Read African Writers — A Spirit of Tolerance: The Inspiring Life of Tierno Bokar, by Amadou Hampaté Bâ

A Spirit of TolerancemaliAmadou Hampaté Bâ was a writer well-known in his native country of Mali and beyond. He lived 90 years and wrote both fiction and nonfiction. In 1957, he wrote a biography of and collection of teachings by his spiritual leader, Tierno Bokar. He rewrote the book in 1980, and it was published in English as A Spirit of Tolerance: The Inspiring Life of Tierno Bokar — translated by Fatima Jane Casewit — only in 2008.

Tierno Bokar was a Muslim spiritual teacher and Sufi mystic from what would become Mali. He lived from 1875 to 1939.

In the first half of this book, Bâ paints Bokar as a wonderfully wise, tolerant teacher. The tone is deeply loving, even hagiographic. Later in Bokar’s life, his reputation was destroyed as adversaries used a difference in religious interpretation against him. Some of this part of the book was challenging for me to follow given my complete lack of background.

The second half of the book recounts Bokar’s teachings. I’m not Muslim nor Sufi, but I found much to enjoy and to consider.

Here are some passages that struck me:
  • On memory: “In Africa, when an old person dies, it is as if a library has burned down.” (Amadou Hampaté Bâ)
  • On saying no: “If you ask a favor of the people of Segou and they want to refuse it, they will do so with so much intelligence and courtesy that you will find yourself obliged to thank them.” (Fily Dabo Sissoko)
  • On physical violence: “Material weapons can only destroy matter but not the principle of evil itself, which always rises from the ashes stronger than ever? Evil, he was to teach us, can only be destroyed by Goodness and Love.” (Bâ paraphrasing Bokar)
  • On being eighteen: “He was eighteen, the age of torment, the age of many dreams, of many pathways.” (Bâ)
  • On self-denial: “It is necessary to deprive the soul of some things that are permitted so that it does not aspire to things that are forbidden to it.” (alGhazali)
  • On using religion poorly: “Tierno Bokar was the victim of the ignorance and obscurantism of men who confused clan loyalty with religious commitment and who had forgotten that tolerance is a fundamental principle in Islam.” (Bâ)
  • On simplicity of expression: “He had an aversion to those who expressed themselves in anything other than ordinary language.” (Bâ on Bokar)
  • On clarity of language: “One of the characteristics of ‘sorcerers’ was to use impenetrable language.” (Bâ)
  • On teaching: “Speak to people according to the level of their understanding” (Bâ quoting the Prophet)
  • On learning about other religions: “You will gain enormously by knowing about the various forms of religion. Believe me, each one of these forms, however strange it may seem to you, contains that which can strengthen your own faith.” (Bokar)
  • On humor: “Always being overly serious is something that cannot be taken seriously!” (Bokar)
  • No one has a pure pedigree: “Do not dig too much around the roots of the illustrious trunk of your origins because beyond several layers of earth you risk discovering that the roots originate in a mass of refuse.” (Bokar)
  • In other words, “from every royal palace you will find an alleyway that leads to the thatched cottage of a poor person.” (Bokar)
  • On detachment: “It is for man to act, using all of his faculties, but then to keep his heart serene concerning the outcome of his actions.” (Bâ)
  • On spiritual knowledge: “There are three ways to know a river: First of all, there is the man who has heard the river spoken about and becomes capable by imitation and repetition to describe it without having seen it himself. This is the first degree of knowledge. Then there is the man who has undertaken the journey and who has arrived at the banks of the river. Seated on the banks of the river, he contemplates it with his own eyes and is a witness to its majesty. This is the second degree of knowledge. Finally, there is the man who throws himself into the river and becomes one with it. This is the supreme degree of Knowledge.” (Bokar)
  • On the sacred around us: “Islam is not an escape towards the sacred, but rather, a conscious integration of the sacred on all planes of existence.” (Bâ?)
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This is book #48 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019. You can read reviews of all the books here.

Read African Writers: Basali! Stories by and about women in Lesotho, edited by K. Limakatso Kendall

basalilesothoFor a time, K. Limakatso Kendall taught at the National University of Lesotho. While there, she gathered stories by or about the women of Lesotho. (Three quarters are by women; the rest are by men, recounting stories told to them.) In the wonderfully idiosyncratic collection, Basali! Stories by and about women in Lesotho, Kendall presents 16 of these stories, plus a small collection of annotated photos of life in Lesotho.

Many of the writers are first-time authors. Some are recounting their own experiences, others are telling stories that happened to others. The fight for a good education comes up repeatedly (on the optimistic side), along with repeated incidents of domestic violence (on the pessimistic side). Several stories center on the search for work and the quest of women to help their children survive. What some of the stories lack in style, they compensate for in passion and insight.

