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.”
On teacher effort in science class: “Mr. Newman, who smells of aftershave and leans too close to girls, starts the lesson with a basic ‘name three planets, three trees, and three mammals’ test that all but the thickest students will pass. Mr. Newman is lazy, and teaching us new things requires effort.”
On race relations: “Mother says poor white people are the most dangerous. Some of them have less money than we do, and they hate us for it. From the moment we slide into the world with our mixed blood and mixed features, we live below them, no matter how stupid or hopeless they are.” [Later] “Mother says that poor white people are dangerous because only a thin layer of skin makes them kings of the land, but it’s not enough to save them from the pity of other whites or the silent contempt of natives who must suffer their cruelty.”
On the contrast between literature figure Jane Eyre and her fiction friend Helen Burns: Jane “has a temper. Her mouth doesn’t hurt from smiling. She’s the one who gets to live and write the book.”
On class: “No-fee students get smaller portions of food. Their stomachs are always empty, and that’s not how things should be.”
Here are what a few other reviewers thought:
Kirkus Reviews: “With a critical emphasis on power dynamics among the multiracial students, the story moves quickly… An engrossing narrative that gently but directly explores complex relationships.”
Diane Colson, Booklist: “Despite the predictable arc of the story, excellent writing and an evocative setting make this novel a standout.”
Bailey Riddle, Riddle’s Reviews: “When the Ground is Hard is a beautiful book about family and finding oneself. I am so happy that I gave this book a chance with an open mind.”
Compass Book ratings: “Those who enjoy a coming-of-age story with a great moral lesson or two will love When the Ground is Hard.”
This is book #28 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.
The late, great Dr. Wangarĩ Maathai has no shortage of accomplishments. Hailing from Kenya, she was the first East African woman to receive a PhD and the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. She was a professor, a politician, and an activist. In 2009, just two years before her death, she published The Challenge for Africa, her broad vision of the challenges and solutions facing her continent. Dr. Maathai was an environmentalist and clearly believed that there was no lasting prosperity for the people of Africa without caring for the earth beneath their feet. This wide-ranging book provides thoughtful insights — born from years of experience — on a host of issues. I didn’t agree with every proposal (and her optimism about the Millenium Villages Project did not age well, in my opinion), but there is much of value here. Here are a few thoughts that stood out to me.
- On global responsibility to Africa: “Instead of milking the cow called Africa to death, everyone should feed, nurture, and love her so she can thrive and provide.”
- On local responsibility for African development: “Ultimately the fate of the continent depends on its citizens. It cannot be overemphasized: Africans must decide to manage their natural resources responsibly and accountably, agree to share them more equitably, and use them for the good of fellow Africans.”
- On history and colonialism: “Those who wrote the history of Africa that is taught in schools were often the perpetrators of the wrongs that were done and wrote from their perspective. Quite obviously, they preferred to ‘forget and move forward.'”
- On aid: “While I applaud the motives of the international community in providing technical and financial assistance to developing countries, including those in Africa, I do question how much good aid does versus how much damage it may do to the capacity of the African peoples to engineer their own solutions to their many problems.”
- On depictions of Africa in the media: “As someone who raises funds to support work in Africa, I understand the importance of images, and recognize that pictures of Africans in dire circumstances can, ultimately, lead to positive actions from those who are moved to want to help. However, on balance, I find these representations–and the associations they bring with them–demonstrably negative, perhaps even shameful, since they risk stereotyping all countries south of the Sahara as places of famine, death, and hopelessness. Because the children or adults pictured are rarely named, they people remain abstract, symbolic, and no longer individuals. That starving toddler or weeping mother or child soldier is ‘Africa.’ This projection only makes the task more difficult for those of us on the ground trying to help Africans to help themselves.”
- On the use of colonial languages: “Even if another national language has been adopted, such as Kiswahili in the case of Kenya, the great mass of rural populations neither speak nor understand it fluently. It is my belief that denying someone the ability to communicate with their government, at least at the local level, is one of the strongest forms of discrimination and, indeed, means of oppression and exclusion.”
- On climate change: “It is in repulsing the sands of deforestation and climate change that the genuine battle for national and human security lies.”
There is much more. I appreciated the book, although I did find myself wishing I had read her memoir, Unbowed. She lived an amazing life, and while we get glimpses of that here, I wished for more. I’m putting Unbowed on my “to read” list.
This is book #20 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.
On official government statistics: “Those conducting the poll had therefore decided not to conduct one again. To simplify matters, they would announce the previous poll’s results on a set yearly date.”
On obtaining documents from the government: “Obtaining any document from that place was like plucking a piece of meat from the mouth of a hungry lion.”
On addressing symptoms rather than causes of problems: “Officials were investigating the possibility of placing parasols near places of heavy traffic, to calm citizens’ nerves and reduce their irritability.”
January was a productive month for reading! Poetry, graphic novels, prose novels, it’s all here!
Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” by Zora Neale Hurston — Back in the 1930s, Hurston intervewed the last surviving person who had been brought from Africa as part of the slave trade, Cudjo Lewis. In his own vernacular, Hurston tells his story. An amazing window into a piece of African and American history.
