Ways of Dying

A young man sets out from his home village in South Africa on a quest for self-sufficiency. He is no more than a boy but his journey becomes one of self-discovery and beyond that, a journey of radical self-invention. Compelled by cruel circumstances and forces beyond his control, he propels himself through desperation and survives disaster after disaster. He is the epitome of human agency. He is Toloki.

On his journey from his village and into an urban and industrial world, he faces dire economic straights and profound disappointment, seemingly at every turn. His humble successes and modest progress are thwarted by a society that does not recognize his value as an enterprising individual and certainly not as a person worth protecting and nurturing. His own people do not fully value him. Perhaps, they simply cannot see him as worthy, even if they wanted to, because he does not possess what they would consider an ideal appearance or intelligence.

Despite the odds stacked against him, Toloki thrives. He thrives in the sense that he is happy and at peace within himself and with the choices he makes for his life and his livelihood. He clings to his dignity, at all costs. He refuses to succumb to a life of begging. Toloki may be poor beyond what most of us can imagine, but he chooses to live without depending on charity or the generosity of the people he encounters. He will work in exchange for whatever help he receives from others. He pays back his debts and upholds his principle of self-sufficiency.

Out of the failures and disappointments of his life, Toloki learns great lessons on not just how to survive with dignity but how to live a life endowed with purpose. His life may be one of poverty, but it is a life is rich in meaning and direction. Let’s be clear: There is nothing glorious about poverty, but poverty can never define the human spirit. Similarly, oppression and injustice cannot define the human spirit. Toloki exemplifies this radical human power of self-definition. Out of the chaos of his circumstance, Toloki creates a beautiful new order. He fashions a profession for himself that he can believe in and through which he can serve others. He becomes a Professional Mourner. He works for those who cannot pay him very much but who can appreciate the work he does.

In a world that seems to thrive on an economy of death, a heartless world keen on destroying its dark-skinned citizens and children (their innocence, their dreams, their futures), Toloki manages to preserve his heart. And along the way, he meets individuals whose lives are illuminated by compassion and laughter. There is hope that goodness can be found and good people exist, even if their dreams, ambitions, and lives are cut short. As a Professional Mourner, Toloki certainly participates in the economy of death, but he defines the terms of his participation and opts to work in a manner that is as minimally exploitative and destructive as possible. He strives to work and live from the heart.

Continue reading “Ways of Dying”

Liminality–The Inbetween Space  

The African Book Review’s Chioma Nkemdilim met with some of the finalists of The Brunel University African Poetry Prize to discuss their poems, inspirations, and hopes for the future of African Poetry. Here’s our interview with Hope Wabuke, whose poem “Leviticus,” provides an in-depth look at the relationship between a parent and child.

ABR: How did you develop an interest in writing poetry and where does your inspiration to write poems come from?

WABUKE: Poetry was my first love, but it took me a long, circular time to be strong in the work. I wrote my first poem when I was six. It was about an elephant named Elephy. More followed. Poetry was a sort of sanctuary for me. In my education, from kindergarten through senior year of high school, we only read white European and American writers, usually male, and finding Brooks and Giovanni and Lorde and Baldwin and Hughes and others gave me something that sustained me. I have played music for most of my whole life, and I was always attracted to the musicality of language. But I studied film and fiction writing in college and graduate school instead. The idea that you could get an MFA in poetry was beyond my comprehension at the time.

A few years ago, I returned to Los Angeles to spend time with my parents, who were both ill, and with my grandmother, visiting from Uganda. My grandmother was 96; I knew that might be the last time I saw her. I became pregnant and began to think even more about my body family—the growing of life brought up so many feelings and memories; it was a paradigm shift too, in terms of what I thought important, in my writing. My baby boy is probably my biggest inspiration. He opens up my world and makes it so much richer, so much more interesting and meaningful than I could have ever thought possible.

ABR: Your poem which is a finalist for the Brunel University African Poetry Prize has an interesting title, ‘Leviticus’ what was the inspiration behind the title?

