“Hiding in Plain Sight” by Nuruddin Farah

I wanted to like Nuruddin Farah’s most recent novel Hiding in Plain Sight.  I really did.  Farah, the prolific and distinguished Somali writer, is often spoken of as a contender for the Nobel Prize in literature.  (For more background on his life and work, click here.

photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian
photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian

I read his novel Knots several years ago and was struck by his feminism.  In that novel, the protagonist Cambara, a Somali woman who lives in Canada, returns to Somalia to take care of some business.  She and the other female characters struck me as the only ones in the novel with any sense.  The women took care of all the things that needed to be done, while the men were busy fighting each other and chewing khat.  If I had not known who the author was, I would have thought it was a woman.  Farah’s new novel Hiding in Plain Sight also has a woman as a main character.  Not only that, but the novel also portrays homosexuality as something which should not be condemned or punished. For any number of reasons, then, I was excited to read the book.

The novel opens with a focus on Aar, a sensitive Somali expat who is stationed in the UN office in Somalia briefly as a logistics officer.  Tragically, he dies when terrorists bomb the building he is in.  (This death happens in the beginning of the book, so I am not giving anything away here.)  The novel then switches perspective to Aar’s sister Bella.  The remainder of Hiding focuses on Bella and her attempts to deal not only with her grief but also to forge a new family with Aar’s children.  At the same time, she has to deal with Aar’s ex-wife Valerie, who abandoned him and his children ten years earlier to live with her female lover, Padmini.

One of the themes of the novel is the issue of sexual freedom.  Farah’s philosophy about sexuality seems to be summed up in this quotation:

“In Bella’s mind, freedom are a package, so the freedoms denied daily to millions of citizens in Africa or the Middle East are bound up with the lack of democracy in these parts of the world.  The choices individuals make in their private lives are just as important as the choices they make at the ballot box.  Public displays of affection, whether between a man and a woman or two men or two women, are but expressions of democratic behavior.  No one, not even the president of the country, should have the power and the authority to define love—including whom to love.”  (35)

Farah’s openness to sexual freedom is a laudable goal.  If that is his goal, though, I wonder why he chose to make Valerie (the lesbian mother of Aar’s children) such a nightmarish character.  She is selfish to the extreme, she has no understanding of the concept of gratitude, she is an alcoholic, and her emotions are completely erratic. I know that everybody is flawed, and there is no reason to paint a lesbian character as a saint.  Still, Valerie’s flaws were so extreme and her good qualities so few that I find her hard to accept as a believable character.

And while I do appreciate a male author who writes about strong female characters in a positive way, it seemed to me that Bella, the main character, was more of an idea (a strong, independent woman) than a believable, complex character.   She struck me as person without any emotional attachments or vulnerabilities, except for her attachment to her brother. I suppose Farah could be suggesting that she was TOO attached to her brother, which was why she found every other man lacking in comparison.  That could explain her inability (or unwillingness) to connect emotionally with anybody else, I suppose.  That changes, though, when she becomes attached to Aar’s children and wants to serve as their surrogate mother.

I imagine that at least part of Farah’s goal was to educate non-Somali readers about his war-torn country, especially in terms of its prevailing attitudes toward sexuality.  I think he was successful in that goal.  However, I think Hiding in Plain Sight worked better as an educational tool than as a successful novel.  The novel was written mainly from Bella’s perspective.  Ideally, readers would be able to get inside her head and see things the way she does.  However, often her thoughts do not sound at all realistic because Farah is using them to educate his readers rather than to portray a character.  For example, on page 135 of my edition, Bella thinks,

She knows that Aar, unlike most Somalis raised in the urban centers in the south of the country, had no issue with male homosexuality and couldn’t be bothered about lesbianism.  As for herself. . . she acknowledges that maybe she is not quite as advanced in her attitudes as she likes to think.  But with her three lovers, she knows that she cannot afford to throw stones at anyone in a similar position.  Many Somalis would think there was something wrong with her, would see her as worse than a whore, because no cash exchanged hands.”  (135)

If this were really a reflection of what Bella was thinking, she would not need to provide so much background explanation. The novel contains far too much of this type of didactic internal thoughts for more tastes.

Often the dialogue suffers from a similar weakness.  People in casual conversation, when they are not talking about food, often launch into mini-lectures on Important Subjects that also do not seem realistic.

For example, in one scene, Salif (a teenage boy) is upset with his mother Valerie, who abandoned them for ten years and now suddenly wants to be back in their lives.  His frustration is understandable, but the formality of his word choice strikes me as unbelievable:

“And let me add this, for what it’s worth, Mum.  You haven’t asked us anything about Dad, what he was like as a father to us after you left.   All you have done is create confusion in my head about the circumstances of his burial, urging me to act without even bothering to ascertain the legal and logistical implications.”  (138)

“Ascertain the legal and logistical implications?”  Really?  Does any teenage boy talk like that in casual conversation?

Overall, I would give the novel an “A” for good intentions, but a “C” for execution.  I could not get past the wooden writing style and unrealistic characters enough to get engaged in the story.

Having said that, I am not ready to give up on Nuruddin Farah.  I do plan to read some more of his earlier work.  If you have read his work, which book would you recommend?


This post is my first entry in my own Around the World Reading Challenge.  This is my African entry.

It is also my fifth and final entry in the African Reading Challenge for 2014 hosted by kinna at Kinna Reads.  (It is late, I know.  Sorry!)  http://kinnareads.com/2014/01/14/2014-africa-reading-challenge/


Discovering the Heart of Darkness in Minnesota: Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In his well-known article “Novelist as Teacher,” Chinua Achebe writes, “I would be quite satisfied if my novels did no more than teach my readers that their past—with all its imperfections—was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them.”   Although Achebe is referring to African readers, presumably teaching literature from another culture should also have positive effects, such as opening the minds of readers to new knowledge, exploring different ways of thinking, and increasing empathy for people of other backgrounds.  What happens, though, when some readers take quite the opposite meaning away from reading a book such as Things Fall Apart?   What if reading certain texts actually increases prejudice about the “Other”?

This question first occurred to me several years ago when I first taught a course in the African novel.  Most of the students in this particular class were white and Midwestern, with very little knowledge about Africa.   (I did have a few African-American students in this particular class, and their reactions were dramatically different from the white students’ reactions.)

Overall I believe this course was generally successful.  It introduced students to a body of literature—in fact, an entire part of the world—that was completely new to them.  In so doing, I believe it sparked interest in and empathy for struggles African nations are currently facing. I also believe (or at least I would like to believe) that it helped dispel some of the misconceptions about Africa.  However, while teaching the course, I also noticed some tensions that I have not noticed in courses about English or American literature.

I began the course by providing some historical background on the colonization of Africa.  We then read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness before proceeding to Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.  My goal in pairing the texts was to highlight the differences in the way Achebe portrayed the Igbo culture; rather than menacing dark figures on the shore, they are complex human beings with their own traditions and social structures.  However, it was more difficult to get to this discussion than I had anticipated because students—particularly the white women, who were the majority of the course—were so focused on the sexism in the novel.   As one student wrote in the course’s e-mail discussion group,  “Even though I know this book takes place in a different time and place, I can’t help but to gasp with disgust when I read about the treatment of women.”  Certainly, they are not the first to comment on the portrayal of gender relations in the book; many readers do.  However, some of the students were so appalled by the sexism that had difficulty discussing anything else.

