Friday, December 26, 2008

ARC 6: "When Rain Clouds Gather"

My sixth and final book review for the Africa Reading Challenge.

When Rain Clouds Gather  by Bessie Head, first published in 1969.

When Rain Clouds Gather  takes place in Botswana, in the rural village of Golema Mmidi.  The story focuses on several characters, beginning with Makhaya Maseko, who has fled South Africa after serving prison time on a false charge of conspiracy against the white government.  Although educated and wishing to find some way to improve the lives of Africans, he is homeless, penniless,  and essentially rootless once he reaches safety  in Botswana and takes refuge in Golema Mmidi at the urging of an old man Dinorego who lives there and who takes an immediate liking to the young man.  There he meets Gilbert Balfour, an Englishman who also is in a sense a refugee, in his case from the aristocratic class in Britain into which he was born but in which he has never felt at home.  Gilbert has obtained an education in agriculture, and his goal is to transform the subsistence economy of the village into a thriving broadly-based agricultural economy, as a pilot program for much of Africa.  The two men are attracted to each other immediately; Makhaya sees someone who is pursuing a program aimed at improving the lives of Africans, precisely the kind of goal he wishes to pursue, and Gilbert sees a strong, intelligent, dedicated man who wants to achieve the same long-term goals he does.

But there is opposition.  This comes primarily in the form of the village chief Malenga, who has been appointed to this position by his brother the regional tribal chieftain Sekoto in order to remove the bad-tempered, mean-spirited Malenga from Sekoto's household where Malenga has been plotting against his brother and other family members; this situation makes Malenga himself also a kind of refugee.  Malenga insists on upholding all the old tribal customs because they give him power.  On the other hand, Gilbert and Makhaya know that, in order to introduce the agricultural changes necessary to improve the villagers, many of the old customs will also have to be changed.  Conflict is inevitable and occurs.

Another thread to the story involves Paulina Sebeso, herself a refugee from northern Botswana and a bad marriage.  The most strong-willed and independent of the women of the village, she becomes a valuable asset to Gilbert and Makhaya in their undertaking to teach the village women new agricultural procedures.  She also finds that she is falling in love with Makhaya, who is likewise falling in love with her, but the independence of each prevents the two from accepting each other.

The novel culminates when the country is struck by a particularly severe drought.   Tragedy ensues when most of the villagers' herds die, as does Paulina's son who has been keeping her cattle in the grazing grounds a day's journey away from the village.  Malenga seizes on this opportunity by planning to bring charges against her for allowing her son to die supposedly of starvation (he actually died of tuberculosis).  However, when the entire village stands up against him, Malenga commits suicide, removing the chief obstacle to Gilbert and Makhaya's plans for agricultural improvements.  Makhaya and Paulina finally recognize and admit their love for each other.  

The novel is  textured with both comic and serious episodes intertwined.  The ending may on the surface appear a simple happy ending, but Head makes sure we know that nothing in life is ever that simple.  There is still the drought to live through, and the ever-present danger of future droughts, as well, and the difficult tasks of large-scale changes in agriculture remain to be faced.  But the potential for change and betterment are there, because, as Head tells us, the real "rain clouds" are people, and, when they gather (as the title indicates), what ensues is life, life in abundance.

(Note:  I had originally intended to read Bessie Head's A Question Of Power as my final book, but circumstances dictated that I change to her When Rain Clouds Gather instead.)

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

And What's the Holiday Season Without

the traditional Solstice dessert ?
Well, it is here.
Happy holidays, everyone.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

ARC 5: "The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born"

This is my fifth review for the Africa Reading Challenge.

The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah was first published in 1968.

The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born takes place in Ghana in 1966 and is set against the background of the military coup which overthrew the government of president-for-life Kwame Nkrumah, covering a period from several months before the coup to a few days afterward.  The plot is simple:  The protagonist, a nameless individual referred to only as "the man," lives a life such as many Ghanaians lived at the time, a life sunk in poverty -- a consequence of the country's damaged economy --  with little hope for anything better.  A railway traffic controller, the man barely earns enough to feed his wife and 3 children.  When he turns down a bribe to help a  merchant favorably schedule a shipment of timber, his wife Oyo treats him scornfully.  Oyo and her mother (who is even more scornful of the man) are engaged with a government minister Koomson -- a former schoolmate of the man who has achieved his position of power and wealth through bribery -- in a plan to purchase a fishing boat which will provide them with a large income.  Eventually, it becomes clear that Koomson, who as a government minister cannot openly own such businesses, simply wants to purchase the boat in Oyo's name and will himself  keep the all the profits, though he grants Oyo and her mother gifts of fish from the boat.  Oyo agrees, although the man disapproves; after a few such fish gifts, even these stop, and the family is as badly off as it was before.  Some time later, the coup occurs, and the man returns home from work to find Koomson taking refuge in his  home, begging for his help.  As troops approach the home, the man helps Koomson escape by crawling out through the latrine and takes him to the boat captain's house; the boat captain agrees to take Koomson out of the country to Abidjan in Cote d'Ivoire. As the man is returning home at dawn, he sees a newly-painted sign of a beautiful flower blooming with the inscription "The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet  Born," an indication of hope for a better life  under the new regime on the part of the artist.  The man, however, recognizes that a change of rulers is ultimately meaningless, and that his life of grinding poverty will continue as there is no possible hope that things will ever improve.

