Tag Archives: Africa

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

“Dear friends, are you afraid of death?”
Patrice Lumumba, first and only elected
Prime Minister of the Republic of the Congo

The epigraph from Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

DAW Books, New York, 2010

Borrowed from my public library.

I have been introduced to Nnedi Okorafor’s books on several blogs over the past year.  Her titles for young adults are quite popular, but I haven’t read them.  After reading Who Fears Death I will change that.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book and the impact of it has me reeling.

In post-apocalyptic Africa one tribe has enslaved another.  Now the Nuru tribe has decided to follow their “great Book” and eliminate the enslaved Okeke.  Through rape as a weapon of war a girl child is born.  This child is named Onyesonwu, by her mother.  The word means “Who Fears Death” in an ancient language.  As Onye grows up, strong-willed and determined, she learns she is marked by her unusual hair and skin color, a Ewu, considered an out-cast by some, a pariah by others.   She also discovers she is different in other ways, she can shape-shift and travel outside her body.  She is determined to be trained as a magician .

Because of a prophesy Onye and several companions, including her lover Mwita, travel from their village, heading west through a world of desolation. They are on a journey to find and destroy a magician,  a very dangerous man named Daib, who is Mwita’s teacher and Onye’s biological father.

Okorafor has created a story where the past is unknown and I found myself wanting more of its history.  Who Fears Death is a dark and timely fantasy that uses  violence that occurs in present day Africa, both ethnic violence and violence against women,  as the ground for her novel.  It is a difficult book, at times very hard to read.

As I read, visualizing  the rapes, female circumcision,  stoning and genocide, all I could think of is  that these things are happening in many places right now, not sometime in the far distant future.  This mix of present day current events, fantasy and future technology makes for an intense reading experience, one that has me thinking deeply about what we human beings, through our beliefs and prejudices,  can do to each other.

This is an important book.  Even if you are not a fantasy fan I suggest you read it.

Other reviews:

Books and Movies

The Literary Omnivore

The OF blog


Filed under DarkFantasy, OnceUponATime V, POC Challenge, Review

Agaat: A Novel by Marlene Van Niekerk

Agaat: A Novel by Marlene Van Niekerk

Translated from the Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns

Tin House Books, Portland, 2010

Borrowed from the library.  Winner of the Three Percent 2011 Best Translated Book Award.

When I started reading Agaat, I wasn’t sure whether I would stick with it.  Milla, the widow of a white South African farmer, is dying of a creeping paralysis and struggling to communicate with her caretaker, Agaat, a black women born with a shriveled arm.  Parts of the novel are written from Milla’s point of view as she becomes unable to speak, move and breath.  I found it difficult to read.  Through first person and third person points of view  Milla mulls over her life on the farm and her disturbing history with Agaat.  It was these two women, one white, one black, and their connection through time, that held me,.

Their relationship is an allegory for South Africa’s final struggles with apartheid and that country’s history during the last half of the twentieth century.  Now it is Agaat who is in control, who cares for Milla, and who manages to work out her needs through a series of eye blinks.

The morning sun lights up Agaat’s cap from the back.  Full of embroidery holes it is, densely edged with shiny white thread.  The points of light in the weft flicker as she approaches.  She hesitates over my bed, inclines her head, feels along the high peak with both hands, touches the base on both sides, whether it’s well pinned, whether it’s properly seated.  If the caps is on as it should be, she’s empowered to walk through fire.  Her crown of glorified cotton, her mitre, her fire-barrel speckled with light, that gives her dominion over the underworld.  She deliberately touches it in such a way that there should be no doubt in my mind of her intention.  She is mustered, she is prepared, I mustn’t give any more trouble, she’ll sort me out here, she’s the commander of my possibilities.  From page 47.

But it hasn’t always been this way.  Childless after seven years of marriage, Milla “rescued” Agaat from a life of “misery” and raised her, grooming her to become a house-maid.  We learn of this history through a collection of diaries.

Today she is sitting in the corner in a little heap with her knuckles in her mouth.  A sign of progress already, I suppose, that at least she’s sitting up.  Yesterday she crawled under the bed.  I had to drag her out of there three times.  Clung to the bed-leg with the good hand.  Surprisingly tough, the little monkey, that hand I just about had to prise open to get her to let go.  The third time I gave her a sharp slap over the buttocks.  She must learn, my goodness.  She can’t come and play her tricks on me.  Showed her Japie.  A Good old-fashioned duster with a solid wooden handle.  From page 393.

She’s in thrall to my eyes now.  She looks everywhere that I look.  Ever more complicated bluffing games we play, surprise games, guessing games.  I could never have dreamed you can achieve so much with your eyes.  From page 403

As we begin to understand Milla and Agaat’s history, Grootmoedersdrift, the farm they live on, becomes another character in this novel.  The farm, along with others owned by white farmers, and what happens on them is as much a part of the struggle for freedom as the Afrikaaner owners and African workers who toil on them.

There is Milla’s husband, Jak, violent and abusive, unwilling to face the changes that are in the wind, and their son, Jakkie, a boy growing up with two mothers, one distant and demanding, the other offering only love and comfort.  It is Jakkie who sees the struggle coming, who is aware of the effects of apartheid, and who finally leaves, with Agaat’s help and support.