For the record, I, too, find the representation of gender relations in Things Fall Apart troubling.  But, obviously, it is just one part of one complex book and a complex culture.  My fear is that, for students who may only read the 8-10 or so texts assigned in the one World Literature course, that they may take away from the reading more prejudice than they came in with—that, for example, “Africans are savages” because of the way they treat women and children.  Certainly there are many pedagogical strategies for dealing with negative reactions.  In the case of Things Fall Apart, I tried to get students to realize that Okonkwo is not the moral norm of the novel—that he is portrayed as a deeply flawed character even by the standards of his own culture.  Other critics have suggested comparing Okonkwo’s depiction of Igbo culture to the realities suggested by historical and social scientific research, which asserts that women had significantly more power than Things Fall Apart suggests.  And since students were so obsessed with comparing Igbo culture with our own supposedly egalitarian society, I also tried to historicize the novel and compare it to the state of gender relations in England and the United States during the same period.  I’m not sure how well these strategies worked, though, in overcoming the initial revulsion some students had towards the novel; as we know, emotional reactions can be more powerful than rational discussions.

What I find most intriguing, though, is that these vociferous discussions arose from devoutly apolitical students who would not describe themselves as feminists.  When we (as instructors) try to discuss feminist issues in relationship to Anglo-American texts, usually they are not particularly interested.  They believe, for the most part, that gender equality has already been achieved; discussions about inequality have no relevance to their lives. Therefore, I was surprised at the vehemence of their reaction to Achebe.  These are students trained in “Minnesota Nice” culture; they are rarely vehement about anything.

The treatment of women in Things Fall Apart provoked the most tension in the course, but there were other trouble spots as well.  I asked students to read Achebe’s essay responding to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  I was (and still am) quite surprised to find that many students did not like the essay because they found Achebe’s “anger” threatening.

“If he considers part of his “duties” as a novelist to be to educate and inform his readers as he says he does, I think that he should rethink his methods.  In his essays, he is letting his emotions get the best of him.  I am not saying that Achebe should not be angry. Denial of emotion is wrong.  And he really does have something to be angry about.  But my problem comes with his sharing his anger with the entire literate world by having it printed in a journal.  I really feel that there are better ways of dealing with problems besides vocalizing your anger.”

While I am open to teaching tips dealing with the specific situations described above, I would like to focus more generally on the psychodynamics of the literary encounter between white Westerners and racial “Others.”  While the academy endlessly debates WHAT we should teach, I do not believe enough attention has been paid to what happens (psychologically, emotionally) when we teach it.  For example, in the MLA Approaches to Teaching Things Fall Apart nobody discussed possible negative emotional reactions or how to deal with them.  This lack of attention paid to the literary encounter is odd, since so much attention has been paid to the dynamics of the colonial encounter in other contexts.

Abdul JanMohamed, for example, writing of European colonization, asserts that “Motivated by his desire to conquer and dominate, the imperialist configures the colonial realm as a confrontation based on differences in race, language, social customs, cultural values, and modes of production” (18).  Certainly, reading a novel or poem is not the same as conquering and colonizing a culture.  But can we not see some of these same dynamics operating subconsciously in the literary encounter?  JanMohamed goes on to suggest that “such literature is essentially specular: instead of seeing the native as a bridge toward syncretic possibility, it uses him as a mirror that reflects the colonialist’s self-image” (18).  JanMohamed is referring here to colonialist literature. However, I think his insights can also be applied to the literary encounter between white Western reader and African text.

I’d like to suggest that the pedagogical tensions I mentioned earlier derive at least in part from specularity of the American-African literary encounter.    I think that—at least for some sheltered white students—Africa still serves as a heart of darkness.  Just as Conrad depicted the exploration of the Congo as a metaphor for journeying deeper into the human heart, my students experienced African literature as a mirror providing them with glimpses into their own culture’s heart of darkness.  The strong reaction against Achebe’s sexism, I believe, says more about the situation of the white Midwestern students than it does about the situation in Africa.  These are students who are raised to be nice, not to express anger, and to be believe that our society does not have problems of inequality.  My theory is that reading about problems faced by the Other struck a nerve that forced them to confront—albeit at a subconscious level—the inequality in our own culture.  Since they are not “allowed” to be angry, they are unsure what to do with this knowledge.  One outlet is to express disgust toward Things Fall Apart. That would account for the intensity of emotional reaction that seemed to me out of character and sometimes out of proportion.

As an example, let me quote an excerpt from another student’s electronic discussion posting.

“After all of the arguments about Achebe’s work last week I finally came to some of my own final conclusions. At first I was appalled at the way this society behaved and portrayed women in this novel. It disturbed me deeply and I had a very difficult time reading it. After a lot of thought and analysis, I realized that just because our society deems spousal and child abuse as wrong and cruel doesn’t mean that every other society should function in the same way. In going over the text to collect my thoughts I really tried to separate myself from my moral and value system to understand why these people did what they did within their clan. Even though I still don’t agree with the beating of the women, I can understand that this is just the way their people lived and functioned. This type of thing was a societal norm, and those norms are very difficult to change or see past.”

With all the attention paid in our media to the problems of battered women and abused children in our country, it is difficult for me to believe that this young woman actually thinks that she lives in a culture free from spousal and child abuse.  Perhaps she is just innocent.  What I think may be happening, though, is that reading Achebe forced her to confront her own culture’s conflicts-what it professes as opposed to what it actually practices.  This confrontation is deeply painful and can result in misdirected anger.

Another issue that the students found hard to confront was the overt and often violent racism Africans experienced at the hands of whites.  As one student wrote in her electronic journal: “I still find it hard to think that the people of Europe and America would think that a darker skin tone meant more than just a darker skin tone.  I find it hard to think that Europeans and Americans were that far behind in their logic.”  Were that far behind in their logic?  Again, I find it difficult to understand how Americans can NOT be aware of racism not only in Africa but in our own country, but it seems to be another blinder that reading African literature forces students to remove.

I am still working out my thoughts on this subject, but it seems to me at this point that in trying to teach students about African literature culture, I was simultaneously teaching students to confront their own culture.  This secondary course goal, however, was always beneath the surface of discussions, a quiet but powerful undercurrent that sometimes erupted violently.  On the one hand, this double current can work out productively.  In the best possible scenario, students can learn about both themselves and another culture.

The danger, though, is that if these complicated emotional reactions are not worked through productively, that the students may leave with their initial repugnance intact.  I’m not completely sure how to do this or even if it is within the power of an instructor to bring about this transformation.  Perhaps it is part of the maturation process or perhaps a degree in psychotherapy would be helpful.  I do think it would be productive for our profession if we could discuss the psychodynamics of the literary encounter with the Other in more depth.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Killing Them With “The Englishness”: “Nervous Conditions” by Tsitsi Dangarembga


We have a tendency in the West to think of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa as a “first world problem.”  Surely such disorders are confined to upper-middle class young white women from American suburbs, right?

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, a 1988 novel from Zimbabwe, suggests otherwise.  This perceptive novel, set in the late 1960s and early 1970s, dramatizes the coming-of-age stories of two main characters.  One of them is Tambu, a girl who is determined to get an education in order to pull herself and her family out of poverty.  The other girl is Tambu’s cousin Nyasha, who spent several childhood years in England, where her parents completed their graduate degrees.


At the beginning of their relationship, Tambu is in awe of Nyasha, who seems to have everything. She is pretty and smart.  Her parents, Babamukuru and Maiguru, are well-educated and relatively wealthy, at least compared to Tambu’s family.  Not only that, but their sojourn in England left them all with an aura of glamour and sophistication that Tambu finds intoxicating.  At the same time, Tambu also is somewhat disapproving of Nyasha because of her tendency to question everything, including the authority and benevolence of her father Babamukuru, whom everyone else adores.

