“A good book is to the mind, what a whetstone is to a sword!” Game of Thrones’ dwarf Lord Tyrion Lannister famously said. Excellent literature, on top of preserving the delicately thin silk thread that connects us to the past (and the future), is a limitless knowledge bank… and what knowledge is better than OUR own knowledge?
I bring you five fictional literary works of black African literature you will need on your reading bucket list before you end 2019.
5. KOSIYA KIFEFE – ARTHUR GAKWANDI
This is a novel about life in post-independence Africa. It is an account about the dreams of African youth, the struggle to validate them in a rapidly changing society. Inevitably, the novel tackles the unique political landscape, relationships and the journey from the countryside to the helm of a growing nation.
Set in Ankole, independence-era Uganda, the novel delivers a raw account of young Kosiya Kifefe who has been written off from early childhood. On the day Kifefe goes to school, an old woman sarcastically remarks that “If kifeefe can study, then I should also think of going back to school!
Young Kifeefe however is not deterred by the naysayers and manages to complete his junior certificate, landing his first job at East African Railways. As a man of unending ambition, Kifefe goes ahead to graduate after Uganda’s independence and this is when his fortunes change. He lands a job at Uganda Plastics Corporation and from then on, it is a fast rise through the ranks finally making it to General Manager Position. His personal life on the other hand is in shambles. A woman he accidentally impregnates during rape decides to move in with him. The tumultuous political phase of Idi Amin does not spare the former public servants as Kifefe runs to exile in Kenya, living low as bar owner, even plotting the overthrow of the current government.
Kosiya Kifefe is more than just a novel. Arthur Gakwandi explores the murky corporate world, a world of young men who achieve much too early and yet thirst for more and more until their moral compass is blurred to extinction. It is a tale about marital life and extra marital relations and young men struggling to stay above the tide of change.
4. HOUSEBOY – FERDINAND OYONO
Houseboy is a chilling account of life in colonial Cameroon. When a Frenchman rescues a wounded man who dies immediately after, he lands on three diaries the writer calls ‘exercise books’. Oyono’s third person technique cleverly delivers the story in the dying man’s diary, read through the eyes of his French rescuer.
Toundi is tortured by his father when he is a young boy which causes him to run away to the rescue of a catholic priest Father Gilbert. Despite his Father coming back to apologize, Toundi refuses to go back home, at which point his father completely disowns him and thus the former ceases acknowledging his father, instead looking to Father Gilbert as his new father. Under Father Gilbert’s guidance, Toundi flourishes, receiving training in reading and writing as well as Catholicism.
Unfortunately, Father Gilbert dies in a tragic motorcycle accident and eventually Toundi is taken to work as a houseboy for the commandant, a head of the surrounding French colony. It is quite uneventful until the commandant’s wife (who is referred to as Madame) comes from France and is an instant beauty, catching the eye of every man in town much to the commandant’s chagrin. Soon after Madame’s arrival, the commandant goes on tour, leaving madam in charge of the house with Toundi as the house help.
Madame is warm and enticing but quickly deteriorates into a cruel hand, probably because she suspects that Toundi knows about her affair with Monsieur Moreau the prison ward who is notorious for beating Africans to the blink of death. She poison’s Toundi’s relationship with the Commandant after his return, turning him against Toundi and when Sophie, the water Engineer’s lover is accused of stealing workers’ salaries, Toundi is bundled as an accomplice and taken to prison where he is tortured and later when he is transferred to hospital, he is diagnosed with fractured ribs and bronchi (injuries that later prove fatal to his life). Toundi escapes hospital and heads to Spanish Guinea, where he is rescued by the Frenchman at the start.
Ferdinand Oyono explores critical subjects about religion, the expendable nature of African life during colonial times, marital faithfulness and the complicated relationship between colonial masters and young African women. It is a compelling read.
3. MINEBOY – PETER ABRAHAMS
South African Novelist Peter Abrahams tells the story of segregation amongst working class black Africans trying to make ends meet.
