Just Like You

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there’s no turning around

You sat on your bed, hearing old springs creak loudly in the silence. And you took in the emptiness of the large cold room, the full realisation of it washing over you. You were away from home for the first time in your life. Eighteen years old and eager to grow up. The view outside was beautiful, a grand mountain range spreading large motherly arms around the city, as far as the eye could see. You sighed. It was meant to be a sigh of contentment, but all that came out was a nervous rushing of air. Loud in the silence. You moved away from the window, embarrassed, even though you were alone in the room. You couldn’t even express your emotions right – how would you survive here? How would you cook your food, forge friendships, make everyone at home proud of their decision to send you so far away to get a good education? You sighed again – this time more convincingly – picked up your bags and started the long lonely process of unpacking them.

I’m too far from home

You’re out of breath from running to catch the train. Two years later and you can never seem to make it out of bed on time. A rotund black woman with equally round eyeglasses stamps a ticket and hands it to you. Is that a smile or a snarl? You step onto  the train, locating your usual place, third row on the left. Slumping in your seat, you fish a book out of your bag, wondering for the hundredth time if you will ever get used to the acrid smell of urine, sweat and fish that pervades the cabin. Still,  the third window is one of the two which opens just a crack, offering relief once the train starts moving.

You open the book – glad for the only moment of the day when you can retreat into a world of fiction. You don’t notice the four men – boys, really – who step onto the train in a single file. They are quiet, talking amongst themselves in soft clicks and hushed exclamations. In a moment, the clicking stops. The train is quiet. Too quiet.  You look up from the book and turn to where the four boys are standing around one of the passengers. You crane your neck to find the familiar face of a tall gangly man in a shabby suit. You both take this train three days a week – you, out of breath from running, and clutching a totebag of schoolbooks and laptop. He, in the same clean but threadbare jacket, holding an equally wellworn briefcase of notes in one hand.The first time you meet, you smile reserved smiles at each other.

The clicking begins again, loud this time. You see the man in a suit look up at the boys in confusion. His eyes register a slight defiance, retreating steadily in fear as the boys’ questions take on a harsh tone.

Usukaphi? Where are you from, you later find out.

Usukaphi? Louder.

Two brows furrowed in confusion. Eight brows stare back menacingly.

Ndibonise iI.D. yakho? This you can make out. And a cold realisation sets in – these boys are part of it. A wave of xenophobic attacks you have been reading about in the paper for almost a week now. Makeshift homes razed to  the ground, immigrants barely making it out alive as they grabbed any of their few possessions to seek refuge in churches and community halls.

The man in a suit is a foreigner. Just like you.

In May 2008, a series of riots started in a township in Johannesburg, when locals attacked migrants from Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, killing 2 people and injuring 40 others. The violence spread in the following weeks to Gauteng and then to the coastal cities of Durban and Cape Town. In a month, 62 were left dead, 21 of whom were South African citizens. Reports showed that local leaders orchestrated the violence in many of these areas.

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christmas – how do you do yours?

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The Freshly Ground concert that I was so looking forward to has been cancelled. This is because the band was double-booked for shows in East Africa and South Africa, apparently. That manager needs to be fired, evidently. Well, now I have 80,000 shillings with which to fix my wonky glasses, but I also need to make fresh Saturday night plans.

Christmas seems to come earlier and earlier each year. I blame it mostly on these damn supermarket chains that started hanging up tinsel and lights and things before I’d even decided what to go as for Halloween. (A sexy witch, in case you’re wondering) Aside: If Uchumi puts out that caroling Santa this year, I swear to God, I will draw genitals on its face while no one’s looking!

Anyway, despite our family tradition of no-gift-giving, I have decided to make holiday gifts for the family. Taxidermied rats. I got the idea after watching Dinner for Shmucks (hilarious. go rent it now) – they just looked so cute and I thought I could do a few to resemble (and possibly, though unintentionally, mock) my parents and siblings. Once they get past the formaldehyde smell and the deadness of the rats, I think they’ll really appreciate my gift.

Other than that, it looks like a trip to the village, as per our same ol’ yearly plan for the holidays. As I get older, I have come to appreciate this version of a Christmas celebration: to get away from the bustling consumer-driven madness of the city (after doing a week’s worth of shopping for our trip, of course) and spend a few days in the relative tranquility of our charming little village home, surrounded by family, cows and copious amounts of boxed wine.

Africa’s new stories

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Few things give me greater joy than reading and talking about African literature. So I had a big fat smile on my face when I opened this week’s East African to find a full-page article on the current direction of African writing. The East African rocks. I hope our local dailies are listening.

Aside: did I just describe a newspaper as rocking? I need a new hobby.

The writer of this article, a Kenyan, doesn’t particularly address anything novel.