Eventually, the two girls become close and the readers observe both of them as they grow up and learn more about the ways of the world.  Their relationship is complicated, though; Tambu and Nyasha do not always understand each other.  They do, though, learn about some harsh life lessons from each other’s experiences.  In particular, the girls struggle against two main forces:  the sexism of the men in their community, and the toxic effects of colonialism on their minds and bodies.

Tambu, for example, has to fight tooth and nail simply to get an elementary education because her family favors her brother and sends only him to school.  Nyasha, on the other hand, struggles against the sometimes violent authoritarianism of her father, who expects her to obey him unquestioningly.  She also resent his implication that she is on the road to becoming a “bad girl” in a sexual sense, even though she gives him no reason to doubt her.  Nyasha learns that simply having a female body is reason enough for men to think of her primarily as a sexual object.

Perhaps this is the reason—or, one of the reasons—Nyasha develops an eating disorder.  Dangarembga never explicitly states why Nyasha becomes anorexic, but she implies that it is the only way Nyasha knows how to rebel against her father and his expectations of what it means to be female. She does not want to be seen as primarily a sexualized body.  Nor does she want to become like her mother, who must be submissive to her husband’s will despite her own advanced education and professional job.  It is implied that by starving herself, Nyasha is attempting to remove all traces of her adult female body, and thus the fate of all the women she knows.

This explanation over-simplifies the themes of Nervous Conditions, however.  In addition to criticizing the effects of sexism in her community, Dangarembga is also illuminating the even more insidious effects of English colonialism on the minds of the Shona characters.  (In the late 1960s-early 1970s, Zimbabwe was still a British colony and was still called Rhodesia.)  The title Nervous Conditions was taken from Jean-Paul Sartre’s preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, a famous work detailing some of the pernicious psychological effects of colonialism on the colonized.

Sartre wrote that “The status of “native” is a nervous condition introduced and maintained by the settler among colonized people with their consent.”  Sartre explains that colonized people carry huge rage against their oppressors.  However, they cannot express this rage against the colonizers unless they are willing to be killed or imprisoned for doing so.  Therefore, Sartre states that “if this suppressed fury fails to find at outlet, it turns in a vacuum and devastates the oppressed creatures themselves.”

This is what happens in the novel Nervous Conditions. Nyasha is not the sort of person to accept the status quo unthinkingly and without question.  The more she reads about the world and observes the people around her, the more enraged she becomes at the way people exploit each other.  The English exploit the Shona people while rewarding a few “good natives” such as Babamukuru.  In turn, the Babamukurus become mini-colonizers themselves, lording over the rest of his community like a god.  The whole system drives Nyasha mad, quite literally. Eventually, she starves herself nearly to death and then explodes in a fit of rage.

“Why do they do it, Tambu,” she hissed bitterly, her face contorting with rage, “to me and to you and to him?”  Do you see what they’ve done?  They’ve taken us away.  Lucia.  Takesure.  All of us.  They’ve deprived you of you, him or him, ourselves of each other.  We’re groveling.  Lucia for a job, Jeremiah for money.  Daddy grovels to them.  We grovel to him.”  She began to rock, her body quivering tensely.  “I won’t grovel.  Oh no, I won’t.  I’m not a good girl.  I’m evil.  I’m not a good girl.”  I touched her to comfort her and that was the trigger.  “I won’t grovel, I won’t die,” she raged and crouched like a cat ready to spring.”  .. . . Nyasha was beside herself with fury.  She rampaged, shredding her history book between her teeth (‘Their history.  Fucking liars.  Their bloody lies.’), breaking mirrors her clay pots, anything she could lay her hands on and jabbing the fragments viciously into her flesh, stripping the bedclothes, tearing her clothes from the wardrobe and trampling them underfoot.  “They’ve trapped us.  They’ve trapped us.  But I won’t be trapped.  I’m not a good girl.  I won’t be trapped.”  (200-201)

Finally, Nyasha’s family realizes how troubled she is and they take her to a clinic to get some help.   Whether or not she will be able to survive, much less thrive, is unclear by the end of the novel.

For her part, Tambu was baffled by Nyasha’s illness. She did not understand why someone like Nyasha, who seemingly had it all, to “suffer so extremely.”  Perhaps Tambu did not understand, but her mother did, very clearly.

‘It’s the Englishness,’ she said.  ‘It’ll kill them all if they aren’t careful,” and she snorted.  ‘Look at them.  That boy Chido can hardly speak a word of his own mother’s tongue, and you’ll see, his children will be worse. . . You’ll see. . . . “About [Nyasha] we don’t even speak.  It’s speaking for itself.  Both of them, it’s the Englishness.  It’s a wonder it hasn’t affected the parents too.”  (203)

The “Englishness,” in other words, the colonializing process, is what drives Nyasha and other characters to the brink, especially when combined with the sexism of their own culture.   Tambu, her mother, and her aunt also experience their own “nervous conditions” of various sorts.    In the interests of space, however, I will not go into detail on their struggles.

Nervous Conditions  was Dangarembga’s debut novel, written when she was still a young woman.  It is a relatively short (200 page) novel, and one that is quite engaging.  More significant, however, this novel insightfully portrays the devastating effects of sexism and colonialism on the minds and bodies of African women.  I highly recommend it.

How to be Black in America: “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Ifemelu, the main character in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah, writes a blog about race in America.   Ifemelu, like Adichie, is Nigerian.  When she was growing up in Nigeria, she never thought much about race—because she never had to. When she came to the United States for her college education, however, that changed.  As a black person in a majority white country, she is forced to think about the color of her skin because it shapes the way others define her.

While in the U.S., Ifemelu learns not only about the racial tensions between American whites and blacks, but also about the tensions between American blacks and Africans.  She observes that the experiences of African-Americans differ markedly from the experiences of African-Americans (newly arrived immigrants from Africa.)  The way blackness plays out in the U.S.  intrigues Ifemelu so much that she starts to write a blog about it, a blog that becomes wildly successful.

Many of her sharp, insightful blog posts are reproduced in the novel and serve as a commentary on what Ifemelu and the people in her lives are experiencing.  For example, in this post, Ifemelu advises her readers (tongue-in-cheek) on the proper tone to adopt when discussing racial injustices:

I”f you’re telling a non-black person about something racist that happened to you make sure you are not bitter.  Don’t complain.  Be forgiving.  If possible, make it funny.  Most of all, do not be angry.  Black people are not supposed to be angry about racism.  Otherwise, you get no sympathy.  This applies only for white liberals, by the way.  Don’t even bother telling a white conservative about anything racist that happened to you.  Because the conservative will tell you that YOU are the real racist and your mouth will hang open in confusion.” (223)

This post is most obviously a commentary on the experiences faced by black characters in Americanah.  Black people in America are not allowed to be angry about racism because it makes white people uncomfortable.   The stance of this blog post also, however, echoes the tone Adichie adopts in Americanah.   Both Adichie’s and Ifemelu’s tone when it comes to race is sharp, sometimes even withering.  At the same time, though, it is funny (at times) and warm enough not to veer too far into the tone angry bitterness that scares away so many white people.    Adopting the right tone so that a black author can reach a large audience of white people in order to chastise them about their racism is no easy feat.  Adichie, I believes, succeeds at this difficult maneuver.

