Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A Review: Fela This Bitch of a Life: the Authorized Biography of Africa’s Musical Genius

Fela Kuti is undoubtedly one of Africa’s best musicians ever. Fela This Bitch of a Life: The Authorized Biography of Africa’s Musical Genius by Carlos Moore re-published by African Perspectives is as interesting and eclectic a book as was the man it is about. The book was first published in France in 1982, this new edition came out this year with a forward from Gilberto Gil, a note from the author, additional chapters at the end about the last years of Fela’s life from 1982 to his death in 1997, and an introduction from Margaret Busby.

The book is unique in that though it is a biography, it was written from hours of direct interviews between Moore and Fela. Some chapters are written as transcripts of those interviews, in Fela’s voice and in the first person. This is also the case with the handful of Fela’s wives, or queens as they are described in the book, and close friends such as J.K. Braimah and Sandra Smith. This sort of format I found very intriguing and gives the book an authenticity as a near autobiography that other books on Fela could not have.

The book begins with Fela’s early life with his very politically aware parents. His mother was committed to improving the lives of Nigerians, women in particular, and travelled around the world in her work. His father was a Christian reverend who founded a school and was the first president of the Nigerian Union of Teachers.

Fela’s parents sent him to England to study music at Trinity College of Music. It was there where he started his first band. The band eventually went to the United States but they only had limited success there. He eventually moved back to Nigeria and established the commune, Kalakuta, and his club, The Shrine. In 1978, he married his twenty-seven wives on a single day to much controversy. At the time he had only his first wife, Remi. Fela was a complicated person, with an open, progressive, ever-learning mind, but at the same time he held positions that are hard to accept as well. His attitude toward women is one of these such positions:
“Yeh, I understand many things about women…but they are not on the same level with men…equality between male and female? No! Never! Impossible!...It seems the man must dominate. I don’t want to say so, but it seems so.”
Beating his wives also seemed to be a regular occurrence at Kalakuta. Later in his life, though, he developed a more progressive attitude toward women and the constraints of marriage.
“The marriage institution for the progress of the mind is evil…People marry because they are jealous. People marry because they are possessive. People marry because they are selfish. All this comes to the very ugly fact that people want to own and control, other people’s bodies.”

Fela was persecuted by the various leaders of Nigeria because he refused to accept their corrupt and illegitimate claims to power and spoke freely about what they were doing to the people. Fela was a musician but he used his music to challenge the status quo, and to rage at those abusing their power at the expense of the poor. Corrupt leaders did not like that. He was arrested and beaten and imprisoned many times on usually trumped up charges. One of the most brutal attacks occurred at Kalakuta where many of his wives were raped, his mother injured to such an extent that her health was so weakened that Fela believed it was, at least, partly the cause of her eventual death, and the premises were burned down.

After his mother’s death, Fela’s spirituality grew. Through his dreams and his various guides he managed to communicate with his mother. Unfortunately is appears people took advantage of his grief and some were not legitimately there to assist him in his spiritual quest but only to take from him or persecute others. He became paranoid and aggressive because he could not see who to trust.  He also began experiencing trances.
“In that trance I saw the tide change, that this whole earth was going to change into something different, into what people call the Age of Aquarius. I saw that it was going to be the age of goodness where music was going to be the final expression of the human race and musicians were going to be very important in the development of human society.”

When the first symptom of HIV/AIDS appeared, lesions around his body, he saw it as part of his spiritual journey and the shedding of his skin to grow his “new skin”. His refusal to accept his illness led to controversy yet again with the release of his song, Condom, Scaliwag, and Scatter, preaching to the people not to use condoms.

I found Fela this Bitch of a Life to be an interesting, eclectic read about a complicated man; I highly recommend it.

