Read African Writers: The Old Drift, by Namwali Serpell

old driftzambiaThe Old Drift, by Zambian-born writer Namwali Serpell, is hot right now. The New York Times calls it “a dazzling debut,” NPR talks about “exquisite acts of literary ventriloquism, the Washington Post calls it “a brilliant literary response to generations of bad politics.” It’s mostly set in Zambia, but it spans four generations (extending into the near future), a long list of characters — as Michael Silverblatt says, “you have a pencil and a piece of paper” — and multiple continents. At 576 pages (or 25 hours of audiobook), there’s a lot there. I enjoyed it, but I’ll admit that I occasional missed some of the intergenerational character connections (I should have wielded that pencil), perhaps because I was listening to the audiobook. Occasionally a “Greek chorus” enters in the form of a swarm of mosquitos: “We’re your oldest friend, your ancient enemy … We’re perfectly matched … We’re both useless, ubiquitous species. But while you all rule the earth and destroy it for kicks, we linger and loaf, unsung heroes. We’ve been around here as long as you have — for eons before, say the fossils.”

Several multi-generational novels have come out by African writers (who all happen to be women) recently: Homegoing (by Gyasi), Kintu (by Makumbi), She Would Be King (by Moore). Homegoing is excellent and it’s also the most easily accessible to a Western reader, much of it taking place in the United States. Kintu is expressly not written for a Western reader, which is part of its charm. The Old Drift — especially in the early years — privileges a number of European characters, but with 550+ pages, there’s lots of room for Zambian voices, and they fill the latter half. Notably, indigenous blacks and European whites and South Asian browns all mix to make up Zambia here.

Here are a few lines that I found thought-provoking:
  • “History, in short, was the annals of the bully on the playground.”
  • “The first time a Shiwa audience saw John Wayne die, the women started up a fanfare of mourning like he was a long lost relative. When Wayne came back to life in the very next film, the audience erupted again. ‘But why?’ asked Agnes. ‘Were they happy?’ ‘No!’ Ronald laughed. ‘They said it was cheating!’
  • “To have nothing to do was like having your fingernails pulled out, one by one.”
  • “In truth, Sylvia was relieved to have failed out of school for good. She had never understood why the teachers taught why they taught. Sediment, tectonic, archipelago. Hypotenuse, equilateral, isosceles. What was any of it good for? No. She did not miss those useless lessons.”
  • “Progress is just the word we use to disguise power doing its thing.”
  • “The flight attendants…were done with coddling. They snatched Naila’s blankets and demanded her headset, they claimed her rubbish and chastised her tilted seat.”

This is book #25 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

Read African Writers: The Last Will & Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújo, by Germano Almeida

last will and testamentcape verde“The reading of the last will and testament of Sr. Napumoceno da Silva Araújo ate up a whole afternoon. When he reached the one-hundred-and-fiftieth page, the notary admitted he was already tired and actually broke off to ask that someone bring him a glass of water.” So begins The Last Will & Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújo, Cape Verdean writer Germano Almeida‘s novel about the life of the titular character, translated to English by Sheila Faria Glaser. The book wanders through Almeida’s life and loves, and Almeida’s “refreshing voice and playful irony” (as Publisher’s Weekly put it) reminded me of the feel of Brazilian literature I’ve encountered, like Jorge Amado’s The Double Death of Quincas Water-Bray. Araújo works his way up from poverty and becomes a successful businessman, then an eccentric technophile, then an isolated writer. One of his initial business successes demonstrates the feel of the novel: Araújo accidentally orders 10,000 umbrellas rather than his intended 1,000 (and even that was “almost as a joke,” as there was little rain), writes an angry note to his supplier, but then an unprecedented, extended rainstorm allows him to sell all for great profit. The novel is filled with little anecdotes like this one. Araújo has some quirky ideas — for example on goodness and on intellectual property.

On goodness: “Carlos [Araújo’s nephew] has turned out to be an ungrateful relation and as the good man I am and always have been, I have the moral obligation never to forgive him.”
On intellectual property: “Sr. Napumoceno confessed that he’d laid claim to his nephew’s ideas as if they were his own, justifying it by noting that in truth it might well be said that they were, since if Carlos had ideas at all it was because he had sent him to school and then to Lisbon, and that it was even he, Napumoceno, who had gotten him a job…, so his nephew’s ideas were nothing more than the normal return on well-invested capital, and for this reason he considered himself the legitimate owner of any worthwhile notion born in that mind.”

