Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende Reviews “African Roar 2011”

This resplendent collection of short stories by African writers does indeed roar. The breadth and depth of topic, style, perspective and powerful story telling found within the pages of this treasure trove is enough to make you emit a roar of your own: in appreciation, in agony, in mirth, and in sheer exuberance.

The story by the 2011 Caine Prize recipient, NoViolet Bulawayo, is powerfully evocative of a time and place in Zimbabwe’s history. Her unique use of language and imagery produces a story of a people buckling under economic hardship and political repression. She achieves all this on Main Street- ‘Adjusting her faded black push –up bra so she hold everything together, the police, the expectations, the boiling cars, the broken dreams, the falling dollar, the billions of worthless money, the queues- Jesus- Jesus-Jesus the queues.’

‘Lose Myself’, by Nigerian writer Peter Umez is a tale of love, commitment, temptation, and dilemma. The author does a fine job of creating a protagonist battling for principle over passion. Chukwudi finds himself breaking a vow of fidelity to his wife, a vow taken in order to prove that contrary to what she believes he was not a philanderer, like other men. In the aftermath, the predictable guilt and self loathing ensue.

Emmanuel Sigauke’s story is set in a village in Zimbabwe, where a young man who is convalescing from a mysterious illness is visited by a snake. He suddenly remembers, with the help of his brother’s wife, a prophecy that was made concerning snakes sent by witches intent on his destruction. The snakes portend evil and doom and Sigauke weaves traditional Shona mythology with modern beliefs embodied in the young man, and the result is an interesting story in which at times, the line between myth and reality is blurred.

‘Diner Ten’ is a stand-out story about a community of cockroaches whose lives begin and end in what they call diner ten. The story follows middle aged Radic through his regimented days as part of the community of roaches. Their lives are dominated by the necessity to avoid deadly encounters with human beings. Radic has become bored with his predictable and mechanical existence and he spends time pondering the nature of human beings and whether they see roaches the way his kind view them. He ponders too the meaning of his own existence and whether it is on any intrinsic value, given the fact that danger is always lurking close by and death as close as his own exoskeleton. The story is reminiscent of the 2007 Pixar animated movie Ratatouille directed by Brad bird and like the movie Ivor Hartman’s story is very entertaining and in parts, thought provoking.

Mbonisi P. Ncube’s story telling prowess is on full display in his heart rending story ‘Chanting Shadows’. Zimbabwe’s Land Reform program acquires a human face in this story and the complexity of the issue is not lost in the telling of this riveting tale. The character Mzala Joe is a, loyal, courageous friend who fights to the death for what he believes in, all the while under the watchful eye of young Jonasi. Both Mzala Joe and Jonasi are farm hands on a farm that is invaded by war veterans. The white farmer who owns farm is killed at the farmhouse and the laborers in the field come face to face with the war veterans in a corn field.

The hilariously funny story of a couple’s quest for water is set in housing complex in Accra, Ghana. Isaac Nequaaye’s descriptions of the thoughts and emotions that trying to get water evoke in both the husband and wife are vivid their detail and amusing in their accuracy. The frustration of this couple is palpable as they wait for their supplier to deliver the long promised water. Each is seething with anger at not being able to partake of the normal daily ablutions that require water, and each is holding the other responsible for their predicament.

This collection of stories is wonderful representation of talent from the African continent. Each of the fifteen writers tells their story with great skill, passion and convincing dialogue. Each story has its own distinct flavor. Each story will leave the reader changed. This, after all, is the effect of all great stories.

African Roar 2011 is available through the Kindle platform worldwide for nearly every eReader.

ZIBF CANCELLATION REAL BLOW ON ZIMBABWEAN BOOK INDUSTRY

It is a tradition that began in 1983, when the new star African country, Zimbabwe, was embracing the fruits of high literacy. Amidst the euphoria of independence, the widespread introduction of educational programs meant to reach the remotest corner of the country, the ZIBF was formed to serve as Africa’s example of the appreciation of writers, books and the publishing world. Harare in late July/early August was a beehive of activities, a Babel of sorts as writers and publishers from all over the world converged to enjoy a week or so in an environment of conferences and excursions. This went on for over twenty years, each year registering another successful story for the book industry in Zimbabwe. Then from about 2004 things began to change. The political environment in the country became restrictive as publishers from sanction-swinging countries became uncertain on whether or not to travel to Zimbabwe for the fair.  The numbers of exhibitors began to decrease, and finally, the 2008 ZIBF has been cancelled. The main reason given, as The Herald reports, is the withrawal of funding by sponsors who sited the current economic environment in the country as not conducive for the fair.

This position is understandable, in a world determined to punish the Zimbabwe government, a world that does not want to seem to contribute money that might end in the wrong hands. It is also understandable that most exhibitors would choose not to participate in the book fair, considering that, in a country in economic ruin, spending a week setting up stands in order to celebrate books might be a mocking luxury, not to mention, again, that these exhibitors would pay fees that end up funding what the world does not want funded. There is also the issue of safety, at least from the perspective of the foreign exhibitors going into the country. Most NGOs and humanitarian organizations have said that Zimbabwe has limited or even stopped their activities to prevent the championing of interests that do not agree with the government’s. It would make sense that the continued spread of literacy that the promotion of books engenders might also be seen as an unwanted intrusion serving these conflicting interests. And, oh, with some foreign media not allowed in the country, who would cover the activities of the fair to make the experience worthwhile? It would seem inconceivable to have, say, a British publisher state that it is sending representatives, with thier Pounds, to exhbit literacy in Zimbabwe. Basically, the questions anybody would ask those trying to put together another ZIBF would be, why even bother?  Whatever the real reason for the cancellation, it is clear that the book industry in Zimbabwe has suffered a heavy blow, just as many other sectors in the country have. So 2008 is going down in history as the year the Zimbabwe Interational Book Fair was cancelled; it will go down in history, of course, as the year a lot of other things happpened or did not happen in Zimbabwe.

What does this mean for Africa?

Given that the ZIBF used to be the Franfurt of Africa, its cancellation certainly affects the continent’s book image in many ways. Since Zimbabwe is in a transitional state, one not favorable even for the display of books as determined by the sponsors and some of the exhibitors, we can hope that next year the event will be held. But it is time other African countries raise support for efforts to hold book and writing events of a ZIBF magnitude. There is much hope. South Africa has a book festival that’s very promising. Kenya’s Kwani Litfest, which currently focuses on writing workshops, has the potential to operate at the level of ZIBF. Let’s have something in Mombassa, in Tanzania, something in Lilongwe. Something. Anything. The African Book events should be raised to levels that match the magnitude of writing talent that the continent’s writers have, and if this means that the writers themselves have to be involved in publishing and promotion, as in the case Farafina in Nigeria, so be it. This is the time for the African writer, equally a time for the development of a matching, sustenable, self-sufficient African publishing industry. Do I hear the whisper: You wish? 

Comment: As long as our art depends primarily on handouts from foreign organizations, it will come to times likes these, when politics of countries dictate when a book fair (that tends to benefit school children and readers of all ages) is held and when it is cancelled. This is not a good picture for both the sponsors and the recipients of these handouts.

Toni Morrison Endorses Obama

ABC Blogs reports that Toni Morrision has endorsed Baraka Obama for president. Staying true to her declaration that writers are political beings, the Nobel Laureate writes, “Our future is ripe, outrageously rich in its possibilities. Yet unleashing the glory of that future will require a difficult labor, and some may be so frightened of ts birth they will refuse to abandon their nostalgia for the womb.”

Certainly, a moment in literature worth capturing.