 (This was first published in my column It's All Write in the 2 December 2016 issue of Mmegi newspaper)

Monday, November 21, 2016

Affluenza by Niq Mhlongo-A Review

Affluenza is the latest book from South African writer Niq Mhlongo. It’s a collection of stories set in modern South Africa, post-Independence. The stories cover a wide range of topics from love to murder to HIV/AIDS and materialism, a seemingly eclectic mix.
The Warning Signs is a story about land invasion and the issues around the morality of land ownership. A white Zimbabwean, Mr Adams has now moved to South Africa after being kicked off his farm in Zimbabwe, only to find the same thing happening again. He’s not a sympathetic protagonist in that he is racist and treats his workers badly, but still the story shows the issue from his side too, with a sad surprising twist.
Goliwood Drama is a story played out again and again, not only in South Africa but all over the world, the story of questionable paternity. Thami is sure that the last born child with his estranged wife is not his. At the court, he demands a paternity test but no one is ready for the secrets it will reveal.
The suicide of a university student is at the heart of The Dark End of Our Street. Four Blocks Away is about love and the search of a condom in a foreign country when your woman is waiting back at the hotel.  Betrayal in the Wilderness is set in Kruger Park where a horrible accident plays out.
In Catching the Sun, Ngwako is visited by some strangers from the Eastern Cape. The strangers come bearing sad news that Ngwako’s daughter has died in a car accident. Ngwako’s response is surprise since he knows his daughter is studying at university. But these strangers have more bad news for him. Not only was she in a car far away from university, she was with their son who she was planning to marry and the child they had together. Ngwako’s response to this news is unexpected.
My Name is Peaches is told in first person from the perspective of a young woman who is speaking to a dead man about the many secrets revealed at his funeral. The Gumboot Dancer looks at the extent a man can go to get the woman he wants, even lying about his friend. While The Baby Shower shows how badly a woman can want a child, so bad she can resort to horrible deeds.
Passport and Dreadlocks is about a group of men off to Vic Falls on the quest to find rich, foreign women to sleep with, mooch off of, and hopefully get married to like one of their friends famously did. But things go wrong even before they leave when Two-Boy’s dreadlocks—the apparent key to catching foreign rich women—have been stolen along with his passport.
The title story is Affluenza, referring to a disease suffered by people in Joburg where they are willing to buy the most expensive car or suit, but live in debt and in a shack. In it, Fana is meeting his friend, Sanele, at the nearby bar. Sanele is getting married and tonight is his surprise bachelor’s party. While waiting for Sanele to pitch up, Fana meets some beautiful women at the bar and he invites them to come along for the party. What happens next typifies the affluenza disease.
Though the stories seem to have no clear theme, for me they often show a sort of behaviour lacking in humanity at that moment, where getting what you want is paramount with no sense of what is right or moral. It seems as if Mhlongo is acting as a warning bell to us all— chasing money, chasing sex, ignoring commitments, violating basic cultural practises and the dignity of those around us, will lead to our demise. Change your ways, the stories seem to say. In so many of the stories, if only the characters would have chosen the right thing instead of the easy thing or the one motivated by greed, the endings would have been better, happier. I wondered as I read, is this the people we are now? Chasing money at all cost, the next drink, the next lay? I hope not. I feel the author hopes not too, that he offers these stories as a mirror to us to see the truth and to change our ways before it is too late.
Mhlongo writes in simple, solid language— my favourite— telling stories many might want to avoid. He seems to be poking fun sometimes at his wayward characters and the disastrous choices that they make. An interesting collection you would not want to miss. 
(This review first appeared in my column, It's All Write, in the 11 Nov, 2016 edition of Mmegi)

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Essence Festival Durban South Africa

I will be speaking at the Essence Festival in Durban South Africa on  Friday 11 November from 2-3 pm. The event is taking place in the Durban ICC and I will be at the area called Coffee Conversation.

I will be in conversation with South African writer Elana Bregin and facilitator Ayanda Mabanga. We will be  speaking on:  “A writer’s response – a conversation about creativity”.
Click Here to learn more about the Festival.
Hope to see people there !!

Monday, October 3, 2016

Don't Miss the BHHT/Diamond Educational Publishers Publishing Seminar!!

The Bessie Head Heritage Trust (BHHT) /Diamond Educational Publishers Publishing Seminar is on Saturday, 15 October 2016, University of Botswana Block 252, Lecture Theatre 4
9:00 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. 
It is FREE and open to the public. Teas are provided, make your own arrangements for lunch. Please share widely, this should not be missed if you are interested in getting your work published. 
Below please see the programme for the day:  

Session I:  
 Preparing your Manuscript for Publication
                    Mary Lederer
Session II
                    Publishing Options
                    Lauri Kubuitsile


 Session III
                    Your Rights as a Writer
                    Lauri Kubuitsile


Session IV
                    A Publisher’s Responsibilities
                    Goememang Mogapi, Diamond Educational Publishers

See you there!!!!

