book reviewBy Evan Mwangi
Nairobi — Title: Africa Fresh! New Voices from the First Continent
Editor: Rod Amis
Publisher G21: The World's Magazine
Over the past few weeks, the media have been full of shocking revelations of grand corruption in high offices. But another devastating form of corruption goes largely unreported - cases of job-seeking women being forced to have sex with sick bosses and consequently getting infected with life-threatening viruses.
Still sensationally floating in the realm of the abstract, our grand national scandals are likely to be soon forgotten (after a few scapegoats are put to jail while the fat cats get off scot free to continue calling the shots in national politics).
But the lives of individuals whose bodies have been subjected to unspeakable offences by employers and police officers will be indelibly scarred; ordinary people's bodies are the unfortunate sites upon which the marks of Goldenberg, Anglo-Leasing and collapsed national ethics will for ever be inscribed.
It is the duty of the writer, then, to tell these stories; narratives that won't grab any headlines despite their consequences on ordinary people's lives, narratives vindicating the urgency of enacting the Sexual Offences Bill and exposing sexual corruption which, alongside national financial scams, is eating at the very vitals of Africa.
The stories in Africa Fresh! New Voices from the Continent attempt to give voice to the voiceless majority and to sound out a warning to the powerful that the end of abuse of office is well near. The writers weave experiences of corruption at everyday level with others of grand national scandals to show the immense suffering ordinary people undergo, thanks to the collapse of ethics and good governance in post-independence Africa.
The traditional distinction between the private and the public is destabilised, as failure in governance affects the smallest ways we conduct personal business while personal moral degeneracy eventually finds its way into the public sector.
Originally published in a web magazine, Generator 21 (aka G21), and edited by Rod Amis, the collection brings together for the first time in print form some of the best stories the magazine has published since its inception 10 years ago.
Valuable, wonderful work
Having worked with a number of these writers over the years, it struck me this year that their valuable, wonderful work was receiving limited attention because it was restricted to the electronic medium," says the editor. "I felt convinced that they deserved the far wider audience that is only afforded by being in print."
The authors handle such diverse themes as sex, religion, violence, dictatorship, love, relationships and the Aids pandemic. But corruption forms a connecting strand among the themes the writers treat, revealing the salience of bribery and sleaze in the most basic and mundane aspects of African life. The writers display a passion for story-telling and control of the resources language puts at their disposal. The result is a body of narratives that fight inhuman practices, celebrate our zeal for life and generate aesthetic pleasure all at once. Despite the grim world the writers deal with, the sad narratives are replete with hope and snatches of humour, dance and laughter.
If some of the stories resort to religion as a solution to our tribulations, it is not necessarily to repudiate Karl Marx's view that the exploiter uses abstractions like God to lull us to sleep and continue sucking our blood without the fear that we will rise up and reclaim our rights. To the contrary, religion here is mainly used to underline the enormity of the socio-economic problems facing Africa and to remind us that our God is not a hands-off God. Our God is the God of Frantz Fanon, Sembene Ousmane, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Amilcar Cabral, Walter Rodney and Pepetela - a heavenly revolutionary who pitches His tent with the weak in their daily battles with the owners of capital. In the stories, God not only sacks, kills and breaks the limbs of the corrupt, He also serves the wicked with doses of venereal diseases and makes their faces pimply. This is the God that I worship. My God is not a hands-off God.
Africa Fresh! New Voices from the Continent carries the works of four Kenyan writers - Ken Kamoche, Aamena Jiwaji, Simiyu Barasa and Moraa Gitaa. Others featured in the 151-page publication are Clarious Ugwuoha (Nigeria), Ngozi Razak-Soyebi (Nigeria), Gaynor Paynter (South Africa) and Mphuthumi Ntabeni (South Africa). "Many of these writers are already award winners, much deserving of a larger reading public," says the editor. "It was an honour to bring them all together under one cover."
There are extra Kenyan connections to the publication. It is in the online magazine where the stories first appeared ( www.g21.net ) that Kenyan literary virtuoso Binyavanga Wainaina published his Caine-Prize winning story in 2002. Further, Africa Fresh! New Voices from the Continent is published in honour of Kenyan political analysts and writer Robert Oduol of the Nation Group's Daily Nation who died on July 7, 2002 in a house fire.