Sabrina, by Nick Drnaso — Sabrina was on 7 “best graphic works of 2018” lists, more than any other book. A man’s girlfriend disappears, and an old high school friend takes the desolate man in. The deserted man spends his days listening to “Infowars”-style talk radio. The friend deals with having lost his family. It’s all dread and hopelessness. It was good but it didn’t bowl me over. (Drnaso writes in a very small font, which I find distracting.)
My Boyfriend Is A Bear, by Pamela Ribon, art by Cat Farris — A twentysomething woman in a terrible job ditches the last in a series of terrible boyfriends — the sequence on previous boyfriends is hilarious — and starts dating a bear that wandered out of the mountains during the California wildfires. Can their love overcome hibernation season? And the fact that the guy is a bear? Sweeter and less weird than it sounds, but it still a little weird. Author was a screenwriter for Moana and Ralph Breaks the Internet. The art is sunny and fun. [Content: Some adult language, but that’s about it.] This from Publisher’s Weekly: “Ribon’s use of magical realism is a delight from cover to cover, as she cleverly navigates the foibles of millennial dating and friendships. Farris’s cartooning is as expressive as it is adorable, inviting the reader to share Nora and the bear’s intimacy with every panel. This resonant, absurdist modern fable is a joyful discovery.” On 2018’s “best graphic works” list.
The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After, by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil — Wow. Clemantine Wamariya was just six when the Rwandan genocide took place. Separated from the rest of her middle class family, she and her teenage sister Claire traverse several countries, in and out of refugee camps. Eventually they make it to the USA. The book gives a devastating portrait of how conflict and being a refugee can affect a child, and how a young woman seeks to make sense of her experience, including through literature, from Elie Wiesel to W.G. Sebald. Beautiful and gripping and thoughtful. Highly recommended. (More from me on this here.)
Crush, by Svetlana Chmakova — This is the third book in Chmakova’s series taking place at Berrybrook Middle School, but you can read them in any order. This and the previous — Brave — are my favorites. She captures the emotion of middle school just wonderfully and introduces us to sweet and not-so-sweet kids, trying to get through the day.
Small Country, by Gaël Faye — Rwanda’s neighbor to the south, Burundi, gets far less attention but also has a deeply troubled history. Faye, born and raised in Burundi to a French father and a Rwandan refugee mother, gives a glimpse at life over the course of coups, civil war, and stealing mangos with the neighborhood boys in this autobiographical novel. Beautifully written and very evocative. (More from me on this here.)
Bingo Love, by Tee Franklin, illustrated by Jenn St-Onge and Joy San — This brief graphic novel tells the story of two African American women who fall in love in the 1960s but lose each other and don’t meet again for decades. Sweet, but a bit too brief to plumb the emotional depths. I was sympathetic to some (not all) of the critiques made in this review. Still, a likable story that fills a gap in representation.
China Rich Girlfriend, by Kevin Kwan (narrated by Lydia Look) — Rachel Chu finds her father! Mayhem ensues. Crazy, silly fun. Some awesomely bizarro plot twists towards the end.
When It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, by Lesley Nneka Arimah — I listened to this book last year and loved it. I just re-listened to it and found it just excellent. Mostly realist, with an occasionally bit of fantasy sprinkled in to explore deeper truth. Arimah creates captivating worlds. (More from me on this here.)
When the Wanderers Come Home, by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley — Wesley returns to her homeland of Liberia and characterizes it in this collection. Beautiful, tragic reflections of the legacy of war (and lots of other stuff, too). (More from me on this here.)
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope, by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer (narrated by Chike Johnson) — A young man in Malawi has to drop out of secondary school for lack of funds, but with an interest in electronics, access to a library, and incredible tenacity, he builds a windmill to generate electricity for his family. True story. (More from me on this here.)
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, by J.K. Rowling — Lockhart is a fun character, but the kids make some truly stupid choices toward the end, which lessened my enjoyment of the book.
How to Be a Supervillain, by Michael Fry — Victor is the son of second-rate supervillains (maybe just villains?), who apprentice him with another supervillain. The only problem? Victor is fundamentally good. This is light and silly fun. My favorite part was all the kooky minor supervillains and superheroes that come up (as in that old movie Mystery Men). I read it with my sons.
Over the course of last year, I worked closely with counterparts in the Government of Rwanda to map what human capital investments would be most likely to lead to high economic growth in the coming decades. It was a satisfying, collaborative process, and it felt like our findings on the quality of education reached high levels of government decisionmaking.
That work is now included in a volume — Future Drivers of Growth in Rwanda: Innovation, Integration, Agglomeration, and Competition. Our chapter — written by Francois Ngoboka, Ignace Gatare, Rose Baguma, Jee-Peng Tan, Deepika Ramachandran, Fei Yuan, and me — begins on page 51.
Rwanda will not achieve upper-middle income status without a dramatic increase in school completion. Even the bottom 25th percentile of upper-middle-income countries have primary completion rates of 94 percent, about 50 percent higher than Rwanda’s current rate. The median primary completion rate in upper-middle-income countries is nearly 100 percent. Likewise, the median lower-secondary completion rate for upper-middle-income countries is 87 percent, more than 2.5 times Rwanda’s current rate. The disparity is even greater for upper-secondary completion. Expanding basic education, together with ensuring quality, is essential for Rwanda’s sustained growth.
Much more on the quality of education, stunting, fertility, training, and more, in the report.