Friday, 12 July 2013

Purple Hibiscus: Hope Blooms in a Bittersweet Tale of Nigeria

Adichie’s debut novel is a thoroughly engaging and exquisitely crafted piece of work. As a first novel it is nothing short of astonishing. To the outside world, fifteen-year-old Kambili, her seventeen-year-old brother Jaja, and their self-effacing mother Beatrice, are living the dream life in Enugu, Nigeria.

However, behind the enviable gates of the estate, provided by their benevolent businessman, father, and husband, Eugene Achike, life is less than rosy. Eugene’s religious fanaticism and overbearing hand end up imprisoning and incapacitating those whom he professes to love the most. He metes out severe punishments for minor transgressions, leaving in his wake physical and emotional scars. As if the pressures of home life are not enough, the children must deal with the social and emotional ups and downs of adolescence, peer relations, and petty rivalries.

A ray of light enters this grim picture in the person of Eugene’s widowed sister, who invites the children to spend time with her family in the university town of Nsukka.The visit to Aunty Ifeoma’s modest home in the university apartments begins a series of life-changing experiences with far-reaching consequences for everyone in the Achike family. In the end, the most decisive actions come from the least expected sources.

'Purple Hibiscus' is a multi-dimensional novel. It is a tender first-person narrative of a teenage girl who finds her own voice, despite years of abuse and intimidation that have left her stuttering. It is a story of love, the strange love in her nuclear family that generates no laughter, the nurturing love that holds her extended family together, and the personal turmoil and excitement of her first crush. Kambili’s narrative voice is fresh and authentic, her English enriched with local Igbo expressions and peppered with Nigerianisms such as: “the girl is a ripe agbogho! Very soon a strong young man will bring us palm wine!”

Set in the Igbo region of eastern Nigeria, the story draws the reader into the environment and cultural experiences of a significant segment of Nigerian society. From the scenic hillsides of Enugu and Nsukka to the unpaved rural roads of Abba and Aokpe, each locale is essential to the main characters’ well-being, providing a much needed balance between the busy urban centres and the ancestral and kinship base of the countryside. The author, herself an Igbo, is obviously familiar with her terrain and the urban-rural balance. One gets a taste of the shades and nuances of contemporary Nigerian life: the rich diversity of its peoples and their traditions, their staple and snack foods, and the variety of their religious beliefs.

In telling the story of Kambili and the extraordinary events that transform her world, Adichie manages to present and explore a number of important issues rather intricately. Her characters are complex and credible. On the question of domestic abuse, for instance, Eugene is at once the most courageous, generous, and compassionate citizen - receiving recognition from locals as well as world organizations - and the most unforgiving tyrant. His loved ones - ironically, his victims - are dazzled by his enormous persona, thus perpetuating the cycle. Adichie courageously raises other poignant questions without ever resorting to preaching. Mandatory celibacy in the Catholic clergy is a logical issue when a young priest becomes the object of romantic affection; the legitimacy of Igbo traditional religion is obvious when observed close to Catholic ritual.

She captures the resilience of the citizens faced with political instability and series of military coups; the struggle to maintain intellectual freedom and autonomy in higher education; and most of all, the preponderance of poverty and want in the midst of so much national wealth. Bright intellectuals and educators flee the country to avoid rising autocratic rule, intimidation, and deteriorating social services.

One minor criticism is the absence of a glossary for this novel. Adichie does a good job of placing most Igbo expressions in comprehensible context, but this leads to frustration with the reader wanting to find the translation of a term, the meaning of which is, at best, ambiguous, for instance: “’Will the fuel make it, Mom?’ Obiora asked. “Amarom, we can try”’.

This is, however, a very minor criticism of what is a wonderful debut novel.

Citation: Ruby A. Bell-Gam. Review of Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi, Purple Hibiscus. H-AfrTeach, H-Net Reviews. December, 2004.

My next destination is the neighbouring country of Chad, linked to Nigeria by a narrow border in the north east, alongside Lake Chad. Despite its proximity however, this is no simple journey, starting with the need for a single-entry visa costing US$100 for 1 month.

Worse still, however, decades of civil war following independence from France in 1960, along with more recent rebellions and rebel incursions from neighbouring countries, have left Chad’s transport infrastructure in tatters.

Rail travel into the country is impossible, and roads are in disrepair and are typically unpaved. Equally perilous on the roads are the coupeurs de route (road bandits). Ex-pats were attacked in two separate incidents in 2005 on one major stretch, resulting in the death of one Catholic nun. The rickety and poorly maintained buses are scarcely less of a danger on these roads... and it is equally impossible to reach Chad by boat from Nigeria unless crossing illegally through Lake Chad.

