Book Reviews

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This month’s books are an autobiography of a black South African woman and a study of the politics of food production.

Editor: Amanda Root

The woman they called boy

Call me woman
by Ellen Kuzwayo
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Women’s Press (pbk) £5.95
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Since last September over 300 people have died in South Africa as a result of police action. Ellen Kuzwayo sits in a beautiful house in Hampstead and gazes out onto English flowers and English sky; far from her beloved South Africa. She says: ‘Someone else may bring the heaven down: I am probably able to collect the dust that has fallen from the heaven. This is still me. and I am making my contribution.’ She says: ‘I am who I am and my life is my own.’ She knows that ‘before you feel hopeful for your country you must feel hope for yourself; if there is no hope for you, you can’t look ahead.’ She says that she lives with fear but that she is bigger than that fear - ‘you must go ahead and damn the consequences.’ She tries to say something more, but one hand simply gestures towards the English sky with an uncomplaining eloquent grace.

Ellen Kuzwayo names her extraordinary autobiography Call me woman. The title, mixing appeal with demand, is both anonymous and deeply personal. It is a banner that waves over the book, for Ellen Kuzwayo is history in the person of one woman, and her story is the story of thousands of untold lives: ‘my life and the lives of other women cannot be separated.’ When she talks, she translates the personal ‘I’ into a intimate ‘you’ - differentiating pronouns are gathered together by her belief in a collective struggle and her experience of a community of sisters, So the autobiography of one woman becomes a tribute to all the unsung black women of South Africa; bearing witness to her self. she acts as a witness for others, and reclaims past and future.

The story of Call me woman shocks. Ellen Kuzwayo was born into privileged black family and during her childhood did not encounter the white oppression that scores the rest of her seventy year old life. But when her loved mother dies, and the farm that spelt innocent security is declared to be in an area forbidden to black people and Ellen becomes a teacher, she finds herself in an uncertain and menacing world. Blacks must carry Passes: friends are imprisoned for crimes that are never specified.

However, it is only when Ellen marries her first husband that the twin oppression of being black and a woman are brought into a painfully single focus. Physically violent and emotionally tyrannical, her husband pulls her into nightmare world, and when she finally flees from certain death or madness she has to leave her two sons behind: she is. after all, only a woman, a ‘Minor’ who possesses no right except that of flight, and no faith except a God who seems to withhold comfort. This period of despair, when Ellen is alone, disgraced, impoverished and far from her children, forms a fulcrum for Call me woman. Into the yawning future she pours her intelligent energy: from being a teacher, she becomes a social worker involved with the Association of Youth Clubs; then a founder member of the Urban Foundation and a consultant to the Soweto Women’s self-help groups. She is appointed Chairwoman of the Maggie Magaba Trust, She also remarries happily and her two sons return to her. Even the frightening experience of five months detention in gaol cannot carry the solitary and powerless anguish of that earlier period, for Ellen has found a vision that she shares with her people.

Despite the suffering of her life and that of her black South African sisters, Call me woman is an inspiring book. It bears witness to a resolute, unwavering refusal to be beaten down by white power or male tyranny. Even if such a refusal means imprisonment or death, it still frees each individual from the crushing fear which erodes the humanity of its victims and steals away their dignity.

So have you heard that things are changing in South Africa? Newspapers carry reports of welcome legal reforms, don’t they? - laws that according to Ellen Kuzwayo are strategically designed to split the black communities, unleashing their self-directed violence, Things are changing in South Africa, yes, but not in the way we might think. They are changing because of the tender human dignity of women like Ellen Kuzwayo who, doubly fettered, have created for themselves a space from where they can struggle for the freedom of their country.

Nicci Gerrard

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Cooking the books

Ill fares the land: essays on food, hunger and power.
by Susan George
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Writers and Readers (pbk) 55.95/£3.95
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[image, unknown] In this, her fourth book - with a title borrowed from an eighteenth century oem, a subtitle with a comma too much and a cover design which is unattractive to me - Susan George compiles some of her miscellaneous writing from 1978 to 1982.

The six essays cover topics like the political implications of overcoming hunger: and the shaping of our food systems and thus our environment by cultural. political and economic events seen historically.

Susan George’s style is witty, often conversational and always refined. One gets the feeling she enjoys playing with words (i.e. ‘dependency is undependable.’) One-liners and similar examples are found throughout the text (the kind I have taken note of to use in my own teaching).

For reasons I cannot explain, after having read the foreword and the author’s note, I found myself reading the book’s essays backwards, from the last one to the first. So, reviewing them in that order .

In ‘A Knowledge of Hunger’ to paraphrase Orwell, we are reminded that all social scientists are neutral, but that they are more neutral towards some social groups than towards others. We are also reminded that people from the rich world often fail to be accountable to the Third World countries they work in. and that their work often contributes to social control rather than liberation.

In ‘Dangerous Embrace - culture. economics, politics and food systems we are reminded that peasants are an indispensable and precious resource rather than an obstacle to development. Peasants, left to themselves and given enough physical space, are environmental improvers. Peasant practices represent very real knowledge - a knowledge that is not perfect, but perfectible.

