An African Saga

Ségou, south-centre of present-day Mali, cradle of the Bambara people, 18th century.

At the the center of Ségou is Dousika, a nobleman close to the Mansa, the regional king, embodiment of power and wealth, everything the Ségou society stands for. It is Dousika, whose household comprises three wives, one concubine and four sons, through whom the narrative unfolds and splits.

In this society in which life is organized by rituals and customs, the inevitable course of history draws Dousika’s sons away from his house to make their own way in the world. Exploring three generations, the novel follows the sons’ destinies in the larger context of the expansion of Islam in Saharan Africa and the slave trade in the Americas.

Bambara, Peul, Ashanti, Moors, French, mixed races, the novel is a melting pot of ethnic groups, languages, religions and customs permeating the narrative substance and making the reading experience both rich and colorful. Maryse Condé pays homage not only to her African ancestors, but also to a world of infinite power, sophisticated culture and influence, emphasizing the diversity and complexity of Saharan civilizations, often too poorly known by the modern public.

The immense research behind this novel weaves itself into an intimate knowledge of African history—a primary reason Ségou is often called “the African saga.” Yet, set aside its historic frame, Ségou is also a novel portraying eccentric and passionate characters; from mighty Dousika to Nya, his fiery first wife; from the short-tempered Malobali, the son of Dousika’s concubine, to the utterly good slave Nadié. All of them bring their own insights to the multi-faceted human fate, half free, half contaminated by history.

Ségou by Maryse  Condé 

Editions Robert Lafont |1984| ISBN:2-221-01197-X


Review by Ioana Danaila

IMG_0478-2Ioana Danaila was born in Romania. She graduated from University Lyon 2 Lumière with a Masters in Postcolonial Literature and a First degree in French for Non-Francophone people. She has published short stories and translated books from French to Romanian. She speaks Romanian, French, English, and Spanish and teach


Come Away, My Love | Joseph Kariuki

Come away, my love, from streets
Where mankind eyes divide,
And show windows reflect our difference.
In the shelter of my faithful room rest.

There, safe from opinions, being behind
Myself, I can see only you
And in my dark eyes your grey
Will dissolve

The candlelight throws
Two dark shadows on the wall
Which merge into one as I close beside you.

When at last the lights are out,
And I feel your hand in mine,
Two human breaths join in one,
And the piano weaves
Its unchallenged harmony.

Joseph Kariuki is a Kenyan poet. Born in Banana Hill, Kenya and educated both at Makerere College, Uganda and Cambridge University, England. His most famous poem is an ode to former Kenyan president, Jomo Kenyatta.

The Sun on This Rubble | Dennis Brutus

The sun on this rubble after rain
bruised though we must be
some easement we require
unarguably, though we argue against desire.

Under jackboots our bones and spirits crunch
forced into sweat-tear-sodden slush
now glow-lipped by this sudden touch:

sun-stripped perhaps, our bones may later sing
or spell out their malignant nemesis
Sharpevilled to spearpoints for revenging

but now our pride-dumbed mouths are wide
with wordless supplication
are grateful for the least relief from pain
like this sun on this debris after rain.

Dennis Brutus (1924 – 2009) was a South African activist, educator, journalist and poet. 

On Destiny | Chris Abani

Destiny isn’t a deck of cards stacked up against you.
It is the particular idiosyncrasies of the player, not the deck
or dealer, that hold the key.
Personality always sways the outcome of the game.

–From Becoming Abigail by Chris Abani

The Broken Man

With these contradictory, daring, but deeply human questions Ben Jelloun’s novel challenges the reader and forces him to leave behind his own social and cultural background when he tries to make sense of them—and of all human dilemmas, for that matter.

What if integrity and honesty cannot offer a decent life ?

What if, in a marriage, love is gone and is replaced by greed, remorse and routine ?

  What if, tired of too much correctness, people decide to break free from themselves?

“I remember the first years when I was employed in an office working for the Equipment Seecretary. It was Hlima who had first suggested me to claim a  commission for every file I would sign. It was one of our biggest fights. At first, I tried to tell explain her that corruption was a cancer that was eating away the country, and that my education, my moral principles, my consciousness were firmly opposed to this practice. She told me I wasn’t man enough! This time I laughed. She could not bear this and started to throw objects at me.” (p.27, ABR translation)

Mourad is a middle aged father of two, married to a woman he does not love anymore. An engineer working in a famous firm full of corrupt people, he is the only one holding to his moral principles. Nevertheless, his refusal to give in to the “attentions” his colleagues receive leaves him with only his salary, barely sufficient to grant his family a decent living. Mourad’s life revolves around his children, Karima and Wassit, and Hlima, his bitter wife only interested in wealth and social status. In his forties and in a moment of crisis, Mourad thinks of leaving his unsatisfying life and of becoming someone else.

