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New African Writing


The Shadow of Imana: Travels in the Heart of Rwanda


The Cry of Winnie Mandela

Conversing with Africa: Politics of Change

In the past decade, Africa has furnished examples of the best and the worst of which humanity is capable. The election of Nelson Mandela as South African President in 1994 spoke of hope and reconciliation but, at almost the same moment, Rwanda was being torn apart by genocide. Across the continent, AIDS, ruinous civil wars, corrupt politicians and the IMF's malign strictures have blighted the lives and aspirations of millions. The West's responses have varied between indifference and naked self-interest. Perhaps it is time we stopped prescribing remedies to Africa and started listening to what Africans themselves are saying.

The Shadow of Imana is a record of two Rwandan journeys made in 1998 by the Ivorian author Veronique Tadjo as part of the remembrance and reconciliation project ‘Writing as a duty to memory'. Her book is an attempt to confront the reality of the genocide and, perhaps as a natural reaction to inhumanity on such a scale, Tadjo has given it an impressionistic, fragmentary structure. She brackets together a mosaic of personal testimony, reportage and traditional tales recast as contemporary fiction. These glimpses into the heart of horror resolve themselves into a kaleidoscopic view of a people caught between necessary memory and therapeutic amnesia. The author attends several sessions of gacaca, traditional village justice, and suggests that these, flawed as they are, may signpost a way towards understanding and even healing. As she says, it is incumbent upon us all to remember and to bear witness, in an attempt to ‘combat the past and restore our humanity.'

Gabonese author Daniel Mengara's debut novel Mema is a portrait of a wilful, fiercely independent woman. Mema, known throughout her village as the possessor of an acid tongue, has had to struggle for everything in her life. Her husband and daughters die in quick succession and she is besieged by in-laws, who regard her as a malign witch. She is forced to argue her case in the medzo, the village debates, to keep her sons and her good name. Daniel Mengara draws on the dynamics of traditional storytelling to trace the webs of kinship and respect which bind together the community. What emerges in this engaging book is a picture of an individual who sets herself in opposition to a society in transition. In so doing, she both learns and imparts a lesson; ‘the one who saves a village is not always the oldest, the strongest, the richest.'

Heinemann, publishers of the above two titles and for over 40 years great champions of African writing, have regrettably decided to discontinue their African Writers Series. It is, however, heartening to report that Ayebia Clarke Publishing is attempting to take up the baton and intends to publish five books from Africa this year. If the first of them is any guide, they will be worth seeking out.

The Cry of Winnie Mandela by South African academic Njabulo Ndebele is a dramatic contemporary retelling of the myth of Penelope, awaiting Odysseus's return from the Trojan Wars. Ndebele gives us the stories of four of Penelope's ‘descendants'; a quartet of South African women. Each, like Penelope, is awaiting a return that may never come. Powerful economic and political forces have compelled their men to wander – to find work, to prison or exile, to the arms of other women – and their wives are condemned to ‘endurance without consolation'.

The women debate the consequences of their waiting, both for themselves and society. Into this conversation of enforced separation comes the most famous waiting woman in South African history, Winnie Mandela. She offers the perspective of one whose waiting had the additional burden of being conducted in the public gaze; who had to become what politics made her, both the pride and the shame of a nation.

This important and timely book expertly blends fact and fiction, imagination and history in a moving and powerful exploration of the experiences of South African women. What could, in lesser hands, have been an overly clinical and intellectualized exercise is humanized by the warmth and humility with which Ndebele draws his characters.

The very title of Kenyan author Mukoma wa Ngugi's book makes the case for dialogue. Conversing with Africa is a wide-ranging investigation of Africa's dilemmas and his analysis is bleak; ‘abject poverty, despotism, coups, ethnic cleansings – all under the rubric of neo-colonialism, all structured under the debilitating conditions of the World Bank and the IMF – continue to ravage the continent.' Ngugi's aim is polemical and he has approached his task in the spirit of Walter Rodney's groundbreaking How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. His aim is to convince the reader of the imperative need for action; for Africans to become their own agents of change. Conversing with Africa is a plea for unity; Ngugi is proposing nothing less than a Pan- African solution to the ills of the continent and although his argument is stronger on passion than pragmatism, he could justifiably point to what pragmatism has produced.

If Africa is to emerge from the colonial yoke and cast off the neo-liberal shackles then it urgently needs to engage with honest voices such as Mukoma wa Ngugi calling for radical reform. The price for failing to do so is high.

New Internationalist issue 369 magazine cover This article is from the July 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
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