Aug 31, 2011

September reading

For the last two weeks I’ve been on a reading hiatus. With the number of books I’ve been reading recently, and the varying levels of intensity I think my brain just got overloaded and decided to take a much-needed break. In light of this, I’m trying to formulate a plan for September. At this time I think my focus will be children’s literature. With that said, I only have two such books in my TBR (To Be Read) pile. These are Wandi’s Little Voice by Ellen Banda-Aaku and Eno’s Story by Ayodele Olofintuade.

A brief synopsis of each:
Wandi's Little Voice - "The lovable narrator of this novel is Wandi, a young girl balanced between childhood and adulthood, and between the shanty town where she loves to play with her friends and the refined suburbs to which her mother would like to confine her."

Eno's Story - "Eno lives happily with her father, until one day he disappears in an accident. Her uncle says that she is a "witch" who has caused her father's death. She goes through many struggles before moving in with other children who have also been called "witches" and have been sent away from home."

I’m also committed to reading two books by Yvonne Vera – Butterfly Burning and The Stone Virgins. Neither one will be an easy-breezy read, so I think having children’s literature interspersed between them will act as a nice buffer. 

Does anyone have any suggestions for children’s literature I can add to my list?

Aug 25, 2011

State of Affairs

In light of my earlier post, I found something to lift me out of my funk. Mutinta is gradually working her way to being my favourite Zambian artist. There's just something about her...enjoy the music break! 

Random thoughts

Today was one of those melancholy days for me. I read yet another depressing article about increasing HIV prevalence rates and my mood took a swift nosedive. I started to think of what I term as the lost generation – men and women who today would be in their productive 40s and 50s but are lost to us, victims of this scourge that continues to stalk millions.

I asked myself, “will my generation succumb to the same fate? Will our idealism and goals for the future die prematurely as we swiftly move en masse from this life to the next? Or will we be the ones who truly turn the tide? Using the vast resources we now have at our disposal to stay HIV-free and therefore staying productive longer to make a change in our world?”

I have to believe we will be the change that is needed, otherwise if there anything to look forward to? 

Aug 19, 2011

Patchwork by Ellen Banda-Aaku – A Review

June 2011, General Fiction
 Penguin Books, 216 pages
ISBN-13: 978-0143527534, Available on Amazon

I first came across Patchwork last September when it was announced it had won the inaugural Penguin Prize for African Writing in the fiction category. And being the diligent little bibliophile that I am, I went in search of the book only to find out it wasn’t available. It turns out part of the prize criteria is for “...previously unpublished, full-length adult work in two categories: Fiction and non-Fiction.” This meant months of waiting for a release date. 

The central character of the book is Pumpkin. We first meet her as a nine year-old living in Lusaka, Zambia with her single mother, Totela Ponga. Theirs is a turbulent existence – Totela is a barely functioning drunk who obsesses about her married lover, JS, Pumpkin’s father. Pumpkin slips into the role of caregiver though she understands little of alcoholism and the destructive nature of her parents’ relationship. She also faces the unkind questions from her friends about her absent father which she fights off defiantly. 

Pumpkin’s Grandma Ponga despises JS, and frequently admonishes her daughter for allowing him such control over her life. She’s a feisty character and often speaks her mind freely. In Pumpkin’s words, Grandma Ponga “hates JS as passionately as Ma loves him.” 

As Pumpkin’s mother slowly loses grip on her drinking, JS discovers her little secret and whisks Pumpkin off to live at his farm with his official wife and family. JS, also known as Tata, is an interesting character; he is quite devoted to all his children and expects a high moral code of his women while he has no compunction about chasing skirts all over hell’s half acre. 

Starting anew at Tata’s farm brings a whole host of different issues for Pumpkin. She has to deal with the resentment of Mama T, Tata’s official wife, and the general ambivalence of her half-brothers; but lucky for her the family’s maid, Sissy, serves as a much needed anchor. 