Tahar Ben Jelloun’s The Broken Man reminds the reader of Kafka’s dark and absurd universe, in which the human soul is caught in a maze of deceit and injustice. Mourad is a modern Josef K., caught in his own life as in a prison from which he is too shy, too lazy or too honest to escape. The escalating rhythm of the narrative leads the reader from the honest family man to the tormented character who breaks all the rules… and risks everything.

Set in present day Morocco, Ben Jelloun’s novel criticizes corruption as a way of life, of working, of defining oneself; Mourad’s tragedy is that he is constantly studying different possibilities of staying who he is deeply, of keeping his identity no matter what. To this extent, the novel is actually a long self-questioning confession.

Is it, then, possible for a man to become the opposite of what he used to be, just for the sake of change? Is it possible to break free even from one’s identity and try to create another one, in another space and family context?  And what are the risks of such an endeavor?

With these contradictory, daring, but deeply human questions Ben Jelloun’s novel challenges the reader and forces him to leave behind his own social and cultural background when he tries to make sense of them—and of all human dilemmas, for that matter.

The  Broken  Man by  Tahar  Ben  Jelloun

Editions du Seuil | 1994 | ISBN: 9782020214742

An Interview with Tahar Ben Jelloun


Review by Ioana Danaila


Ioana Danaila was born in Romania. She graduated from University Lyon 2 Lumière with a Masters in Postcolonial Literature and a First degree in French for Non-Francophone people. She has published short stories and translated books from French to Romanian. She speaks Romanian, French, English, and Spanish and teaches English to high school students in France.

Laughing Drums |David Amadu

History’s white hand wrote my country’s course
In a language that will come back and hunt her
In the twenty first century ;
The man at the round-about calls it exploitation
Beyond redemption.
But I say it is far beyond our imagination.
Who would have ever thought
Shedding blood for diamonds will be our lot?
Not even the ruthless bullies
Who scrambled for our land to please their hungry bellies;
Nor did big city dwellers in their luxury
Have the faintest idea of our misery.
The man at the round-about says
We are in a conundrum
But I say let’s play our joyful laughing drums
Play our laughing drums
To the sound of hungry children chewing crumbs.

History’s white hand wrote
Signatories and pernicious agreements both
As IMF loans and World Bank Killer packages
Inflicting unparallel wounds and damages;
The man at the round-about calls it Neocolonialism
Without Comparison
But I say it’s beyond human realism
So let’s play our joyful laughing drums
To the sound of children chewing crumbs.

David Amadu is a poet based in Sierra Leone.

The Perceived Threat of the “Other”: An Interview with MH Sarkis

“What I learnt is you really need passion and dedication to stick it through and to continue sharing your work, because if you’re not lucky to have someone holding your hand or showing you the ropes, it likely won’t happen. Also there’s not much point looking for insight or approval from those who don’t know or care about what you’re trying to achieve, or waste time applying to things that don’t apply to your artwork.”–MH Sarkis

MH Sarkis is an artist whose work explores cross-cultural tensions and identity. In our interview with her, she tells us where her interest in art stems from, her influences, how it has evolved and her plans for the future.

profile - MH Sarkis
MH Sarkis

ABR: First of all, your name is fascinating. Anyone seeing it without first meeting you is more than likely to think that it’s a man behind the beautiful paintings? What’s the reason behind the pseudonym?
SARKIS: I’m happy the name sparks curiosity. MH is a shortened version of my full first name, which I feel good about keeping under wraps as I continue solidifying myself in the industry.
It’s interesting you should say one would think it’s a man behind the work; recently a national newspaper referred to me as a “he”. I suppose many still consider it to be a male-dominated profession.
Someone came up to me the other day and said “I didn’t expect to see a fine girl behind these paintings!”
I laughed. I don’t mind – I enjoy the element of surprise and challenging expectations and perceptions.

ABR: How did you develop an interest in painting and when did you decide to go pro?