Here are a few passages that stood out:
  • Vengeance as motivation for education: “I promised my aunt that I would live to retaliate. The old woman needs to see me going up the ladder while she is swimming in the mud of poverty.” (Monica Nthabeleng Ramarothole, “The African Goddess”)
  • Illegal immigration for education: “There was no place to hide. The alternative was to lie down flat in the veld and hope that our city clothes blended in well with the bush… We had heard that schools in the former protectorates were a lot better by comparison.” (Nomakhosi Mntuyedwa, “Escape to Manzini”)
  • The outward signs of communism: “Ntate Mokhehle is a Communist… When he speaks, poisonous flames come out of his mouth.” (Hilda ‘M’amapele Chakela, “How I Became an Activist”)
  • On not reading African writers in a Lesotho school: “We were not reading African writers; we were not even told that Africans were capable of writing novels or plays.” (Hilda ‘M’amapele Chakela, “How I Became an Activist”)
This is book #47 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019. You can read reviews of all the books here.

Read African Writers: Told by Starlight in Chad, by Joseph Brahim Seid

told by starlight in chadchadJoseph Brahim Seid, a writer and politician (he was Minister of Justice for nearly a decade) from the Republic of Chad, wrote a collection of folktales in the early 1960s — Told by Starlight in Chad. “I invite you, dear reader, to come and sit with us, under a blue sky strewn with stars, to listen to these stories and legends, which tell of marvels and wonders. We ask only one thing: that you share in the joy of our candor and our innocence.”

This collection of 14 tales is a delight. In one (“The Most Beautiful Girl in the World, Hidden under an Ass’ Skin”), a woman gives birth to a donkey, but a beautiful girl is hidden under the donkey skin. One boy sees the beauty and proposes marriage, to the initial ridicule and ultimate acclaim of all. In another, reminiscent of Hansel and Gretel (“Gamar and Guimerie”), two siblings are chased off by a wicked stepmother but then rescue a monster in exchange for great riches. In “Nidjema, the Little Orphan Girl,” the titular character seeks to escape a terrible home environment and encounters terrible monsters and even death itself. In my favorite, “The Magic Cap, Purse and Cane,” a young man seeks the hand of a sultan’s daughter. He is treated horribly despite his access to various magic items, and the ending of the story manages to surprise.

The translation into English by Karen Haire Hoenig, published in 2007, has its own story. Hoenig’s father nearly completed a translation of the book, but after he passed away, the manuscript was lost. As a labor of love, his daughter took up the task.

This is book #46 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019. You can read reviews of all the books here.

Read African Writers: The Lights of Pointe-Noire, by Alain Mabanckou

lights of pointe noirerepublic of the congoAlain Mabanckou was born in the Republic of the Congo — not the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the other one, sometimes referred to as Congo-Brazzaville. In his early 20s, he left to study in Paris. Later he moved to the teach in the United States. Then, after more than two decades away, he returned to his hometown, Pointe-Noire, for a visit. In his memoir of the visit — The Lights of Pointe-Noire (translated into English by Helen Stevenson), he artfully alternates between stories from his past and his experience of re-encountering family members, friends, mentors, and others. I’ve read many memoirs of growing up in Africa, some of them very good, but Mabanckou offers a lyricism that is mesmerizing and exceptional. I could have spent much longer with him on this visit.

My previous experience with Mabanckou has been mixed: I liked Black Moses moderately well and I couldn’t get through African Psycho. Some reviewers mention that characters in this book appear earlier in Tomorrow I’ll Be Twenty. In this book, Mabanckou’s old high school philosophy teacher tells him that Memoirs of a Porcupine is his favorite of Mabanckou’s novels. After reading The Lights of Pointe-Noire, I’ll try some more of his work.

Here are a few passages that stood out to me. Only the last is in the author’s voice. The others are him recounting what others say to him over the course of his visit.
  • On shoes: “You know, Uncle, if you don’t have new sandals, you can’t get to school on time, you have to spend two hours in the street mending them and when you tell the teacher he won’t listen, he just says ‘little liar’, but it’s not true, I’m not a liar!”
  • On writing: “I don’t have that tapeworm in my gut that writers have, that eats away at their insides every day.”
  • On fertility in wartime: “Between you and me, babies still get born even when there’s oil and war in a country. The worst of it was, people went on making love even when people were falling like flies in the war. I expect you’ll be wondering: why didn’t they wait for the end of the war, to make love? Oh no, if you waited for the end of the war, people would forget how to make love, by the time the whole dirty war ended we’d be making love with animals!”
  • On American English: “We told the Americans they could do what they liked with our oil, we weren’t going to learn their weird English, where you talk through your nose, like you’ve got flu.”
  • On self-publishing: “I also packed the self-published books which had been given me by various local authors. I promised myself I would read them in Europe or America. There is always something enriching in the suffering of a creator who hopes his bottle thrown into the sea will one day reach its destination.”
The Complete Review has links to many other reviews of this book as well as choice excerpts. Here’s an excerpt from Suzi Feay’s review in the Financial Times: “The account is not linear but organic and spiralling, as Mabanckou ranges over his past according to whatever stimulus confronts him…. Sparklingly translated, this compact and artful memoir illustrates the universality of the maxim: you really can’t go home again.”

This is book #45 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019. You can read reviews of all the books here.

