Saturday, 14 December 2013

A Flickering Flame of Hope: One Mother's Faith in the Future Sheds Light on the Bleak Reality of Modern Zambia

The cover of “A Cowrie of Hope” states that the author, Binwell Sinyangwe, “captures the rhythms of a people whose poverty has not diminished their dignity, where hope can only be accompanied by small acts of courage, and where friendship has not lost its value”, these qualities are mainly encapsulated in the main character, Nasula:

Nasula (mother of Sula) is a young widow struggling to make ends meet for herself and her daughter. Her daughter who recently passed her grade 9 exams has been accepted into an all girls secondary school but she lacks the money required for fees, supplies, and other things required for Sula to continue with her education. Though illiterate herself, Nasula, understands the need for her daughter to be educated and she feels the burden acutely.

As a young bride, she and her husband live in Lusaka where he works as security guard. He’s shot to death by the police while trying to escape a crime scene, leaving his wife widowed with an infant daughter. After his funeral, Nasula is ordered by her father-in-law to marry his other son, Isaki. She refuses to marry Isaki on the grounds that he is a polygamist and known womaniser. In retribution the family disowns and dispossesses Nasula and her daughter all of their earthly goods but the clothes on their backs. Homeless and stranded in Lusaka, she spends many nights at the bus depot trying to find her way back to Swelini, her home village in Luapula.

She makes it home to Swelini with the help of a friend, where she appeals to the headman for land to cultivate and build a home for herself and her daughter. She toils on her plot of land and also does piece-work to supplement the meagre income from her crops. Sula is enrolled in school, where she excels, rising above the taunts and ridicule she experiences because of her poverty. "The child was a cowrie of hope. A great gift from the gods to one who was so poor and lowly to wear round one’s neck for inspiration, and, above all, hope”.

Faced with the dilemma of her daughter possibly dropping out of school because of lack of funds, Nasula faces a seemingly hopeless situation until an exuberant friend proposes a solution. If she sells her last bag of Mbala beans, which are on high demand in Lusaka, the money will more than adequately fund Sula’s schooling. Re-energised with this new hope, Nasula sets out to earn this money.

Lusaka immediately strikes her as a “place of madness” and Kamwala market, in particular, is a “mound inhabited by huge, hungry tribes of termites in search of a livelihood”. Nasula has single minded goal, and draws often from her spiritual strength to take her that extra step needed.

Her naïveté is touching, and her boldness inspiring – crucially, despite the desperate situations Nasula finds herself in, she loses neither her dignity nor her sight of goal.

“But a power she could not overcome, which was from a bleeding heart, told her not to listen to the whispers of discouragement, or give up when she had already suffered so much. It urged her on. To this power she yielded while at the same time allowing the ghost of defeat to haunt her. She struggled on, a thin valiant, invisible thread pulling her along in the direction of nowhere”.

Nasula’s exuberant friend from Lusaka, Nalukwi (mother of Lukwi), is also a great character. She and her husband live in three room shack with their eight children and dependents, and yet she opens both her home and heart to Nasula offering help and advice at every turn. She’s street smart, and yet she does not use this as a means of duping her young friend – in a way, she embodies the ‘hope’ of the title of this book.

The key message of this harrowing story is that despite the predicaments many face in the world today, hope still exists. There is also value in friendship, honesty, and community. It should be remembered that while this book is a work of fiction, it draws many parallels from real life situations that many Zambians still face such as property grabbing, school dropouts from lack of funding, crop failure, corruption, lack of markets in rural areas, poor access to financial products for small-scale farmers, etc.

Direct buses between Lusaka and Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital, are infrequent and slow, so I do this trip in stages. From the BP petrol station on the main street in Chipata (capital of Eastern Zambia), regular minibuses (US$2) run the 30km to the Zambian border. Once I pass through Zambian customs, it’s a few minutes’ walk to the Malawian entry post from where I get a shared taxi to Mchinji for US$1.50 followed by a minibus to Lilongwe (US$2). My ultimate destination in Malawi is Masitala; a small village in the Kasungu region.

To reach this place I decide to hire a car, and opt for a 4x4 from Apex Rent-a-Car, who are based in Lilongwe, for $80 per day. Compared to its neighbours, the main roads in Malawi are in surprisingly good shape: the volume of traffic is low and most people drive reasonably slowly. Also, like most other former British colonies, traffic moves on the left in Malawi with my car being right-hand drive, which is a bonus for me. However, road travel after dark is not advisable as road markings are poor to non-existent and not all cars have headlights.

I encounter a couple of police check points along the major roadways, but they just ask me where I am going and check my documentation (passport, driver's licence, permission to use the vehicle, etc.), and I am on my way without any issues.

And so, with a sense of hope I travel to Zambia’s diminutive neighbour Malawi and another story of hope against adversity – “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind”: this time a true memoir by Malawian, William Kamkwamba.