WABUKE: Leviticus is one of the Books of the Christian Bible, in the Old Testament. It is considered the book of laws. A lot of the Mosaic code—and our modern sense of morality—come from that book. So I was thinking loosely of the law according to my father, what, according to him, are the rules for living. For him, it is working. My father comes from a culture where the measure of a good man is how hard he works. He started working on the family farm when he was three. He is now in his sixties. He has never taken a vacation. Like many immigrants, this is what he needed to do to survive in this country.
In The Body Family as a whole I reckon deeply with the Christian faith I was raised in—the book is organically becoming a feminist, decolonial revisiting of the Bible. When I was younger, I turned away from Christianity—not just because of the sexism and racism I experienced in Christian spaces in my own life firsthand, but also the larger systematic violence that had been done by people in God’s name—the European colonization of Africa, American slavery and other forms of racism, sexism, and genocide throughout history. It was only after I became a mother that I understood the importance of a spiritual belief system, of meaning larger than oneself—of the sacred. I realized, also, that the terrible things other misguided people had done in the name of God had nothing to do with my relationship with God. I did not have to give other people that power over my life.
I understood what it means, in times of terror to have a sustaining belief—for in what moment of first-time motherhood are you not terrified for the well-being of your fragile newborn? And so all this was there.

Continue reading “Liminality–The Inbetween Space  “

Astonishing the Gods

“It is better to be invisible. His life was better when he was invisibile, but he didn’t know it at the time. His mother was invisible too, and that was how she could see him. His people lived contented lives, working on the farms, under the familiar sunlight. Their lives stretched back into the invisible centuries and all that had come down from those differently coloured ages were legends and rich traditions, unwritten and therefore remembered. They were remembered because they were lived.”

An invisible man from an invisible people. A quest for meaning. A journey throughout the world. Extraordinary places and strange guides. Magic and miracles as ordinary events.

An invisible man in a world of images…

In this modern fable, Ben Okri draws the extraordinary and enchanted pathway of a man obsessed with finding out why he’s invisible. As in classic fairy tales or fables, he encounters dangers, the temptations of the flesh and the advice of spiritual guides along the way. Yet his question remains: why is he invisible?

Astonishing the Gods is, as some critics have said, “deceptively simple” precisely because it questions a world of incessant questions, a world hungry for results, for exact answers. The invisible man’s journey in a world of images also makes the reader wonder about the questionable depth of a world of images, a world like ours in which visual reality is so powerful and yet so deceitful.

The invisible character has no name and no actual physical shape, so he could be anyone: here lies the mastery of the author in creating a world of ethereal words and images, in which the landmarks of our world fade away to make way for the untold truths and the unseen realities.

Okri’s fable about the classical quest brings the character to discover that identity is something other than he expected. Not the result, but the quest, the road, the process. Not an answer, but the asking process. Not what was expected, but surprise. Because in Okri’s book what we find is something beyond words and images… and we never really look for such ephemerality on purpose.

Astonishing the Gods by Ben Okri

978-0753808641| 1999| Phoenix

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 teaches English to high school students in France.

History’s Shadow Will Often Hover over the Future

The African Book Review’s Chioma Nkemdilim met with some of the finalists of The Brunel University African Poetry Prize to discuss their poems, inspirations, and hopes for the future of African Poetry. Here’s our interview with Bernard Matambo, a Zimbabwean poet whose poem “The City,” provides an in-depth look at the relationship between spaces and people.


ABR: How did you develop an interest in writing poetry and where does your inspiration to write poems come from?

MATAMBO: I started writing poetry in a serious way when I was 14. Before this I had always read everything near, and written short pieces for school or for myself. A lot of things were happening in my life at this age, sudden changes that led me to question a lot of what I had understood to be true and factual. Inevitably my understanding and reading of the world seemed to lack placement in the world around me. Poetry became a way of looking, a way of reading and synthesizing what was occurring within and around me at that age.

ABR: Your poem The City which is a finalist for the Brunel University African Poetry Prize seems to touch on issues of history, oppression, reclaiming spaces, and possibly how spaces can be a record/ keep the memories of peoples who have ever dwelt there. Can you share your inspiration for this poem and what you wanted it to be representative of?

MATAMBO: “The City” is part of a circle of poems I started working on in 2008. Part of my objective was to have the poems communicate with each other, thus creating a potential narrative arc when read together. Yet I also wanted each of the poems to standalone and exist without the others.

In this poem I was thinking of reclamation of internal and external spaces.