Monday, September 26, 2016

African Writers You Should Know: Zukiswa Wanner

Photo credit: Fungai Machirori

Zukiswa Wanner is a South African writer who was born in Zambia to a South African father and Zimbabwean mother and now makes her home in Nairobi. Her novels include The Madams, Men of the South, Behind Every Successful Man, and her most recent, London Cape Town Joburg, which won the K Sello Duiker Prize.  

She’s also written two children’s books: Jama Loves Bananas and Refilwe. She is active in numerous Pan-African writing initiatives including being on the board of Writivism, a judge for the Etisalat Prize, and a judge for our very own Bessie Head Short Story Prize for two years in a row.

She is one of Africa39, a list of African writers under 40 years of age who the Hay Festival organisers believe have talent and potential to define the trends of literature from the continent. I was happy to have a chance to ask her a few questions about her career and her activism on behalf of African literature.

Me: I read  that you purposefully choose the point of view of characters who are not like you. Can we write about people who are not like us? When does it become cultural appropriation? Is there anything like cultural appropriation for writers?

Zukiswa: Look at you starting with the difficult questions.  I think there can be cultural appropriation if writers in particular and artists in general fail to do due diligence and have enough research on their work of art. My little thing is that I tend to seek, among my readers when the book is still a first draft, at least three people who may have similarities or be familiar with the background of my character so I get that little edge in where authenticity is concerned. That said, it amuses me no end how social realism, as a fiction genre, always requires one to be more realistic than creative nonfiction.

Me: Are you the human definition of the Pan Africanism? Is that important to you?

Zukiswa: I probably need to stay in Brazil before I can be the human definition of a pan-African but yes, as a social observer, it is pretty important to me. The downside is that in some ways, I am always an outsider-looking in but it’s also very much the upside because all these countries have been generous enough to allow me certain intimacies with them that are not often given outsiders.

Me: You are active in writing initiatives around the continent, why do you think such initiatives are so important?

Zukiswa: I recently did a keynote at the Fourth Writivism Literary Festival and I explained why I feel these initiatives are important. In short, I think given the space that we are in as writers in Africa, our literary landscape has never been as fruitful as it is now. For that reason, we need to ensure that those of us with voices let others know about the exciting works that are coming from here. When other writers win, all writers win and the continent wins. Because more readers means more people who question. It is that simple to me.

Me: Do African writers have to be published overseas to be considered a success?

Zukiswa: I think this has been the case for a long time but this is changing. I know book clubs that I introduced some books published on this continent to and they loved them so much they now read African-published literature frequently.

Me: In a perfect world what would your writing career look like?

Zukiswa: I think it would look mostly like it does now but with a monthly salary for my bills because someone would have recognised that what I do is work. I know Lorenzo and Catherine de Medeci, less as members of the Florentine ruling family and more for being patrons of the arts... maybe this is something our African billionaires and gazillionaires should think of (sends a message out to the universe that Dangote, Motsepe and co read this). Their legacy would live forever. It saddens me that Miles Morland is doing something that African philanthropists should be doing with his grant. And that none of them have seen why it’s necessary that they have something similar or better.

Me:  What one thing could our publishers on the continent do to make our lives as writers living and writing here easier and more lucrative?

Zukiswa: There still needs to be better work done by publishers on the African continent on editing (some books have atrocious editing) and distribution. It breaks my heart that it is still easier to get a book that is published in the United Kingdom when one stays in Kenya than getting one published in Uganda or Tanzania which are neighbouring countries. They need to do better on this because, no matter how well-written the books are, so long as readers in different African countries do not have access to them, African writers published on the continent may as well not be writing.

Me: What are you working on at the moment?
A travel memoir and a historical fiction novel.

(This first appeared in my column, It's All Write, in the 23 Sept. edition of Mmegi newspaper)

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

I'm off to Open Book Festival in Cape Town!!

Tomorrow I leave for Cape Town to attend the Open Book Festival to talk about my latest novel, The Scattering. I'll be on three panels and if you're in Cape Town I'd love to meet you!

