leave you pondering on your roots.The question of twins for example: I never knew why when twins die in our culture, they say “Babuuse” (they’ve flown). There are so many rites that come with twins that it seemed Baganda were fussing over nothing. When you read the story, you get new found respect or is it apprehension for twins.

It really weaves a tale of its characters alongside that of Buganda and Uganda. This is one book where finally someone talks about pre-British Buganda and pre-independence Uganda and what it meant for the locals. It goes through the different regimes, the issues that affected the country, how they affect individuals; things like HIV, war etc

Jennifer’s tact is in telling you what you have an idea about yourself. I really feel like it’s the first book that gives a fair idea of Uganda/Buganda.

I don’t know how it feels like for non-Baganda or non-Ugandans, but personally it really gave me a shaking.

I admire Jennifer for taking the time to research and teach so many Ugandans and in particular Baganda what they may not know about themselves. I for one know that an urban Muganda maybe a very disengaged Muganda but this book gives one a knock on their head and makes them awake.

I fell in love with Kintu’s life. How it might have been in the 1700s in Buganda. Family life. Sexuality. Kingdom and the other interesting aspects you will find. I also fell in love with Kanani, the Muzukufu because I relate. I understand the writer gives you a bias when it comes to what to believe but I can see the struggle of having to believe in a foreign god when your people believe in the local ones.

I sympathise with Ssuubi who is being haunted by her twin, who lives not exaclty afraid of death but waiting for it in vain. I understand the burden on Miisi’s mind, knowing all you know and not being able to know at the same time.

It’s such a rich book I am glad I did not hurry to read it. I will definitely think more about where I come from, and will look forward to more from Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi.

This is a groundbreaking piece of Ugandan work.

Weight of Whispers – Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

Kuseremane. Kuseremane. Kuseremane.

The name whose whispers turns friends into strangers, allies into enemies, relatives into snitches.

Weight of Whispers by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor is a tragic tale of a tall Rwandese prince whose fortunes are changed within five days of the death of two presidents. One can become an exile and refugee in a matter of time it seems.

It is the utmost irony in a narrative we’ve known only one way about the Rwandan genocide, the usual criminal tribe is not the one that commits the original sin in Kuseremane’s story. Or is it?

Boniface Louis Kuseremane is a Rwandan Prince who has enjoyed the high life for as long as he knows. He is used to travelling to European cities with ease and dining with the so and so’s of political, financial and academic influence. A president of a local Bank, he is a man of means. His life is bound with his mother, Agnethe-mama, Chi-Chi his little sister and Lune, his fiancée . However, it is another character, a should-be-ignoble character -Roger, who contributes to Kuseremane’s current circumstances with a weight that is unforeseen for a servant. In fact, Roger, is the one reason that Kuseremane in an instant turns from a travelling prince to a creeping refugee in a country not his.

In terms of tragedies, I have not read a story like this in an African setting since “A Wreath for Udomo” by Peter Abrahams. Yvonne’s writing tugs at the heart with every new phrase, every new circumstance, every new action. The way the story starts and moves is nothing short of gripping.

He spits on my finger, and draws out the ring with his teeth; the ring I have worn for 18 years – from the day I was recognised by the priests as a man and a prince. It was supposed to have been passed on to the son I do not have. The policeman twists my hand this way and that, his tongue caught between his teeth; a study in concentrated avarice.
“Evidence!”

Kuseremane steals out of his country hoping to find temporary respite in Kenya before continuing to another State outside Africa. Kenya should be a temporary stop. After all he has connections; business and royal connections and getting out of Kenya shouldn’t be a problem. He has to hurriedly leave his home with $3723, which should be enough for transition to the diaspora. However nothing goes as planned for him.

The people he thought would send help, trusted royals, do not send it. When Agnethe-mama asks Kuseremane when they are leaving or whether help has been sent, he has remained with one default response, “Soon”. He is forced to sneak out of the 5 star hotel they were “temporarily” to stay in to find cheaper places to live. He is forced to change into that which he has never experienced to survive.

Even though there are little pockets of hope, it’s a tragedy, the tale. And one cannot miss the disdain Kuseremane and his family have towards the country they are in, the shillings, the culture, even the places they look for hope in, like church. Kuseremane goes to church with the others but he is removed from it perhaps because his lineage talks of a rulership by divinity?

sitting at the back of the church watching people struggling for words and rituals to express allegiance to a God whose face they do not know. The hope peddlers become rich quickly, singing, “Cheeeeessus!”

Kenya is not playing nice either. The police arrest him for having no papers and take all his beloved souvenirs. They take his money as bribes. His mother’s diamond and sapphire necklace is sold at a lower value than it should be and when he goes to complain, he’s threatened. His sister is asked to do some despicable things to get the necessary papers out of the country an act which begets more tragedy.His friends and countrymen turn away from him when they discover the whispers behind his name.