While the anguish of political oppression can be humbling, it can often too engage us with unsavory aspects of ourselves.

It often becomes effortless to dehumanize each other, for instance. I was thus interested in how a society would go about not only forgiving itself after the harder parts of a prolonged season of anguish, but also reconcile, reclaim and establish new selves. The physical scape in the poem then, is by and large symbolic of what has occurred internally within such a society during this prolonged season that has not quite ended. While it is not always palatable, history’s shadow will often hover over the future.

Continue reading “History’s Shadow Will Often Hover over the Future”

Three Strong Women

“She didn’t need them. Khady knew that she didn’t live for them….Yes, I, Khady Demba, always happy to pronounce silently her own name and to feel it was so harmoniously linked to the accurate and satisfying image she had of her own face, as well as to her Khady heart which nestled inside her and to which nobody had access but herself.” (Translated from the French)

Three women, one space between Senegal and France.

Three lives, one will to surpass fate and make one’s own choices.

Three directions from Senegal to France, one obsession with being free in both places

Norah, Fanta and Khady Demba are the three women whose stories are told by Marie Ndiaye: bouncing between West Africa and France; between dictatorial families and husbands and an almost obsessive desire for freedom; between pride and shame. A three-faceted circle of life in which connection and freedom are central.

The three stories share one of the emblematic themes of Marie Ndiaye’s work, the way the mirage of Europe affects migrants from West Africa and the consequences of displacement. Norah, a successful lawyer in Paris, is called back to Senegal by a father she knows very little about. Once back in her homecountry, she finds out that her brother has been imprisoned and this triggers changes in her life.

Fanta, the protagonist of the second novella, is a much more discrete figure who, interestingly enough, manages to occupy the central part in the story. Far from illustrating a gap between Senegal and France, she manages to bridge the two worlds and creates the most balanced of the feminine images in the collection.

And Khady Demba, the widow of a man whom she never managed to give a child, she leaves her in-laws’ house to make her own way in the world. Her destiny mirrors a classical tragedy: caught in a tentacular underground world of clandestine immigrants, forced to become a prostitute, she manages in spite of everything to find love and compassion.

Khady Demba relies on self-consciousness, highlighted in the text through mantra-like expression “I am Khady Demba.” This self-consciousness acts as an elixir that enables her to keep her head high in the most horrible situations. The awareness that she only and truly belongs to herself, and that the mere echo of her name pronounced silently has the power to give back her dignity.

Marie Ndiaye’s collection draws a curve through the lives of these three women whose strength lies in their search for meaning: be it memories, balance or freedom, the women go from a base world to their own world explosive within themselves.

A collection like a circle of destinations, of experiences, of freedom.

Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye

978-2070-78654-1| 2009| Gallimard Editions

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 teaches English to high school students in France.

Still Waking from the Dream…

Dango Mkandawire lives and works in Blantyre Malawi working in finance even though he is sure, without a doubt,  that it is in Art where the soul lies. He is the author of The Jonathan Gray Affair, published in GAMBIT: Newer African Writing, an anthology by The Mantle Books.

AfricanBookReviewABR: Your story in the Gambit The Jonathan Gray Affair is arguably a coy and intelligent (certainly very practical) play on the story of David and Goliath, what inspired it?

DANGO: Interestingly, that part in the story alluding to David and Goliath invites quite a bit of commentary even though I didn’t expect it to do so as much. The story precipitated in my mind in fragments. During that time I was considering themes of courage and dignity and what these notions meant. What is Courage and when is it real and when is it fabricated and mimicked? Who is really brave and what constitutes dignity. How entrenched is bravery and courage within the troubling arena of Masculinity? Why do men especially, almost universally find it a deathblow to be referred to as a coward. These were the billowing clouds floating in my head. I decided to write a story around these themes set during a time when people feel amplified and often confusing and conflicting emotions – adolescence.

ABR: You mention in a previous interview that you make a point of choosing less drastic/ hard-hitting topics to center your work around. Do the quieter themes you choose to work with influence the depth of your work? That is, do you find you’re forced to pay more attention to character and style than you perhaps would if there was a dramatic resolution to anchor the narrative?

