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.

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.

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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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