I say this, in case it is not obvious, as a white reader.  I am, in fact, one of those white liberal readers who is the target of many of Adichie’s most satirical jabs.  For example, Adichie’s white employer Kimberly tries so hard to be non-racist that when she is around Ifemelu, she coos over photos of ordinary-looking black women:

“Kimberly said, “Oh, look at this beautiful woman,” and pointed at a plain model in a magazine whose only distinguishing feature was her very dark skin.  “Isn’t she just stunning?”

“No, she isn’t.”  Ifemelu paused.  “You know, you can just say ‘black.’ Not every black person is beautiful.”

Kimberly was taken aback, something wordless spread on her face and then she smiled, and Ifemelu would think of it as the moment they became, truly, friends.” (149)

Scenes like this, describing well-meaning yet ignorant displays of the racial divide in this country, make me question myself.  Am I as silly and short-sighted as these white characters when it comes to race?  If so, what can I do to be different, to take a small step towards improving the sad state of racial relations in this country?

Adichie does not provide any simple answers to this question, nor should she be expected to do so.  She does, however, give this piece of advice:

“So after this listing of don’ts what’s the do?  I’m not sure.  Try listening, maybe.  Hear what is being said.  And remember that it’s not about you.  American Blacks are not telling you that you are to blame.  They are just telling you what is.  If you don’t understand, ask questions.  If you’re uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway.  It’s easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place.  Then listen some more.  Sometimes people just want to feel heard.  Here’s to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding. ”  (328)

This advice to “listen” seems so commonsensical, it is sad to think it has to be said.  Yet I think it does.  Maybe if we would also listen (or read) more and argue (defensively) less, we could make some progress.  Here’s to possibilities of listening—and friendship and connection and understanding.


This post is part of the Africa Reading Challenge hosted by Kinna Reads.

Whizzing Up Mount Kilimanjaro: “Kilimanjaro Diaries”

Mount Kilimanjaro
Mount Kilimanjaro


Kilimanjaro Diaries
Kilimanjaro Diaries


I once considered climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. That thought lasted for about a minute, and then I remembered that I liked to breathe. (I’m funny that way.) There’s not a lot of oxygen at Kili’s peak of 19,341 feet—the tallest point in Africa. Also, people sometimes die from this climb and I am generally opposed to death, especially my own.

However, after reading Eva Melusine Thieme’s book Kilimanjaro Diaries: Or, How I Spent a Week Dreaming of Toilets, Drinking Crappy Water, and Making Bad Jokes While Having the Time of My Life, I am starting to reconsider.   This highly engaging travelogue makes the climb sound do-able—not easy, certainly, but within the realm of possibility for an ordinary mortal. Thieme presents herself as someone who is not especially fit (although I think she was lying about that), but she made it the top when something like half of  the 35,000 people who attempt to climb the mountain every year fail. Usually, people fail because of altitude sickness—not because of the physical fitness of the hiker.

Those odds sound daunting, but I learned from her book and other research (i.e. googling Kilimanjaro) that spending a few extra days climbing increases the odds of making it to the top dramatically. According to this website, those who take 8 days to climb have an 85% chance of success, whereas those who spend only 5 days have only a 27% chance.

The longer hikes are more successful because people have more time to acclimate to the depleted oxygen levels. Knowing this makes me more inclined to want to try the climb.   Spending more time going up is something I could imagine myself doing. Becoming a super-duper fit human being who can trot up and down a mountain like a goat is considerably less likely, even in my imagination.

If you, like me, are even remotely considering this climb, here are some things I learned from Kilimanjaro Diaries that you might find helpful.

  • Intense preparatory training might be a good idea, but it is not absolutely necessary. Thieme did not do a great deal of training because her philosophy “is to avoid doing unpleasant things in preparation for something unpleasant.. . Some things are better left unknown. If I have to feel exhausted and tired and cold for the duration of the week that I’ll be climbing Kili, so be it. But I don’t feel the need to add any exhaustion and tiredness to my plate right now.” (36)

This seems like a great philosophy to me!

  • While on your 5-8 day climb, you don’t have to worry about the pesky details of life such as where to sleep, what to eat, where to get water, etc.   You hire porters to do that. In fact, if I understand correctly, you HAVE to hire them; you are not allowed to hike up unguided and without porters.   Hikers just have to carry a daypack carrying what they need for a few hours. As Thieme phrased it, “Nowhere else but Africa can you expect to be completely pampered when embarking on a week of hardship!” According to her, the food was plentiful and tasty and there was always enough water, tea and coffee to keep people going.
  • One thing the guides and porters can’t do for you is…how can I put this delicately…use the toilet for you.   Never fear, Thieme has given this topic a great deal of thought and research, and she provides readers A LOT of information on the various issues related to this topic. Many of the most humorous sections of the book are in-depth explorations of all things related to relieving oneself in less than ideal circumstances. I learned, for example, that there is a whole industry devoted to creating devices into which women can urinate. They have names such as “Urinelle” and “Shewee.” Click here http://www.shewee.com/ if you’d like more information on what a shewee is.

Thieme, however, discovered something much better than any Shewee: a private toilet tent. For a reasonable fee, she and the other members of her group hired a porter whose sole purpose was to carry and set up a private powder room for them every evening.   According to Thieme, this was the best investment she ever made.   I won’t explain in detail why, but just remember that something like 35,000 people climb the mountain every year, and there are only a few different trails. Each person hears the call of nature at least once a day. Using the public “long-drop” facilities is thus like walking through a mine field, except the mines are really crappy, if you see what I mean.

Kilimanjaro Diaries is chock full of informative and entertaining details such as these. In addition to the information she provides, Thieme also provides some history and other background information on the Kili climb industry. Perhaps most important, she explains the preparation and the ascent in such a way that it seems achievable, enjoyable, and definitely worth the effort. I would recommend this book for anyone looking for an enjoyable, informative and inspirational read on what it takes to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

Kilimanjaro Diaries is sold on Amazon in paperback and Kindle versions.

Click here for the amazon link.

Eva Melusine Thieme is a popular blogger.  Check out her blog here:

Why Did You (Not) Write The Book?

New York Times Article on African writers

This article on the new “wave” of African writers appeared in the New York Times on June 29, 2014.  I think it is wonderful that these talented writers are receiving international acclaim.

I am now officially putting these writers on my list of TBR authors.

Dinaw Mengestu, Helen Oyeyemi, NoViolet Bulawayo, Teju Cole, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor and Taiye Selasi


JUNE 29, 2014

More than a decade ago, when the young Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was struggling to get her first novel, “Purple Hibiscus,” published, an agent told her that things would be easier “if only you were Indian,” because Indian writers were in vogue. Another suggested changing the setting from Nigeria to America. Ms. Adichie didn’t take this as commentary on her work, she said, but on the timidity of the publishing world when it came to unknown writers and unfamiliar cultures, especially African ones.

These days she wouldn’t receive that kind of advice. Black literary writers with African roots (though some grew up elsewhere), mostly young cosmopolitans who write in English, are making a splash in the book world, especially in the United States. They are on best-seller lists, garner high profile reviews and win major awards, in America and in Britain. Ms. Adichie, 36, the author of “Americanah,” which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction this year, is a prominent member of an expanding group that includes Dinaw Mengestu, Helen Oyeyemi, NoViolet Bulawayo, Teju Cole, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor and Taiye Selasi, among others.

There are reasons for the critical mass now, say writers, publishers and literature scholars. After years of political and social turmoil, positive changes in several African nations are helping to greatly expand the number of writers and readers. Newer awards like the Caine Prize for African Writing have helped, too, as have social media, the Internet and top M.F.A. programs. At the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, black writers with recent African roots will make up more than 10 percent of the fiction students come September. Moreover, the number of African immigrants in the United States has more than quadrupled in the past two decades, to almost 1.7 million.