DANGO: I believe that the causes of events are always much smaller than the scale of the actual events. A whisper here; a  misunderstood glance there; a butterfly flapping its wings here; all these subtleties and nuances build up to events and then people act out their roles in the respective theatres of Life they find themselves in. This is ultimately what fascinates me about people and why literature excites me. How will he or she act in this situation…and why. It is at the crossroads, at the points where a change in the direction of a life is possible where we find some evidence and some insight into the true nature of people. This is what I try to explore and understand. So to me it’s the essence of things that is paramount. Whether it be a man standing in Tiananmen Square boldly facing a multi-tonne tank defying the State and all its powers at the peril of his life, or Pempheroyanga in The Jonathan Gray Affair standing upright before the taunts and clenched fists of a bully. The lessons learned condense to the same truths.

In addition, I feel I am in unnatural garb, as ridiculous as a bear with feathers, whenever I write about anything I deem too far stretched from my own experiences. Yes, it is the writer’s trade to stretch his own eyesight to encompass the experiences of his or her fellow people, but stretch too far and the string snaps. Personally I am uncomfortable and don’t trust myself in such situations. I cannot write in discomfort. So do I pay more attention to character and style? Possibly unconsciously. To me as long as the words gel and flow smoothly together and capture a reader’s interest for whatever reason that’s a good story. When I write I only ask myself whether what I have written is interesting or not, and that relates to the previous sentence. If it’s interesting enough I proceed. If it isn’t I discard, retreat, look around again, then proceed. That’s the binary procedure I repeat until I finish. It’s tiresome though rewarding. And what determines whether something is interesting? That’s a matter of taste and it would be pedantic to explain taste. If you like the taste of fish that’s what you like. You could try explain it but you would fall short. You like the taste. That’s explanation enough.

Continue reading “Still Waking from the Dream…”

Masking Rage with Silence: A Conversation

Yvonne Owuor
Yvonne Owuor

Yvonne Owuor was born in Nairobi, Kenya. Her story The Weight of Whispers was awarded the Caine Prize for African Literature in 2003. Since then she has been working on a variety of visual and literary projects. Her debut novel Dust was published in 2014 and is shortlisted for the Folio Prize.

Paul Ostwald
Paul Ostwald

Paul Ostwald grew up in Nairobi, Moscow and Germany and currently reads Politics, Philosophy and Economics at the University of Oxford. He works with amnesty International and contributes to both German and British papers.

The African Book Review hosted a conversation between Yvonne and Paul about Yvonne’s debut novel Dust, and the effect of Kenya’s history on the evolution of characters in Yvonne’s novels.

Paul: Dust is your first novel. You’ve been writing short stories for years and you’ve had great success. Is Dust a crime story, a tragic love story, a historical drama, or even an epic poem?

Yvonne: When I set out to write Dust I was very clear about what it should be. But then, when Kenya exploded in late 2007, the story acquired it’s own life and it wanted to be told. Something was unleashed and suddenly all characters began telling me their own stories. My characters are very musical, before I see them I hear their music, the songs they love and the ones they hate. Each character tells an own, different story of fear, longing and admiration.

Paul: Like Nyipir, the father of the murdered Odidi Oganda, his trade is storytelling. He notes that three languages have defined Kenya since it’s independence. English, Swahili and Silence.

Yvonne: I haven’t looked to deep into other societies, but we Kenyans are very good at covering our rage up with silence. All these years since the independence people were infuriated, about the land others had stolen unpunished and the vile things that happened decades ago. And as I heard them and understood what they said, I wondered: How come nobody ever said anything? Yet the rage acquired a space of silence in which it was unnoticed, it was kept and sustained for decades. Yes, we’re good with silences. It might be the most Kenyan language of all three.

Paul: Nyipir is an incarnation of Kenya’s independent history. But he concludes that he owes no allegiance to Kenya and even begs his daughter to forgive him.

Yvonne: The characters startled me by the things they said. Maybe the Kenyan ideal was broken at the end. Yes, we did not treat these memories the way we should have. History has lately been removed from the Kenyan syllabus. Nyipir in particular aims to retrieve the memory of his father, who fought for the British colonialists in Burma. He feels that the dead generations are not treated with the dignity we owe them and he has a point there.