He turned to speak to Pierre, who introduced him to Jean-Luc. I touched his shoulder to remind him of my request. He said in French: I will call you. He forgot to introduce me to Pierre and Jean-Luc. Two hours later, he said, in front of Pierre, Jean-Luc and Michel: “Refresh my memory, who are you?” My heart threatens to pound a way out of my chest.—I am Boniface Kuseremane. Refresh my memory, who are you? There are places within, where a sigh can hide.

He goes from privileged to wretched in a short matter of time.

The book deals with very interesting questions. Human evil, its mystagogy; for example, how do you interact with a Jew who has been through the horrors of the holocaust on terms of forgiveness? How do you tell Cain’s side of the story without causing insult? Fratricide; self preservation and betrayal; all these seem to prove that

…the zenith of existence cannot be human.

Men turn to beasts to preserve themselves. Men do anything to survive. For a man who has to beg for help from people he once helped, people who now act like they don’t know him, it’s rather interesting to see what terrible crimes can do to those they accuse of being its progenitors; how perhaps to say that humanity is on a positive scale of the meter is to fool ourselves.

But to be human is to be intrinsically, totally, resolutely good. Is it not? Nothing entertains the devil as much as this protestation.

What starts as the death of two presidents leads to the end of the life (not literally) of a one Kuseremane, whose interactions with the world around him since the terrible events have washed away his money, his status, his stature, his hope and possibly his family. The manner that Yvonne brings this tragedy to life is nothing short of gifted. The Caine Prize Winner’s words lead you to the cusp of tears and possibly even over. You cannot help but sympathise with Kuseremane as his once glorious life is reduced to knees. One thing is not clear though. Is Kuseremane really not guilty as he tries to convince us or is he actually paying for his crimes?

 

4/5 stars.

Buy the book now.

Discovering Home – Binyavanga Wainana

What a beautiful journey. From the seeming encumbrance of metered school life in South Africa the to the sights, sounds and people of home, Binyavanga details in his short story the (re)discovery of home, one’s roots, one’s people, in a very descriptive, witty, engaging and emotive style. Discovering Home is 13 months of a trip back home laid down in an enjoyable 4-chapter short story.

In fact, he says little about South Africa except the farewell party, the goats on their roads that look at him in defiance and that Cape Town is mellow in relation to Nairobi which is like a shot of whiskey. We are immediately taken into the journey home, musing about the miracle of life being the ability to exist for a time in defiance of chaos. This is attributed to the fact that he could have missed the flight due to hangover issues, postponement and the tickets almost not materialising. The lesson is inserted like a bookmark but one must not miss it

Phrases swell, becoming bigger than their context and speak to us as truth.

The journey starts in Kenya. Binyavanga makes a commentary on the social and inadvertently the political issues in his home country. From the traffic jam and the Matatus which are unwittingly Kenya’s mobile art galleries; to the relentless cart pushers and women selling fruit on the roadside who despite their country’s failing economy manage to push on with a smile. Wainana’s imagery strikes a point easily. For example, the man wearing a Yale University sweatshirt and tattered trousers. He is stuck in the jam with his wheelbarrow competing for space with cars. However when he sees a friend across the road he smiles heartily as if life’s problems have all been solved.

It’s impossible to miss the different tribes of Kenya being highlighted plus their interactions. The Maasai, the Kamba, the Kikuyu, the Samburu are shown as the different people that give life to the variety of Kenya. Who works harder, who loves better are all issues that come together, not in a competitive way but a complementary way. Wainana is able to poke holes at things like female circumcision without necessarily being offensive but causing considerable thought and reflection.

There is nothing wrong with being what you are not in Kenya, just be it successfully.

It’s unmissable, the fondness and estrangement when it comes to community relations. In Africa, the party is a party but when the morning comes, there is an awkwardness about having shared so much with a stranger the previous night. Nonetheless the joining factor is the food, the dance, the music of community. I guffawed in laughter as Wainana took to describe the Dombolo dance.

To do it right, wiggle your pelvis from side to side while your upper body remains as casual as if you were lunching with Nelson Mandela.

He takes time to engage Maasai land’s beauty from an African point of view. This is much unlike the romanticised view from much of the West, where elephants and rolling hills are the heroes. When he talks about Maasai land, he talks about the people mostly.

I enjoyed Christmas in Bufumbira, the final chapter. Wainana journeys through Uganda to get to his mother’s home in Bufumbira, talking about Ugandan hospitality, neatness, and the different tribes he meets. Wainana’s view of Baganda women is like seeing oneself from another’s eyes. Sure, there are many inventive Baganda women but much of culture has painted them as always waiting on their husbands. Wainana brings to note that a lot of Baganda women are industrious as they are attractive.

Home in Bufumbira is sombre yet not tear jerking. There is a control with which Wainana writes. He talks about the events in Rwanda, the people who have been through it, their sacrifices, gently putting them on a pedestal without telling it on the mountains despite the fact they are in the mountains.

This book is a story of fortitude, hope and the camaraderie of home. It is a view of Africa unbiased by the usual African themes. You will not find deep tragedies, only history, nostalgia and a new found respect for home.

It’s again another enjoyable piece from the Caine Prize Winner, Binyavanga Wainana.

