This month sees the release of African Lives: An Anthology of Memoirs and Autobiographies, a collection of memoirs from Africa edited by Geoff Wisner. This essay, by Wisner, explains the importance of having just such a collection and touches on the memoir form in Africa, discussing a number of authors both in African Lives and not included in that collection.
In recent years, African literature has broken free of what Wole Soyinka called the “orange ghetto” of the Heinemann African Writers Series, which in 1962 launched the series with the one African book that everyone seems to know: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.
Writers from around the continent—José Eduardo Agualusa, Doreen Baingana, Mia Couto, Emmanuel Dongala, Nuruddin Farah, Petina Gappah, Yasmina Khadra, Zakes Mda, Maaza Mengiste, Abdellah Taïa—continue to win awards and gain international recognition. From Nigeria alone, authors like Chris Abani, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Teju Cole, Helon Habila, E.C. Osondu, and Helen Oyeyemi have joined the pantheon already occupied by Achebe, Ben Okri, Wole Soyinka, and Amos Tutuola.
A steady stream of anthologies has introduced American readers to fresh voices from Africa. But something has been missing. These anthologies have focused almost exclusively on fiction, ignoring a wealth of extraordinary true-life narratives.
An Algerian Childhood, edited by Leila Sebbar and published by Ruminator Books in 2001, is one of the few collections published since the turn of the century that focuses entirely on African memoir. Rob Spillman’s Gods and Soldiers: The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing casts its net beyond fiction, but among its thirty selections only three could be considered autobiographical.
Why is this?
It is certainly not because of any lack of excellent true-life stories from Africa. Over the years a few African memoirs have gained print and attention. The Dark Child by Camara Laye is one of the classic accounts of growing up in West Africa. Told in a pure, sometimes biblical style, it is suffused with a piercing nostalgia for a world that is slipping away.
At the head of the bed, hanging over the pillow and watching over my father’s slumber, stood a row of pots that contained extracts from plants and the bark of trees. These pots all had metal lids and were profusely and curiously garlanded with chaplets of cowry shells; it did not take me long to discover that they were the most important things in the hut; they contained magic charms—those mysterious liquids that keep the evil spirits at bay, and, if smeared on the body, make it invulnerable to every kind of black magic. My father, before going to bed, never failed to smear his body with a little of each liquid, first one, then another, for each charm had its own particular property: but exactly what property I did not know: I had left my father’s house too soon.
Aké: The Years of Childhood may be Wole Soyinka’s most beloved work. In it, he describes his childhood in the self-contained world of a parsonage compound, including the time he blew a hole in the roof with his father’s rifle, and the dazzling day when he slipped out the gate to follow a police band through the town. Soyinka has followed Aké with additional installment of his life story, including Essay: A Voyage Around My Father, Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years, and You Must Set Forth at Dawn.
In the last few years, more of the heaviest hitters in African literature have published memoirs.
J.M. Coetzee has won acclaim for the semiautobiographical books that began with Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Dreams in a Time of War was praised for its “ unblinking candor about human behavior.” The Times of London called the cagy autobiographical essays in Chinua Achebe’s The Education of a British-Protected Child “models of clarity, care and thoughtfulness.”
Binyavanga Wainaina’s memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place was named one of the New York Times’ 100 notable books of the year. Writing in the Times, Rob Nixon described Zakes Mda’s big memoir Sometimes There Is a Void as “gregarious and transfixing.”
So why, when every year seems to bring a new collection of short stories from Africa, has there never been a collection of true-life narratives?
One reason is that fiction enjoys greater prestige than nonfiction. In 2009, a panel at the PEN World Voices Festival asked the question “Is Nonfiction Literature?” Panelist Philip Gourevitch noted that although Nobel Prize winners like V.S. Naipaul have sometimes written extraordinary nonfiction, no one has yet won the prize for literature on the strength of his or her nonfiction. Nonfiction, said Gourevitch, seems to be wedged into the cracks of the literary scene. Like photography before the mid-20th century, it is not yet taken seriously as an art form.
Despite all it did to advance awareness of African writing, Heinemann’s African Writers Series may have played its part in creating the impression that the memoirs of Africans were something other than literature. Heinemann published relatively little nonfiction, and the books they did publish were apparently chosen for their political and sociological interest. They included the memoirs of ex-slave Olaudah Equiano and of the first generation of African heads of state: Kenneth Kaunda, Kwame Nkrumah, Amilcar Cabral, and Nelson Mandela. Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom is, I believe, a work of literature, but (perhaps understandably) that was not its main selling point.
