Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Reading Africa

A month today, I am moving to Nairobi, Kenya.

Books teach us about other places. Right now I'm in Westeros with Jaime Lannister. Last week I was in Florence with George Eliot in Romola. In November I walked the streets of a lost Glasgow in Alasdair Gray's Lanark. Moscow with Tolstoy; Paris with Hugo; London with Dickens. Books take me there. Since the summer I have been visiting Africa by page -- Tanzania, Nigeria and Kenya -- while my real trip gathers shape and form in my mind. I have organised these books in order of publication, to take you from colonial days to the Africa of the present.

Lake Elementaita South of the lake, Kenya  --  new Natural World Heritage Site:
[source] // Lake Elementaita, Kenya

Green Hills of Africa by Ernest Hemingway (1935)

“An attempt to write an absolutely true book to see whether the shape of a country and the pattern of a month's action can, if truly presented, compete with a work of the imagination." A slice of autobiography, Green Hills of Africa charts a month of big game hunting in Tanzania.

Green Hills of Africa is an idyll, a magnificent landscape where life and death walk hand in hand. Hemingway's intention of writing “an absolutely true book" gave him free rein to explore the life he loved the best.
Now, looking out of the tunnel of trees over the ravine at the sky with the white clouds moving across in the wind, I loved the country so that I was happy as you are after you have been with a woman you really love, when, empty, you feel it welling up again and there it is and you can never have it all and yet what there is, now, you can have, and you want more and more, to have, and be, and live in, to possess now again for always, for that long, sudden-ended always; making time stand still, sometimes so very still that afterwards you want to hear it move, and it is slow in starting. ... So if you have loved some woman and some country you are very fortunate and, if you die afterwards, it makes no difference. Now, being in Africa, I was hungry for more of it, the changes of the seasons, the rains with no need to travel, the discomforts that you paid to make it real, the names of the trees, of the small animals, and all the birds, to know the language and have time to be in it and to move slowly. I have loved country all my life; the country was always better than the people. I could only care about people a very few at a time. 
One Hemingway book I have says on the back, “the most important writer since Shakespeare". This is a bold claim and not one I necessarily support, but perhaps there is something in it, because how is it, really, that one person can do that with words? How does it happen? Amidst his love of the land his love of language shines through; he discusses reading and writing what it means to be a writer.
Writers are forged in injustice as a sword is forged.
So Green Hills is not only a book about big game hunting; it is a book about life. Every kind of life that was important to him. I am not, of course, pro-hunting, but reading Green Hills gave me a strange, thrilling sense of Hemingway himself, his presence very close to me. He was a writer living in East Africa and adoring it, and in a month that is what I shall be, and this seems very special to me, as if I can tread in his footprints.


Out of Africa by Karen Blixen (1937)

1914-1931: Karen Blixen farmed coffee in Kenya. Her love of the country quivers on every page, and this is a wonderful tribute to how a land can adopt a person. Out of Africa is a meandering book and it took me a while to read -- it is not plot-driven, rather a collection of anecdotes -- but it did make me excited about seeing this country for myself.
On an evening just before sunset, the scenery drew close round you, the hills came near and were vigorous, meaningful, in their clear, deep blue and green colouring. A couple of hours later you went out and saw that the stars had gone, and you felt the night air soft and deep and pregnant with benefaction.
Blixen's anthropological discussion was also very interesting.
[Native Kenyans] dislike speed, as we dislike noise; it is to them, at the best, hard to bear. They are also on friendly terms with time, and the plan of beguiling or killing it does not come into their heads. In fact the more time you can give them, the happier they are, and if you commission a Kikuyu to hold your horse while you make a visit, you can see by his face that he hopes you will be a long, long time about it. He does not try to pass the time then, but sits down and lives.
Many people have told me that living in Kenya will give me a different idea of time, and I can't wait!


Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958)
A village in Nigeria suffers as the changes of the twentieth century rip across the land. I was not a massive fan of Things Fall Apart. It was both tribute to and condemnation of lost Nigeria. The main character, Okonkwo, is poisoned by his desire for success, his desire to prove himself:
Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. Okonkwo's fear was greater than these. It was not external, but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father.
The patriarchal culture of Things Fall Apart forces men to exert their dominance through war, through ancestor-worship, through the taking of many wives and the fathering of many sons and the marrying off of their daughters at the highest price. Achebe paints bleakly this world of misogyny, murder and child sacrifice, and yet the alternative is seen to be no better: the coming of the white man, to convert the villagers to Christianity. The book's title comes from The Second Coming by William Yeats:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
In this poem, the Second Coming is an event of horror, a “beast slumping towards Jerusalem", and likewise the coming of Christians is one of division and destruction. The character of Rev Smith shows very clearly mission gone wrong, and as such I found the book pretty depressing. I enjoyed the way it was written, and the Nigerian fables woven into the narrative, but ultimately it was a very bleak picture of a world of hatred.