Yes, our continent’s new writers are increasingly being given voice by Western publishers – Adichie’s writing comes out of US publishing houses, and even Achebe happily set up camp at Brown University.

Yes, African readers often tend to discover their own talent ironically after said talent is honored with a Western literary prize – the Caine, the Booker, the Orange Prize and so on. I’m not saying our writers don’t deserve international acclaim, but what does it say about our continent’s reading culture that we don’t know who Olufemi Terry is until he wins the Caine Prize?

And yes – whether as a direct result of these factors or not – African writers hoping to be discovered are adopting a more ‘global’ language; beyond war, famine and the ills of colonialism to dates in coffee houses, interracial romance and new technology.

What I loved most about this article was the writer’s acknowledgment of our continent’s vast young talent. In Uganda at least, Achebe, Soyinka, wa Thiong’o; these men are still mandatory reading on any student’s list. And rightly so. The stories of our past are fiercely important and there’s no denying that our “all-time greats” have greatly influenced our young writers’ voices (a la Achebe and Adichie).

I’m just waiting for the day when Adichie and Baingana will be taught alongside the greats. Their stories are Africa now – the Africa that studies abroad and returns mind and heart full of cultural confusion, if they return at all; the Africa that is struggling to find a voice and place among a rapidly-evolving technological playing field; the Africa that has to worry about civil war, about HIV/AIDS, about homosexuality.

The writer was good enough to share a list of his personal 25 favorite authors out of Africa. Before I share a short personal favorites list, I must admit to suffering from the indecision that plagued wa Thiong’o about what or who exactly is an ‘African’ author; to being limited to the Anglophones only; and to being kind of a rookie at this 🙂

  1. Chimamanda Adichie (all 3 books so far)
  2. Doreen Baingana (Tropical Fish)
  3. Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Decolonising the Mind)
  4. Achebe (Anthills of the Savannah; No Longer at Ease)
  5. Ayi Kwei Armah (The Beautyful Ones are not yet Born)
  6. Segun Afolabi (A Life Elsewhere)
  7. Monica Arac de Nyeko (Jambula Tree; Strange Fruit)
  8. Naguib Mahfouz (The Cairo Trilogy)
  9. Wole Soyinka (the Brother Jero plays; The Man Died)
  10. Ben Okri (The Famished Road)

I’d like to know your thoughts on African literature as you’ve come to know it, and which writers make your favorites list!

Update: Naija’s new chapter of literary history, CNN

throwing one more dice

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For many of us, there is always a point where we stop and think, is this what I am meant to be doing with my life?

I made a decision some days ago to abandon altogether something in which I have invested close to 5 years and a shitload of money and effort. I could no longer shake the niggling feeling that I was at the wrong party.

My heart wasn’t really in it from the start, but I kept telling myself that if I worked hard enough, it would all be okay. I could learn to love it. No such thing. That little voice just gets louder with time.

I am a firm believer in pursuing the things we are passionate about and good at. It makes no sense at all to have a talent for one thing, but spend your life chasing after something you’re not very good at because you’ve let people convince you that it is “better-paying” or “it will open doors for you”.

I am in essence throwing away the past five years, and pretty much starting fresh, and I am shitscared, but I also have a very good feeling about this.

I just stumbled across this little article, and I’m taking it as yet another sign:

Be willing to fail—doing something you love.
In 1997 I had just graduated from law school (with tons of student-loan debt) and was interviewing for high-paying positions at big firms. The problem was, my heart wasn’t in it. So I took myself out of the running in order to build a small Internet publishing company with a friend. After a year of barely staying afloat, our venture went the way of a 404 ERROR message. I was broke and unemployed, and Sallie Mae was hot on my tail. I wondered what endeavor I should try next.
It sounds crazy, but once again I decided to throw caution to the wind and just do what I wanted. I began working as a trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice. Over the next few years, I held a wide array of fascinating jobs that I took because they captured my imagination: serving in the military, reporting from Iraq for the Washington Post, and, most recently, becoming a full-time author. Some might consider me flighty for changing careers so often, but I contend that the key to professional happiness is asking yourself two simple questions every single day: Are you passionate about what you do? And if not, what are you going to do instead?

Bill Murphy Jr., the author of The Intelligent Entrepreneur

Close Encounters of the Unwanted Kind

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I am not going into Mr. Price again.

This is not a rant against the chain store itself. Sure, its Ugandan outlet is overpriced and more than half of the merchandise offered (the women’s section, at least) looks like someone ingested too much plaid, glitter and studs and proceeded to vomit on the clothes.

Besides that, it has its charm; being one of the few clothes shops in the country with in-store music and shop attendants with a modicum of courtesy and agreeability. Also, the floors are unbelievably smooth and provide the perfect place to practice one’s moon-walking skills.

I am not going into Mr. Price again because within the milk white clothes racks and polished floors lies an evil chasm for inevitable social entrapment. 

