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Monday, May 26, 2014

Where Are Our African Writers?

The day after I finished reading Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi, I realised it was 5th or 6th in a row of novels by contemporary African writers that I had read that year. It led me to reflect on the state of literary fiction in Southern Africa especially, and of modern writers who live right here on the continent. 

Source - Ngugi Wa Thiong'o

Taiye Selasi is mentioned in the same company as other distinguished African writers such as Teju Cole; Aminatta Forna; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; Leila Aboulela; NoViolet Bulawayo; Chika Unigwe; Olufemi Terry; Mukoma wa Ngugi and our very own Ellen Banda-Aaku. These are among the names that will come up in a Google search on contemporary African writers born in the last 45 years or so. They have something else in common too. This long list of male and female writers who were either born and raised in Africa and educated in the ‘the west’; or, born in ‘the west’ to African parents, raised back home and then educated in their country of ‘birth’ all live and work in their adopted countries.

I even asked Wikipedia, just to see if there was anything there. The article admits to not being exhaustive (its Wikipedia, so obviously it can’t be) and says it is a repository of ‘prominent and notable writers from Africa, including poets, novelists, children's writers, essayists, and scholars, listed by country’. Under Zambia, it lists Dr Kenneth Kaunda (fair enough, he wrote a lot of books), Charles Mwewa, Dominic Mulaisho (who passed away very recently), Binwell Sinyangwe and curiously, Chibamba Kanyama. Yes, really. But no Ellen Banda-Aaku or even Dambisa Moyo. Anyway, since they put their disclaimer up front, I can only attribute this anomaly to no one in Dr Moyo's and Ms Banda-Aaku’s office informing them. And clearly, there is no interested party in Zambia keen on PR for arts and culture. Looking at the entire continent, of those writers whose year of birth was listed, I counted less than twenty writers of note born after 1970.

Source - Chinua Achebe

An article, published in June 2013 entitled, ‘The 10 best African writers (who aren’t Chinua Achebe)’, lists Nigeria’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as one of the best contemporary African writers. She is the only one born after 1975. Shockingly all the writers listed were born from as far back as 1923 (Senegal’s Ousmane Sembene), while only two writers on the list were born after 1945; Zimbabwe’s Yvonne Vera (1964) and Chimamanda (1977). 

Another article entitled, ‘10 Young African Writers You Should Know’ pointed me in the direction of some great sounding books by African born writers. I would love to review some of the works I read about, but how to get hold of them? Many of the writers can credit the Caine Prize for African Writing (awarded to English language short story writers) as their starting point. So perhaps this is the list that best points to the notable writers of the future. Zambian Namwali Serpell appears on the site as one of those formerly shortlisted.

A 2011 article of 50 younger African writers listed 15 out of 50 as residing in Africa. Of those, Kenya had four; South Africa five; Nigeria three; Uganda, Togo and Mozambique one each.

Source - Nadine Gordimer, elder stateswoman of African writers

What does this mean? Does an author need to be based in Europe or America in order to be published and recognised on the world stage?

The Heinemann African Writers Series (although still in existence), doesn’t have the same impact as in the 1960s-1980s. Its decline is definitely a contributing factor to our literary woes as this was the platform through which schools could access African content for our education system. Granted, East and West Africa do appear to have a longer tradition of literary penmanship, but the woeful lack of published authors from Southern Africa especially is worrying. If this trend continues, it reduces the likelihood of continuing our African storytelling culture. In this modern world, stories must be written down if they are to stand the test of time. Whether born here, raised here or living ‘there’, we need to do more to get these books, poems, plays etc into the hands of Africans, especially young people. Wouldn’t it be great if these celebrated books by our celebrated African writers could be published affordably for the African market, schools etc? But it would be even better if one didn’t have to go away in order to be heard. Without a credible local or regionally based publisher to promote and distribute works by African writers, our voices as Africans risk being drowned out.

Source - Baba Wole Soyinka. One of these days I should
tell the story of my encounter with Wole Soyinka
in Abuja in 2005


Monday, May 19, 2014

Review of Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi

In November 2013, the Bulletin and Record magazine published my review of Taiye Selasi's Ghana Must Go. I got a few calls asking why the review wasn't finished. This lead me to buy the magazine to see what people were talking about. I chuckled when I realised they didn't read the whole thing because it was continued on another page. I searched the magazine for the rest of it but couldn't find it. Finally it clicked that my review had fallen victim to the editors pen. Unfortunately, it ended so abruptly, it read as though I hadn't bothered to read the book, let alone write about it. To rescue my reputation, I have included the full review here. Reading it back so many months later, I can tell I wrote it in a hurry and it could really have done with an external editor, just not the way it ended up being published. I was tempted to send it to a friend to edit for me, but that would have been dishonest, since it is already published.

Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi

Reviewed by Masuka Mutenda

There are some people who love reading books that they have heard nothing about. No publisher’s blurb or five star New York Times review and certainly no back-story on the author. It’s like casually turning on the TV having absolutely no idea what is coming onto the screen. If you are one of those people you’re probably not reading review this anyway. But I wanted to give fair warning that before approaching this book, I had read a lot about the author that intrigued me.

Born to Ghanaian and Nigerian parents in London, raised in Boston and now living in Rome/New Delhi, Taiye Selasi is 32 and the author of a viral essay (circa 2005) in which she coined the term ‘Afropolitan’. I had read the essay around about 2007 and found it very interesting. Taiye Selasi is also a Yale and Oxford graduate, speaks several languages and happens to look and dress like a supermodel. So accomplished CV aside, is this book worth spending time and money on? Absolutely!

Ghana Must Go tells the story of a renowned surgeon and failed husband who dies suddenly in Accra, some 15 years after abandoning his Nigerian wife and family in the States. The estranged family of enigmatic mother and four divided children, each with their own personal hurts come together reluctantly in the wake of Kweku’s death. Inevitably, while in Ghana old secrets, lies, pain and crimes in the name of love reveal just how fractured the family has become. As each navigates the past, the question hanging over the book is whether there is any hope for the family in the future.

The main character is a surgeon newly arrived in America on scholarship. With other African and Asian students, the contrast to their young American classmates is evident in that their more frequent experience with death prepares them for dealing with infant mortality more than their American raised colleagues. I have heard similar things from friends who studied medicine or public health in developed countries.

As Africans, we are more accustomed to loss. Some would argue that our approach to death and funerals is healthier and allows us to mourn freely. I have often wondered how true this is. How do we process pain as Africans and as Zambians? We scorn at our Western brethren with their drugs, eating disorders, suicide attempts, and depression and so on as an outlet for their pain. But I wonder if we are not also masters at masking our pain instead. Women especially are taught to suck it up and bear pain. It is so much worse for men, for whom pain is not even spoken of. As a country we fail to recognize or acknowledge that alcohol is a drug and many of our people are addicted to it in order to dull their pain. This is a how family secret and lies come up and go deep down. And it is on the basis of personal pain and family secrets that Ghana Must Go is founded.

The author is western raised and so are the children, so they deal with their issues in a very western way. Or so I thought. As a reader, I consider myself to be very unsympathetic toward characters that don’t just deal with their issues. This might sound like a contradiction given my statements above. All this means is that I understand where some of their issues are coming from, I just think in the Western world people appear to have the luxury of wallowing in depression and self pity over their issues which we don’t here. But by the end of the book I had come to understand the characters and their situations a lot more. All pain is the same and yet always we seek to rank it, judge it.


I recently had a conversation with a friend about how we as Zambians view the death of a parent. More specifically, how we view the death of an estranged, absent or deadbeat parent. There is this assumption that a child is obliged to forgive and forget and mourn a stranger just because s/he birthed or sired you. That for some reason you should be grateful to the person who neglected and abandoned or abused you or made your life a misery. Often, when such a one dies, we mourn not the departed, but the relationship that could have been but never was. We mourn the loss of what we wanted and were denied. For me, the book raised the question of whether or not we ever really know our parents. We perceive their decisions and actions with a child’s eye and then when we are grown judge them in the past from our present day perspective.

One of the most interesting sentences to me in the book refers to Taiwo, the beautiful daughter. The author describes Taiwo and her beauty as one of ‘those women whose beauty is given, not open to interpretation by beholder, a fact’. A bold statement and I think very true. The effects and curse of this beauty is a central theme. I often wonder why some people will not accept that we aren’t created equal. Some people are beautiful as a fact. The remainder of us are beautiful by interpretation. It doesn’t mean the beautiful people are better or nicer people, they are just more pleasant to look at. Why is admitting that wrong? I don’t think it is, but many people do. In this same regard, Ghana Must Go is about what we see and what we think we see in others. What we know about them or rather what we think we know. We see in ourselves or in others what we want to see, not what is actually there. How can we ever really know our family? Ghana Must Go doesn’t answer the question, but it does a darn good job of making you think about it.