So tempting is the prestige of fiction that some African memoirs have appeared in the guise of fiction. Camara Laye’s The Dark Child (L’enfant noir) has been labeled a novel in some editions. A Life Full of Holes, a Moroccan memoir told to Paul Bowles by Driss ben Hamed Charhadi (a pseudonym for Larbi Layachi) continues to appear as a novel, though in the foreword to the Harper Perennial paperback, Vijay Seshadri rightly says, “A Life Full of Holes doesn’t read like a novel; it reads like the truth.” The case is clinched in the pages of Paul Bowles’ own autobiography Without Stopping:
About this time I had a communication from a magazine called Second Coming, asking for a manuscript. It occurred to me that I might take one of the anecdotes told me by Larbi, the guard at Merkala, and translate it for them. . . . Soon we were working almost every day. On the basis of the sections they had seen, Grove Press contracted to publish a book. At some point Richard Seaver had the idea of presenting the volume as a novel rather than as nonfiction, so that it would be eligible for a prize offered each year by an international group of publishers, of which Grove was a member.
In the passage below, Layachi describes how he and a friend broke into an abandoned warehouse and removed some rolls of copper wire, intending to sell them. Jailed and beaten, Layachi maintained his humanity, befriending and protecting a Jewish prisoner.
In the morning after the prisoners had gone to work, the men from Mrrakch stayed behind because they had not been given work clothes. At breakfast that Jew had no sugar or anything. I made him a glass of tea and gave it to him. After that he got his clothes and went out to work. When he came back at noon he told me: This work I’m doing is too much for me. It’s going to kill me. I told him: Be patient. Where have they put you?
In the quarry where Messaoud is, he said.
I’ll talk with him when I see him, and say a word for you. I’ll give him a pack or two. Maybe he’ll keep away from you.
Many thanks, he said. May Allah repay you.
The best African memoirs, like the best memoirs from anywhere in the world, are literature, but they are a kind of literature that is complicated by social and political dimensions. If the costs of speaking plainly were not so severe in many parts of Africa, more memoirs might have been written and published, and perhaps fewer novels in which real tyrants and real countries were veiled with imaginary names.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is most celebrated for one of these novels: the extended political satire Wizard of the Crow, in which an African dictator known only as the Ruler sets out to construct the world’s tallest building. But with Dreams in a Time of War, published in 2010, Ngũgĩ returned to a quieter and more intimate vein. Here you can find the roots of themes that have defined his life and work: his love of books, his fascination with performance and the art of storytelling, his awakening sympathy for the oppressed. His admiration for his older brother Wallace, a dedicated worker in the struggle for independence and an acquaintance of Jomo Kenyatta, is at the heart of this small but affecting book.
I enjoyed those days of waiting for Kenyatta at my brother’s workshop. I came to love the smell of wood, unvarnished or varnished. I liked shuffling through the wood shavings and the sawdust on the floor. I came to appreciate the muscular and imaginative demands of woodworking. I noted how meticulous my brother was with everything: designs and finishes. He would work on something, and just when I was sure he was done I would see him go at it over and over again till it achieved the refinement he wanted. Whatever he made was unique. He tried to inculcate his work ethic in his employees, including his friend and assistant Kahanya, but they were not so patient. He persisted, impressing upon them the importance of satisfying customers, winning their goodwill, turning them into good ambassadors of the workshop. He led by example.
I wanted to learn woodworking, particularly insofar as it involved the use of the saw, the shaving plane, mallet, hammer, and nails. But my brother would not allow me to meddle with his tools. I felt it unfair that he allowed my younger brother much more freedom with them. It was as if he was actively discouraging my interest in woodworking. If I insisted, he would give me sandpaper to work on some chairs or a table, a very boring, repetitive task. The required standard, it seemed to me, was in the eyes of the judge, and my brother was a very demanding judge. He liked it best when I was holding a book or a newspaper. Then he would draw the attention of his friends to what I was doing.
I did not mind. I had my own agenda. I was waiting for Kenyatta.
