Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Rebels' Hour

Following is my review of The Rebels’ Hour by Lieve Joris, Grove Press, NY, 2008.

This novel about the Congo traces the life of a fictional main character, Assani Zikiya, a Munyamulenge, i.e. a Congolese Tutsi, during the very recent turbulent times in the Congo. The device of telling real history via a composite character, rather than an accurate biography of the man on whom Assani is based, permitted the author to humanize the story as well as to provide broader background on the various conflicts and, most importantly, to comment wryly on real events, problems and people. In sum, through this novel a reader can learn contemporary history and gain insight into the brutality and reality of war and politics in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Without a father, disowned by uncles, Assani grew up a self-reliant loner herding his cows on the high pastures of South Kivu, an area to which his Rwandan Tutsi ancestors had moved a hundred years earlier. A bright lad, he got some schooling, even moving on to university studies in Butare, Rwanda just after the genocide. There the call came. He was needed to return to Congo, to protect the Banyamulenge people, to combat genocidaires and to join the effort to oust Mobutu. Assani became a soldier. Ascetic by nature, he found his métier. He was a good leader, a strict disciplinarian, and ever conscious of the bigger picture. Through his eyes and exploits readers see and better understand the overlapping circles of violence, hatred, politics, tribalism and ambitions that under grid the catastrophe of the modern Congo.

Because of his competence Assani moved upwards in rank and responsibility. After victory, he joined Mzee Kabila in Kinshasa, but fled when the new president turned against the Tutsi. Assani joined the second rebellion and fought for the rebels in the east. After the peace, he returned to Kinshasa and again was caught up in the roiling uncertainty of politics and corruption. Assani became a hard man, but he retained a conscience. He pondered the morality of the times and was especially repulsed by tribalism, of which he was also a victim. As his story progresses Assani repeatedly has to choose – go along or get out – knowing that either choice could be fatal.

As mentioned above this book in novel form is history with a perspective. I suspect that the author herself is represented by at least one, and probably two, of the women characters to whom Assani confides during the course of his journeys.

Apparently the author Lieve Joris, a Belgian journalist, went to the Congo to be a journalist, but decided that this form of reporting better suited the story she wanted to tell. The result is a powerful book, one of the best on the Congo.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

James Martin - Opening Africa

This is my review of James Martin – Opening Africa: from finding Obama’s tribe to founding Nairobi, written by Philo and M.J. Pullicino, MPI Publishing, Great Britain, 2008.

This is kind of an odd but nonetheless interesting little book. The original manuscript was written some years ago by Philo Pullicino, a Maltese national, who served during the pre-independence and early independence years in the British colonial service in Zanzibar and Uganda. Pullicino went on to a distinguished career as an international civil servant and Maltese diplomat. He wrote this reflection about a fellow Maltese after his retirement. Philo’s manuscript was revised and edited by his son M.J. after his father’s death. Obviously, the references to Obama – including that in the title – were added in order to enhance the attractiveness of the work.

The story related is an intriguing one. It traces the life of James Martin, a Maltese seaman, who landed in Zanzibar in the 1870s. Although illiterate, Martin mastered languages easily and possessed an even-natured temperament. Although not being “pure” European and thus sort of a second class subject, he began to make his mark in East Africa as a caravan organizer. He began trekking with James Thompson in the 1880s and with him opened a new overland route through Maasai, Kikuyu and Kalenjin lands (present day Kenya) to Lake Victoria. It was on this first safari that Thompson and Martin (dubbed Martini by his Swahili porters) encountered Luo tribesmen (Obama’s tribe) near Lake Victoria. Subsequently over the next twenty years, Martin was to organize and lead perhaps a hundred trading and supply safaris to Uganda from the coast. Indeed, he was probably the most experienced man ever in that regard.

Naturally, Martin was employed by the railroad to prepare construction depots as the enterprise moved up country. Reportedly it was Martin who selected the site and built the first camp that became Nairobi. Later Martin signed on with the Imperial British East Africa Company and the colonial service. He was the District Officer at Eldama Ravine for some years; then was posted to Entebbe. After the Great War, in which he served, he found East Africa changed with little place for an illiterate Maltese, no matter how competent. Thus he retired to Portugal, his wife’s home and disappeared from the pages of history.

Author Pullicino, who also served in Entebbe years later, was intrigued by the snippets of tales about his fellow countryman. His investigations resulted in this book. Pullicino, however, was not a critic. He had nothing bad to say about Martin. He found all of his attributes – even tempered, able to deal harmoniously with avaricious tribal chiefs and racist superiors – to be admirable. In fact, Pullicino had little bad to say about anything. He always put an understanding and positive spin on people, circumstances and events. Given the reality of times, that gets to be a bit tedious. Also, Pullicino’s memory of geography is suspect as he moves some tribes (Kikuyu in southern Sudan?), flamingoes (Lake Naivasha?) and towns (Mumias at the base of Mt. Elgon?) around, but I forgive him those lapses. More irritating was the obvious Obama hook that son M.J. added after the fact. Most readers will recognize that for what it is, but if that helped sales, okay.