The panels I'm on are:

Thursday (8 Sept)  2 pm at Annexe 1:
Topic: Switching Courses: 
Lauri Kubuitsile, Bronwyn Law-Viljoen and Michela Wrong discuss the difficult choices they force on their  characters. It will be chaired by Yewande Omotoso

Saturday (10 Sept) 10 am at Book Lounge
Topic: Writing Colonialism
Lauri Kubuitsile and Kim Leine reflect on the brutality of colonialism at opposite ends of the world. Chaired by Bongani Kona.

Sunday (11 Sept) 2 pm at HCC Workshop
Topic: In the Crossfire
Dianne Case, Nadia Hashimi and Lauri Kubuitsile explore the position of women in conflicts through the lens of personal narrative. Chaired by Palesa Morudu

Hope to see you there!!

Friday, September 2, 2016

Review of Scars on my Skin

Nina Simone said in an interview that, “You can't help it. An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times”. I think Namibian poet, activist, community worker, and performer Keamogetsi J. Molapong takes these words to heart. In the 1980s when he started writing poetry, he protested against the South African apartheid system that cruelly controlled Namibia. Now his poetry is about the corruption of the new elite and the gap between rich and poor, though he still finds time for the occasional love poem.

The Scars On My Skin is Molapong’s second poetry collection, his first, Come Talk Your Heart was published in 2005. The title of The Scars on my Skin stems from the idea that every scar has a story to tell.

Molapong is a well-seasoned poet. He has performed on stages around Namibia as well as at both the 1st and the 2nd SADC Poetry Festivals held in Gaborone and Windhoek. He performed in Durban at the 11th Poetry Afrika Festival,  in Germany at the Poesie Berlin Festival and at the Ba Re E Ne Re Poetry Festival in Lesotho.  The Scars On My Skin was adapted into a play directed by Aldo Behreng and performed during last year’s Bank Windhoek Arts Festival.

Scars On My Skin includes many poems about the ruling elite who seem to have forgotten where they come from and instead are blinded by greed. Fake Money is a biting indictment of these people in power; it could easily apply to our situation in Botswana too:

They eat the economy
And talk of democracy
As if their lives meant
Anything to the poor
And sleeping masses
They…they have
Their skies of no limits
We…we have
The measurements
To dig our own graves
We cannot afford.

Molapong knows the way poverty is used to keep the masses at the mercy of the elite, he does not shy away from speaking the truth. In his poem Poverty he writes:

…Being poor is not exclusively for you
Neither is poverty designed just for us
It is the short leash used by comrades
To tie us down to our shame and ignorance
A platinum policy for their happy retirement…

In Let’s Go To Parliament Molapong calls the people to stand-up and make the change that will finally emancipate us from the shackles of this neo-colonialist, capitalist-controlled, greed-fuelled situation we find ourselves in. 

…Let’s dissipate their phantom castles
Burn their asses—I mean ashes
And call the winds to blow them
Into the cold of the Atlantic Ocean
Let’s blowtorch their greed, lust
Into fake memories of colonialism
Cripple their self-styled powers
Humble their pride and position
To the grounds of our realities. ..

Scars On My Skin is not only about political poems, in the mix are insightful and sometimes very beautiful love poems. Teach Me, Please is the plea of a man ready to change, a man who knows his limitations, and wants to be what his woman needs him to be.

…Teach me sister, give me the language
That would not be chauvinistic and crude
Steer my clapping tongue though wording
That would not make you hate me forever

Teach me, woman of my happiest dreams
To express my inner most love for you.

Another touching poem is Time which echoes back to the title of the collection:

Time, they say, heals
Wounds become scars,
Tears turn into a salty smell
And a smile masks the pain inside…

Often I see poets on stage and I wonder what’s the point? Poetry that does not move the reader or listener, does not give insight, is as good as nothing. If My Poem Can’t Move You addresses that very issue:

…If the lines I recite carry no image,
Put no doubt in your heart
Why should I continue reciting? …

The Scars On My Skin is an intriguing collection from one of Namibia’s leading poets and deserves more attention; find it and give it a read. 

(This review first appeared in my column It's All Write in Mmegi newspaper 19 August, 2016)