And publishing follows trends: Women, Asian-American, Indian and Latino writers have all been “discovered” and had their moment in the sun — as have African-Americans, some of whom envy the attention given to writers with more recent links in Africa.

“People used to ask where the African writers were,” said Aminatta Forna, author of “The Hired Man” (2013, set in Croatia). “They were cleaning offices and working as clerks.”

Some writers and critics scoff at the idea of lumping together diverse writers with ties to a diverse continent. But others say that this wave represents something new in its sheer size, after a long fallow period. (There were some remarkable exceptions, like Wole Soyinka’s 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature and Ben Okri’s 1991 Booker Prize.) And it differs from the postcolonial wave, roughly beginning in the 1960s, which brought international acclaim to writers like Chinua Achebe and Nuruddin Farah, among others.

There are more women, for one thing. More important, the stories being told, while sometimes set in Africa, often reflect the writers’ experiences of living, studying or working elsewhere and are flecked with cultural references — and settings — familiar to Western audiences.

Ms. Adichie’s “Americanah” chronicles the lives of Ifemelu and her lover, Obinze, whose adventures take them from Nigeria to America and Britain. In the United States, Ifemelu writes a popular blog about her growing racial consciousness and finds love with American men, both black and white. Back in Nigeria, her friends use the word “Americanah” to tease her about her Americanized attitudes.

Ms. Adichie, who divides her time between the United States and Nigeria and runs a summer writing workshop in Lagos, has now written three well-received novels and a book of stories. She has amassed awards and has a movie adaptation this year of her novel “Half of a Yellow Sun,” about the Biafran war. She even made it into a Beyoncé song: “Flawless,” released in December, sampled several lines about feminism from a public lecture she gave.

The success of “Half of a Yellow Sun” (2006), after the critical embrace of “Purple Hibiscus” (2003), was a major factor in sending publishers scrambling to find other talented African writers.

The flowering of new African writers is “an amazing phenomenon,” said Manthia Diawara, a professor of comparative literature and film at New York University. “It is a literature more about being a citizen of the world — going to Europe, going back to Lagos,” he said. “Now we are talking about how the West relates to Africa and it frees writers to create their own worlds. They have several identities and they speak several languages.”

But for all the different themes and kinds of writing, the novelist Dinaw Mengestu said that he saw a thread. “There’s this investigation of what happens to the dislocated soul,” said Mr. Mengestu, 36, the author of “All Our Names” and a MacArthur “genius” award winner, who was born in Ethiopia but left at age 2 and grew up in Illinois.

The novelist Okey Ndibe, 54, said for his part, “My reflexes are shaped mostly by life in Nigeria, but so many aspects of me are in the American mode.” His second novel, “Foreign Gods, Inc.,” is about an educated Nigerian in New York eking out a living as a taxi driver. Mr. Ndibe, who arrived in America in 1988, said that as someone coming from a place where being black was the norm, he became fascinated by the experience of American blacks. “My protagonist’s life in America is as important as his life in Nigeria, if not more so,” he said.

Jonathan Galassi, the president and publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, agreed that “there is a new, self-aware internationalism” and “a much more welcoming interest” in this country, too. Earlier generations, he added, “had it much harder.”

Breaking in isn’t getting easier for everyone, however. Some professionals in the book world say that too many literary publishers would rather put out work by writers from Africa than work by African-Americans because in the current climate the Africans are considered more appealing for what is seen as a “black slot.”

Marita Golden, an African-American writer who is a founder of the Hurston/Wright Foundation, which supports black writers around the world, acknowledged that those sentiments exist but disagreed with them.

“Black writers operate within a small, culturally defined sphere,” she said. “That space is not defined by us, so with any shifts people may feel victimized or that they’ve lost, or they’re experiencing a deficit.”

Ms. Adichie said she understood those feelings, too. “In the U.S., to be a black person who is not African-American in certain circles is to be seen as quote-unquote, the good black,” she said. “Or people will say, ‘You are African so you are not angry.’ Or, ‘You’re African so you don’t have all those issues.’ ”

Publishers, not surprisingly, tend to disagree with the idea that African-American writers are being overlooked now. “Hogwash,” said Robin Desser, vice president and editorial director at Alfred A. Knopf and Ms. Adichie’s editor. “When the next Toni Morrison comes around I can say that publishers will go crazy.”

Given the inroads they have made and the new roots they have planted, African writers say they have proved they are much more that a trend.

“My hope is we all become part of the canon, not just here but internationally,” said Ishmael Beah, 33, who lives in the United States. His 2007 memoir, “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier,” about Sierra Leone’s civil war, was a best seller. His novel, “Radiance of Tomorrow,” about the aftermath of that conflict, came out this year.

“We all have a lot to say,” Mr. Beah said, “and we realize that we have to speak for ourselves about the diversity, the difficulties, the beauty of this continent.”

A version of this article appears in print on June 30, 2014, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: New Wave of African Writers With an Internationalist Bent. Order Reprints|Today’s Paper|Subscribe


Check Out These African Women Writers

I belong to “The Classics Club.”  The stated goal of The Classics Club is ”to unite readers who blog about classic literature and inspire people to make the classics an integral part of life.”   The Classics Club Event this month (May 2014) is to blog about post-colonial and world literature. For more information, see this page: http://theclassicsclubblog.wordpress.com/2014/05/01/classics-club-event-post-colonial-literature-in-may.

As part of this event, I would like to highlight some African women writers whom I think are amazing. This list is far from exhaustive; it is just a place to start if you are unfamiliar with African writers. For the purpose of this posting, I will focus on sub-Saharan Africa. In a later post, I will list some recommended North African women writers.

Buchi Emecheta (1944- ) grew up in Nigeria, but moved to England as a young adult. She married and had five children. The marriage disintegrated after a few years. Her novels focus on the struggles facing African women—in both Nigeria and in England. Many people consider her to be a strong feminist writer, although she prefers the term “womanist” which encompasses the struggle for all people, including men of color.

Buchi Emecheta
Buchi Emecheta

Probably her most famous novel is The Joys of Motherhood (1979).  Nnu Ego, the protagonist, was raised with traditional Igbo values. She believes that having children, especially male children, is not only the most important thing a woman can do, but really the ONLY way to achieve a valuable life. The struggles she faces in her quest to bear and raise children force her to question this belief.

Joys of Motherhood

Emecheta was one of the pioneers in African literature; she was one of the first published African woman writers, and one of the first to focus on women’s struggles against sexism. I appreciate her sharp insights into gender inequality as well as her ironic writing style.

Some of her other works include Second Class Citizen (1974), The Bride Price (1976), the Slave Girl (1977), and Destination Biafra (1982).


Mariama Ba (1929-1981), along with Buchi Emecheta, was another pioneer in African women’s writing. She was Senegalese and wrote in French. Her works, however, are easily available in English translation.   She was raised by her traditional grandparents as a Muslim and had to struggle with them to receive an education. She was married and had nine children, but later divorced her husband.

Mariama Ba
Mariama Ba


Her most famous novel, So Long a Letter, is in the form of a long letter written by woman named Ramatoulaye to her friend Aissatou. In this letter, Ramatoulaye reveals the anguish she felt when her husband married a second wife.   This letter expresses not only her broken heart but also her anger at the traditions which allow polygyny and other forms of female oppression.