This book is an easy read and it does educate readers about James Martin, an overlooked, but important figure in the opening of Kenya and Uganda to the wider world.

Dreams in a Time of War

This is my review of Dreams in a Time of War – A Childhood Memoir by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Pantheon Books, NY, 2010

This memoir by Kenya’s most famous author is exactly what it purports to be: a recounting of childhood in Limuru, just outside of Nairobi. Indeed the times – World War II followed by the Mau Mau emergency – were a time of war in Ngugi’s Kikuyu home. The uncertainty of far off, and not so far off, events impacted upon rural society. Matching that were the changes wrought by modernization – the railroad, education, colonialism, religious controversy, wage employment and burgeoning political awareness.

These were the times Ngugi recalls, and who better to do it than him. Kenya’s changes and history as seen through the eyes of a child and adolescent are redolent with innocence and, like all childhoods, a reminiscence for things past. Ngugi tells about this family, his mother Wanjiku, the third wife of his father Thiong’o wa Nducu, his other mothers, the three other wives, his immediate brothers and sisters, plus scads of step siblings, then grandparents, cousins and other relations. All in this constellation had influence on him. He portrays a rich family life, albeit with an erratic patriarchal father.

Folks around Limuru were mostly farmers, although wage laborers worked at the Bata shoe factory and many picked tea on neighboring European plantations. Ngugi’s half brother went off to war. Italian POWs built the escarpment road. The government seized more African land to settle British soldiers. Later, another brother fled to the forest to join Mau Mau. Atrocities, especially colonial over-reactions, mass executions and interrogations terrorized the inhabitants. The inner Kikuyu rift, which divided pro-missionary, pro-government individuals from Kikuyu nationalists, became a life and death equation during the emergency and wreaked havoc on stable society. Throughout, young Ngugi was finding his way, particularly by dedicating himself to school. Determined to be the very best, he modestly tells of his successes. Readers see him grow from a child with a child’s perspective to become more aware of the greater world around him.

I did not know what to expect from this book, but what I found was an excellent history of the times as seen from a very narrow perspective. There is a small bit of a plot line as troubles come and go, but that is an extra bonus to the chronicle. I learned much about traditional Kikuyu life and how rural people lived. Of course, being Ngugi’s work, it is well written and contains thoughtful reflections, pithy observations and good quotations. Speaking of the dichotomy between fact and fiction, despair and hope, Ngugi notes, “Perhaps it is myth as much as fact that keeps dreams alive even in times of war.”

Obviously everyone’s childhood shapes them. Ngugi’s did him. He grew up to be independent, thoughtful and observant, incidentally with material for several good books.

Readers with some knowledge of Kenya will readily relate to events and the society described, but others too will find this an intriguing entry into another time and place. Reading is recommended.

Baking Cakes in Kigali

Book review by me of Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin, Delacorte Press, NY, 2009.

This is a feel-good novel. Politically correct, it won’t offend anyone. Virtues of understanding, tolerance and compassion permeate the story, but still there is a plot inhabited by vivid characters.

The tale is set in contemporary Rwanda. With that as a backdrop part of unfolding the story has to do with post-genocide times – how people remember or not, how they interact or not, and how they get on with their lives, or not. Naturally Rwanda drew outsiders – volunteers, financial experts, professors, development gurus and others – who help to flesh out the community that Parkin creates. At the center of the novel is Angel Tungaraza, a Tanzanian whose husband is a visiting professor at the technical institute. Angel bakes and extravagantly decorates cakes to earn extra money. Thus, in addition to looking after her five orphaned grandchildren, cakes give Angel the opportunity to meet and get to know other characters in the story. She is an extraordinarily generous soul with a gift for drawing people out over a cup of tea. Along the way almost every topic comes under scrutiny: genocide – who are survivors and how do they cope; the roles – helpful , cynical or otherwise of foreigners; cultural differences – white vs. black or Asian, Rwandans vs. other Africans; traditional values contrasted to modern ways; AIDS - face it or hide it; female circumcision, street children, love, women’s rights, marriage…and the list goes on.

It is a gossipy book. There is lots of dialogue, but author Parkin has a good ear for how people really speak, especially Africans who, for example, use the word “late” in place of dead or died. There is a smattering of correct usage of Kinyarwanda, a bit of French and more Swahili. Kigali is authentically portrayed and Rwanda’s leaders vaguely referred to, but the plot focuses on the more mundane, but no less important aspects of life. Cakes are baked for mile-stones: birthdays, christenings, homecomings, engagements, reunions and weddings.

Author Parkin does a remarkable job of cutting to the quick and portraying the issues with perspective, humor and insight. She pokes gentle fun at human foibles. Readers will learn much about contemporary Africans – how they see themselves and how they see us. Ultimately Angel and all her friends come to a better understanding of themselves, each other and the world they inhabit.