‘Overcoming Hunger - strengthen the weak, weaken the strong’ was a paper commissioned by the FAO from Susan George for the celebration of the first World Food Day in 1981, but never published, because it was deemed too polemic and political for the FAO’s taste. We are told that we have to move from indignation, via accurate analyses to better understanding, organization and politics. Resource transfer alone, in the absence of major structural changes, is futile - hence the title of this essay. It closes with eight suggestions for practical action.

My enthusiasm for ‘Ill fares the land’ should be clear from this review. Get exposed to the rest of the reasons for it by reading the book.

Claudio Schuftan


...being the book that chronicles the Mexican Revolution

It has been said that in this century there have been only four significant Latin American Revolutions: Mexico (1910). Guatemala (1944), Bolivia (1952) and Cuba (1958). Today one would certainly add Nicaragua. This history shows that a mere putsch, one clique ousting another, is of no consequence: there must be aspirations to radical change in the people’s lot to create a revolutionary uprising. Demetrio, the guerilla leader at the center of Mariano Azuela’s Underdogs. has such hopes. Watching his house burnt by Federal Troops, it is as though he and his homeland are on fire. He gathers a band of the rural oppressed, fights a first heroic fight, is wounded, then recovers to lead his band into the mainstream uprising. So far, a model of a just revolt.

But Underdogs is about a revolution turned sour. We see Demetrio’s men looting, murdering, drinking themselves stupid because they’ve lost direction and finally dying in a pointless skirmish. The articles of faith are overturned. At first the illiterate rebels regard literacy with awe. ‘It’s incredible that we need this slicker to come and explain things’, they say of Luis Cervantes, a journalist and glib theorist of revolt who joins them. Later, however, a typewriter is smashed in bitter frustration. Yet Demetrio needs Luis to provide names. facts and formulae. So. inexorably, confused issues and infighting blur the rebels’ clarity of purpose. Watching clouds of smoke and dust rise over the battlefield, an insurrectionary struggles with disillusion:

‘We most try to hope a little: that they’ll be no more bloodshed, that the minds of the people - formed now of only two words, rob and kill - will shine with the clarity of a waterdrop once more. What a mockery, if our enthusiasm should depose one murderer only to erect a pedestal on which we place a thousand identical monsters.’

Mariano Azuela knew whereof he wrote. A doctor who believed passionately in literature and the Revolution, he fought with and healed revolutionaries, undertook public ornee out of a sense of duty rather than natural inclination, and wrote Underdogs on the run, Like his characters he saw his ideals betrayed, idols like Pancho Villa fallen, factionalism and megalomania displacing any thought of the social justice they’d suffered for. The novel he produced is deeply pessimistic. Only a blind compulsion drives Demetrio on. He smiles as a friend shouts:

'I love the Revolution as I love an erupting volcano; the volcano because it’s a volcano, the Revolution because it’s a revolution. Who cares who ends up on top of the heap?’

With historical hindsight, Azuela might have cared more. Mexico today is an unhappy country. 60% of the population are undernourished, the rural economy chronically depressed, the foreign debt effectively infinite. Mexico City is a purgatory where, it is said, you catch hepatitis just by breathing. while the ‘Republic’ is governed by a ‘system’ of patronage that has led to gross corruption, electoral fraud and riots, Seventy years after the Revolution, a recent study remarked, ‘Mexico’s social profile is barely distinguishable from countries of the region that have had no revolution.’ Azuela’s underdogs are now fleeing to California.

After initial hardships, his own fortunes improved. He continued working as a doctor and writing, won a steady income and a national literary prize, and - in spite of his continued jibes - no government ever attempted to muzzle him. He died in 1952. a thoroughly bourgeois success. The poor were as poor as ever.

But who would have told Demetrio that he should never have embarked on his battle, but should have watched placidly as his house burned? It is one of the book’s limitations not to discuss other courses of action. Azuela’s view is, after all, only partial. The great revolutionary Emiliano Zapata is never mentioned, and Azuela ignores the large part the Mexican bourgeoisie played in the revolt. His guerillas are utterly contemptuous of the industrial wealth owners saying: ‘It’s the city slickers who betray revolutions.’ The novel avoids any attempt to examine what went wrong: it is, finally, no more than a sequence of events that could have been otherwise.

Nonetheless, the uncomfortable partial truths of Underdogs ring true. As we anxiously watch developments in and around Nicaragua we may have to live with the unpalatable, and we might have to abandon doctrinaire selectivity. But we need not be disheartened for all that, since anyone who believes in simple purgation by incorruptible revolution is mistakenly thinking that justice can be achieved without altering the ways in which power and authority are exercised. Demetrio is not wrong to rebel and not wrong to rebel and not wrong to despair - that need not prevent those who come after from making their revolution better.

Jonathan Hugh-Jones.

by Mariano Azuela
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English Translation: Signet Classics, New American Library.
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