Overall I enjoyed the novel (low on plot but high on interesting observations), although there is a confusing scene that seems like a rape but isn’t treated like a rape in the novel (page 64). The woman in the scene certainly seems unwilling, but after the initial event, the couple enters into a consensual relationship and there is a reference to an “entrapment charade” and to “why, if we both wanted it,” so it’s not entirely obvious whether the first encounter was part of the “charade.” My uncertainty about that scene colored my enjoyment of the novel, and I’m not the only one.

Here are a few lines that I found thought-provoking:
  • On purpose: “By nature and social position a humble man, he, Napumoceno, could not aspire to ending the turmoil of the planet. But here on this bit of earth, poor but beloved, he would like to contribute with all his strength to bringing a reign of harmony and peace, and, who knows, maybe even well-being, to the forsaken.”
  • On priorities: “No fortune is enough to make up for the loss of our peace and quiet.”
  • On sex: “Life is a naked woman lying on a bed, he’d read that, he no longer remembered where, and he had accepted this assertion as the unquestionable truth and for that reason he had a morbid fear of being impotent with a woman.”
  • On education and jobs:
    • “Only productive work linked to a basic education can free a man from darkness and misery.”
    • “He said that I had to be a man and that only books, only school, made men.”
  • On guidance: “Crickets sing to guide people, but poor things, more often than not they disorient us because they all sing at the same time, each one pulling you toward it, no one can find his way in the midst of that cacophony of calls.”
  • On reading: “He couldn’t quite determine when he’d acquired the vice of reading, because a bona fide vice it was, a sort of sedative opium that he took to recoup from both physical and spiritual exhaustion, and also from the annoyances of the day or the excitement of a deal.”
  • On lump sums versus annuities: One characters wishes her inheritance as a lump sum in order to start a chicken farm (p147), consistent with some thinking around cash transfer programs and less frequent, larger transfers being associated with investment rather than consumption.

This is book #24 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

On books with lots of characters

On the Bookworm podcast, host Michael Silverblatt discusses Ann Beattie’s new book A Wonderful Stroke of Luck:

When I meet a lot of characters in a book and I don’t know them, I write down their names, so that when I see them again, I’m going to recognize them. This holds true for Pynchon as much as it holds true for Ann Beattie. And yet, people are writing about A Wonderful Stroke of Luck: “I can’t remember where I first met these characters.” Well, you have a pencil and a piece of paper. These characters are being very methodically laid out so that you can see how they make the mistakes they make in the world and how those mistakes need to be corrected if these characters are to become adults.

This evening I was listening to the audiobook of Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift, which encompasses generations and reintroduces members of its sprawling cast of characters at unexpected moments. I thought, Wow, I’m having trouble keeping track of all these characters. And then I thought: Well, you have a pencil and a piece of paper!

Development Economics in 20 minutes to high schoolers: This time with chocolate!

Two years ago I posted about a presentation I made to middle schoolers (seventh-graders, to be specific) on economic development.

This week I was asked to give a 15-20 minute presentation to a youth group of 14 and 15-year olds. Everyone seemed engaged, and they asked good questions. Here’s what I did.

1. I showed them the world’s income distribution using relatively recent data from Pew.

1 who has the money

2. Since it was clear I was going to focus on income — we had a short discussion of why money was important and what kinds of important things money could buy. After they shared their ideas, I listed a few, but they had already proposed many more.

2 what can money buy

3. Based on the income distribution data, I put each person in the room somewhere in the income distribution. I opened up an Excel sheet where I could enter the number of people in the room, and I had programmed it to — as I listed the name of each person in the room — assign them to an income group so that when I finished everyone in the room, it would reflect the global income distribution.

3 where do you fall

Then, to make it a little more concrete (and fun!), I distributed chocolate based on youth’s assigned income groups. So the upper-middle income youth got a chocolate bar, the middle income people got mini chocolate bars, the low income people got Hershey’s Kisses, and the the poor person got a single Hershey’s Dot (about the size of an M&M). [I actually forgot the Kisses, but that was how it was supposed to work.] If you’re budget conscious, like I am, I was able to finance the whole thing for a few dollars at a discount store.