Friday, 29 November 2013

OUT NOW!! "Reading the World Volume 1: A Global Journey Through Literature"

Ironically, my literary tour of the world by reading books is now a book itself!

I have now written up my travel experiences of my first year of the journey from 2009 to 2010 - which took me from England to Russia.

Because I wished to convey a real sense of travelling to and through these countries I determined to do at least some background research on each country before reading its accompanying book, as well as looking into exactly how one might travel from place to place. I have detailed these elements along with my reviews of each country’s book in the publication, and it has been fascinating to note the often convoluted means that one needs to take to travel across a simple land border due to a region’s politics (prime examples being between Israel and Palestine, and Kosovo and Serbia).

As a result, in my book you will join me not just in the written accounts by each country’s host author; but in interminable journeys in rickety buses, meandering river cruises through dense jungle, off road excursions in unofficial ‘taxis’ and numerous flights in planes of varying airworthiness...

The book is available for purchase from Amazon as a paperback or Kindle eBook. Click on links below to order!

Paperback version

Kindle eBook version

Reading the World website

PS: Currently in Swaziland on my journey - more updates soon!

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.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Murder in Ghana: An Ideal Marriage of Suspense and Location with the ‘Wife of the Gods’

Kwei Quartey's compelling debut mystery, 'Wife of the Gods', introduces Ghanian Detective Inspector Darko Dawson investigating the murder of a medical student in a village some distance from his home (and jurisdiction) in the country's capital of Accra.

The crime is unusual and the government authorities have requested help from the capital, whose forensic knowledge far exceeds that of the local police force. The victim has no obvious injuries and is found posed as if sleeping in the woods. Dawson, however, has mixed feelings about accepting the assignment and returning to the village of Ketanu. He has been there only once, over 25 years ago, to visit his aunt and uncle. On a later visit, when just his mother went, she disappeared on returning home. Whether she is alive or dead, no one knows. Still, the case interests him and he's certain that the young man, who has been arrested for the crime, is innocent. He's equally certain that another popular sentiment in the village is also not true, that a purported witch living nearby struck her down using herbal magic.

'Wife of the Gods' is written with a quiet elegance, often lyrical in its narrative. Sound actually plays an important part of the story, Dawson having a particular affinity for distinguishing subtle variations in speech patterns. Consider this passage from early in the book:

Darko felt the silken quality and the musical lilt of Auntie's voice. He had always had a peculiarly heightened sensitivity to speech. Not only did he hear it but he often perceived it, as though physically touching it. He had on occasion told [his brother] Cairo or Mama that he could feel "bumps" in a person's voice, or that it was prickly or wet. They were mystified by this, but Darko could not explain it any better than he could describe the process of sight or smell.

The mystery itself is rather intricate, made so in part by the customs and beliefs of the villagers. The author incorporates these cultural references into the story in a seamless, natural manner; they are a part of Dawson's investigation without necessarily being the cause of it. Furthermore, their very being is not a hinderance and Dawson's knowledge of them may help him find the solution to the young woman's murder.

There are a number of familiar elements to the story including the wise mentor to Dawson. At one point he says to Darko, "You remember what I told you about solving mysteries?", to which Dawson replies, "That it's a matter of making a few of the connections and the rest will fall in place." And that is really what 'Wife of the Gods' is all about.

An outstanding effort overall to be sure, but there are a couple of minor points that may resonate with readers. Darko Dawson is given to occasional, violent outbursts which seem at odds to the intellectual character that he seems most comfortable being. These scenes don't really add much depth or interest to his character, and seem discordant in a somewhat disturbing way. And the investigation seems to conveniently ignore a person's cell phone, and not the throwaway kind, that is the preferred way of communicating within the country — not surprising given the lack of infrastructure for wired service. Yet no one thinks to check cell phone records to determine where people (read suspects) might have been at any given time. Finally, the title, which rates a special author note, is not terribly relevant to the crime or its solution, and serves more as an introduction to a tangential subplot. These comments, however, are at most quibbles for this truly remarkable mystery that unfolds in a most unusual setting.

Review Copyright © 2009 — Hidden Staircase Mystery Books

Before setting out on my journey to neighbouring Togo, i make a relatively painless trip to the Togolese embassy in Accra for my entry visa (10,000CFA for a single entry 30 day visa).

Actually getting to my next destination is also fairly straight forward as there are bush taxis everywhere in Accra. These are basically four door cars, with four people in the back, and two sharing the front.

These are mainly reconstituted European cars with the seats stripped out and benches added in. I select a battered Peogeut 505 which still retains its back seats, and negotiate with the driver to have the taxi to myself for a reasonable $20 (it is usually $5 per person).

