May 30, 2012

Xala by Sembène Ousmane – A Review

October 1976, Fiction (Originally published in 1974)Lawrence Hill Books, 112 pages, ISBN 978-1556520709 Available on Amazon (paperback)

Xala is the first book I have read by celebrated Senegalese writer, Sembène Ousmane. The story centres on El Hadji Kader Beye, a businessman living in Dakar. He is part of the new breed of African businessmen who are taking control from the former colonial powers in import and export ventures. The book opens with a celebration, the election of the first African to head the local Chamber of Commerce and Industry. This moment of triumph means “access to the heart of the country’s economy, a foothold in the world of high finance, and of course, the right to walk with head held high”(p.1). El Hadji has even more reason to celebrate; he is marrying his third wife.

There is some tension from his other wives and children about the addition of another wife into the family. However, this does not dissuade El Hadji and he goes on as planned; after all he is entitled to four wives under the tenets of Islam. The wedding ceremony is quite elaborate as is fitting for a man of his status and is well attended. Unfortunately, El Hadji’s joy is short lived as he is struck by ‘xala’ (impotence in the Wolof language) and is unable to consummate his new marriage with his young bride.
What ensues is El Hadji’s pursuit for a cure, and the ridicule he faces in his personal and business circles as his ailment isn’t quickly resolved. His personal and business affairs start to suffer as he spends obscene amounts of money visiting healers while making less and less through his business ventures; the results are not pretty.
It’s a biting satire with a layer of seriousness because through El Hadji’s tale, Ousmane is also telling the story of exploitation by the country’s new elite, and how they are the new oppressors within the structures they have inherited from the colonial masters. El Hadji has no compunction spending money recklessly on his own foibles when there are beggars sitting right outside his door for whom he shows much contempt.
“His bitterness had become an inferiority complex in the company of his peers. He imagined himself the object of their looks and the subject of their conversation. He could not endure the asides, the way they laughed whenever he went past, the way they stared at him. His infirmity, temporary though it might be, made him incapable of communicating with his employees, his wives, his children and his business colleagues. When he could allow himself a few moments of escape he imagined himself a carefree child again.”(p. 38)
As El Hadji’s house of cards tumbles down, the writer exposes just how weak the foundation was to begin with. His business associates are eager to shed him like a bad habit to save their own money making schemes, and his personal life doesn’t fare much better.

I am so happy to have found this book because Ousmane’s writing is brilliant. The book was very easy to get into and to follow along. There were many laugh out loud moments; though he struck the right balance between humour and seriousness.

Much recommended. I think I’m off to watch the movie adaptation now. I’m always fascinated by adaptations that are written and directed by the book’s writer.

May 23, 2012

Eviction from the streets

Last month it was announced by the Lusaka Province minister that police officers would start clearing out sex workers from the streets. This call was corroborated by the Police Inspector General who added that the police would start arresting those who failed to comply with the ultimatum. This according the government is being done to stem the spread of HIV/AIDS. When I first read this article I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. When has this solution ever worked?

I’m all for measures that effectively combat the rampant spread of HIV/AIDS but this isn’t one of them. If you move these women from the streets, they will only ply their trade in other areas with the same consequences. You’re not doing anything to stop the spread of disease, protect them from violence often perpetrated against them, and such.

And if perhaps the authors of this ultimatum believe demand will reduce because sex workers are no longer visible on the busy streets, that’s another falsehood. Men (and women) who want to buy sex will find the product.

If this government and all that follow want a long lasting solution they should look to the work being done by non-profit organisations such as Tasintha, which target the root causes that drive women and girls into this dangerous work and help them find alternative income generating activities. They are often driven by desperation wrought by poverty, and the lack of economic opportunities to care for themselves.

If you tackle those issues, you can start reducing the number of women going into this work. If there are no meaningful alternatives available then we’ll continue rehashing the same failed policies.

In the meantime we need to set aside our inherent bias about ‘fallen women’ and continue to take the message of disease prevention to them. Empower them with the tools they need to be safe such as condoms.

Still waiting for someone to say, as a Christian nation we shouldn’t have a single child living on the street, widows dispossessed of all the property or the disabled forced to beg for alms.