4. I showed examples — using pictures from Dollar Street — of what households in each income group might look like. We talked about the housing materials.

5. Extreme poverty has fallen dramatically, but there are still nearly 800 million people in the world who are extremely poor. So there’s a long way to go. (Thanks to Our World in Data for the figure!)

5 falling poverty

6. I talked through two sides to development economics, the macro (how can poor countries grow prosperous?) and the micro (how can poor individuals and families exit poverty and enjoy prosperity?).

6 devt economists

7. I asked them what they think makes a country grow? After they shared some ideas, I talked briefly about four types of capital.

7 what makes grow

8. I talked about three specific projects that I’ve worked on: (a) how Rwanda can get on a rapid growth path, (b) how Tanzania can implement an effective safety net, and (c) the economic impact of the Ebola epidemic of 2014.

9. I talked a little bit about where my work has taken me. (Blue indicates conferences and seminar. Green indicates a research project or policy discussions.)

9 where to go

10. Finally, I talked about both my path to become a development economist, and a few of the other jobs that allow people to work in international development. Of course, there are many more! This was just to give a taste.

10 path

That’s it! It was fun. What have you done to explain these concepts to young people?

Read African Writers: The Journey’s End, by Ba’bila Mutia

journeys endcameroonTeacher salaries are a point of contention in many countries. But a particular problem in low-income countries is that salary payments will sometimes be delayed for lengthy periods. Ba’bila Mutia’s exciting novel The Journey’s End centers around salary arrears. (No, that’s not an oxymoron.) At the book’s opening, a retired school principal arrives in Cameroon’s capital city, Yaoundé, to seek several years worth of pension payments. His first evening, he meets a younger man who advertises himself as a diviner but who provides detailed assistance on how to navigate the public bureaucracy. As we learn the younger man’s backstory, we find that years before, he arrived in Yaoundé in search of his teacher salary arrears, which he needed to pay his bride price. But in the capital, his life took a dark turn.

The Journey’s End has secret village societies, urban prostitution rings, crime lords, illicit fuel sales, and a tiny bit of magic. But it centers on government bureaucracy and corruption. Much of the book’s climax is dedicated to a retiree ascending and descending stairs in a government building, nudging his file along with a small payment here and there. Mutia manages to captivate (almost) throughout.

I had a few quibbles: The book needed a copy edit, and one twist in the last two pages didn’t quite ring true to me. But neither of those stopped me from enjoying Mutia’s twisty-turny saga.

This is book #23 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

Read African Writers: The Parachute Drop, by Norbert Zongo

parachute dropBurkina FasoNorbert Zongo, an investigative journalist from Burkina Faso, published his novel The Parachute Drop in 1988. He was assassinated ten years later for his journalism. Here’s a passage from the preface to his novel.

“Why did you write about the President?”
Despite the buzzing in my ears, I understood his question well enough.
“Who says I wrote anything?” I had the courage to say. “Where’s your proof?” …
“You are a dangerous subversive… Worse still, you are an anti-militarist radical, an extremist fanatic… If it’s proof you want, look at this…”
The gendarme dropped a large packet on the table. I read The Parachute Drop. It was a manuscript I had mailed some months earlier.

Then on the next page, the first page of the novel proper, Zongo lays out a powerful dichotomy:

A new day dawned: another reprieve for millions of the world’s afflicted. Another reprieve for millions of Africa’s unemployed and wretched. For these, the morning would bring yet more troubles, further miseries to add to their years and days of bitter toil. A reprieve for Africa’s teaming masses, as well as her more obscure wretches, those forgotten souls who languish in the filthy holes of our Founding Presidents and Clairvoyant Guides.

Another began: another day of incredible good luck for thousands of people for whom life has refused nothing, for Africa’s wealthy and educated, for those who believe it is perfectly normal to exploit their brothers and sisters, to treat their fellows like beasts of burden. Another day for Africa’s moral cripples.

