Apr 24, 2013

Write Your Own Story

No one can tell your story better than you

The above statement is a truism I have come to embrace, and probably need to have it engraved for my desk as a daily reminder. This doesn’t apply only to novelists, bloggers, and radio show hosts it applies to all of us. I find this to be especially true for groups doing work that often goes unnoticed.

If I could get a pair of shoes for every time I hear the following or some variation of, Imelda Marcos would have nothing on me:

“What has the women’s movement in Zambia done over the last 20 or so years?” 
“The problem with you women is that you don’t support one another.”

These statements are often said with such disdain, the speakers are often patting themselves on their backs for backing you into a corner. “Yeah, I got you now!”

It usually gets my hackles up because it’s all prefaced on incorrect stereotypes that have become the accepted narrative. I’ve had to take a few steps back and ask why. Honestly, the biggest problem I see is the inability of the women’s movement and feminists to take command of the narrative and share their side.

It’s too easy to look at the low representation of women in Parliament and attribute it to lack of ambition or voters often preferring male candidates without confronting head-on the barriers that still exist. The Zambia National Women’s Lobby (ZNWL) and Non-Government Coordinating Council (NGOCC) continue to work tirelessly to get more women involved in public office. This includes training, mentorship, fundraising, sensitisation campaigns to change negative perceptions about women in politics and applying pressure to political parties to nominate more women candidates to contest seats.

When the issue of institutional barriers within political parties is raised the comeback is often “men are better campaigners and thus viable candidates.” And this is an accepted truth and the onus yet again falls on those trying to break through – just try harder and stop complaining about the good ole boys network.

So, here is what I propose. We need to make use of any and all platform and fora to share track records of what has been done, what’s in the works, what remains to be done, barriers faced and knocked down, etc. Time to control the narrative and stop being silent warriors who have earned the ugly moniker of “only heard from on March 8 when there’s free lunch and t-shirts.”

We can learn from the countless volunteers who tromp into our country routinely, digging wells, teaching bible stories to kids, building churches and so forth. Have you seen the number of dedicated websites, videos and newsletters trumpeting their work and asking for support from well-wishers? That’s what we need. It is time to set aside the false humility drilled into us from birth and take a page out of a proven playbook. Own your story!

Apr 18, 2013

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo – A Review

May 2013, Fiction
Reagan Arthur Books, 304 pages
 ISBN-13: 978-0316230810

NoViolet Bulawayo won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing for her short story “Hitting Budapest” about a group of children navigating life in a Zimbabwe shanty town. You can read it here. She took this short story and turned it into a full length novel, and voilà we have We Need New Names, her debut novel.

The story is told from the point of view of Darling, the 10 year-old protagonist. We first meet Darling and her friends Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho, and Stina as they cross a forbidden road which takes them from their shanty into a nice suburb, Budapest. She describes Budapest as having big houses, with satellite dishes on the roofs, neat gravelled yards, tall fences and tall trees heavy with fruit. And for this group of hungry children, it’s the fruit they’re after – guavas. Though they know not to overindulge due to the resulting constipation, they still do because the guavas are the only way to kill the hunger.

As each day passes every one of them shares their dream of leaving for a better place. Times are tough in Zimbabwe; the economic and political instability have rocked the foundation of many people’s lives. Jobs and money are scarce, and those with means (or sheer courage) have fled, often leaving behind the elderly and the very young. Darling’s dream is to go to America, to be with her Aunt Fostalina. Her friends mock her, saying this will never happen but she hangs onto it against all odds. They each hang on to the promise of a better future, elsewhere.

Darling eventually gets her chance to move to America but not before bearing witness to some pretty grim happenings that literally could have been pulled from the front page of Zimbabwean news dailies. These would otherwise be painful encounters to describe yet somehow through Darling’s voice, her naïveté and innocence take away some of the ugliness.

In the second half of the book, Darling is now in America living with Aunt Fostalina and her family. She bears the bitter cold winters and homesickness with a shocking level of maturity for someone her age. She reasons that she can deal with the snow and the absence of her closest friends because at least she has food, lots of it and all kinds. Here, she doesn’t go hungry.

Though she struggles to make friends due to the typical, idiotic behaviour of school children, who make fun of others for looking and sounding different, she remains focused and adjusts quite admirably to her new life.

As time passes, the more she adjusts to America, the further she drifts from Zimbabwe and the people she left behind. This guilt eats away at her, and she becomes exiled in a sense.

Overall, this is an enjoyable book. I think NoViolet does a good job showing the effects of poverty on a nation’s psyche, the alienation felt by those who make the difficult decision to leave home, and the longing for home.

I had some minor quibbles. There are some areas of the book, particularly in the second half, I felt could’ve been touched on better and perhaps even tied up a little neater for better flow. It felt a little disconnected at times and took away some of my enjoyment.

All that said, if this book or writer has been on your radar. I’d say definitely give this book a try!

This review was originally published on Mail and Guardian's Voices of Africa site. 

Apr 17, 2013

Love Games: Episode 11

The episode on taking responsibility. 