The plot may be rather simple, but the novel is stylistically complex.  The author is extremely skillful in creating detailed descriptions of the physical environment in which the man exists, descriptions of decay and filth which leave no question about the state of Ghanaian society and its soul-killing poverty;  particularly pervasive throughout the novel is scent, the smell of physical rot which also manifests the moral corruption to be found far too often in society.  Additionally, there are frequent passages of reflection and meditation on poverty and its crushing effect on any possibility of hope.  While it isn't always clear whether these reflections are those of the man, the author, or someone else, eventually it doesn't matter because they provide a clear psychological and ethical framework for viewing the setting and events of the novel.

Thematically, the novel deals with the poverty of 1960s Ghana that derives as much from the moral failure of those in power as from any outside source.  The lives of most Ghanaians are ground down to virtual meaninglessness by devastating poverty those in power do nothing to alleviate while busily enriching themselves.  Only the corrupt thrive in this environment; everyone else sinks down to nameless oblivion (as the narrator's lack of name suggests).  And, as the ending of the novel would seem to indicate, a change of government is in the final analysis meaningless itself; the coup will only exchange one set of corrupt individuals for another.  Consequently, there is no reason for hope that the future will hold anything better, and the novel ends on this note of bleak despair.

But not entirely:  it may well be that the author sees some slight reason for hope; if there is, it will have to come in some way from those individuals like the man who refuse to gave way to corruption on any terms.  Perhaps, just barely perhaps, there is still a chance things can be made better if there continue to be those like the man who won't give in.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

ARC 4: "Kicking Tongues"

This is my fourth review for the Africa Reading Challenge.

Kicking Tongues by Karen King-Aribisala was first published in 1998.

Kicking Tongues is a somewhat unusual work, patterned in part after Chaucer's  Canterbury Tales, set in Nigeria in the early 1990s.  The main character, the hostess who names herself "The Black Lady The," has chosen some forty individuals representing a cross section of Nigerian society, has interviewed each and learned each's life story, and has paid all the expenses for the entire group to travel from Lagos to the new federal capital at Abuja.  The purpose of the journey is for the group to meet with and tell their stores to the new government, with the goal of making clear to the governing officials what the real problems are that need to be addressed within Nigerian society.  The group makes the journey by bus (they are supposed to fly but are bumped from their flight reservations by a group of government bureaucrats); on the way, The Black Lady The chooses to acquaint the members of the group with each other by having them go ahead and tell their stories.  However, the hostess decides to tell most of the stories herself, as she knows them all  (and is rather bossy herself).  The work covers the course of the journey and the stories that are told along the way (these represent only half or so of the forty, there not being sufficient time for all to be heard during the journey).

The stories are divided into several groups, each focusing on one problematical area in society.  (NOTE:  There is a detailed discussion by King-Aribisala herself of the book's structure and other issues in this  interview.) The first group, for instance, deals with the treatment of women.  The problems range from the abuse of women on the basis of outdated tribal customs to the story of a young woman fired from her position as a flight attendant for being slightly overweight.  Other groupings include such areas as education, economic problems, race relations, and religion.

The nature of the narratives in Kicking Tongues is somewhat unusual.  While some of the individual tales are narrated in prose, others are in a poetic form supposedly devised by The Black Lady The herself; these poetic narratives  appear to be based on the forms of various kinds of chants, being highly rhythmic without being metrical, employing intermittent rhyme and repetition, and  frequently fragmentary language.  (I have to acknowledge that at times it was difficult to follow the narrative thread through some of these poems; others, though were quite effective.)  Doubtless, the use of these poetic pieces is intended as a tribute to Chaucer's  Tales.