As a whole, the stories are in a class of their own because of the honesty and frankness with which the writers handle their materials. Moraa Gitaa's To Serenity via Perdition is a meditation on marginality that, without validating exclusion and silence, portrays the alienation and suffering of a woman at the hands of a corrupted judicial system.
While drawing compassion for the marginalised woman, it does not seek pity for her. It shows the regenerative power marginality can produce in an individual to become a stronger person and an example of resilience. We are compelled to admire the narrator's resistance to corrupt manoeuvres, despite the freedom promised in exchange of her bodily and spiritual submission.
Written in an autobiographical mode that seems eager to demolish the distinction between the author and the persona, the narrator tells of trumped-up charges preferred against her while working for a casino in Mombasa and the hellish experience she undergoes in police cells, the courts and while under probation. Recalling K. Sello Duiker's novel The Quiet Violence of Dreams (2001), the testimony reveals the rottenness of the institutions supposed to be reforming the society. The jail system in Kenya only serves to produce more hardened criminals in a similar way that the asylum in Duiker's novel recruits to insanity the psychiatrists in charge of the insane.
Through irony and devastating sarcasm, the writer shows corruption to be rooted in hypocrisy that pervades our lives. We encounter a male probation officer who displays a family portrait at his desk but untiringly presses for sexual favours from the narrator, a scenario that reminds us once again of the experiences of Azure in Duiker's Thirteen Cents (2000). In the novel, the street boy narrates in a naïve voice the sexual abuse he has suffered at the hands of married men. The power of Moraa's testimony lies in the optimistic note on which it ends. Despite a suicide attempt, the narrator regains the will to live.
Visual and dramatic
Simiyu Barasa's stories are visual and dramatic and could well be adapted for the screen. They capture the foibles of the ordinary as they intersect with the weaknesses of the ethereal. Throwing a Stone is rendered in an atmosphere of utopia in an earthly confectionary where the sins of Elizabeth, the prostitute, make an appointment with the bodily desires of priest Muramba, a former cop now serving the Lord. Invoking Jesus's treatment of prostitutes, Muramba foregoes his priesthood and marries Liz. At the same time, the story exposes the weaknesses of the police force, where the beauty of female "criminals" is sometimes too tempting for the keepers of the law and order to handle.
As a former cop, Father Muramba knows that the police rape the women they arrest before taking them to the police station and wouldn't let beautiful Liz into their hands, whether she has committed murder or not.
Aamena Jiwaji's Kerbala takes a swipe at the on-going "war on terror" by documenting the terror perennially visited upon some innocent people in Iraq. "The tears have to stop," the story urges.
The writer sees the US as a mass of corruption. "Battles fought in the name of Iraqi freedom but actually about American power and the world's obedience to that power," she declares. "Because what else have the Gulf wars been but the need for America to demonstrate its power to the world, and to Iraq in particular, and once and for all make Iraq toe the line that America has drawn in its sand?"
Ken Kamoche's testimony in Blue Marlin" is a study of the war-torn Somali that makes a good read against Nuruddin Farah's latest novel Links. To appreciate this narrative, the reader should (like my God) not be a passive, hands-off reader. Kamoche's prose requires to be read with the subversive gaze if it is to be much use to Africa; for its complexity lies in the reader's ability to draw a line between the writer and the narrator who speaks to us in the story.
In Blue Marlin! Kamoche wonderfully creates the schizophrenia of African intellectuals who are angry at the evils politicians and foreigners have wrought in Africa but won't hesitate to join the foreigners in stereotyping non-western values. Exhibiting a sense of what he mistakenly considers to be humour, the narrator is a capital-worshipping lackey of the West who has unwittingly joined the Somali war-lords in flattening the richness, diversity and beauty of Somalia.
Although pained by the discrimination against non-Westerners (just like the assimilated negro in Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks is at occasions of rejection by the colonial master), the male narrator here displays anger when the West is reluctant to accommodate him on equal terms or when Mogadishu's conditions and practices change the taste of Western beer.
But Kamoche skilfully reveals his narrator as completely blind to the stereotypical attitudes he peddles about Somalia, the beauty of which he has limited to his libidinous gaze at tall and slim middle class Somali women in discotheques.
All in all, the narratives in Africa Fresh! New Voices from the Continent are worth reading and rereading.