Apr 16, 2013

Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi - A Review

March 2013, Fiction
Penguin Press HC, 336 pages (Hardcover)
 ISBN-13: 978-1594204494, Available on Amazon

I first came across Taiye Selasi during an interview she gave on public radio. In it she shared her experience meeting renowned author Toni Morrison who encouraged her to write after sharing her love for writing. This, in and of itself piqued my interest and I jotted down her name with the promise to look up her work.  Her first work, a short story “The Sex Lives of African Girls,” was published in the journal Granta in 2011 and featured in Best American Short Stories of 2012. Ghana Must Go is Selasi’s debut novel.

“Kweku dies barefoot on a Sunday before sunrise, his slippers by the doorway to the bedroom like dogs. At the moment he is on the threshold between the sunroom and garden and considering whether to go back to get them. He won’t.” 

These are the opening lines that introduce us to Kweku Sai, “a renowned surgeon and failed husband.” It is through his dying that we learn about him and the family he leaves behind.  Selasi goes back and forth in time unravelling the story of the Sai family. The story is told in three parts.

Kweku leaves Ghana, as a young man, on scholarship to attend medical school in the U.S. It is there, in New England, he meets and marries Folasadé (Fola), a young Nigerian émigré. Fola abandons her dream of attending Law school with the understanding that supporting Kweku’s dream is enough. Together they have four children – Olu, Taiwo, Kehinde and Sadé (Sadie).

Their story is typical of most immigrant families in the country, both parents working extremely hard to make ends’ meet and demanding academic excellence from their children so as to escape the traps of poverty with which they are all too familiar. Kweku loves his children but we see him struggle to understand and relate to them. His duty is that of a provider and not a friend or confidant. As the eldest three children are in their teens an unfortunate situation spirals out of control and Kweku leaves. Fola must regroup, pick up the fragments and forge ahead.

The second part of the book shows how Fola and her children, now adults, each react to Kweku’s death. Each carries painful personal secrets; these secrets like boils are painful, needing to be lanced and drained before healing can begin.

In the latter part of the book they all agree to travel to Ghana (where Fola is now living) for Kweku’s funeral. Though not easy their time there allows them to finally deal with the emotional fallout of events that have held them hold them back for so long.  It’s incredibly fraught with pain, confusion and mistrust. But ultimately they emerge better from it. Kweku’s second and final departure brings his family together again in every sense, after his earlier one had fractured the familial bonds and sent them all reeling.

Overall I enjoyed this book. Selasi’s writing is poetic and quite dense; though at times I think the writing gets in the way of telling the story. As the story unfolds through flashbacks, it’s sometimes hard to follow who the speakers are and what exactly is happening especially in the first part of the book, which I found to be slower and harder to read because there was a lot of detail to wade through.

With the added psychological dimensions given each character, it’s hard not to be affected by their pain, grief and anger. My heart grieved for this family. Ghana Must Go is definitely worth the read. I look forward to seeing how Taiye Selasi’s writing evolves over her career. There is strength in her writing that begs for more. 

This book review was first published on Mail and Guardian's Voices of Africa site. 

Apr 12, 2013

A birthday message

Dear Madame President,

Today is April 12 and I would like to wish you the happiest of birthdays. This has been a busy month already, I’m sure. A few days ago we marked the one year anniversary of the passing of Bingu wa Mutharika’s death. I believe that was April 5. No, I think the 6th or maybe the 7th. Oh, whatever, it’s been a year since he passed and when you took office, breaking through some illegal manoeuvrings by some of your former colleagues.

Madame President, when you took office I was in Baltimore, Maryland celebrating my birthday with family and friends. I woke up early that morning and frantically searched for a live feed that would be beaming your inauguration; I found it on Al-Jazeera.

I sat curled up on the couch in my hotel room watching these events on my iPad. The feed was spotty at times but there was absolutely no way I was going to miss the inauguration of Africa’s second woman president. A woman president in the country I first called home, Malawi. This was a moment not to be missed.

I don’t need to tell you the significance of your ascent to the highest office in the land, and what this means to millions to young women such me. You know this, you’ve talked about. Yet, I wonder if you’re privy to how many of us know look at your presidency one year on.

You took the helm at a time when Malawi was in turmoil. The shootings of 18 people in Karonga and Mzuzu after nationwide protests sparked by fuel shortages, rising prices and high unemployment had left the country badly bruised. This compounded by crackdowns on journalists, human rights activists, academic freedom, and any political opposition. Economic growth had stalled, and people were really feeling the pinch.

Along you came, promising to restore order and to stabilise the economy. Listening to your economic advisors and the IMF you devalued the Kwacha; this action was hailed by outsiders as a brave and needed step, yet at home new protests were sparked as the price of commodities nearly quadrupled causing even more hardship for people already on the brink. Your government relented by agreeing to salary increases demanded by striking civil servants. You listened.