The "kicking tongues" of the title serves as a central metaphor that runs through the whole work and which changes its meaning by the end.  At the beginning, "kicking tongues" refers to the lies told by corrupt politicians which oppress the people of Nigeria, erect barriers that keep society divided, and thereby prevent any changes for the better.  Through the course of the work, "kicking tongues" comes to mean the truths told by the "pilgrims" and -- by implication -- by all Nigerians, truths which overcome the lies, which kick down the barriers, and which can prepare the way for a genuinely improved Nigerian society.  Change is a possibility if the truth is set free;  The Black Lady The herself embodies this possibility, as she acknowledges and overcomes her arrogance by the end of the work.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

ARC 3: "Harvest of Thorns"

Harvest of Thorns by Shimmer Chinodya was published in 1989 and won The Commonwealth Prize (Africa Section) for Best Novel, 1990.

Harvest of Thorns portrays the history of Zimbabwe from its late days as a member of the British Commonwealth through its time as an independent Rhodesia under a white minority government and the consequent Bush War to the transfer to a majority-ruled Zimbabwe; these events and their consequences are seen primarily through the eyes of the young man Benjamin Tichafa.

As the novel begins, the Bush War has ended, the new majority government of Zimbabwe has taken power, and Benjamin returns home for the first time in three years after fighting as a guerilla, surprising his divorced mother and crippled bother who have not heard from him.  Shortly afterward, a pregnant young woman appears, whom he finally introduces as his wife.  He attempts to collect his back and demob pay, but because he left his last encampment without being formally discharged, he is unable to prove he's owed the money.  He tries to join the new national army, but the waiting list is many months long; further, the economy is in a shambles and he's unable to find work.  Depressed, he goes to visit a friend, accompanied by his 14 year old brother, who becomes drunk when Benjamin fails to keep track of him.  Returning home, he is berated by his deeply religious mother who expresses her disappointment with her entire family:  her husband has abandoned her, Benjamin had simply disappeared after getting into trouble 3 years earlier and now is corrupting his brother, and her daughter has run off with an unknown suitor.  Life for the family, in short, is unpleasant.

The narration then shifts into a lengthy flashback which takes up most of the rest of the novel.  We see Shamiso, Benjamin's mother, as an 18 year old in the late 50s when the country is still part of the Commonwealth.  We follow her courtship by Clopas Wandai J. Tichafa, who has a minor position as a messenger for the local city government, her eventual marriage to him, and their early married life.  Although there are occasional impositions by the white authorities, by and large their lives are not intruded upon.  They become converted to a particularly strict Christian sect, and, when their children arrive, those are raised within the practices of The Church of the Holy Spirit, in which Clopas becomes an important figure.  He enforces particularly strict discipline upon the children, although Benjamin, even at a young age, is resistant to the pressures to which he is subjected and becomes somewhat rebellious.  Eventually, he also recognizes that his father has violated the basic beliefs of the religion  enforced on the family by taking a mistress and comes to hate him even more.

When Benjamin is 6 in 1965, Rhodesia breaks away from the Commonwealth under Ian Smith's white minority government, a government which becomes increasingly repressive of the black population as time passes, engendering various types of opposition.  When Benjamin is 11, he and several other children are lured by some black rabblerousers into burning a white-owned bar; accordingly, he acquires a reputation as a troublemaker and is severely punished by the authorities, by his father, and by the church leader.  Sometime later, in disobeying his parents, he is responsible for his bother's losing his leg and becoming a cripple.  By the time he is 17, the Smith government is being hardpressed by black rebels and passes harsh laws drafting every young black man who isn't maintaining high marks and good citizenship in school.  Benjamin becomes involved in a march opposing this draft and is arrested.  Facing the mandatory draft, he escapes and flees into the bush along the border, seeking out the guerillas as the only people he believes will accept him.

Much of the remainder of the novel deals with his life as a guerilla.  Chinodya in no way romanticizes  Benjamin's experiences; life as a guerilla is enormously difficult, both physically demanding and emotionally trying -- hunger, thirst, exposure to weather, constant fear of discovery and even greater fear during attacks on white farmers and villages which have cooperated with the government, death of one's comrades -- all take their toll.  So does the brutality of the conflict, on the part of both the government forces and the guerillas; both sides are equally responsible for terrible atrocities.    Chinodya also shows us, in several brief passages, how things appear from the point-of-view of several innocent victims who are dragged unwillingly into the conflict and become targets themselves along with their families as a result. 