Many Kenyans feel detached from their heritage, like the sister of Moses Odidi. When she eventually returns to Nairobi, she seeks something that’s supposed to make here feel complete. She had experienced the world through her brother, and now she’s discovering herself through his death, the empty space he’s left. There is a young generation that has lost something that defined them.

Paul: Is that why many of your characters have a place they long to be? Odidi as a boy always dreams of a Far Away.

Yvonne: All of them have a place of longing, somewhere they want to return or have never actually been. I think everybody does, I think there’s an idealised place. For me it might be Middle Earth from “Lord of the Rings.” “Lord of the Rings,” I go back there to reconcile. I’ve not met a single person who does not have a place of secret longing. Even if they maybe fully content in the Now, even the contentment within the Now speaks to something else. If you sit down and talk to someone for long enough, everyone has a place he longs for or a place where he feels something needs to be completed. They need to tie up something there.

But there’s something more to it. Digging deeper you sometimes discover that people can be places, too.

Paul: Ajani, Odidi’s sister, falls in love with Isaiah Bolton who has come to Kenya to complete his own father’s history. What knits them together?

Yvonne: There is something very powerful about the two. Someone once put it  “a fatherless man and a brotherless woman.” It is a wound that binds them together. Isaiah’s father used to own Wuoth Ogik, the home of Ajani’s family. Nyipir was his servant for long years. But he knows little of his father’s colonialist history, that is why he has come to retrieve him. So has Ajani come to find out who her brother really was.

Paul: But how do Kenyan readers react? Your friends, people you know?

Yvonne: It’s very interesting. Among the younger generation I’m amazed by their, not only openness, but their embrace. A lot of them say “we did not know about this, although it’s part of Kenyan history.” And I say, “OK, look, a lot of this is fictionalised but the core elements are there, look it up there is information available in the archives.”
But on the whole, among peers, response is been amazing. It’s interesting to go into bookshops and find that, although the price is exaggerated I think, it’s sold out. The launch party attracted so many people that the New York Times correspondent kept on asking me “how is this possible in Kenya?” Well, it is…and it’s great.

Paul: Another thing that reappears in your novel is the question of “what endures?” The characters seem to answer “starting over again.”

Yvonne: Yes, they do. And memories. Our memory is like dust, things evaporate. But then again, everything begins with dust. And that’s a message not only to the Kenyan people.

There’s a difference between forgiving and simply forgetting. What happens with the power and energy of forgiving is that when you meet that particular memory, you don’t meet it armed to kill, you may meet it to say “You’re there. That’s you’re shape, that’s who you are.” The chance to start all over again and our memories is what defines us, it might be all we have. And it’s all we need, if you think about it.

When Doctors become Storytellers

“This is how it is when you glimpse a woman for the first time, a woman you know you could love. People are wrong when they talk of love at first sight. It is neither love nor lust. No. As she walks away from you, what you feel is loss. A premonition of loss.”

Freetown, January 1969, an evening party at the university campus. Elias Cole, an academic, sees his colleague’s wife, Saffia and becomes irreversibly attracted to her.  Thus begins the most powerful story of his life, full of betrayal, passion and obsession. Freetown, 1999, in a hospital. Cole is now very ill in the care of Adrian Lockheart, a psychologist. In the same hospital Kai, a young surgeon and a survivor of the civil war, suffers from a double wound: the injuries of war and lost love.

The three lives are intertwined in distress, violence, political and social instability —the perfect context to portray the fragility of the human condition. Unfolding through three simultaneous voices, timelines and spaces, Aminatta Forna’s second novel gives the reader a fragmented, yet vivid and sometimes cruel image of how war changes lives.  However, the fact that the three main characters are either healers or victims of physical injuries (be they victims or doctors), also shows to what point love can be the most vivid and harmful wound.

The plot is centered on memories, on relics, on what is left when love is no more, or, more interestingly, what the survivors of love become. The possible answer, common to the three characters, is that writing and story-telling is only way to keep the feeling, and oneself, alive: Elias Cole’s life is the story that we read when he is speaking to Adrian Lockheart who keeps a textbook of psychologic pathologies as a means of preserving and putting order in his life.

The Memory of Love is a book about what love injuries, like war injuries, can do to the human soul, and also how stories help us gain perspective and direction in life. In the violent context of war, physical pain and death, love marks can only be healed by words and story-tellers become doctors.