Yet in spite of this it’s quite troubling to see your administration display some of the same arrogance we came to deplore under Mutharika, Muluzi and the original Ngwazi. You have touted an austerity government, and taken further steps to sell the presidential jet and some fleet vehicles and taken a salary cut to reduce spending; while on the other hand spending gobs of money purchasing expensive Toyota 4x4s for 35 ministers and their deputies. When called out on this, we’re told these expenditures are budgeted for, end of story.

If Malawians have to tighten their belts in times of austerity why can your administration not do the same? Furthermore, you seem to be continually campaigning for a job you already have. Traversing the country handing out bags of chimanga (maize) branded with your name. Your party cadres are awash with cash and flashy regalia. Care to share what fundraising mechanisms you have developed over 12 months to pay for all this?

Yes, you have restored donor confidence in the country but at what cost? Do the people of Malawi have confidence that you and your chosen ministers have the wherewithal to move the country forward or can we expect just more of the name until after the 2014 election? Understandably economic recovery polices are painful and some of the challenges have already eased (fuel and foreign currency shortages) but implementation must be thoroughly thought out to mitigate to the extent possible harm to people already suffering. This isn’t just about elections or pleasing foreign donors. For some it’s a matter of life and death.

Madame President, I really want you to succeed. Your success can translate to meaningful change for the country and your people. And yes, because you are a woman WE NEED you to succeed to show the detractors that the office of the president isn’t chanamuna bambo. Please disappoint us not. 

Respectfully yours,

Apr 10, 2013

Love Games: Episode 10

What are the consequences of Mimi's explosive video? Or the revelations of Tasheni's parentage? 

This isn't about rights, sit!

Ladies and Gents, the silly season is upon us. And you’re probably asking, “pray tell, what is this season’s scintillating topic?” Well, it’s a perennial favourite. Drum roll, please…

Obsessing over women’s dress

In Uganda there’s a bill before parliament known as the anti-Pornography Bill. The legislation’s primary sponsor, Simon Lokodo, Uganda's ethics and integrity minister, has said “any attire which exposes intimate parts of the human body, especially areas that are of erotic function, are outlawed. Anything above the knee is outlawed. If a woman wears a miniskirt, we will arrest her.'” He further argues that this proposed law would be for the benefit of women as a means of protecting them from exploitation and curbing immorality.

It doesn’t end there. There is also language that would give the government of Uganda sweeping powers to censor cultural practices, television, movies, internet sites they deem to be inappropriate for depicting sexual parts of a person such as breasts, thighs, buttocks and genitalia. In the minister’s words there would be a monitoring system to detect what people are looking at and these crimes of course come prescribed fines and prison terms for violators.

In Zambia, a high court judge was recently quoted in the media calling for police officers to arrest anyone found to be indecently dressed to avoid escalating Gender Based Violence cases. Her interpretation of the criminal code has led her to believe that there is law that allows people to be arrested and prosecuted for indecent dress. Last I checked this is not the case but I’m sure that won’t stop some overzealous cops for picking up a few women dressed in miniskirts, low-rise skinny jeans or halter tops, harassing and subjecting them to undue stress. And if all else fails, we have mob justice to do that job. 

Right on the heels of this unfortunate statement, a young woman in the Copperbelt town of Ndola was stripped naked in protest of what was deemed to be indecent dress. And from what has been reported women vendors led the charge. Oh, they must be so proud. Apparently their displeasure in another’s choice of dress gives them the right to lay their hands on her and thus humiliate her in public. And to what end, my people?

There is also the case of the young woman in Nyeri, Kenya who was stripped naked and groped in a market area and had to be rescued by bystanders. During the evening’s newscast on Kenyan Television Network two newscasters, one of whom a woman herself sporting an above the knees skirt, were captured giggling over the woman’s predicament. Yes, it’s very funny to see women humiliated for the same thing you could be too. 

Gosh, I could keep on with the examples but the crux of this post is the question - why? Why the constant attacks on women and the never-ending politicisation of so-called morality? The refrain is always that women’s dress must be regulated because it will stop the spate of sex crimes and exploitation. This is further augmented by the claim that western-style dress has led to the moral degradation of society and goes against traditional norms.

I posed a question to some male colleagues earlier, and I’ll repeat it here. When the aforementioned brigade decries women’s dress as the cause of men falling victim to their base instincts and being unable to control their beastly urges, is this not insulting? Why do these sweeping and grossly inaccurate statements go unchallenged?

Here are a few facts I think bear sharing. The latest data from Zambia shows that the most affected children by sexual abuse are between the ages of two months to 10 years. We’ve even seen cases reported of babies as young as 2 months old being defiled. In Lusaka alone, police recorded 1,089 defilement cases and 75 rape cases in 2011. Can these crimes be attributed to immoral dress or the evil temptations of female bodies that men find hard to resist even in infants? I think I hear crickets chirping.

Can we start having intelligent debates and come up with tangible solutions on these very serious matters without peddling worn out, and easily debunked distractive moral stances? It’s tiresome. To call it as it is, policing women’s dress is a thinly veiled attempt to control women’s bodies through oppression. The taunting, attacks and public stripping must end. 

Apr 9, 2013

Love Games: Episode 9

The episode in which things start to unravel for some of the cast members. I had to watch this twice!