Last year, I read the first of each of the following pairs of books for Kinna’s Reading Africa Challenge; I’m posting on them now that I’ve finished reading the pairs.
Reading for this challenge is a challenge; I don’t stumble upon African novels on the fiction shelves of my neighbourhood library.
When I came up short for a book for last month’s African reading, I checked every book in the first bay (16 shelves) and couldn’t find a single one by an African writer.
That’s when I requested Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s Like a Mule Bringing Ice-Cream to the Sun (2016), which was a delight.
So, when I say it’s a challenge, it’s not much of one, really. More of a conscious decision. Or, a deliberate act. Rather than a challenge.
It only takes some planning. Maybe a list. And who doesn’t love making book-lists?
Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o spoke in Toronto several years ago about his experiences as a young writer, finding a place in African writing and international writing communities.
I am looking forward to memoirs which will consider this period but, in the meantime, Dreams in a Time of War (2010) and In the House of the Interpreter (2012) consider his younger years.
Stories are important from the start:
“Daylight is always welcome. It allows the book of magic to tell me stories without interruptions except when I have to do this or that chore.”
Readers learn about family relationships.
“Now banished from my larger family by my father, I was lucky to have my younger brother and the book of stories for companions and the solace of reunion with my mother in her father’s place, the place of her birth.”
And about conflicts which later he wrestled with in words too.
“Thus in moving from a Kamandũra, a Kĩrore school, to Manguo, a Karĩng’a school, I was crossing a great historic divide that had begun way before I was born, and which, years later, I would still be trying to understand through my first novel, The River Between.”
The second volume is primarily preoccupied with his studies, but politics is everywhere.
“We crammed the notes, facts, viewpoints, and all because, even then we understood that the correct answers to the often-biased questions determined the future. Our future was made in England.”
And although there are plenty of details (teachers’ names and courses studied) he speaks of the importance of a variety of education, whether formal or experiential.
“We are all the children of Kenya. All the children of Africa. All the children of the world. Even though she [my mother] has long passed on, I remember her words and looks and smile. It was another case of wisdom and enrichment from the street. Knowledge gained inside and outside a formal setting impacted my life equally.”
The chapters are short and the language is accessible. Many times I have lamented the cursory treatment of childhood and young adulthood in biographies, so it is a pleasure to have such lengthy explorations of the author’s younger years in these volumes and, yet, I find myself impatient to hear more about his writing life.
Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions (1988) and The Book of Not (2006) are a terrific pair to read with Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o’s memoirs: two young and talented students making their way despite political challenges in their families and conflict and tension on the home front. In fact, Tambudzai observes her cousin reading one of Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o’s novels.
“She [Nyasha] shrugged a shoulder at the exercise from her own bed, where she was reading a book she had not bothered to share with me, which rather than being revolutionary seemed to be about agriculture for it was called A Grain of Wheat, written as far as I could see, by someone like poor Bongo in the Congo, a starving Kenyan author.”
Tambudzai’s uncle is a headmaster and he has made arrangements for her to study in a good school. And, so, she, like the young Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o, is schooled not in African (or Kenyan or Rhodesian) writing but in important writing (i.e. not African writing, English writing).
“I read everything from Enid Blyton to the Bronte sisters, and responded to them all. Plunging into these books I knew I was being educated and I was filled with gratitude to the authors for introducing me to places where reason and inclination were not at odds.”
What makes both volumes of Dangamrembga’s story not just interesting but essential pairings for Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o’s memoirs is that Tambudzai reflects upon a systemic inequity which naturally characterizes Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o’s memoirs.
At first, it is stated baldly: “The needs and sensibilities of the women in my family were not considered a priority, or even legitimate.”
Later, through the lens of character, readers understand both how unusual Tambudzai’s story is and how her quiet revolutionary decisions are all the challenge that her family can accept (her cousin Nyasha is too much of a revolutionary).
“Above all, I did not question things. It did not matter to me why things should be done this way rather than that way. I simply accepted that this was so. I did not think that my reading was more important than washing the dishes, and I understood that panties should not be hung to dry in the bathroom where everybody could see them. I did not discuss Anna’s leave conditions with Maiguru. I was not concerned that freedom fighters were referred to as terrorists, did not demand proof of God’s existence, nor did I think that the missionaries, along with all the other whites in Rhodesia, ought to have stayed at home. As a result of all these things that I did not think or do, Babamukuru thought I was the sort of young woman a daughter ought to be and lost no opportunity to impress this point of view upon Nyasha. Far from being upset by these comparisons, she would agree that, apart from being a little spineless (which she thought she could be corrected), yes, I was an exemplary young lady.”
In The Book of Not, Tambudzai experiments with a kind of rebellion that Nyasha could not access. But just when her world seems to widen, when opportunities seem to expand, Tambudzai discovers new layers of restriction. “What I piece together now is that it was comfortable for me to have someone else being angry for me, so that I did not need to become crazy myself from outrage.” And, also, new depths to her determination.
In the interim, after the publication of the remarkable Nervous Conditions, while working on the sequel, Tsitsi Dangarembga acknowledges the importance of her writing, the significance of Tambudzai’s and Nyasha’s story:
“I hope I am not just flattering myself with this because the shortage of role models is a critical issue for young black women in my part of the world. This shortage of role models makes it seem as though realizing one’s ambition is too difficult, and girls give up onr settle for third or fourth best. In the worst cases, ambition is completely lacking. So I hope my success has shown some young women here that with perseverance, much is possible.”