The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna

Bloomsbury Paperbacks| 2011| 978-1408809655

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 teaches English to high school students in France.


Coming of Age in Zimbabwe

The first time I read Nervous Conditions, Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga’s seminal first novel, I was an undergraduate student at the University of California, Davis, enrolled in a course on African womanhood (this was in 2004). The course was called “Women in Africa.” Professor Moradewun Adejunmobi taught the course and Nervous Conditions was on the syllabus, along with several other works of African feminist fiction like Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter and Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood.

I began the course with a mixture of curiosity and arrogance. It was my first time taking a course that mentioned me in its title. I am an African woman who grew up in Cameroon. I once was “a woman in Africa.” I once was a girl in Africa. The class had to be about me! And because of this, I felt curious to see what the course could teach me about myself. But I also felt that I already knew a thing or two about African womanhood and wouldn’t be learning anything new.

That course quickly erased my arrogance and amplified my curiosity. The books we read transformed me. I did not just read those books. I inhaled them. I consumed them as if they were pills that had the power to cure me of an illness I suffered from. I was especially taken by Nervous Conditions because, unlike the other novels assigned to us, this novel had a young woman as narrator. I emerged from that course — from those books, especially Nervous Conditions — a changed woman, a woman with a lot of questions about her life.

A few months later, in my very first semester of graduate school at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), I enrolled in a course called “African Women” and was re-united with Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel. I read it a second time and felt the same way I felt the first time I read it. I felt that the book was, in so many ways, about me, about my own family, about our struggles. It’s been ten years since 2004, a decade of living and learning now tucked securely in my past. Today, as I complete my third reading of Nervous Conditions, I am more convinced than ever that this book captures the essence of my life story.

I am Tambu, the main character. I am telling my life story, working my mind around it and through it, trying to understand the things that have happened and are happening to me. I am the girl who is not afraid to fight with her brother, to challenge him when he tells her that he is more worthy of great things. Tambu’s voice is my voice. Tambu’s mind is my mind, trying to impose some order on all that seems senseless. I am Tambu mulling over ideas of feminine decorum and notions of decency, as well as patriarchal status differences between male and female relatives. Tambu’s long, dense paragraphs of fluid prose — narration oftentimes unpunctuated in various places, breathless, hurried — is my prose. I lose myself in Tambu’s words, and I find myself in them, at the same time. I lose myself, because I find myself. I lose my sense of being separate from the narrator. I become the women in the story. I am not only Tambu. I am every woman in her family. Their trials and tribulations are my own.

I am Tambu’s cousin Nyasha. I am Nyasha asking profound and heartbreaking questions, interrogating reality constantly. I am Nyasha challenging male authority, turning patriarchy on its head. I am Nyasha confronting my father, fighting with him. I am pushing against the boundaries of women’s worlds, failing to explode those walls or transcend them, and internalizing my grief and disappointment. I am Nyasha using my mind to try to break out of the varied but similar prisons of gender, race, class, colonialism, patrilineage, and age/generation. I am looking for answers and solutions, reading countless books, becoming mired in a mental bog of facts, histories, injustices, and tragedies. I am the young intellectual immersed in a sanity-annihilating world of extreme academia and perpetual education. I am Nyasha losing her mind.

I am Tambu’s aunt Lucia being bold and fearless. I am Lucia using my voice so confidently that it frightens men; I understand that a woman’s voice is a powerfully liberating instrument. I am Lucia showing that a woman owns her body. But I am also Tambu’s mother, whose body has been given over to her husband and his lineage, and whose older children have been taken away, offered up to the voracious cause of education and a financially secure future for the family. I am Tambu’s other aunt (Ma Chido, married to Tambu’s uncle Babamukuru), whose education and employment and marital status have not been able to assure her of a peaceful life or assure her daughter, Nyasha, of a life safe from physical and psychological harm.

I am all these women, but I am especially the two young women, Tambu and Nyasha. I am these schoolgirls, pursuing their studies passionately. Growing my mind in the classroom and beyond, learning to think for myself. I am a young woman who, having been given the opportunity to become educated, can now prove to myself and a doubting world that I am intelligent, capable, and worthy of greatness. I must believe that I am worthy of freedom, of the chance to choose a life in which my fate is not bound to that of a man or what a man might wish for me. I am free to think and speak for myself, free to build a new way of life for myself–a life I am willing to work hard for, to slave over my books for, and beyond that, a life in which I fight to always perceive reality accurately, a life in which I comprehend the world I live in with clarity. I create a life in which I engage with the struggles of every human being, the struggles of women and Africans–struggles that are individual and collective battles for a full, authentic, and self-determining existence. I fight to be recognized as a human and to be valued as such.