The final short section of the novel returns us to the setting and time of the beginning of the work.   Benjamin's father comes to see his son, but they quarrel, a quarrel that deepens when Clopas' new wife shows up, excerbating matters.  Clopas' newly purchased car, which he has just obtained from a white man leaving the country, breaks down and no one is able to fix it.  Benjamin's sister arrives with her husband Dickson; he and Benjamin attempt unsuccessfully to repair Clopas' car, but in the process develop a friendship.  For the first time, Benjamin opens up and talks to Dickson about his terrible experiences as a guerilla, speaking bitterly about the waste of human life, especially those of his comrades, that the Bush War has been.  Benjamin's wife goes into labor and is rushed to the hospital; Benjamin is given his son to hold and thinks of the hopelessness of his situation but attempts to convince himself that he will do everything he can to provide for his son.

What Chimodya shows us throughout the novel is the continuous breakdown of Rhodesian/Zimbabwean society.  By the time of the end of the Bush War and the new majority government's coming into power in 1980, the country is economically wrecked.  One might tend to think the ascendance of a new government would be reason for hope, but Chimodya -- writing in 1989 -- knows that in fact the history of the decade of the 80s, with Robert Mugabe in power, will simply reveal continued violence, this time of faction against faction, and of  extreme corruption that will in fact make things worse, not better.  Chimodya shows us this failure of the future through the image of Clopas' car; superfically, it looks good but in fact it is a wreck which cannot be repaired.  In a very real sense, this is Zimbabwe's position as well; the nation inherits an at best damaged governmental structure from the departing white minority, and this structure simply cannot be repaired and made to work again, at least not in the hands of those who will come to govern it.  Benjamin's attempts to reassure himself in the novel's closing lines are futile; things aren't going to get better, and there will be little or nothing he can do to provide for his family in the years to come.  It is this bitter, barren future that is the "harvest of thorns" of the title.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

And Tonight's Addition to the Non-Fiction Prose Shelf

Stiff:  The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach.

Who could resist?

Monday, December 08, 2008

New Over in The Jackdaw's Nest --

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Working Up a Sweat

From a great Met production of the whole cycle.

(Exercise in obsessive realism:  The anvil falls apart before the sword strikes it.)

Friday, December 05, 2008

Wake-Up Call

Silly blocking, magnificent voice.

(Exercise in obsessive realism:  How is she ever going to ride a horse wearing that?)

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Some Additions to the Non-Fiction Prose Shelves

Tulipomania:  The Story of the World's Most Coveted Flower and the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused by Mike Dash
Truman by David McCullough
The Black Swan:  The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Sea Shells by Paul Valery (translated by Ralph Manheim)
Hiroshige:  Prints and Drawings edited by Matthi Forrer
Going Home:  Essays by Tim Lilburn
The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton, 2 volumes
The Geography of the Imagination:  Forty Essays by Guy Davenport
Poetic Closure:  A Study of How Poems End by Barbara Herrnstein Smith
Shades of Glory:  The Negro Leagues and The Story of African-American Baseball by Lawrence D. Hogan
The Gashouse Gang:  How Dizzy Dean, Leo Durocher, Branch Rickey, Pepper Martin, and their Colorful, Come-from-Behind Ball Club Won the World Series -- and America's Heart -- During the Great Depression by John Heidenry
Occasional Works and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture by Lisa Robertson
Perfect Vegetables by the Editors ofCook's Illustrated Magazine
Tagine:  Spicy Stews from Morocco by Ghillie Basan
Cultural Amnesia:  Necessary Memories from History and the Arts by Clive James

ARC 2: "God's Bits of Wood"

Here is my second review for the Africa Reading Challenge.

God's Bits of Wood by Sembene Ousmane, translated by Francis Price, Heinemann, 1970.

Sembene Ousmane's God's Bits of Wood was originally published in French in 1960 and in English translation in 1962. The novel deals with the strike by African workers against the Dakar - Niger railway which took place between October 1947 and March 1948. Personally knowing nothing of the actual events involved, I have relied on "Fact and Fiction in God's Bits of Wood" by James A. Jones for historical background. From Jones's article, it appears that Ousmane was not primarily concerned with historical accuracy as such, but freely made changes that served the interest of his theme; among others, he has condensed events which took place over a period of more than a decade into a few months, almost all of his characters are purely fictional, and the climactic event of the novel -- the women's march from Thies to Dakar -- appears never to have occurred. For these reasons, and as Jones's article is available for those interested in the novel's historicity, I will discuss God's Bits of Wood strictly as a work of fiction.