May 16, 2012

So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ - A Review

Heinemann International Literature & Textbooks (1989)
Available on Amazon (paperback)
Translated by Modupe Bode-Thomas

This book first came to my attention through an Amazon recommendation based on previous purchases. After reading the synopsis I made a note of it and added it to my future purchase list. I attempted to read one or two other books I had lined up but for some reason this book was taunting me; I just couldn’t get it out of my mind. Finding and reading it became a near obsession! Here’s my review.


So Long a Letter (Une si longue letter) was originally written in French and translated into English. It is written in the form of a series of letters by Bâ’s main character, Ramatoulaye, to her friend, Aissatou. Ramatoulaye has been recently widowed and during her 40 day confinement she reflects on her life choices and experiences as an African woman. She relives the pain of being abandoned by her husband for a second wife, and her struggle to support her twelve children.

In telling her story Ramatoulaye recounts the early years of her marriage, the friendship with Aissatou and her husband Mawdo. Both men are relatively successful in the newly independent Senegal and enjoy the benefits of education, which allow them to advance in their chosen fields.

When Mawdo takes a second wife, Aissatou refuses to be a co-wife and takes the unprecedented step of leaving with her sons. In her farewell letter she writes, “I am stripping myself of your love, your name. Clothed in my dignity, the only worthy garment, I go my way” (p. 32). In doing this she abandons the tradition of her culture that condones polygamy, and moves to the United States. She finds no dignity in being forced into a polygamous marriage, and she does not accept Mawdo’s argument that he loves her best and is only marrying another out of duty to his family (read interfering mother).

Later, when the same fate falls on Ramatoulaye, she chooses to stay. She states that she cannot set aside her love for Mawdo and her sense of duty to the family. She accepts her condition despite Mawdo abandoning their home in favour of his young wife and her family.

The friendship between Ramatoulaye and Aissatou does not suffer as a result of their different choices. It in fact becomes stronger, as they support each other emotionally through this deeply personal experience. And through the letters we see how much they share and how the strong the bond is between the two.

Throughout the book we see the evolution of Ramatoulaye’s self-discovery. While she laments the ‘slender liberty granted to women’ and in particular the plight of first wives who are ‘despised, relegated or exchanged… like a worn-out boubou (robe),’ the tone of her language is not that of a bitter woman. After her abandonment she embraces the independence of sustaining her family with her own wages, learning how to drive and going to the cinema alone. This allows her to not only survive but to thrive!

She sees hope through the lives of her children as they also thrive despite previous hardships and in her own words:

“I have not given up wanting to refashion my life…hope still lives on within me. The word happiness does indeed have meaning. I shall go out in search of it. Too bad for me if once again I have to write you so long a letter…” (p. 89)
So, was this book worth the read? Most definitely! It is very well written and engaging. Some parts of the book were a little hard to follow but I think that’s a small price we pay when translating from one language to another. However, this didn’t overly detract from the pleasure of reading the book.

May 8, 2012

Patchwork by Ellen Banda-Aaku nominated

 More accolades

Zambia’s Ellen Banda-Aaku has made the shortlist for the 2012 Commonwealth Book Prize for her book Patchwork. This is fantastic news as Patchwork already won the inaugural 2010 Penguin Prize for African Writing in the Fiction Category. Sincerest congratulations to Ms Aaku-Banda on this nomination.

Regional winners will be announced on May 22, and the overall winner on June 8. Visit this site for the full list of nominees and read author bios. 

If you’re interested in reading my review of Patchwork, here’s the link. I also did a Q&A with Ms Banda-Aaku and found her to be very warm and engaging. 

All the best to all the nominees! 

May 1, 2012

2012 Caine Prize shortlist

The shortlist for the 2012 Caine Prize for African Writing has been announced. Five of the 122 entries from 14 qualifying countries made the cut. The £10,000 prize winner will be announced on 2 July.

  • Romini Babatune (Nigeria) – ‘Bombay’s Republic’
  • Billy Kahora (Kenya) – ‘Urban Zoning’
  • Stanley Kenani (Malawi) 'Love on Trial'
  • Melissa Tandiwe Myambo (Zimbabwe) 'La Salle de Départ'
  • Constance Myburgh (South Africa) 'Hunter Emmanuel'

These shortlisted stories are available on the Caine Prize website. I look forward to reading them all and sharing my thoughts.