Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Price of Freedom by Ellen Ndeshi Namhila- A Review



For some reason the fight for freedom in South Africa has overshadowed many similar movements in Southern Africa, especially Namibia. In some ways the fight for freedom from colonial tyranny started in Namibia in 1904, when the Herero and then the Nama rose up against the Germans. After World War II, Namibia was handed over to South Africa and the next horrible phase of oppression began. Just as the South Africans suffered under apartheid, so did the Namibians. The brutal oppression led to the war for liberation that ended with the country finally getting independence in 1990. Ellen Namhila fled apartheid in Namibia when she was only a girl; The Price of Freedom is her memoir of her journey as a refugee and then a returnee to the newly independent country.
            When Namhila was ten years old, she saw her uncle arrested by the South African police. They first set their dogs on him in a savage attack, and then loaded him in their vehicle. When he was finally returned to his family, he was a broken man. Later riding her bike home one day, beyond the time of the state-issued curfew, the police shot her. These experiences along with many others that caused people to live in constant fear convinced the young Namhila that she could not remain in the country. At fourteen, she crossed into Angola with a friend and would not return to Namibia for nineteen years.
            If you decide to read The Price of Freedom hoping to find a simple story of triumph over evil, you’ll be disappointed. Namhila writes only the truth as she experienced it. She does not paint with a wide brush covering the unsightly bumps, she gives us details and in those details there is much grey.
            She lived as a refugee in Angola, often moving from one military base to another. In the camps, she received political education. She worked as a nurse and a teacher at various times. She was in Kassinga, a refugee camps, on 4 May 1978 when one of the most brutal bombing campaigns by the South African Defence Force (SADF) took place, the Kassinga Massacre.  In a single day 624 refugees were killed, among them 298 children. Namhila was traumatised by this and yet she had no option but to continue, though it haunts her for the rest of her life.
            For a while she lived in Lubango refugee camp where things were slightly safer and better organised. Eventually she was sent to The Gambia to finish her schooling. There the Namibian refugees lived with families though the cultural differences often made it hard for Namhila, especially the strict rules of Islam.
            She returned to the camps after finishing school and worked mostly as a teacher. There she married, but spending time with her new husband would not be allowed since he was soon sent to Zambia to work for The Voice of Namibia and she was sent to university in Finland where she studied library science while trying to raise her new-born daughter alone in a country and culture she did not understand.
            Eventually, negotiations led to peace and Namhila went home to vote for the first time in her newly independent country. But after nineteen years, the country is not the one she remembers in her childhood memories. Compounding that is the complex relationships between returnees and the people who remained in the country, some who had fought against SWAPO and independence.
            “While in exile I remembered home through the things I had known,” Namhila writes in the epilogue. “Now that I am in Namibia, all that I am in Namibia, all that I knew of Namibia, of home, has changed. I am finding myself lost in my own country.”
            Namhila is honest about the changes in the country and in herself that make it difficult for her to find a place again. She tries to go back to Zambia or Finland to see if somehow she has so changed that her home can only be found elsewhere, but she does not find her personal home in those countries either. Some in Namibia have bitterness toward returnees and do not want to assist them in any way to find their way back into society. This Namhila finds difficult. She knows what she gave up, what she went through for the independence of her country. She knows how much she sacrificed, and yet it appears that the sacrifice is not important. This is quite troubling for her.
            From Namhila’s memoir the reader learns the real price of freedom to an individual. It’s an honest and captivating read.  

(This review first appeared in my column It's All Write in the 19th May 2017 issue of Mmegi)

Monday, June 5, 2017

African Writers You Should Know: Ellen Banda-Aaku



Ellen Banda-Aaku is an award-winning Zambian writer. Her first book, Wandi’s Little Voice won the 2004 Macmillan Writer’s Prize for Africa (UK). Her first novel, Patchwork won the Penguin Prize for African Writing and was shortlisted for the 2012 Commonwealth Book prize. Her outstanding achievements in literature won her the 2012 Zambia Arts Council Chairperson’s Award. She splits her time between Zambia and UK but managed to talk with me in the middle of her busy schedule.

Tell me a bit about how you started writing.
I started writing fairly late in life. With hindsight, I put this down to the fact that growing up in Zambia, Zambian writers were not visible. I had access to a lot of books at home and at school but they were not by Zambians. At school, it was a requirement to include African writers in the literature in English courses, the list consisted of writers from Nigeria, Kenya. South Africa….no Zambians. Hence, even though I enjoyed telling stories and writing essays etc. I never really thought to become a writer because one inspires to be what they see, and growing up I didn’t see Zambian women writers. Then in my thirties I moved to Ghana and I started thinking about writing a novel.  Around the same time in 2004 I came across a call by Macmillan publishers for submissions to the Macmillan Prize for African Writing. Even though the call was for children’s stories I thought to write something and submit mainly to give me some practice and I felt writing to a deadline would give me discipline I needed to complete a manuscript. I ended up winning the competition and that was the start to my writing career.

Your latest book is Madam First Lady. What is it about?
Madam First Lady is about the first lady of a fictional African country who is married to a dictator and she falls in love with a rebel leader. I started writing it before I wrote my first novel Patchwork but then I put it on hold as I was focusing on writing Sula & Ja, my YA fiction book which has been published in Nigeria, Kenya and Zambia. Last year I decided to finish it with the intention of self-publishing it. At the moment, it is only available as an e-book on Amazon but I hope to get some hard copies printed. It has been well received hence my plans to have it produced in hard copy.

What do you site as the turning point in your writing career?
Because of the way I started writing, I would say winning the Macmillan Prize was my starting and turning point. I’m not sure I would have continued as a writer if I hadn’t been successful with my first piece of writing. I was so sure it would come to nothing I didn’t tell anybody I was writing until I won the prize. Winning the Commonwealth short story competition in 2007 was a significant point in my writing career because that is when I decided to study for an MA in writing because I decided to pursue a career as a writer.

What do you think is the most difficult aspect of being a writer on the continent as opposed to being a writer in the UK?
As the world opens up due to the internet etc., I think more and more, the challenges writers face will be similar as the physical location of the writer will matter less. Having made the point, I feel in Africa countries like Zambia are lagging behind due to the lack of infrastructure (creative writing courses, literary agents, a vibrant publishing industry,  investment in writers and the creative industries, etc.) to support and develop writers.

What are you working on at the moment?
I am working on two projects in Zambia, a radio drama series titled Minding Shupe’s Business and a film documentary titled Aunty Rebecca. Aunty Rebecca is a about a volunteer social counsellor who is almost single-handedly working to educate communities about cervical cancer and HIV and the link between the two diseases. Zambia, despite its small population, has one of the highest cervical cancer rates in the world. By following Aunty Rebecca around the Cancer Hospital as she counsels, the documentary highlights the challenges faced in trying to bring the prevalence incidences down.
When I’m done, I plan to write another YA fictional book – hopefully before the year is up.


(NOTE: This columns first appeared in the 2 June 2017 issue of Mmegi in my column, It's All Write)