The novel is structured around events occurring at three locations central to the actions of the strike, with the action shifting back and forth among the three:  Bamako, Sudan, located close to the eastern terminus of the railway; Dakar, Senegal, the western terminus; and Thies, about 50 miles east of Dakar, a "new" town constructed by the railway itself as a major maintenance and repair center.  Further, there is a very large cast of characters, most representing important groups who are involved in the action; these include the striking workers themselves, the leaders of the workers' union (a union not officially recognized by the railway executives), the leaders of the strike (overlapping to some extent the previous group), the white railway officials,  the families -- parents, wives, children, other relatives -- of the workers, and those of the towns not directly involved in but affected in various ways by the strike.  Because of Ousmane's method of developing the novel, any serious attempt to summarize the action would become needlessly complicated. 

 Simply, the African workers strike because they do not receive the same pay as white European workers, nor do they have any type of retirement plan, nor are there any health benefits extended to their families.  In the past, attempts at strikes have been put down by violence on the part of the railway authorities, but this time the workers intend to hold out regardless.  There is some early violence, but the authorities hope to avoid the kinds of serious violence that has occurred previously, so don't resort to the tactics used in previous strikes.  Instead, in Thies and other localities controlled by the railway, the water systems are shut off and food deliveries are withheld in an attempt to starve the strikers into submission; despite considerable suffering, the workers and their families refuse to give in.  Concurrently, the strike halts food deliveries to other areas, so that wide segments of the population are affected with food shortages, as well, and some of these people pressure the workers to give up the strike, thereby creating antagonistic divisions within society. When the railway authorities finally agree to meet with the strikers, nothing is accomplished because the officials refuse to agree to any of the strikers' demands.  Finally, the women of Thies take matters into their own hands and march to the capital in Dakar to confront the government officials and demand that they take action.  In the climactic scene, the government officials (largely stooges for the railway) try to placate the women and the strikers who have gathered with vague promises of possible future changes, but an impassioned speech by Bakayoko, the exceptional orator among the strikers who is described as "the soul of this strike" (p. 188), rouses support from the other unions, an event which in turn leads to a general national strike of all the unions which affects the entire region, following which the railway yields and grants all which the strikers have requested.

Thematically, the core of the novel is Ousmane's constant focus on the need for individuals to work together if they are to succeed.  This emphasis begins early in the novel with repeated discussions of the necessity for the strikers to support each other and the need to punish those who betray the strike and return to work (several who do are beaten, another publicly humiliated).  But Ousmane shows that it isn't just the workers who have to stick together; gradually, throughout the first two-thirds of the novel, he repeatedly emphasizes that the women also have a role to play, first by becoming the food providers when supplies run low, then ultimately in undertaking the March to Dakar.  During the time of which Ousmane is writing -- the late 1940s -- African women were supposed to restrict their activities entirely to the home; providing food and all other activities beyond the home were purely male activities, prohibited to women.  Ousmane demonstrates that such a mode of thinking and acting is outdated; all Africans, regardless of sex, tribe, religion or geographical origin, must work together.   Only through cooperation can they successfully achieve their goals.  Individuals are, of course important, but Ousmane's  emphasis is on the effectiveness of the group.  As one example, Bakayoko as mentioned earlier was described as "the soul of this strike," but Ousmane continues, "it was Lahbib, the serious, thoughtful, calm, and modest Lahbib, who was its brain" (p. 188).  As another, Penda the prostitute who takes the lead in the women's march is killed but the march continues.  No one individual achieves the result alone; success comes through cooperation with each individual using his personal abilities for the good of the whole.

God's Bits of Wood was published in 1960, just as colonialism was beginning to come to an end, and Ousmane is in effect speaking to his contemporaries about what is necessary for a non-colonial Africa's future, a future that will see Africa take its place in the world only if Africans work together to pursue united goals.  The novel is less about the past than about Ousmane's beliefs about what is essential for the future.


Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Weather-Induced Culinary Self-Indulgence

It's miserably cold here in the Deep South right now; in response, I'm making one of the mostest perfect cold-weather foods ever devised by man or woman, Rachael Ray's Hungarian Hot Sausage and Lentil Soup, although I substitute Eckrich's Smoked Sausage for her Italian sausage (which I don't care for), and I omit the kale she adds at the last minute (although I have used spinach a couple of times quite successfully).  It's especially good with great chunks of paesano bread and butter, although I don't have that right now so am going to substitute rosemary-and-sea-salt bread in its place.  

If you don't hear from me again, it will be because I have burst.