SARKIS: I was always drawing and colouring in my childhood. Throughout primary school I enjoyed showing my work to adults and seeing their reactions. Then in secondary school our art teacher told me it would be a shame if I didn’t do anything with my skill-set. Although I didn’t think much of the comment at the time, it encouraged me.
I was more drawn to painting as a medium when I read about the Expressionists and how they explored the body and the self. I tried acrylic paint shortly after, and I fell in love with the “gloop”, its versatility, when I saw I could manipulate it well to the point of presenting something unexpected and visually striking. I had a gut feeling and when that happened I decided to go pro…
I then backed out of my English (Literature) UCAS applications. I wasn’t one to wait [for another round of UCAS] so I enrolled into a liberal arts institution which was happily quite international, and was painting of my own accord throughout undergraduate studies. No regrets o! None at all.

ABR: What was the first work you ever did and the first you ever sold? What has changed since then?

SARKIS: It’s hard to tell; just today I found another work in the house I grew up in, and I’m not sure of the date. The first artwork I sold was a large commissioned landscape piece that wasn’t really connected to my current practice but was a good experience at the time. That was years ago and what has changed is, as I’ve focused on my practice and continued exploring what inspires me, I am now sensing heightened interest from others inside the industry as well as outside.


ABR: What influences your style and what medium do you use in painting? 

IMG_20150829_153858SARKIS: Nigerian crafts (I grew up surrounded by carved work and not paintings per se). Masks, scarification, people. The grooves within and around the face. I am also interested in clash of cultures, or a harmony sometimes unexpected. The “other”, and the perceived threat of the “other”. They arise from my own experiences.

I mainly use acrylic paint because it allows flexibility: I can lay it on thickly and shape it, or thinly and as a wash. It also dries more quickly, which is often a good thing as it can encourage instinct if one’s an over-thinker, which I can sometimes be. On the other hand that can be quite dangerous, especially with my way of “digging in” while it’s fresh and workable.


 ABR: Your first exhibition in Nigeria “Back on the Island” is currently ongoing. What is the inspiration for your latest paintings?

SARKIS: All stem from real experiences and personal realities. The pieces are somewhat varied but at the heart of the works are notions of “cross-culturalism”, otherness, and identity especially relating to the Sub Sahara and Middle East. Scarification is a big inspiration, but the distinction in my work between markings and sculpturally-influenced lines are often blurred.


ABR: What memorable responses have you had to your works?

IMG_20150829_154004SARKIS: A lot of people (many of whom I don’t know) have stared at the works, and eventually, slowly stretch out a finger to touch. At first I would observe and not register how I felt about that as I wasn’t sure; you know often people advise against touching artworks for various reasons. But afterwards I realised I felt happy the work was that textural or tempting for them to just go for it, even when they knew full well the artist was standing a few feet away. Thankfully they were gentle.


ABR: How has painting influenced your life?

SARKIS: The painting process, as well as the surrounding and resulting events, has been cathartic. It is one of the strongest ways to express myself; I feel if we can’t express our story the best we can, we have the tendency to act it out in ways that are difficult to comprehend.

In short I have been able to understand my personal history, experiences, and triggers and tie things together through the medium. I am able to form relationships with others through sharing my work whereas previously, I had experienced feelings of isolation that can come with being a migrant here.


ABR: What setbacks have you experienced in your artistic journey and what did you learn from it/them?

IMG_20150829_153938SARKIS: I left university and didn’t have artistic contacts or networks to join in the UK (let alone Nigeria where I previously was). Most of my peers left the country after graduation. There was no tangible support system and I felt like I was starting from rock bottom. It was that sense of isolation and detachment, which I linked to “outsider-ness”, all over again. Getting online and applying to many open calls helped, as I then exhibited widely in and around London. I eventually came across the ‘Outside In’ platform, and the ‘Saatchi Art’ platform which then featured me a few times. This all happened back when I had a full-time job, and commuted well over an hour most days after work to my studio, and later to an artist residency with Free Space Gallery.

What I learnt is you really need passion and dedication to stick it through and to continue sharing your work, because if you’re not lucky to have someone holding your hand or showing you the ropes, it likely won’t happen. Also there’s not much point looking for insight or approval from those who don’t know or care about what you’re trying to achieve, or waste time applying to things that don’t apply to your artwork.


ABR: Aside from painting, do you do anything else to release your creativity? If yes, what are they?

SARKIS: I enjoy writing poetry and prose now and then. I used to write short stories often but haven’t written one in a while. The last one was based on a real-life event in Lagos and involved Pidgin. I was pleased with it but my computer crashed and I hadn’t backed it up. I still get worked up thinking about it! Now that’s where painting has the upper hand!

ABR: You’ll be going for your residency in Egypt soon. How did that come about and what are your plans afterwards?