However, I am keen not to rely too much on anonymous air travel (itself a circuitous route between these countries) so I take my life into my hands and go by road... Although there are no official border crossings between the two countries, it’s possible to make a quickish – if hair-raising - transit across Cameroon.

In Nigeria, I take a bush taxi from Maiduguri in north-eastern Nigeria to the border crossing into Cameroon at Ngala. On the Cameroon side I ask for a laissez-passer whichs to allows me to make the two-hour traverse of Cameroon (where I will be returning soon).

We head to Maroua (the capital of the Far North Region of Cameroon) where I pick up a rickety minibus to the Chad border point at Kousséri. Here I pick up a motorcycle taxi over the bridge into the border town of Nguelé, stopping once more to catch an even more rickety minibus to N’Djamena, the capital of Chad. Finally, I take one of the eregular buses in the capital on a bumpy six hour journey to Moundou. Thus I arrive, tired, dusty, shaken and relieved, in the second largest city in Chad, and the next leg of my journey 'The Plagues of Friendship' a novel by native author Sem Miantoloum Beasnael, a tale of childhood friendship that goes tragically sour...

Monday, 8 July 2013

An apology, an update and some exciting news....

Firstly let me start with an apology. Whilst I have been regularly updating my website with my travel progress (and also revamping the design and layout – you can see it at: – let me know what you think!), I have let my blog get a bit out of date.

In fact, I got a shock when I realised my last post was back in April 2012 – I hope my followers are still out there!!

Rest assured I am still forging on with my literary expedition around the world – and loving every minute of it.

Since my last post (Libya), I have been making my way around the West of Africa, taking in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Gibraltar, Western Sahara, Mauritania, Cape Verde, Gambia, Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote D’Ivoire, Mali, Niger, Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo and am currently in Nigeria (courtesy of the wonderful novel ‘Purple Hibiscus’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

So you can see I have not been slacking in my travels – I just need to catch up with myself with all of these reviews for this blog!!

There is also another, exciting, reason for the lag in updating these reviews; as I have been working on volume one of "Reading the World: A Global Journey Through Literature.” This book will be published around early 2014, and details my experiences in preparing for and setting out on my travels through literature... Volume 1 will cover my journey from 2009 when I started out, through to the end of 2010. More volumes will follow...

I will update this blog with more details on this soon (as well as some of the reviews of the visits listed above), and you can also check for updates on my new FaceBook page:

Back to Nigeria now, see you soon!

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Outside Looking In: Letters From Togo

Susan Blake's essays — her “Letters from Togo” — are based on the letters she wrote to her friends from Lomé, the West African capital where she spent a Fulbright year teaching American literature from 1983 to 1984, with return trips in 1990 and 1991. As Blake begins the process of making sense out of a vibrant, seeming anarchy, we are pulled along with her into the heart of Togo—a tiny dry strip of a country sandwiched between Ghana and Benin.

In the course of her letters Blake introduces us to Mahouna, her housekeeper, who runs a cold drink business from his refrigerator in a country where electricity is unreliable; to American Lee Ann and her Togolese family, who works at the American school to earn the fees for a private education for her children; and to the suave René, with whom a relationship briefly flourishes and who teeters on the edge of the Togolese and expatriate worlds.

Since Lomé is both an overgrown village and a cosmopolitan city, Blake's often humorous experiences range from buying a car to attending a traditional tom-tom funeral, from visiting people who hunt with bows and arrows to enduring faculty meetings, from negotiating the politics of buying produce to lecturing on Afro-American literature at the English Club. Together, her letters trace the pattern of adjusting to a foreign environment and probe the connections between Africa and this curious, energetic American. Not "out of Africa" but within it, they take advantage of time and perspective to penetrate the universal experience of being a stranger in a strange land...

All in all an engaging memoir of an engaging country, but one which – as Blake herself acknowledges – is written very much from an outsiders perspective.

From Togo I leapfrog neighbouring Benin (where I have already visited) and head to Nigeria.

Passenger trains into Nigeria being virtually non-existent I am forced to part with the best part of £350 for a flight ticket. I make my way to the nearby Lomé-Tokoin airport and catch a flight on Togolese airline Asky, leaving at 13.30 and arriving an hour later in Lagos’ Murtala Muhammad airport at 15.30 (allowing for the time difference).

There is a rather inconvenient fifteen hour stopover (compared to just two hours flight time in total between destinations!) so I spend a night in a nearby hotel, the Deskyline Hotel. It is just a couple of minutes around the corner from the airport, and there is a restaurant where I am able to grab a beer and a meal of local fare. However, my room (which sets me back $100) is basic to say the least, still it is a bed for the night...

The next morning I catch the onward Arik Air International flight at 7.20. Again, this flight lasts just one hour before I am landing at my next destination – Enugu in Nigeria and the novel "Purple Hisbiscus" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.