Five picks from a great year for African writing
BOOKS REVIEW | THE INDEPENDENT | Leading Kenyan author, journalist and academic, Prof. Peter Kimani has listed an exciting analytical compilation of essays edited by renowned Uganda journalist Charles Onyango-Obbo among his top five picks for this Christmas holiday reading.
Prof. Kimani presents his picks as a celebration of a great year for African writing, with Tanzania’s Abdulrazak Gurnah winning the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature and South Africa’s Damon Galgut lifting the Man Booker Prize for his novel, The Promise.
Prof. Kimani’s picks should make interesting reading because he is a highly regarded writer of fiction and poetry and was among three international poets commissioned by the American National Public Radio (NPR) to compose and present a poem to mark former U.S. president Barack Obama’s first inauguration in January 2009. His novels include Upside Down, Before The Rooster Crows, Dance of the Jakaranda. He is also the Professor of Practice, Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communications (GSMC).
In an introduction, Charles Onyango-Obbo describes his book, `Pioneers, Rebels and a Few Villains: 150 years of Journalism in Eastern Africa’ as an origins story of the region’s media.
Onyango-Obbo says: “The story of the media in Africa has mostly been told as one of torment. And this book does a bit of that too. You cannot escape it. It is a hard place to be a journalist, with death, prison, and all manner of repression posing constant threats. Additionally, in many countries it is still a low-paying job. Though the situation has improved considerably in recent years, many journalists in Africa have died destitute. While much has been written and told about how they die and suffer, there has been little about how they lived, live, and why they still go out daily to do this dangerous and thankless work.
“We decided to extract the journalists from under the oppressor’s boot, do a roll call of who was where and did what, and we thought the best way to achieve that was a book that was mainly an Eastern African journalists’ origin story. We did not want to do a book for thoroughbred journalists or media scholars. Our target was a Millennial reader, young journalists looking to connect the present to the past and to excite them into doing something with the material; an illustrated book, documentaries, films, or use it as an entry-level journalism teaching aid.”
Familiar Ugandan writers like Daniel Kalinaki, Kwezi Tabaro, Jackline Kemigisa are among an impressive club of regional commentators who contributed essays.
About `Pioneers, Rebels and a Few Villains: 150 years of Journalism in Eastern Africa’, Kimani writes that the adage that “journalism is the first draft of history” affirms the important work done by journalists in shaping what people know of the past. Yet seldom do we read the stories of those chroniclers of history. That’s exactly what Charles Onyango-Obbo, the doyen of East African journalism, Ugandan by birth and pan-African by work – his footprints are to be found everywhere, from Nairobi to Johannesburg -— seeks to redress. The result: a compelling read that should enrich our understanding of journalism pioneers in the region.
“Written in sprightly diction, the book is as entertaining as it is informative,” Kimani says.
Away from Onyango- Obbo’s book, Kimani recommends Wole Soyinka’s latest novel, Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth, Abdulrazak Gurnah’s novel Afterlives, Khadija Abdalla Bajaber’s The House of Rust and Zuhura Yunus’s Biubwa Amour Zahor: Mwanamke Mwanamapinduzi.
Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth (Penguin Random House).
Wole Soyinka, the great Nigerian poet, playwright, activist and intellectual, released his first novel in nearly 50 years. He chuckled at CNN’s precise figure of 48 years. The title of his latest novel is inspired by a 2011 Gallup poll that listed Nigerians at the top of its annual happiness index, setting Soyinka off in search of utopia in his land of birth.
What he finds is a dystopian world inhabited by charlatans masquerading as Christians; young, skilled professionals lured home to perform nefarious acts; others reinventing themselves to survive the vicissitudes of politics. A sweeping satire of a land that Soyinka began to write about over 60 years ago, this is an important addition to his impressive oeuvre.
Afterlives (Bloomsbury Publishing)
In this multigenerational historical fiction of Tanganyika in the shadow of German occupation at the turn of the 20th century, the new Nobel laureate for literature presents the stories of individuals caught on both sides of the racial divide.
There are the locals lured into the service of the German empire; yet others are invested in pursuit of love and their optimism that it can suture broken lives. By offering intimate portraits of his characters, foregrounded by large, historical epochs, Gurnah asserts the place of indigenous narratives in a whitewashed, limiting view of European colonisation of Africa.
The House of Rust (Graywolf Press)
In an enchanting new story from a new voice, Bajaber turns a familiar narrative trope into an invigorating journey of discovery. The main protagonist sets out to look for her fisherman father, who is lost at sea. Her voyage is on a unique contraption made of a skeleton, which morphs into other forms as she journeys deep into the unknown.
Bajaber is the winner of the inaugural Graywolf Press African Fiction Prize, which came with a generous $12,000 advance. It’s easy to appreciate why the panel, led by the Nigerian author A. Igoni Barrett, settled on The House of Rust.
Biubwa Amour Zahor: Mwanamke Mwanamapinduzi (E&D Vision Publishing)
Tanzania might be in the news for producing East Africa’s first Nobel laureate for Literature, but there are other compelling reasons that merit attention, like the pathbreaking biography by BBC journalist Zuhura Yunus.
Biubwa Amour Zahor: Mwanamke Mwanamapinduzi (Biubwa Amour Zahor: The Revolutionary Woman), written in Kiswahili, retrieves from the Tanzanian archives a colourful character whose exploits in the 1960s revolution have largely gone unnoticed. This act of recovery, hopefully, will draw attention to other forgotten heroines and introduce them to a younger generation of readers.