So Long a Letter


Ba’s work complements Emecheta’s nicely. They both focus on women who struggle with marriages and children. Emecheta tends to focus more on the economic struggles of women as well as the injustice they face. Her tone is ironic. Ba’s work is less about economic struggles and more about emotional anguish.

She has also written Scarlet Song, about two young lovers whose union is torn about by social pressures.


Bessie Head (1937-1986). Bessie Head was born in South Africa of a union between a white mother and a black men. Her parents were not married (such a marriage would have been illegal). She was separated from her mother at birth and raised in foster care. In her twenties, she was forced to leave South Africa, and she became a refugee in Botswana, where she wrote her major works. The characters in her novels grapple with problems of mixed-race identity, discrimination, political oppression, and interpersonal relationships.

Bessie Head
Bessie Head

For me, her most interesting novel is A Question of Power (1973). This novel is different from anything else I have ever read. Bessie Head suffered from mental problems at one point in her life; these problems led to a mental breakdown with psychotic features. A Question of Power is based on this experience. In this novel, the reader is sucked in to the mind of the protagonist Elizabeth, who suffers from visions that torment her. She is “visited” by characters whom we are led to believe are only figments of her imagination. She has conversations with these characters as an attempt to understand her life and to wrestle her way back to health. The mental anguish Elizabeth faces is personal, but the struggles she has with people—both real and imaginary—reflect the very real power dynamics of the society in which she lives. I highly recommend this novel, but it is not an easy read. Be prepared for a trip through hell.

She also published  When Rain Clouds Gather (1968) and Maru (1971), among other works.

A Question of Power
A Question of Power


Tsitsi Dangarembga (1959- ). Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga is of a younger generation than the three women previously discussed. She was born in what was then called Rhodesia. She spent a few of her early years in England, but grew up mainly in Rhodesia. Later, she went to university in Cambridge, but returned back home to what was now called Zimbabwe.

Tsitsi Dangaremba
Tsitsi Dangaremba

Her novel Nervous Conditions tells the story of two girls growing up in Zimbabwe: Tambu and Nyasha. Tambu grows up poor and struggles against gender discrimination within her family who strongly favor her brother. She is in awe of her cousin Nyasha whose parents are relatively well-off and who spent many years in England. Nyasha seems so sophisticated and glamorous to Tambu, but as the novel progresses we learn that Nyasha suffers from her own problems, including anorexia nervosa. People tend to think of anorexia as a “Western” disease that afflicts mainly well-off white women. This novel makes us look at eating disorders in a new way. It also encourages readers to question the role of education, especially Western, post-colonial education. Dangarembga creates characters that for me, at least, were easy to relate to, and she effectively dramatizes the emotional turmoil of coming of age, especially for young African women who feel that they are caught in between cultures (traditional and modern, African and Western).

Nervous Conditions
Nervous Conditions

Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie ( 1977-     ) is a rising young star in African literature. She is Nigerian and grew up in Nsukka, a university town. She went to college in the United States. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003), was published to wide-spread critical acclaim when she was only 26 years old.

Chimamanda Adichie
Chimamanda Adichie

Purple Hibiscus is about a girl named Kambili who grows up in a wealthy Nigerian household. To outside observers, her father is a generous and admired member of the community who constantly fights against government oppression. He rules is household, however, with an iron fist. At home, he is tyrannical and violent. His wife and children are terrified of him. What saves Kambili from utter despair, however, is her lively and outspoken aunt with whom she spends a considerable amount of time. Purple Hibiscus is an intense book with remarkable characters. Although parts of the novel are frightening, ultimately Kambili finds sources of growth, hope and resilience.

Purple Hibiscus
Purple Hibiscus

The other novel by Adichie that I have read is Half of a Yellow Sun. Whereas Purple Hibiscus focuses intently on one family, Half of a Yellow Sun has a much broader canvas. In this novel, Adichie portrays the lives of several different characters across a span of several years as they live through the Biafran war.   Her portrayal of this conflict is enlightening for those of us Westerners who knew little about this tragic war. Her characters ring as true-to-life complex beings who sometimes behave badly. For me, Half of a Yellow Sun lacked the intensity of the more domestic Purple Hibiscus. However, what it lacked in intensity of individual characters, it made up for in its broad scope and the compassion for a broad swath of society.  As an added bonus, Half of a Yellow Sun was recently made into a movie.  It should be distributed in the U.S. this summer!

Half of a Yellow Sun
Half of a Yellow Sun


Other works by Adichie include The Thing Around Your Neck and Americanah.

Happy Reading!

“Unwashed Female Flesh”: Caring for the Poor in “Cutting for Stone” and “Call the Midwives”


Picture taken from Amazon.com



cutting for stone

picture taken from amazon.com

“He invited me to a world that wasn’t secret, but it was well hidden. You needed a guide.   You had to know what to look for, but also HOW to look. You had to exert yourself to see this world. But if you did, if you had that kind of curiosity, if you had an innate interest in the welfare of your fellow human beings, and if you went through that door, a strange thing happened: you left your petty troubles on the threshold. It could be addictive” (264). Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone


Marion Praise Stone, the protagonist of Abraham Verghese’s sprawling novel Cutting for Stone, writes the above words in reference to Ghosh, an Indian doctor who practices in Ethiopia. Ghosh not only raised Marion, but also opened the door to his life-long fascination with medicine.   These words can also be applied to the effect this novel had on me. Verghese invited me into the well-hidden world of a mission hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and I became addicted. The same thing happened when I read Jennifer Worth’s Call the Midwives, her memoir of working as a midwife in the East End of London in the late 1950s. (The PBS series of the same name is based on Worth’s memoir.) Reading Verghese and Worth’s narrative accounts of treating the poor transported me happily, if temporarily, to the streets of the East Side of London and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to witness the everyday miracles of healing ministry.

I have watched doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals heal the sick on “Grey’s Anatomy,” “House,” “ER,” “Doc Martin,” “Scrubs,” “MASH,” and “Nurse Jackie, ” to name just a few. Not once did any of them entice me to enter the medical field, or even to take a particular interest in medicine.   Perhaps I read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at too early an age and was emotionally scarred by battle-axe Nurse Ratched. Or maybe it was the soap operas of my youth, in which nurses seemed more interested in the doctors than in the patients, while the doctors seemed more interested in their careers and their personal lives. In any case, television and fictional works about doctors and nurses have never particularly interested me. This has more to do with me than with the works. I am simply intellectually and temperamentally unsuited for a career in health care.

For this reason, my obsessive interested in Cutting for Stone and Call the Midwives took me by surprise. I’m not sure, really, why I responded so deeply to these works, but I think it has something to do with the way the heroes and heroines of these works practiced medicine: not as competent yet detached professionals, but as healers following a spiritual calling.