Sissy is a wise, old lady who isn’t quick to judge Pumpkin as a bad seed because of the circumstances of her birth. She cares for Pumpkin and tries as much as she can to shield her from Mama T, but she’s no pushover. Pumpkin is a brat, and is capable of cruel lies and mean acts. When caught out, Sissy is there with words of wisdom and warnings of future beatings. I particularly like the way Sissy describes remorse using a sewing analogy:
“…if you say sorry, and you mean it, you won’t have to say it again because you won’t make the same mistake again…because if you make a mistake, you patch it. You make the same one again, you patch it. Third time, you patch it. And then what do you have? A big messy patchwork that everyone can see. Is that what you want?”
The second part of the story introduces us to an adult Pumpkin. She’s a successful architect and is married with children of her own. She still carries with her the insecurities from her childhood. She’s distrustful and has a knack for telling little lies that slowly chip away at the foundation of her marriage. This culminates in an ugly encounter with a woman she suspects of preying on her husband. 

Elsewhere her mother is ailing. She’s experienced dramatic weight loss, and has skin rash and chest pains that won’t subside. Pumpkin and Grandma Ponga ferry her from one traditional healer to the next seeking a cure. Tata, on the other hand, is thriving – all his children have left home, are well educated and independent. He’s now focused on a bid to become president. However, his ambitions are undone quite comically at the hands of his favourite past time, a woman. 

Overall this was an enjoyable book. Having the story told from Pumpkin’s point of view as a child and later as an adult was very well done. Even though she seemingly has it together on the outside, there are many times she says “why couldn’t they see the tears I was crying inside?” One can’t help but be thoroughly annoyed at her parents for failing to step back to see what their behaviour has done to their child. They fail to understand the outward expressions of love Pumpkin needs or how she struggles to fit in a world where she constantly feels rejected.

Through Pumpkin’s eyes we are confronted with various themes – polygamy, alcoholism, HIV/AIDS, trust and personal insecurities. As the lives of the different characters intersect we see how they respond and evolve. No one comes out of this as he or she went in. 

So, was the wait worth it? Yes, it was.

Aug 14, 2011

Ubuntu through a new lens

Over the last 1 ½ years I have been quite privileged to converse with various African writers using different mediums. My motivation has been to find out more about their creative processes, access to readers (marketing) and the overall public response to their work. The common theme that ties all of them together is the struggle to get their books on shelves and into the hands of eager readers. This is not unique to African writers, of course. This is something all writers deal with but it does seem that for a book set in Africa, with African protagonists (and antagonists), by an African writer (who isn’t named Chinua Achebe) is quite often met with bewilderment – “why would I want to read an African story?”

That type of response annoys me but isn’t all together unsurprising. It is part of the reason why I am so driven to read more and share my reader experience through reviews on this site.  I want to stand up for the African writers who talent needs to be recognised and shared, especially by those of us who should know better!

I have learned so much recently through my expanded library. Countries and peoples that I only knew about through caricatured news headlines, I find a new and meaningful understanding. This to me is what Ubuntu stands for – knowing that beyond language and cultural barriers we are so alike at our core. We have love, we hate, we hurt, we heal, we are resilient, and we are one people.

There can be no talk of unifying us around one cause, be it economic, political or religious if we do not first see each other as a common man. This is where literature, art and music come in. They open the blinds and allow you to peer in. You may not like what you see because it challenges your previous preconceptions but do not devalue the meaning of the story/message by casting it aside for what you consider to be a more fitting narrative – hungry, dying Africans savaging each other and desperate to be saved by westerners. We are so much more than that! 

Aug 8, 2011

Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey - A Review

July 2009, Mystery

Random House, 336 pages,
 ISBN-13: 978-0812979367, Available on Amazon

As soon as I came across Kwei Quartey’s Wife of the Gods, I knew I had to read it. The cover reeled me in mercilessly! I had to wait a few weeks because I was already committed to other books with a accompanying reviews, but it was well worth it. I couldn’t resist the lure of a murder mystery set in Ghana, written by a Ghanaian writer.