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My Hair Grows Like A Tree – Tamika Phillip

“Tami, I don’t understand your hair”. This question is the start of a seemingly short but deep journey into the world of a woman’s hair, what it means, or whether it should mean anything and its connection to the earth.

A book written for young girls and women, it tries to show the connection between the earth, the trees, the mountains, the sun, the rain; and our bodies and hair.

Tamika’s short book is written in very easy to read verse. It’s an informative tract as well as a guide for the reader to think more about hair. The questions themselves are written as poetry. It is the kind of poetry that is tranquil and non-distracting for a young reader.

Quite intriguing is its style. The cover of the book is at the back and to read you have to start from the back going to the front. Right to left, like Arabic. In a way it teaches us that a “hairstory” has history; that we must not look on things as they are but attempt to see where they start. So going backwards was sort of like going back in time.

It is well illustrated. Given that each page is a topic of sorts about hair, it is accompanied by an illustration. It is a given that any book for a young reader helps to have images to engage the visual understanding. While the illustrations go on to highlight historical names whose hair is drawn on as lessons; for example, Hatshepsut of Egypt; a lot of them are actually hairstyles. From Tamika’s point of view, each hairstyle is a certain way to illustrate a connection; whether to the earth or the sun or the wind.

For all women who love their “enviri-nacho” and who would love their daughters and sisters and friends to understand that it is more than the looks, “My Hair Grows like a Tree” is a good book to read!

Tamika Phillip is a Trinidadian who has worked and lived in the United States, Jamaica, Italy, Ethiopia, London, Egypt and presently live in Turkey. It wouldn’t be illogical to thus adduce that her book draws on all the women she has met and the meanings of their hair!

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How to Write About Africa -Binyavanga Wainana

I’ll be honest. I’ve never read a short story collection this short. It was only three stories long, and fit on 48-A6 size pages.  In general, a forty minute read worth of tongue-in-cheek reflection about Africa and the people who write about Africa or want to be a part of it.

Two of the stories are by Caine Prize Winner Binyavanga Wainana. The title story “How to Write About Africa” is a satirical but potent critique on how popular media writes about Africa.
He takes low swipes at the colloquial language that many writers use when describing what Africa is.

He starts the well informed wit by declaring , “Always use the word ‘Africa’, or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title” summing up the narrow understanding of many when it comes to writing about Africa. A theme that runs through the short story is the apparent distinction between real black Africans and non-black Africans. Wainana notes that when referring to black Africans, simply use ‘people’, however when referring to non-black Africans, say ‘the people’. The device seems minimalistic but says a lot about how classes and racial stereotypes are perpetuated.

The stereotypes that he brings to note are numerous. For example, Africa cuisine consists of monkey brain and not rice and beef; Africa is one large country and not many countries in a continent; Africa is worth romanticizing but not deeply thinking about. She is a land of naked breasts and rotting bodies. A beautiful land with many red sunsets but plagued with HIV/AIDS, war and famine. Africa is in need of the writers wisdom and is to be doomed if the writer doesn’t intervene or write this book.

He also talks about characters when writing about Africa. The mindless loyal servant, the Ancient wise man who only comes from specific tribes, the modern African who is highly educated and works a government job which he uses either to keep white people out or to enrich himself. You can clearly see how Wainana has shown the boxes Africa and her people have been put in. You must fit characters in these boxes for your book to be considered about Africa.

What is indeed laughable and embarrassing is how animals are to be taken more seriously than people. ‘Nothing bad must be said about elephants or gorillas’. In fact animals must be more human in your story than the African native. The other persons more important than animals comprise celebrity activists, aid workers and conservations, after all Africa must be helped. And if you don’t finish your book with a reference to Mandela or rebirth or rainbows, you have failed to write about Africa.

All three stories are written humorously and the next one ‘My Clan KC’ continues to address some of the issues brought alive in the first story, particularly black Africans vis a vis non-black Africans. This story highlights the elitist culture of the white Kenyan whose ‘clan’ is so close knit and exclusive that even other white people do not just get in.

Wainana’s second story, and the book’s final story is called ‘Power of Love’. It’s an indictment of the fickleness and Africa-saving airs of the West. Basing on a popular song, he highlights the kind of ‘love’ for Africa that once in a while gets emotive reactions from the world, appears highly self-sacrificing and generous and makes the African seems like a helpless orphan with hands stretched out for help. One passage that puts all this in context is this “Last year I met a lovely young woman from England, all of 19, who came all the way to Naivasha, to a specific location very near a lovely lake, next to her boyfriend’s father. But these were not her concern. She was in Kenya to teach the people of some peri-urban location how to use a condom.”

You feel Wainana’s anger in his humour as he continues to expand on the issue he highlighted in his first story about how Africa’s most important people are celebrity activists, aid workers and conservationists. The fact that when a pop-star or conservationist garners attention on the basis of Africa, receives numerous amount of assistance to go live in Africa expensively as they try to fix some African issue, the world interprets it as love.

The collection asks some very hard questions while taking no prisoners. Do you know Africa? Or are you stereotyping it?

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