One can enjoy this as a scene of brotherly affection, but it is inevitable and appropriate to see it also as a glimpse into the origins of Ngũgĩ’s socialist convictions and perhaps an expression of support for Kenyatta, whose rule in its later years was marred by corruption and political detentions. Those who disagree with the grown-up Ngũgĩ’s positions would have a mixed reaction to this book, and would be right to do so. Similarly, Western conservatives who regarded Nelson Mandela as a terrorist during the years of struggle against apartheid might have difficulty enjoying the dramatic story, clean prose, and calm intelligence of Long Walk to Freedom.
This may be one reason why Heinemann appears to have drawn a firm line between fiction (to be read as literature) and nonfiction (to be read as history or politics). It may also help explain why it is hard to find an anthology of African memoir.
More than African fiction, African memoirs demand that we come to terms with what individual Africans really think. These memoirs question our assumptions. They demand that we consider the truth of what we are being told. And in some cases, they pose questions of authenticity that do not arise so sharply in the world of fiction—especially in memoirs of traditional life. Such questions arise in memoirs of traditional life, which sit uneasily between literature and anthropology. Because they must usually be taken down and translated by researchers, they must be read with an awareness that the storyteller is not the only shaper of the story. Still, they provide an indispensable glimpse into life before the colonial era.
Nisa, a member of the !Kung San ethnic group of the Kalahari Desert, was about fifty years old when she met anthropologist Marjorie Shostak. Much of the story told in Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman (the exclamation point stands for a particular type of tongue click) concerns sexuality and the raising of children, but Nisa also describes how she and her family supported themselves in the traditional culture of the !Kung.
I remember another time we were traveling. While still on our way, my father and older brother tracked a baby antbear, the animal with almost no hair, with skin like human skin and hands like human hands. After they killed it and we ate it, I started to feel sick and threw up. That’s when a serious illness entered my body, and I became very sick. My father did a curing trance for me, laying on his hands, and worked with me until I started to feel better. I was still too young to understand that he was curing me, because I still had no sense about those things. All I knew was the feeling of being sick. All I thought was, “Am I going to die from this sickness?” My father worked on me, curing me with his medicinal powers. I started to feel better and soon I was sitting up; then, I was sitting around with other people. Once I was completely better, I started playing again and stopped having thoughts about death.
For obvious reasons, many African memoirs are stories of struggle and suffering, and many of these are “as told to” books. Although their testimony may be valuable, they must be read with a critical eye. These include the Sudanese memoirs War Child by Emmanuel Jal (with Megan Lloyd Davies) and Slave by Mende Nazer (and Damien Lewis), This Voice in My Heart by Gilbert Tuhabonye (with Gary Brozek), an account of surviving genocide in Burundi, and Do They Hear You When You Cry by Fauziya Kassindja (and Layli Miller Bashir), the story of a Togolese woman threatened with genital mutilation. And in What Is the What, American author Dave Eggers tells the story of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the “Lost Boys” of Sudan. The book appears with Eggers’ byline, but is told from Deng’s point of view.
Other memoirs appear over the subject’s name alone, but questions of authenticity can arise here too. Notes from the Hyena’s Belly by Nega Mezlekia tells the harrowing story of the author’s life during the Ethiopian revolution. After the book won Canada’s prestigious Governor General’s Award, author and poet Anne Stone claimed to have ghostwritten all but the last twenty pages of the book.
Was it true? Editors know that the line between editing and writing can be fluid. Could the controversy have been averted by sharing the byline, and would that have been warranted? Whatever the truth, it seems clear that this pungent story could not have been written without the memories of Mezlekia. Here he describes a teacher from his early school days.
Mr. Alula proceeded to shed light on the morality of wandering hyenas. He explained not only why it was moral to permit the hyenas to reclaim the town at night, but why we should encourage them to do so by throwing discarded bones into the streets after the compounds were locked. He persuasively argued that without hyenas, the city would be forced to hire street sweepers to remove the carcasses of goats run down by speeding trucks, or the remains of street dogs hacked by angry butchers, or the vultures killed in battle over decaying meat. Without timely intervention by the hyenas, the city might even have a homelessness problem.
A good anthology can cause you to take a second look at a book you’ve heard about but never picked up. It’s one thing to watch a documentary about Nelson Mandela, and another to read his autobiography and spend some time inside his mind. It’s one thing to watch Don Cheadle’s excellent performance in Hotel Rwanda, but quite another to read An Ordinary Man by Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager Cheadle plays in the movie.