I’m talking about the fact that whenever I go in there, I am guaranteed to run into someone I know and don’t want to see. Invariably this will be someone that a) I went to school with and haven’t seen in ages and wasn’t sad about this fact; b) I work with and am glad to see Monday through Friday only; or c) I am related to.

Awkward moments can be cool sometimes, like when you’re using a narrow sidewalk and you bump into a good-looking stranger and you both do that side-step dance.  

But social entrapment is always awkward and never cool. There I am, basking in the enjoyable solitude of shopping, and I see person a, b or c in the same aisle. Social decorum demands we say hello to each other, and thus begins the “Hey! What are you doing here?” (facepalm!). Chances are that we have only two things to talk about with each other – how are you; how’s work?

Once that’s covered, a loud silence descends, blocking out the sounds of Soulja Boy on the speakers till only chirping can be heard.

I finally manage to giggle, cough and excuse myself. Phew. Survived that. Onwards to more shopping. But Mr. Price is a relatively small store and as Sod’s Law would have it, I almost always bump into the same person at the shoe aisle or the underwear aisle.

The small monster of an awkward conversation that we had earlier rears its ugly head. Having exhausted my supply of pleasantries and banter, what’s left to say? I once bumped into an old aunt (the kind that feels her sole duties on earth are to watch your weight and remind you that the time’s running out on your “marriageable years”) at the underwear aisle. I froze, feigning fascination in the only thing in front of me – Hello Kitty pajamas. She came over to me, held out a black lace bra and slip and said loudly, ‘My dear you’ll never find a man wearing children’s bedclothes.’

Fuck Mr. Price.

Perfume: the story of a murderer

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Is Patrick Suskind’s horrible and ingenious tale of young Jean-Baptiste Grenouille who has an extraordinary sense of smell and an obsession with finding and bottling the essence of perfection. 

Suskind writes as the young man’s shadow, a technique that works perfectly as he takes us into the murderer’s mind, a fascinating thing because he sees the world through his nose, as it were.

Grenouille isn’t introduced immediately as the single-minded killer he turns out to be. Instead we follow his journey from orphaned boyhood in Paris to the faubourgs of northern France, and learn more than we bargained for about the business of perfumery in the 1700s. Suskind never lets up on the evocative images and smells -never before has a story delighted and revolted all my senses like this one did.  

What is surprising is that I wasn’t once struck with revulsion at Grenouille’s sick quest – you find yourself going from pity to wonder to confusion and only occasionally, disgust. So well written is Suskind’s tale that it is hard to lose (what I think is) his message. Beneath the horror of a man who had to murder young girls to bottle their innocence – if such a thing were ever possible – I believe Perfume is a story about duplicity of belief.

The climactic scene of Grenouille’s public killing for his crimes turns into a rapturous orgy of worship – and yet Grenouille who has wanted this all his life wonders how people can worship what they do not understand – only he with the superhuman sense of smell knew that they adored his innocence, and yet the crowd believes they are in adoration of Grenouille himself.

Their adoration is rendered even more superficial because Grenouille doesn’t exist without the scent of innocence. Having no smell of his own, he has floated through life virtually unnoticed and strangely, everyone he comes into contact with dies.

Perfume is a grotesque caricature of our morality that will delight and shock you and make you think.

Plugging alert: I am loving Princess’ new book blog Book Lugambo!

What else is showing

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When you are all finished beating the evening traffic into Garden City, queuing for ages to get a half-price ticket (naye, is it just me or is the Cineplex ticket booth increasingly incompetent? Really all they have to do is take your money and hand you a slip of paper!), squeezing past the millions of other di Caprio fans and sitting down to the ridiculously intense knock-your-socks-off crazy-sick 2 hour mind orgasm that is Inception (but fuck that ending. Me I’ve refused) ….

….when you’re done with that, please get another ticket (it’s half-price, don’t be cheap) to see The Silent Army. You probably won’t thank me after — I have no high praise for it myself. It is another case of African movie, white protagonist and doesn’t manage to let go of the usual stereotypes. Modelled closely on our own LRA war, it is set in a fictitious African country in which a rebel group is leading an insurgency, it follows a Dutch cook who goes looking for his son’s best friend Abu – a young African boy who has been abducted by the rebels.

It highlights the evil brainwashing involved in child abduction and induction into rebel (or any other) armies, the hypocrisy of Western-funded African conflicts and all those other lovely things that go with war on the continent.

I’m asking you to see this film because you will enjoy Abby Mukiibi’s turn as General Obeke, the depraved rebel leader; Sam Okello’s brief but evocative role as Abu’s wheelchair-bound father and of course Abu’s (Andrew Kintu) performance as a war-hardened child soldier.

See this film because you will probably walk out feeling quite proud of these 3 Ugandan actors.