Mh Sarkis and ABR interviewer, Chioma Nkemdilim

SARKIS: The Gallery Manager and Managing Director of ‘Gallery Ward’ saw my artwork and invited me to join them as artist-in-residence at their base in Giza, which I am looking forward to especially as I understand Egypt is a culturally unique yet influential place, and a meeting point between Sub Saharan Africa and the Middle East, aspects that currently concern my work.

I look forward to seeing how the residency could inform my practice but at the same time perhaps give me a fresh start.

I can’t say exactly yet, but my general plan for afterwards is to continue taking things up a notch in terms of visual presentation.


ABR: What is your ultimate goal professionally?

SARKIS: I often feel wary about saying too much in future tense, also because I don’t feel there is an “end-point” or set goal. But at the moment the aim it is to take myself back home and keep me mobile. I also would like to solidify a connection between the places that have influenced me and mean something to me. I want to solidify myself. I want my work to continue hanging here in Nigeria, in the UK, and in Lebanon. If it trickles over their borders, that would be good too.


ABR: Where can we find your art work? 

IMG_20150829_154310SARKIS: Nike Art Gallery and Quintessence at the moment. Online, mainly within my Saatchi Art portfolio (

For updates as well as artworks you can follow my Instagram (@sarkisartist) or Facebook page (

Happy New Year: A Letter from Our Editor

Dear African Book Review reader,

The African Book Review marked its second year in 2015. During this period we reviewed established and debut African literature. We also interviewed leaders, development coordinators, and other people at the forefront of change on the continent. Mid-year we focused on reviewing poetry from some of the continent’s legends, Gabriel Okra, Kofi Awoonor, and others. We also had delightful conversations, full of insight and passion with writers of our current generation including Yvonne Owuor, Dango Mkandawire, and more. 

The African Book Review wouldn’t exist without writers, editors, reviewers, and readers around the world. We’d like to say thank you to everyone who has been a part of this incredible project, especially our 2015 team:

Ioana Danaila: Ioana is our lead reviewer. From Romania, she is based in France and speaks Romanian, French, English, and Spanish. In addition to reviews of books written in English, Ioana has allowed us to expand our coverage and interview African novels written in French.

Viola Allo: Viola is a Cameroonian-born poet and essayist based in the United States. She published her first chapbook of poems Bird From Africa in 2015. Viola writes on her blog, Letters to Cameroon.

Chioma Nkemdilim: Chioma is based in Nigeria and conducted many of our interviews this year as a collaboration with her website, That Igbo Girl.

(If you want to join our team, just reply to this email with a link to your blog or sample of your writing)

We’re excited to collaborate with more readers, artists, and writers; those concerned about the continent, those engaged and active within Africa, and those whose works reflect the vibrancy of African literature, as ours does. 

To a great 2016!


Etinosa Agbonlahor Founder, Editor | The African Book Review

New Year’s Eve Midnight | Gabriel Okara

Now the bells are tolling–

A year is dead.

And my heart is slowly beating

the Nunc Dimittis

to all my hopes and mute

yearnings of a year

and ghosts hover round

dream beyond dream


Dream beyond dream

mingling with the dying

bell-sounds fading

into memories

like rain drops

falling into a river.


And now the bells are chiming–

A year is born.

And my heart-bell is ringing

in a dawn.

But it’s shrouded things I see

dimly stride

on heart-canopied paths

to a riverside.

Gabriel Okara was born in 1921 in Nembe in Rivers State, Nigeria. He is one of the most significant early Nigerian poets. Often concerned with the identity of his people, throughout his poetry, there is evidence of the influence of the traditional folk literature of his people. (Culled from A Selection of African Poetry, annotated by K.E. Senanu and T. Vincent)

The Cathedral | Kofi Awoonor

On this dirty patch
a tree once stood
shedding incense on the infant corn:
its boughs stretched across a heaven
brightened by the last fires of a tribe.
They sent surveyors and builders
who cut that tree
planting in its place
A huge senseless cathedral of doom.

Kofi Awoonor (13 March 1935 – 21 September 2013) was a Ghanaian poet and author whose work combined the poetic traditions of his native Ewe people and contemporary and religious symbolism to depict Africa during decolonization. He started writing under the name George Awoonor-Williams, and was also published as Kofi Nyidevu Awoonor. He taught African literature at the University of Ghana.

The firewood of this world/ Is only for those who can take heart/ That is why not all can gather it…[Professor Dr. Kofi Awoonor – A Tribute] (Songs of Sorrow I)