The value of an anthology is that it can showcase a range of authentic points of view, some of which help dismantle enduring stereotypes. It’s sometimes said, for instance, that Africans have little feeling for nature, and it’s certainly true that Western travel writers are much more likely to wax rhapsodic about African landscapes and wildlife than are the likes of Achebe and Soyinka. But in her book Unbowed, the late Wangari Maathai reveals the early love of nature that laid the foundation for her creation of the Green Belt Movement, which combined the goals of reforestation with the empowerment of African women. Here she describes her childhood in the village of Ihithe, in the central highlands of Kenya.
I was always attentive to nature. Ihithe borders the Aberdare forest and our area had many wooded plots. As a result wildlife was abundant. I knew there were elephants, antelopes, monkeys, and leopards in the forest. Even though I never saw these animals, my mother encouraged me not to be afraid of them. Leopards were seen often and were among the most feared wild animals around. My mother told me that leopards would lurk in vegetation, their long tails draped across a narrow path in the forest. The Kikuyu word for leopard is ngarī and the possessive form, “of the leopard,” is wa-ngarī . “If you are walking on the path and you see the leopard’s tail,” my mother said, “be careful not to step on it. Instead, as you keep on walking, tell the leopard, ‘You and I are both leopards so why would we disagree?’” I believed that the leopard would recognize me as wa-ngarī and not hurt me and that I had no reason to fear it.
The journey that Tété-Michel Kpomassie describes in An African in Greenland is one that few novelists could have imagined, and few readers would have believed. The oral history Machete Season lets us hear the words of the killers from the Rwandan genocide, a chilling and invaluable look inside a tragedy of unimaginable proportions. In Of Water and the Spirit, Malidoma Patrice Somé describes his spiritual initiation into the Dagara people of Burkina Faso, an experience rooted in an oral culture, which few if any of those who experienced it had tried to convey in print.
In 1990 I spent six months as a volunteer in Zimbabwe. A year before, a government minister named Maurice Nyagumbo had committed suicide, swallowing rat poison after he was implicated in a scandal over the misallocation of cars. Unlike other friends and cabinet ministers of President Mugabe, Nyagumbo seems to have had a conscience. Some said that any enthusiasm Mugabe may have had for rooting out corruption ended with his friend.
After returning home, I was surprised to find Nyagumbo’s memoir With the People on a shelf deep in the stacks of Harvard’s Widener Library. The book had a freshness and honesty not always present in the memoirs of politicians, especially when Nyagumbo was describing his childhood.
As my parents had taken up the peasants’ life at Munyena, they now needed someone to watch out for the baboons, which came to destroy the crops on the land. My father thought that I could do the job. It was a terrifying experience because, for me, a baboon was a terrible monster even to look at. Each time my parents and I went to the land, I was supposed to stay on a high place so that I could see in all directions.
However, my father soon realised that the problem could not be solved in that way. Each time he left me on a high place, I went to hide myself behind some bush in order to be away from the baboons which I was certain would eat me. One afternoon, as I was hiding, a baboon on its way to the land came in my direction, and I started to scream as I rushed towards my parents. My father came running since he thought perhaps I had been bitten by a snake. However, the baboon was startled by my screaming and ran away too. My father could not convince me that I would not be devoured.
In order to keep me in the high place where I could see the baboons coming, my father got some fibre ropes and tied my feet to a stump. But this caused another problem as I used to cry the whole day. Nevertheless, this problem was less evil as it chased away the baboons. One day my father had just finished tying me to the stump and I had just started crying when my granny Tswari, the first wife of Nyagumbo, arrived. She immediately ordered him to untie me and while he was busy doing so she started hitting him with her walking-stick. As soon as my father had finished untying me, he took flight. My grandmother took me away to her own land to stay with her, so my father’s problem remained unsolved.
This passage lingered in my memory, perhaps because one sunny afternoon in rural Zimbabwe I was asked myself to wait in a hot field of sunflowers and throw stones at any baboons that might come to raid the plants. (The baboons never arrived.)
I am pleased to have the chance to reveal it to a few more readers, here and in the pages of my anthology African Lives.
Geoff Wisner is the author of A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books That Capture the Spirit of Africa and the editor of the forthcoming African Lives: An Anthology of Memoirs and Autobiographies. He writes for the Christian Science Monitor and Words Without Borders and blogs at geoffwisner.com.
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