Detective Inspector Darko Dawson is sent from the Ghanaian capital, Accra, to the small town of Ketanu to investigate the murder of a young medical student, Gladys Mensah, who was volunteering for an AIDS outreach program in the area. The local inspector believes it to be an open-and-shut case and fingers a suspect. Dawson doesn’t follow the same line of thought, and would rather pursue the investigation in a different direction to find the ‘real’ killer, much to the annoyance of Inspector Fiti.

Running parallel to the murder investigation of Gladys is the story of Dawson. Dawson is haunted by the memory of his mother who disappeared during a trip to Ketanu decades earlier. The case was never resolved but the investigator who doggedly pursued all leads until the trail went cold inspired Dawson, and also served as surrogate father and mentor. Dawson uses his presence in Ketanu to finally seek closure in this case. 

Dawson is a well-crafted character. He’s a young husband and father, absolutely devoted to his family. His son was born with a heart defect and needs an expensive procedure that the family cannot afford. Dawson’s mother-in-law steeped in the old traditions would rather procure the services of a traditional healer than wait for the needed money to be raised, which raises Dawson’s ire. His wife, Christine, has to mediate between the two.

As the stories move long, Dawson comes into conflict with the local culture that is entrenched in superstitions, the belief in witchcraft as well as the age-old practice of trokosi. In Quartey’s own words, (virgin) “teenage girls are offered by their families to fetish gods as trokosi, or Wives of the Gods.” This is done as compensation for offences committed or debts incurred, by a member of the girl's family. The fetish priest, Togbe Adzima, is a particularly revolting character and seemingly has motives for killing Gladys, and it doesn’t take much of a stretch for Dawson to suspect him of being the perpetrator. 

As Dawson continues to pick up loose ends he is increasingly frustrated and we see the volatility of his temper, as well as the vulnerability that lies beneath the smooth veneer. Despite his hot headedness, he’s a good man. He cares about his work; the people affected by the case (the deceased’s family and the suspect currently in holding), and he isn’t satisfied with easy answers.

What makes this book really enjoyable is how Quartey ties everything together. Nothing seems like an afterthought, no character is merely taking up oxygen, it all works. And I love it! The beautiful scenery of the Volta region in Ghana is a wonderful backdrop, and the images just seemed to leap from the pages into my imagination. Quartey is a first time novelist, but his talent speaks for itself; he skillfully weaves together the murder investigation and the missing person’s case with satisfying results.

It all makes for a compelling story, and I am delighted to know that this is the beginning of a Darko Dawson series. There is enough to build upon to have readers eager to follow the adventures of the complicated character that is Darko Dawson. This is a good, solid mystery! 

Aug 2, 2011

Non-motivational speech

Last week I read an article in which Zambia’s Gender Minister, Sarah Sayifwanda, was talking about the increased number of women being caught trafficking drugs (usually as drug mules). In her words:
“...this is a disgrace and an embarrassment to the nation”
She then urged women to “emulate her steps in life and conduct good businesses that will earn them the needed respect as women.” Read the article here.

Now, I don’t know this Minister personally or much of what she has done in her capacity as Gender Minister but I cannot help but be disappointed by her words. Does she believe that speaking so crudely will help the situation? Actually to get back to basics, I would ask if she has even talked to any of the women currently jailed on these charges to find out what drove them to do this – were they coerced, did they do this because they thought it was an opportunity to make a quick buck as she insinuates? It’s very easy to sit in your position of privilege and say to others, “just pull up your bootstraps,” while ignoring the fact that your bootstraps were nice laced by your parents, your spouse and/or political allies.

This is neither to excuse criminal behaviour nor to advocate that people go unpunished, but an appeal to be thoughtful about the things we say and how we treat others. I would much rather someone in Sayifwanda’s position look at ways of helping create opportunities for the majority of women who still haven’t attained economic independence instead of heaping scorn and ridicule on those who make poor decisions. If not, then just sit down and chill out…