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”

Birds of Chibok | Viola Allo

For the kidnapped girls of Government Secondary School Chibok, Nigeria

I.

We are the children
of the birds. They call up
to us, call down
to us, call out
to us. Forever talking /
walkabout
with song
we sing back to them /
to each other
always the same
mournful / hopeful song
of home.

II.

This forced flight /
brutal bite /
terrorist
blight
this blow to the wings
of people / country /
continent /
planet
is no sweet roar /
no true / ancient tune.
It cannot
win.

III.

We are the children
of Chibok / birds
of Chibok.
Tally our hijacked
days, rally your voices
to remember us
and sing. Tomorrow is
your baby today / unblemished
great egret on the Niger /
gifted with cries / songs
deeper / longer
than the reddened
rivers of our time.

 

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.

I am from pass your exams in ten subjects: Viola Allo

The African Book Review met with finalists for The Brunel University African Poetry Prize to discuss their poems, inspirations, and hopes for the future of African Poetry. Here’s our interview with Viola Allo, a Cameroonian poet, whose poem “From Farm to Schoolroom,” provides an in-depth look at growing up in Cameroon.

ABR: What inspires you to write poetry and what inspires your poems?

Viola Allo

ALLO: The thing that inspires me to write poetry is mysterious. I have a hard time trying to describe it. What I know is that writing poems makes me happy. I love the joyful feeling I get from the process of crafting a poem, even when the process is frustrating and unpredictable. I am committed to writing poetry, and I am committed to staying with the creative process. At times when I don’t feel inspired, this commitment keeps me going. Lots of things inspire particular poems, and sometimes multiple things come together to inspire a poem—events, memories, dreams, people, conversations, emotions, images, stories, poems by other poets, objects, places, ideas and issues I want to work through or speak about. Being a poet has helped me see life as something filled with countless poetic possibilities.

ABR: Your poem, “From Farm to Schoolroom,” which is a finalist for the Brunel African Poetry prize, describes growing up and going to school in Cameroon.  Can you talk a bit about the inspiration for this poem and the process of compiling so many different things to produce an in-depth snapshot of life there?

ALLO: I love the way you describe my poem. It makes me feel that it is a success—that you were able to read it and see things in it that I see. “From Farm to Schoolroom” is a “model” poem. I wrote it five years ago, as part of an assignment in a poetry workshop. I modeled it on George Ella Lyon’s poem, “Where I’m From.” That was the assignment the professor gave to our class of community college students—to read George Ella Lyon’s poem and then come up with our own versions. It is a classic “list” poem. When I began working on the poem, I wrote down my list of things that I thought would describe what it was like for me to grow up in Cameroon and leave the country after so many years of being educated there. The poem evolved as I created my list and revised it.

I have several versions of the poem, and I titled one “Education” because schooling emerged as a central theme in the poem. School was a big part of my life in Cameroon. School is a big part of life for many children in Cameroon.

Education is more than simply valued by many Cameroonians—it is celebrated. Education just made sense as the central theme for the poem.

Food is also an important theme in the poem. I come from a very agricultural region of Cameroon. My ancestral homeland is a fertile place, and the farm itself is the first schoolroom. Life there, in essence, revolves around food and farming. Also, plantation agriculture is an important part of the Cameroonian economy, especially in the tropical south. If you visit southern Cameroon, some of the first things you will notice are the vast, seemingly endless plantations. The cultivation of food and the preparation of food for consumption are so central to life and community in Cameroon, I couldn’t help but have the poem begin with food and some of the utensils used for food preparation.

Many of my poems about Cameroon are descriptive in a very subtle or deliberately ethnographic way. It’s not just my background in anthropology coming through. It’s my desire to give my audience a “snapshot” or an intimate view of things, even if only through my eyes.

 When I think about things, I am always shifting perspectives, zooming in and then zooming out, trying to make sure I see everything, if possible. I am looking at my experiences but also thinking of other people, thinking about history, about contemporary issues.

The poem is so multifaceted because that’s the way my mind works—and the way life works. In life, many things happen at the same time and affect each other. As human beings, we are products of so many different forces and factors coming together. Local and global things shape us. The past, present and anticipated future are powerful influences in our lives. We cannot measure all the forces and events that affect us, but we can be aware of them. In this sense, “From Farm to Schoolroom” is a very ambitious poem. It contains an awareness about many things, and the result is a bit messy and straightforward but quite comprehensive.

Continue reading “I am from pass your exams in ten subjects: Viola Allo”