Like many books that contrast attitudes and culture in an African country with those in the UK or US, the book shone a spotlight on a number of things that resonated with me as a Zambian. To avoid giving everything away, I will share two here:
  • Our tendency to build big ostentatious houses not suited to the climate or conditions and without thought to local or traditional architecture. Back when we began using iron roofing sheets and building homes with bricks, aside from how to thatch roofs, what traditional architectural principles and practices did we carry with us into the modern world, if any?
  • Arriving in Ghana from America, Kweku warns his Nigerian wife to be careful because they are now in Ghana. The wife, Fola responds, “My friend, I’m from Lagos”. This made me chuckle because having travelled to Nigeria a number of times I understand queuing in Nigeria. As described in the book, this is not queuing roughly, but firmly in the Nigerian tradition. I think that I found my way easily in Lagos because I am a graduate of the University of Zambia. Huh? Anyone who went to UNZA back in the day when you had to line up for three to four days to get your monthly student meal allowance from the Bursaries Committee only to reach the front of the queue and find they have run out of money for your school or degree programme and you’ll need to line up again the next day should know what queuing not roughly, but firmly) means. It was worse for female students. But I always got my BC on the first day. Always.
Ghana Must Go is Taiye Selasi’s first novel and to a certain extent, this shows in the book. Not necessarily in a bad way, but I do think that with her second book, her storytelling will have developed to the extent that it probably won’t be so obvious what each character’s deep dark secret is. It moves back and forth through time and locations through a series of flashbacks from one character to the next. At first this is confusing, until your realise that with each perspective more detail is given and a little more of the picture is revealed. For this reason Ghana Must Go is not a casual read and requires concentration in order to keep up.

I love that the beginning of the book has a names and pronunciations list, with explanation of what each name means in Ghana and Nigeria. This was really helpful and informative.

Ghana Must Go is at once a portrait of a modern family, and an exploration of the importance of where we come from to who we are. In a sweeping narrative that takes us from Accra to Lagos to London to New York, Ghana Must Go teaches that the truths we speak can heal the wounds we hide. For me, this book was definitely time and money well spent.



Monday, May 12, 2014

Review of We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

I read a lot of books. It’s the reason I have three bookshelves in my house and I am having another one made. It’s also why I started a book club and why I love reviewing books. Generally, I try to focus on good books and books that I like. And if I happen to read a bad book, why waste time writing about it? Why not write about nice things instead? For this reason I think I am quite generous with my book reviews. Until now… I both loved and hated this book. There were some wonderfully poignant passages that I really related to. Plus, books about childhood are often quite funny. At some point I even threw it against the wall in frustration. I picked it up again and a few chapters later rolled my eyes in exasperation. But there was no way I would allow a mere novel to defeat me so I soldiered on until I finished it, interspersed with many sighs and snorts of derision.

NoViolet Bulawayo is one of the new voices in contemporary African fiction. She is in her early 30s, grew up in Zimbabwe and then went to the US on a scholarship when she was 18 and has lived there ever since. We Need New Names is NoViolet’s debut novel and is about Darling and her friends who grow up in the ironically named shantytown of Paradise somewhere in present day Zimbabwe. The book is set in the run-up to Barack Obama’s historic election to become President of the United States in 2008 and before he ‘killed’ Osama Bin Laden. This is significant because the children spend much of their time in the first half of the book playing a number of current event inspired games, the chief of which is called Find Bin Laden.

The book’s basic plot is given on the back cover: Darling grows up in Zimbabwe dreaming of an escape to America. It finally happens and she makes it to Destroyed Michygen (aka Detroit Michigan), but life in the land of the free is not the heaven she imagined and has its own challenges. This is not a spoiler because We Need New Names is about Darling’s journey and filling in the details of what, how and why it happens.

The book’s description of life in Zimbabwe is unflinching and has been interpreted by some as anti-Mugabe. I don’t think this is fair because it simply describes what is happening there. There is no need to be dramatic because the reality is not pretty, but at times actually horrific. Unfortunately, the book also reads like a justification for all those who have left to seek better fortunes elsewhere, implying those who stay in Zimbabwe lack ambition or are the less fortunate without relatives abroad to help sponsor an air ticket and visa application. This is also unfair because there are many qualified and competent Zimbabweans who have opted to stick with their country and not abandon it in its time of crisis.