I am not a professional reviewer.  There is really no way I can completely do justice to this novel except to say that it is, in the end, a love story.   I can suggest, if this time and place in world history are of interest to you, that you read it.  Marlene Van Niekerk, a poet and novelist, has written what I consider a masterpiece.  There many layers of Afrikaans culture woven throughout this novel, bits of songs, games, rhymes and lore.  Michiel Heyns, also a  novelist and academic,  has done an extraordinary job of translation and has included a glossary of Afrikaans and South African words.

Other Reviews:

Literary License


Filed under ContemporaryFiction, InTranslation

Tail of the Blue Bird by Nii Awikwei Parkes

Tail of the Blue Bird by Nii Awikwei Parkes

Vintage, London, 2010

I own this book and want to thank Stu of Winstonsdad’s Blog for introducing me to it and to Nii Ayikwei Parkes.

This mystery takes place in Ghana.  It is a wonderful mix of  traditional tale and modern police procedural, with a decidedly political edge.

In a hut in the village on Sonokrom the girlfriend of a political minister discovers some gristly remains. A  police inspector sees a chance for advancement.  Kayo, a young forensic pathologist, is commandeered from his job and, along with Garba, a police constable, is ordered to solve the case.

So there I was (thinking about my palm wine) when Kwadwo finished and took photos with his camera, asked Mansah to take the box that looked like the tea bottle back to Accra for further analysis and sent the other policeman, Garba, to ask Oduro how to dispose of the thing.  This action that Kwadwo took made me see that the boy really has respect.  As I said when I started telling this tale, what was in Kofi Atta’s hut was not meant to be seen without the right powers, and Oduro is the one who knows about these things…From page 69.

Kayo leaned forward now, closing the distance between himself and the hunter.  His mind was racing.  `So, the story you just told us.  Is it true?  Is that the story of Kofi Atta?’

Th hunter sighed. `That may be your story.  I am not the one to tell you what is true.  I am telling you a story.  On this earth, we have to choose the story we tell, because it affects us – it affects how we live.’  From page 151.

Beautifully written, this mystery mixes traditional story-telling, “folk” medicine and spiritual beliefs with modern “C.S.I.” forensics.   Tail of the Blue Bird also acknowledges  the difficult choices asked of people living in a country ruled by graft and corruption.  I loved it and hope that Parkes, a poet and commentator,  decides to write a sequel.


Filed under Mystery, Review

The Boy Next Door By Irene Sabatini

The Boy Next Door by Irene Sabatini

Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2009

Winner of the 2010 Orange Award for New Writers

Borrowed from the library.

A love story that covers the first decade of post independence Zimbabwe.  Layered in history, ethnic divisions and political struggle and told directly and honestly, this is a wonderful first novel.

In the years following the Zimbabwe War of Liberation, Lindiwe Bishop, fourteen and black, lives next door to a white  family, the McKenzie’s.  One night there is a fire and Ian McKenzie, seventeen, is arrested and accused of a horrible crime.  A year later he is released and the two strike up a secret friendship.  Their relationship, in all it’s sweetness and turmoil, reflects the struggles taking place in a country trying to find political, economic and cultural independence and weighted with a history of ethnic violence and political corruption.

Sabatini uses everyday events, family tensions and the towns and countryside of Zimbabwe to tell a story filled with conflict but never heavy-handed.  A love story that is also a story of love for Africa.


Filed under OrangePrize, Review

Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin

Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin

Delacorte Press, New York, 2009

Borrowed from the library.

I saw this on the display shelf at my library and remember reading a blog post about it.  Of course, I can’t remember who’s blog it was.  Thank you, whoever you are.

Angel Tungaraza, a women from Tanzania now living in Kigali, Rwanda, is building a business.  She and her husband are struggling to raise their five grandchildren and her cakes bring in needed income.   They also allow her the opportunity to ask questions of  and listen to her customers.  Angel is kind and open-hearted.  From her customers and her neighbors she hears stories of pain and survival.  There is HIV, there are the memories of terrible slaughter.

Through Angel’s thoughts we learn of  her history, her own losses.  With her intelligence, generosity and kindness she offers help to others and a clear-sighted vision of the world around her.

When I first started reading this lovely book it reminded me of the series by Alexander McCall Smith, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.  Parkin uses the same light touch with Angel as McCall Smith uses with his heroine,  Precious Ramotswe.  Baking Cakes has much of the same tone, it is gentle and funny at times, but it deals with deep emotions and the struggles of  people recovering from tramua and learning to deal honestly with a frightening disease.  Parkin uses Angel, her family, friends and customers to tell the stories of the deadly spread of AIDS in Africa and the effects of the 1994 genocide on Rwanda’s people.  For such an gentle, pleasing book it offers quite a punch.

For those wishing to learn more about the genocide in Rwanda there is an very well written and intense book , We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch, and a movie called Hotel Rwanda which is based on real life events.  The book is difficult reading and the film is very hard to watch.

Other reviews:



Rebecca Reads

The Book Nest


Filed under 2010 Global Reading Challenge, Fiction, New Authors 2010