In societies going through tremendous suffering, how does a writer delve deeply into the pain all around them but not be overwhelmed by it? How does an artist hold a mirror to the lives of people tormented by poverty and social dislocation without reducing them to objects of scorn and/or pity?
These questions permeate the work of two of Africa’s most important novelists, the Cameroon-born Calixthe Beyala and the Zimbabwean Yvonne Vera. These two writers have never flinched from examining the pain of modern Africa, but have at the same time created characters that carried within them antidotes to that pain.
One of Beyala’s early novels, The Sun Hath Looked Upon Me, is set in Quartier Général, the slum of a Francophone African city. The QG, as its unfortunate inhabitants call it, is filled with filth and misery; its gutters stink, its rubbish is never collected. The forces of the state terrorize and humiliate the people at will. From time to time police gangs carry out raids to loot and rape. The corpse of a dead woman cannot be buried because her relations are unable to secure a permit from the city’s bureaucrats. Three days after her death the body smells unbearably in the heat.
Ateba, the novel’s heroine, is abandoned in this miserable place by her mother Betty, a prostitute. Ateba’s aunt, Ada, who bears the burden of bringing Ateba up, goes in and out of abusive relationships with a succession of men. Betty’s relationships with men were no different. In addition to her customers, ‘the hands that fondled her, the sex organs that penetrated her,’ she occasionally had ‘tenured’ men. When one of her tenured men was to visit, Betty would get all excited, ‘would become almost a normal housewife. She’d wash, she’d clean, she’d cook.’ Ateba’s friend Irene cruises the QG’s clubs, is picked up by men and has sex with them for money. But when Irene gets pregnant she is alarmed that her child will not have a father and decides to have an abortion. It proves a fatal decision.
Though only just 19, Ateba is determined to avoid the fate of the women around her. In the midst of resignation and despair, she surges with an angry and powerful vision, that of women shaking themselves free of the old assumptions that underlie patriarchy. As a response to violent abuse, to the ‘stumbling blocks of tradition… obstructing the view, clogging her throat…’, ‘she prefers the cries that come from the very core, that shake life loose and give birth to streams of blood, that seismic breath that repairs nature’s mistakes and brings mankind to eternity’s threshold.’
When Irene dies while having an abortion, Ateba snaps. She goes to a club, goes home with a man and after she’s had sex with him, kills him by beating his head against the floor. She thus gives vent to the violence that had long accumulated inside her. Beyala’s novel is a tragic story, but at its heart is a sharp vision of what lies beyond the despair of today.
While they portray the pain, terror and despair in African lives, they also explore the resources of hope and vision which contemporary Africans might draw from
Mazvita, the heroine of Yvonne Vera’s novel, Without a Name, lives in Mubaira in rural Zimbabwe. The year is 1977, and the liberation war against white minority rule is raging. She works the land as does her lover, Nyenyedzi. Theirs is a deep and tender love, but Mazvita is restless; she wants to go and live in the city. Mubaira has become for her a place of terror since while walking in the fields one day, something pulled her down and she found it was a man with a gun. The people who come from the city, she says, have no fear in their eyes, they are free. Nyenyedzi tries to convince her to remain with him. ‘The land is inescapable. It is everything… The land defines our unities,’ he says.
His arguments are in vain and Mazvita leaves him for Harare. She does find freedom there, the freedom that is symbolized by glittering shops selling the skin-lightening cream, Ambi, by men who have lifted their hair with heated metal combs to produce big afros. Mazvita moves in with Joel, who ‘was like a machine, ready to go somewhere… whose eyes blinked so quickly it was a miracle he saw anything’. When Mazvita gets pregnant, Joel makes it clear he does not want her and the baby. They interfere with his freedom. Mazvita, in a moment of desperation, strangles the child with one of Joel’s neckties. When the novel begins, Mazvita is taking her dead baby home to Mubaira for burial. The agonizing story of her life unfolds as she makes her painful journey. When she arrives at Mubaira, she finds that the village has been destroyed, the huts and fields burnt.
Vera’s novel is no easy romanticization of the joys of the life of the land. There is nothing romantic about Mubaira, which is swollen with terror as the people struggle to reclaim their land. But the land, even in its troubled state, embodies those things which connect the people to their selves, to each other and to their histories. What the land offers in opposition to the alienation of the city is cohesion and wholeness.
In Ateba, Calixthe Beyala has created a precocious visionary, who sees very clearly a promised land of freedom and dignity for women beyond the misery of her surroundings. The tragedy of Yvonne Vera’s Mazvita begins the moment when, out of fear, she cuts her connection to the land to seek the false and cheap freedoms of Harare. What these novels have in common is that while they portray the pain, terror and despair in African lives, they also explore the resources of hope and vision which contemporary Africans might draw from. The artist, these tragic novels suggest, must be mercilessly truthful but never surrender to cynicism and despair.