A Grain of Wheat by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

Kenya, 1963: on the verge of independence from the British. Uhuru -- independence day -- drums through the consciousness of the village of Thabai consciousness. But within Thabai's community secrets lurk, and the past and the present wind together as that which is hidden emerges in Uhuru's light.

I properly loved A Grain of Wheat. It is an interlocking narrative of the personal and the political. It gave me a fascinating look at Kenya's recent history, while at the same time pulling me along in the lives of the villagers. It is masterfully written: an ensemble cast of POV characters gives its interwoven tales, past and present rippling out of one another. Kenya's legacy of verbal storytelling is kept alive both in the characters' inner monologues and the tales they tell one another, and as the pieces of the story unfold and slot together the novel is hugely satisfying.


Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)

Race. Racism. Growing up and falling in (and out of) love in a changing world. The way you will alter in a watcher's eyes depending on your colour.

Nigerian Ifemelu has been in America for thirteen years. Americanah opens with a description of why she likes living in Princeton ... “But she did not like that she had to go to Trenton to braid her hair." In the midst of her American life, longings for Nigeria return to her, for the land of her coming of age. In that country Obinze, her teenage love, still lives, but they are both more changed than they can realise.

Americanah was a hugely interesting and insightful book. It exposes the layers of racism within America: the teenage African boy beaten up by black American classmates for his African accent; the way the whites around him look on in amazement, because they assume all blacks are the same. Ifem, a Nigerian student in an American college, being asked to give “the black perspective" and having nothing to say, because she is not a black American. I had never even thought about these differences.

It is a rich and varied novel, drawing from a wide range of Adichie's interests and passions: racism, feminism, the blogosphere, body image, politics, hair. The sections on hair -- it is fitting that the book opens with Ifem going to get her hair braided -- were among the most interesting to me, as Adichie rails against black women using the burning chemical relaxant to make their natural hair lie flat in order to be styled like a white woman's.
Relaxing your hair is like being in prison. You're caged in. Your hair rules you. You didn't go running with Curt today because you don't want to sweat out this straightness. You're always battling to make your hair do what it wasn't meant to do.
Overall, I think it's fair to say I enjoyed the themes and ideas more than the plot and characters; Ifem was kind of annoying. But Americanah opened a world of thought for me. I will leave you with an utter gem of a justification for positive discrimination.
The American Black deal is kind of like you’ve been unjustly imprisoned for many years, then all of a sudden you’re set free, but you get no bus fare. And, by the way, you and the guy who imprisoned you are now automatically equal.

Have you read any of these? Which would you pick up? Where did you visit most recently via book? What is the vividest setting you have ever read? And have you ever been to Africa -- by page or in reality?


  1. Love all the recs! I'll have to hit the library sometime...

    1. You defs should! (*cough cough* A Grain of Wheat and Green Hills *cough*) (Though, I think you would like Americanah, too.)

  2. After the new year, I must get Americanah! I have been pining after this book for ages. I do agree with Adichie's views on relaxers. As a teenager who only stopped using relaxers when I was 13, I was told by my mother than my hair 'wouldn't grow' if it was natural (even though it wouldn't go past my shoulders). In 2013, my mum was the one who stopped me from continuing to use relaxers. Yes, it's hard to retain my hair's length but it has been growing.

    (Sorry for the rant about hair).

    1. I loved the rant about hair! I didn't know that much about relaxers before reading Americanah but I now have strong views! XD Let me know if you get it and what you think of it.

  3. I will definitely have to try Americanah. I've heard so many wonderful things about it.

  4. I love how you've been reading up on Kenya in preparation.

    Interesting note about the different views on time. I've often thought I would find it frustrating to be in a country that took things so slowly--I like efficiency and being on time--but perhaps a shift in that direction wouldn't be so bad. I need to learn to slow down sometimes. :) I'll be very interested in your thoughts on the matter (and really, all your thoughts on Kenya) when you return!

    1. The time thing was so interesting! Sometimes frustrating, but often refreshing.


Thanks for commenting! :)