Read African Writers: Missing in Action and Presumed Dead, by Rashidah Ismaili

missing in actionbeninRashidah Ismaili was born and spent her childhood in Cotonou, Benin. As a teenager, she married and moved to New York City. Over her career, she wrote poetry and short stories, taught and counseled. I read her poetry collection, Missing in Action and Presumed Dead. It’s a beautiful collection. Even when I was unsure of the meaning, I was struck by the powerful imagery, as in the final stanza of the final poem in the collection, “Correctus Historum”:

We will once again since our old songs
of joy. Call our gods to come to us
in a language we understand. And we
who have given to others so much,
give to ourselves our strength.
Our best. And beg our gods to
give us more to give to this world
we make with our own hands.

Of course, once in a while, I come across a poem that feels like it’s written just for me, as in Ismaili’s “Diaspora-1”:

“It is a mystery we are not sure to solve.
There is so much data to collect.
So many variables to consider.
We have read empirical studies,
comparative literature. They tell us…”

So true!

This is book #44 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

Read African Writers: The Ultimate Tragedy, by Abdulai Silá (translated by Jethro Soutar)

ultimate tragedyguinea bissauOver the course of my project this year to read a book by an author from each of Africa’s 54 countries, I’m struck by how many countries have just one novel available in translation. The Ultimate Tragedy, by Abdulai Silá from Guinea-Bissau, is one example. As Efemia Chela writes, that’s “a lot of weight to bear.” The novel also has an extended history—written in 1984, published in 1995, and published in English — translated by Jethro Soutar — only in 2017.

 

Silá’s novel has a more discrete three-act structure than most: it feels almost like three novels in one. In the first act, my favorite, thirteen-year-old Ndani leaves her rural home to seek work as a housegirl in the capital, Bissau. With tenacity, she achieves a position where she is renamed and continuously mistreated by her white employers. Until, that is, the mistress of the house gets religion and shifts to evangelizing mode. This section gives a vivid, engaging, and occasionally lurid picture of race and class dynamics between the colonizers and their domestic workers.

 

In the second act, a community leader clashes with the Portuguese official above him as he seeks to improve his community. A new school in the community brings a teacher, who takes an interest in the leader’s wife — Ndani! In the third act, Ndani faces further trials in a new context. (To reveal more would spoil too much.)

 

I enjoyed The Ultimate Tragedy, especially the first act, and I look forward to more literature from Guinea-Bissau — including the rest of the trilogy that this book initiates — making it into the English language.

 

  • Efemia Chela, Johannesburg Review of Books: “The Ultimate Tragedyleaves a lot to be desired. The book overall is unmemorable, despite its interesting wordplay; the characters are not constructed with much depth; the plot feels familiar, its story fairly typical of many African works of fiction, but less inventive than the continent’s great novels.”
  • Jessie Stoolman, Asymptote: “The novel reads like an uninterrupted conversation about what the future holds for this nation, seemingly on the verge of liberation… The Ultimate Tragedy serves in many ways as a sort of literary privilege-check, introducing histories as well as literary/linguistic styles rarely given space on an international platform.”
  • Ann Morgan, A Year of Reading the World: “Translator Southar has done deft work to encourage the learning process that this text demands. By choosing to leave numerous words in their original language and trusting to the context to elucidate them, he encourages readers to let go of the guide rope of the narrative and become comfortable with the unfamiliar.”

This is book #43 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

Read African Writers: The Fury and Cries of Women, by Angèle Rawiri (translated by Sara Hanaburgh)

fury and cries of womengabonAngèle Rawiri’s The Fury and Cries of Women — set in the Gabon where Rawiri lived much of her life and translated into English by Sara Hanaburgh — is focused on a trio of strong women. Emilienne, the protagonist, marries a man from a different ethnic group over the objections of both their families. She is a professional success and earns more money than her husband. While she bucks traditional values in many ways, she still has trouble escaping her society’s pressure to provide children, and when her one daughter goes missing, the pressure rises. Emilienne’s mother-in-law, a strong, unlikable presence, continually schemes to unite her son with a match more to her liking. Emilienne’s secretary, another woman fighting to survive, provides a shoulder to cry on which turns into more. Rawiri creates melodrama as she shows these women sometimes bowing to and other times battling the social forces around them. Emilienne encounters corruption (“I’ve learned that in order to succeed, anything goes, and, believe me, I will use all means necessary”), despair (“Emilienne was swimming with broad strokes in the stagnant waters of apathy”), prejudice (“I don’t trust those women who’ve been to the top-notch schools”), and the future of her continent (“What will become of Africa, incapable of self-governance, victim of natural disasters, and attacked from within by economic and financial crisis? The least one can say is that the future seems frightful. Africa’s belly will soon be as sterile as mine.”). The Fury and Cries of Women is a wild ride with a bold ending.

Rawiri is credited as being Gabon’s first novelist in the afterword by Cheryl Toman, a professor who specializes in African women’s writing. (Toman also translated the first novel by an African woman, Thérèse Kuoh-Moukoury’s Essential Encounters.) This is Rawiri’s third and final novel. You can read more about her life here.

This is book #42 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.