From Accra we head straight to Lomé, capital of Togo, on the pleasantly paved and un-bumpy Trans African Coastal Highway that crosses Togo, connecting it to Benin and Nigeria to the east, and Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire to the west.

Thus I arrive fairly un-dishevelled for my stopover courtesy of ‘Letters From Togo’ by Susan Blake...

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Growing up in the ‘Country of Men’: Libya under Colonel Gadaffi

"In the Country of Men" is a novel set in Tripoli during the rule of Colonel Gadaffi. It is not however, primarily a political novel; it's about the relationships in one family and about a boy struggling to make sense of events, both public and private, that he has been exposed to far too soon.

The story begins in 1979, eight days after 9 year-old Suleiman’s neighbor, Ustath Rashid, "vanished like a grain of salt in water" after being carted off by Revolutionary Guards. Suleiman's baba, Faraj, is away on a business trip, and his mother is getting over an "illness." But when Suleiman goes shopping with his mum, he sees his baba downtown, wearing unfamiliar sunglasses and disappearing into a strange building. Nor is his mother's illness anything so straightforward as a cold.

His mum is only "ill" when his dad is away, Suleiman explains. She gets her "medicine" in bottles wrapped in black plastic bags that the baker keeps hidden under his counter.

On those nights, Suleiman is afraid to leave her alone, and she regales him with stories, like his hero Scheherezade. Only instead of Sinbad, Aladdin, and Ali Baba, his mom, Najwa, tells him about how, at 14, she was forced to leave school and marry an older man she had never met as a punishment. Her crime was holding hands in a cafe with a boy.

But much of what Najwa tells her son is difficult for a 9-year-old to bear. "The things she told me pressed down on my chest, so heavy that it seemed impossible to carry on living without spilling them. I didn't want to break my promise – the promise she always forced me to give, sometimes 30 times over in one night, not to tell, to swear on her life, again and again...."

And when Suleiman can't hold the words back she reproaches him, saying, "I beg you, don't embarrass me.... A boy your age should never speak of such things."

Although a compulsive storyteller while drunk, Najwa has little patience for Scheherezade. "Scheherezade was a coward who accepted slavery over death," she snaps at the son she calls her "prince," retelling the final chapter with feminist fury, as Scheherezade gathers her three sons about her and begs to live.

" 'To live,' she repeated. 'And not because she had as much right to as he, but because if he were to kill her his sons would live "motherless" ... My guess: five, maybe ten years at the most before she got the sword.' "

But in daily life, Najwa makes the same choice as the scorned queen.

"Here it's either silence or exile, walk by the wall or leave," as she explains to Moosa, an Egyptian friend whose business schemes (Polish tires, chickens) are a source of much amusement. She drinks because she's terrified: Suleiman's father is a political dissident. During his "business trips," he writes the prodemocracy pamphlets Suleiman and his friends see people ripping up on their doorsteps.

Now that their neighbour has been interrogated on live TV, Najwa is certain that Faraj will be next. She burns all his books (except one that Suleiman hides in his own room) and hangs a giant picture of "The Guide" on their wall. And when Faraj doesn't come home, she bakes a cake and goes to a high-ranking neighbour to beg for the life of the man of whom she once fainted at first sight. Matar's writing is strikingly poetic. He brings as much detail to a boy's whimsical thought of mulberries as a crop planted by angels to remind Adam and Eve of paradise as he does to a public execution. And that detail helps to bring to life a place where the TV programs shift from interrogations to a still life of pink flowers, and where people are hanged in stadiums from basketball hoops, to the cheering of crowds.

While it's never a good idea to read too much autobiography into a novel, author Hisham Matar does share certain characteristics with his narrator. Both were 9 when they left Libya – although Matar was accompanied by his parents, and Suleiman is sent abroad alone. Matar's father was also a dissident, although he was not politically active until after the family was living in Egypt. In 1990, his father was kidnapped from Cairo and returned to Tripoli, where he was imprisoned and tortured. The family hasn't heard any news since 1995.

"Nationalism is as thin as a thread, perhaps that's why many feel it must be anxiously guarded," Suleiman writes years later from his home in Cairo, where his "stray dog" status means that he can't return to Libya and his family isn't allowed to leave.

The too-hasty coda is the only weak part of the novel. The grown-up Suleiman glosses over the experience of exile in a way that seems at odds with the sensitive, confused child he once was.

That said, "In the Country of Men" is an eloquent and absorbing account of life in this benighted country during a particularly dark period of its recent past....

From Libya’s Tripoli International Airport (now back in action after the civil war), I pay the princely sum of £96.60 for a flight on Tunisair to Tunis’ Carthage Airport in Tunisia. The flight takes 1 hour and 10 minutes, leaving at 3.25pm, but I arrive in Tunis at 3.35pm due to the hour’s time difference, for the next leg of my round the world trip...