Xuma is black Miner, who moves from his hometown to Malay camp, a slum in the outskirts of Johannesburg town in search of work. He is taken in by Leah, a tough and seasoned woman who is brewer of bootleg liquor. Leah is intent on inducting Xuma into the city life, once warning him that if he is too soft, people will spit in his face. However, Xuma finds work in the mines and due to his work ethic, quickly develops into a young leader finding favor with an Irishman Paddy.
Xuma’s love life is just as complicated as he finds it hard choosing between Leah’s fair Niece Eliza and the ever lively Maisy. Eliza constantly struggles with life as a colored, being a societal reject to the whites and yet still wants the ‘Whiteman’s things’.
When Xuma’s friend Johannes dies in a mine Accident, Xuma teams up with Paddy to lead a deadly strike demanding for better working conditions.
On top of its apartheid theme, Mineboy tackles the complex relationships in the white community at the time and the transition of Xuma from a naïve young man to a conscious leader struggling not just for himself but also the society at large. It is a novel about the dawn of freedom fighting.
2. THE RIVER BETWEEN – NGUGI WA THIONG’O
Young Waiyaki must take on an enormous responsibility for his community when his father identifies ‘extraordinary’ abilities in him. Waiyaki’s father Chege is an ardent believer in the prophecy about a story of the savior who would rise from the ranks to liberate his people from the tyranny of the colonists.
At his father’s behest, Waiyki is enrolled into a missionary school in order to learn the ways of the oppressors and devise means to liberate his people when his time came. Although Waiyaki does not entirely subscribe to the prophecy, he excels in his work at school. Things change when a young Girl Muthoni dies after the traditional ritual of female circumcision. The missionary school swings into action and as a counter-measure against the ‘barbaric’ practice, expels the children of parents suspected to support the ritual, Waiyaki inclusive.
Waiyaki has a vision of bringing education to his people and then starts a school for the expelled students. He is so preoccupied with his newly found mission that he entirely forgets about his initial purpose of defeating the colonists and reclaiming the village lands. As some villagers begin conspiring in secret groups, they form a clique known as Kiama with the sole purpose of cleaning the tribe. It is in this clique that Waiyaki develops his first arch enemy, Kabonyi who gains an upper hand in undermining Waiyaki’s credibility among the villagers. Soon he will realize he is powerless against the polarizing effects of colonialism on the community while also failing to unite his tribe.
The River Between is a story of conflicts of interest, a story about the inevitability of change and how the Whiteman's advent disrupts the normal routine of an African Village. It is also a story of shifting purposes and ultimate failure of a people who have not realized their full potential.
1. DEVIL ON THE CROSS – NGUGI WA THIONG’O
Ngugi delivers a biting critique of contemporary Kenya in this intriguing tale. Jacinta Wariinga is a young woman who has just lost a job as a secretary and broken up with his boyfriend. She is stopped from committing suicide by a man who then gives her an invitation card to the ‘Devil’s Feast’, an event happening in Ilmorog which is her hometown. Jacinta takes a Taxi to Illmorog and onboard, finds a unique set of companions among whom is Mwaura, the money minded driver who claims to worship at the shrine of money, Gatuiria a foreign educated professor of African Studies, Wangari a peasant woman, Muturi a casual laborer and Mwireri wa Mukiraai who is a budding businessman and they all decide to head for the Devil’s Feast. It turns out to be a convention for the ‘Organization for Modern Theft and Robbery’ in Illmorog and they are holding a competition for new recruits, using past swindling as yardsticks.
What ensues is a story of chaos, climaxing into a “satirical parable on Western culture and business practices”. Ngugi addresses contentious issues including public corruption, exploitation of the peasant class and disillusionment as the protagonist continues with her struggle against western style capitalism. Ngugi goes ahead to explore the anti-colonial struggle and how only a handful benefitted eventually paving way for the neo-colonial era of Kenya. Nothing had changed apart from the guard. It is a “fascinating work of political literature, a call for Kenyans to wake up to what neo-colonial capitalism had done to their supposedly independent country.”
Devil On The Cross was written on toilet paper while Ngugi was in prison and like most of his work, it was originally written Gikuyu, his native language. It is true fodder for an objectively minded reader.