Cutting for Stone is the best-selling novel by Abraham Verghese, an Indian medical doctor who grew up in Ethiopia and now practices medicine in the United States.   His novel is about twin sons Marion and Shiva who, like him, are were raised in Ethiopia by Indian parents. (In the case of Marion and Shiva, the people who raised them were not their biological parents.) The novel is about many things, including family bonds, Ethiopian history, and erotic love. However, I think what I found most compelling is Verghese’s portrayal of the characters who work at Missing Hospital in Addis Ababa.   (The actual name of the hospital is “Mission,” but the word “mission” “on the Ethiopian tongue came out with a hiss so it sounded like Missing. ) There are few doctors and nurses at Missing Hospital, but they are all fiercely devoted to their calling (as opposed to rising in their careers.) Sister Mary Joseph Praise says this, for example, about Dr. Thomas Stone:

Stone, risen like Lazarus, then brought his entire being into understanding the fever. . . His fierce passion had been a revelation to her. At the medical college hospital in Madras where she trained as a nurse, the civil surgeons (who at the time were mostly Englishmen) had floated around serene and removed from the patients, with the assistant civil surgeons and junior and senior house surgeons (who were all Indian) trailing behind like ducklings. At times it seemed to her they were so focused on disease that patients and suffering were incidental to their work. Thomas Stone was different.” (37)

In an interview with Meenakshi Kumar in the The Hindu newspaper, Verghese refers to himself as an “old-fashioned” practitioner who practices “bed-side medicine.” From what I can tell, “bed-side medicine” means treating the patient as a whole person, not just a set of organs about which the doctor has special knowledge.    We see this “bed-side” attitude in all of the Ethiopian practitioners in Cutting for Stone. However, when the setting moves to the medically advanced United States, it seems that personal attention is less common.   In the United States, one distraught mother, for example, complains about the fact that her son died in surgery. She understands that the doctors cannot always save people. What upsets her, though, is the way these doctors treated her son like a body rather than a person.   She cries out in distress that, “The fact that people were attentive to his body does not compensate for their ignoring his being” (489).

Although the medical staff at Missing Hospital is a mixed band of expatriates who have no historic roots in Ethiopia, they become deeply, even spiritually, rooted in the community of Addis Ababas and do pioneering medical work for the desperately poor people who live there. The success of this mission hospital is due in large part to the nun who runs the place. Everybody refers to her as “Matron,” even herself, and she allowed herself at one point to feel pride at “the resourcefulness she’d discovered that allowed her to make a cozy hospital—an East African Eden, as she thought of it—grow out of disorganized jumble of rudimentary buildings; and the core group of doctors whom she’d recruited and who by long association had evolved into her Cherished Own.” (117) Matron and her staff work tirelessly to relieve the suffering of the poor. As Matron explains it to an American donor who disapproves of the Ethiopian version of Christianity: “God will judge us, Mr. Harris . . . by what we did to relieve the suffering of our fellow human beings. I don’t think God cares what doctrine we embrace.” (187)

The order of nuns described in Call the Midwives was equally resourceful in bringing much-needed care to a community of the poor. We learn from Jennifer Worth that up through the nineteenth century, most poor women in England could not afford a doctor to delivery their babies. Furthermore, no woman had any specialist obstetric care during pregnancy because such a field did not exist. She explains that “The first time a woman would see a doctor or midwife was when she went into labour. Therefore, death and disaster, either for mother or child, or both, were commonplace. Such tragedies were looked upon as the will of God, whereas, in fact, they were the inevitable result of neglect and ignorance” (82).

Women before the 20th century relied on untrained “handywomen” to deliver their babies and suffered a maternal mortality rate of around 35-40 percent. The Midwives of St. Raymund Nonnatus started to change this by advocating legislation that required proper training and control of the work of midwives. After a long struggle, the first Midwives Act was passed in 1902 and the Royal College of Midwives was born. The St. Raymund midwives worked in the slums of London among the poorest of the poor and were for a long time the only reliable midwives working there. Worth notes that

they labored tirelessly through epidemics of cholera, typhoid, polio and tuberculosis. In the early twentieth century, they worked through two world wars. In the 1940s, they remained in London and endured the Blitz with its intensive bombing of the docks. They delivered babies in air-raid shelters, dugouts, church crypts and underground stations. This was the tireless, selfless work to which they had pledged their lives, and they were known, respected and admired throughout the Docklands by the people who lived there. Everyone spoke of them with sincere love. (19)

Both Cutting for Stone and Call the Midwives depict healers who dedicate their lives to making others feel better. This is not to suggest, however, that the portraits of working with the suffering poor are all saccharine sweet.   Far from it. Along with the many scenes of mothers who are thrilled to have delivered a healthy baby come stories of death and other types of trauma. Not only do the practitioners and readers have to deal with trauma, but we are also exposed to simple disgust at human bodies and behaviors. Worth devotes a significant amount of print to detail the revulsion she often felt, especially at first—not only to the women’s bodies, but sometimes to the women themselves.

“What really got me, I think, was the sheer concentration of unwashed female flesh, the pulsating warmth and humidity, the endless chatter, and above all the smell. However much I bathed and changed afterwards, it was always a couple of days before I could get rid of the nauseating smells of vaginal discharge, urine, stale sweat, unwashed clothes. It all mingled into a hot, clinging vapour that penetrated my clothes, hair, skin—everything.” (71)

Worth also confesses to feeling occasional contempt for the “slatterns” and abusive mothers she meets. She also learns to overcome this contempt and to develop a profound respect for the toughness of the women with whom she works.

In the end, I think what draws me most to these works are the characters—the nuns, midwives, doctors and nurses–themselves. They seem to be touched by a radiant quality that transcends mere competence. I suspect is it no coincidence that both works center around health care run by nuns. The quality that stands out from these books is ultimately a spiritual one. Jennifer Worth noticed this quality of the nuns she worked with. She noticed how happy and relaxed she felt around Sister Julienne in particular:

“The impact Sister Julienne made upon me—and, I discovered, most people—was out of all proportion to her words or her appearance. She was not imposing or commanding, nor arresting in any way. She was not even particularly clever. But something radiated from her and, ponder as I might, I could not understand it. It did not occur to me at that time that her radiance had a spiritual dimension, owing nothing to the values of the temporal world.”

Verghese also weaves into his novel the interrelatedness of the material world and the spiritual world in his works. “I felt a great peace, a sense that coming to this spot had completed the circuit, and now a blocked current would flow and I could rest. If “ecstasy” meant the sudden intrusion of the sacred into the ordinary, then it had just happened to me” (602).

I suspect it is the spiritual dimension of these works is, at least in part, what drew me into them so deeply. I am grateful to Veghese and Worth for serving me as a guide–however briefly–to this world and teaching me “how to look” differently at the world of medicine.

[The interview with Meenakshi Kumar cited above can be found here:  http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/interview/fiction-as-a-truthtelling-device/article5456677.ece ]

Would You Like Tears With Your Order? (Random Stuff I’ve Learned by Reading Too Many Novels: Professional Mourners)


The character Toloki is a Professional Mourner
The character Toloki is a Professional Mourner


Toloki is the main character in South African writer Zakes Mda’s first novel, Ways of Dying. Toloki comes from a small village, but lives in Johannesburg. He goes to a lot of funerals. This is not because he knows so many people who have died, but because he is a Professional Mourner. He is hired by friends or family members of the deceased to mourn ostentatiously at their loved one’s funeral.

Mda writes, “Normally when he is invited to mourn by the owners of a corpse, he sits very conspicuously on the mound that will ultimately fill the grave. . . . and shares his sorrow with the world. The appreciative family of the deceased pays him any amount it can. One day he would like to have a fixed rate of fees for different levels of mourning, as in other professions. Doctors have different fees for different illnesses. Lawyers charge fees which vary according to the gravity of the case. And certainly these professionals don’t accept just any amount the client feels like giving them. But for the time being he will accept anything he is given, because the people are not yet used to the concept of a Professional Mourner. It is a fairly new concept, and he is still the only practitioner. He would be willing to train other people though, so that when he dies the tradition will continue. Then he will live in the books of history as the founder of a noble profession” (15).

Just as other professionals perform better on some days than on others, so too does Toloki. When he goes all out, he makes “moaning sounds of agony that were so harrowing that they affected all those who were in earshot, filling their eyes with tears. When the Nurse spoke, he excelled himself by punctuating each painful segment of her speech with an excruciating groan that sent the relatives into a frenzy of wailing.”