It is a testament to Tsitsi Dangarembga’s phenomenal literary gift that I–a woman from Cameroon — can read her book about a girl in Zimbabwe, feel that it is my story, and draw strength from it. Like the young women in Nervous Conditions, I must (as much as possible) decide what to do with my mind, heart, and body. I must chart the best paths for life. I must learn how to think for myself about men, women, power, and freedom. I must realize that education, as empowering as it may be, is no easy or uncomplicated solution to the problems of gender and social inequality. Ten years ago, Nervous Conditions compelled me to take ownership of my being, and today, it still does. I know what this means. It means that this story is timeless and the struggle for equality is far from over. Women’s words and stories can change the world. Tambu’s voice will continue to transform African women’s lives, one reader at a time.

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

978-0954702335| 1997| Lynne Rienner Publishers

Review by Viola Allo

ViolaViola Allo is a Cameroonian-born poet and essayist based in the United States. Her first chapbook of poems, Bird From Africa, is included in the Eight New-Generation African Poets chapbook box set published in 2015 by Akashic Books and the African Poetry Book Fund. Viola resides in California and writes at her blog, Letters to Cameroon.

Wealth, Prestige, and Love in a Rwandan High School

“At first, Virginia had not said anything. We never speak about these things in Rwanda. There are so many things we must never speak about in Rwanda.”

In the years following the decolonization, Notre-Dame du Nil is the high-school where every young girl in Rwanda dreams of studying: situated on the high peaks of the Congo-Nile region, near the source of the great Egyptian river, the prestigious high-school hosts the daughters of ministers, diplomats and rich businessmen.

The students know only too well that they are there only thanks to their family’s wealth and, so, know how much they worth: the main goal of their education is to make them feminine models in the newly-born Rwandan society- feminine, because women have specific roles: the strict religious discipline and the elitist education provided by French and Belgian teachers aim at preserving their virtue and making them ‘good marriage material’.

However, beneath this glittering surface of wealth and prestige, guarded by the strict religious morals of Sister Lywine, more earthly things occur, such as the “rewards” given by Father Herménégilde to the worthy students (especially to Frida, the beautiful fair-skinned student). Scandal breaks when Frida becomes engaged to a rich Zairian and soon gets pregnant. Her mysterious death is a shock for the small community and her name is banished from all conversation, like a shameful memory.

Awarded the 2012 Renaudot Prize in France, Notre-Dame du Nil represents a powerful and almost merciless piece of writing about post-colonial Rwanda; a small mirror into a society in which wealth, prestige and strict rules can only increase tensions and passions. The novel can be seen as a kaleidoscope of portraits depicted in a meticulous way: Gloriosa, an arrogant Tutsi looking down on the others, Frida, the beautiful victim, Virginia the courageous who wants to know more about her ancestry. The most eccentric figure in the novel is perhaps Monsieur de Fontenaille, a White anthropologist who preaches the superiority of the Tutsi people.

It is through his predictions and theories that Mukasonga lets us foresee the genocide to come, after all, Notre-Dame du Nil only allows 10% of Tutsi students. In this selective microcosm where many things are silenced, ethnic tensions come to life and are about to burst at any time.

And yet, in this confusing atmosphere, Imaculée, one of the students, gives her friends and the reader a beautiful lesson of humanity:

“I thought about what Gorett’s mother was telling: that gorillas were once humans. I have another version of the story: gorillas refused to become entirely human, there were almost human, but they preferred being and living as they were, gorillas, in the highlands near the volcanoes. When they had seen other apes like them becoming humans, mean, cruel and killing each other all the time, they refused it. Maybe this is the original sin Father Hermenegilde speaks about all the time: the moment when gorillas became humans.” (Translated from the French)

Notre-Dame du Nil by Scholastique Mukasonga

Gallimard Editions | 2012| 9782070456314

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.