The comical names of characters such as Bastard, GodKnows and BornFree are familiar and hilarious to us as Zambians. Other nationalities might view them as farcical, which of course they are, but they are also very real.

The description of childhood in the book is very adult like, unlike other books about childhood in Africa such as Patchwork by Ellen Banda-Aaku which sounded far more authentic. There is a lot of social commentary such as a passage depicting how even young children can see the similarity between modern Pentecostal churches and witchdoctors, where you must part with something material or financial in order to find the culprit blocking your good fortune and the divination rituals and prayer sessions are almost identical

What I did like about the book was that it showed how even in the midst of poverty, fear and violence people live happy and meaningful lives that make sense to them. The children’s games are a reflection of this. Find Bin Laden shows that Africa is not cut off from what is going on in distant places. Games involving Lady Gaga and David Beckham highlight how far pop culture reaches and that what interests young people in Australia is much the same as what captures the imagination of young people in an African slum. And sadly, the country game in which participants vie to be ‘good’ countries like Britain and Canada, doing everything to avoid being ‘bad’ countries like Zimbabwe and Congo give us an idea that people are often aware of their circumstances – the poor and disadvantaged know that they are poor and disadvantaged and don’t need reminding of it.

However, my patience wore thin when Darling finally makes it to the US. You know exactly what is going to happen and it is tedious. Unfortunately, life in Destroyed Michygen takes up the last third of the book, which was pretty good up until that part. Perhaps because I am not in the diaspora I found the attempts to get me to sympathise with an ungrateful character annoying. So she gets to the US and cannot connect with her friends anymore so she ignores them completely? Boo hoo! So what? Rather than empathising with her, Darling comes across much like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s main character Ifemelu in her recent book Americanah – spoiled and self indulgent, but for different reasons. In Americanah, I think it was deliberate given Ifemelu’s privileged circumstances and opportunities. In this case, I think the failure is due to the author’s inability to flesh out the characters properly. But to be fair, Americanah is Chimamanda’s fourth book while We Need New Names is NoViolet’s first. Experience shows.

This review was published in the Bulletin and Record March 2014 edition.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Are You A Chongololo?

A Chongololo is a millipede. Sometime in the 80s and 90s, ‘Chongololo’ or ‘Chong’ came to refer to people who were enamoured of Western culture. Remember that Zambia in the 70s and 80s was during the cold war. Everyone knew if you travelled out of the country. Clothes, music, movies, TV programmes, mannerisms, food and how you spoke identified where you came from.

In the 1970s, as part of efforts to promote wildlife conservation, Chongololo Clubs were established in schools. There were various activities and trips that the clubs would participate in across the country, which meant only certain schools could afford to be active in the Chongololo Clubs – schools with their own buses. Naturally, only the elite government schools, church-run schools and private schools signed up and it made sense that it was the popular kids who joined the Chongololo Club and went on exchange visits to other schools, had study tours etc. The Chongololo Clubs also had a colourful magazine and workbooks as well as a radio and TV show where the presenters spoke with an ‘accent’. For your average Zambian, to just say ‘accent’ is explanation enough. But since this is a history lesson, when I asked, this is how Twitter explained it:


“Chongololo Club had a radio show with kinds speaking in ‘ma yardi’ English”.

“Intro song had kids singing chowngowlowlow. Thus, UNZA christened students with accents Chongololos”.

“The Chongololo theme song was sung with a curious accent (posh-ish) and that’s where Chongs came – trying to speak ‘better than’”.

But back in the day, to be a Chong was more than just about the accent. Chongs lived a certain lifestyle and had particular interests, among them basketball, pop music etc.

At the same time there are real deal Chongololos (who lived abroad). A Chongololo is also a wannabe or imitator, trying to be cool by association. The imitators includes the former real deals who came back from America when they were five years old and at 25 still speak with an American accent, despite being educated at Munali Boys and never having returned to America even once.

In conclusion, to be labelled a Chongololo is not derogatory, but it is unflattering and derisible. Meaning it’s not an insult, but neither is it a compliment.

I am indebted to the following in Zambian Twitter users for contributing to the history lesson: @simunza@LauraMiti@missbwalya and @kuwaha
You can follow me on Twitter: @masukamutenda.

This article is a side-bar to my review of Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that was published in the Bulletin and Record magazine in September 2013.