As the story proceeds, Gouama — the “president” of Africa’s fictional republic of Watinbow and a terrible dictator — fears an attempted coup and takes decisive action against the purported engineers of the uprising. But all is not as it seems, and Gouama shortly finds himself on the run. Zongo’s novel is fast-paced, biting satire, peppered with dark humor. Highly recommended.  I read Christopher Wise’s translation into English. Wise also provides a preface which provides additional background.

Other reviews of The Parachute Drop:
  • Damien, Travel Readings blog: “The book written in 1988 is almost prescient.”
  • Ann Morgan, A Year of Reading the World: “This capacity to evoke empathy and celebrate the humanity of his enemies demonstrates Norbert Zongo’s outstanding qualities as a writer, journalist and human being.”
Other notable lines
  • “Virtual beggars on the international scene, these leaders spent enormous sums of money so they could travel about the world to vilify our people and barter our dignity for the sake of gaining foreign aid. This so-called aid has often been more of a nuisance than a help for our people.”
  • “It takes far more than a beret and a pistol to turn a fool into a wise man.”
  • “There is no real happiness for anyone unless there is happiness for everyone, for all of the people.”

This is book #22 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

Read African Writers: Ancestor Stones, by Aminatta Forna

ancestor stonessierra leoneA young woman living in the U.K. receives a letter informing her that her grandfather’s coffee plantation now belongs to her. The letter has no return address. “Knowingly, he had denied me the opportunity to write back with ready excuses, to enclose a cheque bloated with guilty zeroes.” When she returns to her unnamed West African home country (actually Sierra Leone), four of her aunts — all daughters to polygamous wives of the same man — share their life stories. And so, Sierra Leonean and Scottish writer Aminatta Forna’s novel, Ancestor Stones, reads more like a collection of stories than a novel. But the stories give Forna the opportunity to explore diverse nooks and crannies of Sierra Leonean life, from the 1920s up to the turn of the century. Forna’s prose is beautiful as usual. (My favorite of hers remains The Memory of Love, a later novel) I initially had some trouble keeping track of the different stories; as Bernardine Evaristo wrote in the Guardian, “it’s easy to get lost.” But once I surrendered myself to the flow, enjoying each story as it came, I could appreciate — again in the words of Evaristo — Forna’s “inspired storytelling and beautifully crafted prose.” Ultimately I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Two passages take place at polling stations, in sharp contrast. In one, early on, a young woman manages a polling center. “With an hour to go before the election was over, two votes lay in the cavern of the ballot box, like visitors in an empty church. So I spent the remainder of the time filling it up: creating signatures and using up the fingers of one hand and then the other and finally each of my toes to create fictional thumb prints. At six o’clock I closed the door and waited for the box to be collected. I kept my inky hands folded behind my back while the men heaved it into the back of a van along with the others.” It turned out that most of the country voted along ethnic lines, with the exception of this one polling center. Later in the book, a middle-aged woman manages a polling center with her friend and soldiers seek to steal the votes, but she stands firm, only to see the country descend into violence. The book is filled with finely observed moments such as these.

Go read The Memory of Love first. But if you want more Forna — and I’m betting you will — come back and read Ancestor Stones.

Bits and pieces
  • A major character in The Memory of Love makes an earlier, minor appearance here in Ancestor Stones — psychiatrist Adrian Lockheart!
  • Wise advice on marriage from one mother in the book: “My mother told me: ‘Before you are married keep both eyes open and after you are married close one eye.'”
  • On humor: “Gradually I learned what hardships people bore by the things they joked about.”
  • On becoming like your parents: “I had spent my whole life trying not to be like my mother. I had taken the opposite path and hurried along it, all the time looking over my shoulder instead of ahead, so that I failed to see how the path curved back again in the same direction.”
  • On Lagos — where one character makes a visit: “Lagos! It smelled quite like our city, and it looked and sounded a bit like it, too. But, oh, in every other way the difference between them was immense. Our city was a simple melody, whistled by a solitary man. Lagos was one hundred pipes, horns and drummers.”
  • On elections: “When, in a tarnished voice, he announced we were to have elections for the first time in many years few believed it, and many didn’t hear at all because they had given up listening a long, long time ago.”
  • On unkind words: “Quarrels end, but words once uttered never die.”