I have been known to send people into a frenzy of wailing myself—by teaching grammar—so I wanted to learn more about this profession. Was this profession purely a product of Zakes Mda’s imagination? I did some research to answer that question. (By “research,” of course, I mean “typing the phrase ‘professional mourner’ into google.”)

I learned that Professional Mourning is a practice dating back thousands of years in Mediterranean and Near Eastern cultures, as well as many other parts of the world. Professional mourners are called “moirologists.” They are mentioned in the Bible and early works of literature.

While the practice of moirology may not be as well-known as it once was, it still exists today. For example, in Essex, England there is a service called “Rent a Mourner.” They claim on their website that, “Rent a mourner can supply professional, discreet people to attend funerals and wakes. If you simply need to increase visitor numbers or introduce new faces, then we can help.”   The price of this service is about 45 pounds per mourner for a two-hour period. If you are interested in their service, check out their website: http://www.rentamourner.co.uk/services.html.

Lest you American readers feel left out, fret not.  We in the United States have our own moirologists from which to choose. For example, the Golden Gate Funeral Home in Dallas provides professional mourners. This video clip shows examples of people auditioning for this job.  Clearly, not everybody is cut out for this job; it takes talent.


It looks like Toloki has some competition. May the best wailer win.

My Sister

Aburi Craft Shop in Ghana
Aburi Craft Shop in Ghana



“Sister! My Sister! You must look at my shop!” called the tall, lean proprietor of a woodcarving stall. I smiled at him hesitantly and kept walking, and he started to follow me, carrying several of his carvings along. I was surprised that he left his shop to do so.

“No, Sister, you must come over here,” cried another woodcarver, motioning me to come to his shop containing woodwork looking very similar. “I have the very best prices.” When I kept on walking, he, too, started to follow me, leaving his stall unattended. Both of these young Ghanaian men walked uncomfortably close to me, sometimes touching my arm to shoulder to get my attention. Even though I did not say anything to them, they kept up a constant chatter, touting the superiority of their goods. Although it was a warm, humid day in May, my difficulty breathing had less to do with the weather than with my discomfort at such unwanted physical closeness.

It did not take long before I had four or five men following me around the National Cultural Center, the largest souvenir market in Accra, Ghana. Jumbled together under this vast open air pavilion were various stalls and shops other selling souvenirs ranging from masks to statues to musical instruments to paintings to woodcarvings. I had been looking forward to shopping here. For me, part of the pleasure of travel is to be able to take in the sights, smells and textures of the local culture through their markets. My plan was not only to look, but also to buy some souvenirs. I was quickly realizing that shopping here would reveal unexpected psychological difficulties for me. At home in Minnesota, I was used to fitting into my surroundings to such an extent that I was nearly invisible. As a white American in Ghana, however, invisibility was not an option.

I traveled to Accra, Ghana in May of 2006 to present a paper at the African Literature Association Conference. I am an English professor and although my specialty is American literature, I have read a significant amount of African fiction and I have long been interested in the art and culture of the region. This was my first visit to sub-Saharan Africa, and I was looking forward to making connections with local people. I was certainly meeting many people in this shopping center and we quickly became close—physically close, that is. This was not what I had in mind, though. I was hoping to be seen as an individual, not simply a walking cash machine.

As I walked on, some of the hawkers would drift away, while others would take their place. I stopped at one particular stall to admire the fertility dolls. I picked one up to admire it. I wanted to know more about the origin of these dolls. Which ethnic group were they from? The Ashanti? The Ewe? Or were they widespread among the myriad of peoples making up Ghana? How were they used?

I was about to ask the man tending the shop some of these questions. Before I could do so, though, he said to me, “Because you are my mother, I will give you a special deal.” His mother! Offended, I quickly left the stall. I had gotten used to being everybody’s sister, but I was not ready claim this grown man as my son. I was far too young (in my mind at least) for that.

I moved on to the next stall, which carried a wide variety of traditional African masks. I knew very little about masks, and was afraid of buying one that would bring a curse upon my house. I asked the salesman what the masks meant.

“I am looking for something to bring me good luck,” I said.

“My sister,” he responded. “If you buy these masks you will bring ME good luck.

I laughed at his response. As much as I wanted to bring him good luck, though, I was feeling too overwhelmed by all of the new sensations and the constant attention to continue shopping at this point. Although I had been in the city for less than two hours, I desperately needed some invisible time. I found at least partial refuge in a café bordering the market. As I sat on the shaded porch sipping my Pepsi, I began to breathe easier. There was only a railing separating me from the crowds, but behind it, I felt safer.
I learned later that this market has a reputation for particularly aggressive salesmen. Although my time at the market was perhaps the most extreme experience in terms of numbers of hawkers, I found that any time Westerners stepped out of the protected confines of the five star hotel or tour bus, we were the center of unwanted attention. Intellectually, I perfectly understood that the Ghanaians were desperately poor in comparison to the American middle-class tourists and that they were simply trying to make a living. Because of my academic background, I was acutely aware of the power dynamics between Westerners and formerly colonized peoples. When reading books by African authors, it was very easy for me to identify with the African characters and to feel outraged by the arrogance and unearned privileges of the whites. I learned to despise the colonizers, especially those who led luxurious lives in their white enclaves, completely separate from the African people—except for their servants, of course. I was always on Okonkwo’s side. I was finding, however, that it was easier to make human connections through the books I read than it was with the real people I was meeting.

This became even more clear to me the time I decided to go for a walk along the beach. The narrow strip of sand along the waterfront did not belong to the hotel; it was public property. A tall wrought-iron fence separated the beach from the hotel; the gate was zealously guarded to keep out non-paying guests. I walked on the warm sand, happy to be taking in the breathtaking spectacle of the Atlantic ocean shimmering in the sunlight. I noticed numerous small stands and businesses lining the beach. The proprietors motioned to me to come check out their goods, but for the most part they left me alone physically.

Within a few minutes, however, a tall, muscular young man walked up to me and began following me.

“Hello? How are you? Where are you from?” he asked.

I answered his questions briefly and kept walking. He was not carrying anything to sell, so I was confused by his presence. I did not know what he wanted from me. If he was selling something, I did not know what it was. Surely he was not trying to pick me up; he must have been twenty years younger than me.

He continued to talk about himself and ask questions about me. I thought that my minimal responses and closed body language would be enough to make him go away, but I was wrong. I think of myself as a nice person and did not want to give offense, but I did not know the social codes of the culture. If I told him explicitly to go away would it be taken as a sign of racism? Not knowing how to get rid of him politely, I simply continued to walk. He continued to walk alongside me.

After awhile, we came to a very shallow stream of water. The water came up to my knees, if that. The man motioned for me to get on his back.

“I will carry you across,” he said.

Are you nuts? I thought. You can’t really expect me to hop on your back. Can you?

But I merely replied, “No, thank you,” I said. “I can walk across myself.”

He looked offended. “You think I cannot carry you. You do not know that I am a man.”

I was very aware that he was a man; that was exactly the problem, but I just said, “I am fine” as I slogged through the shallow water.

“Now your feet are wet,” he said sadly, shaking his head, once I made it across the stream.

I continued walking for a few minutes, but then I turned back. I was becoming more and more uncomfortable and wanted to go back to the hotel. When we got back to the main beach, he motioned for me to follow him into a restaurant. Because it was in between meal times, there were no customers in the cool darkness of the building. The man spoke briefly to a woman who was working there. I surmised that this was his restaurant, or at least that he worked here and that his goal was to get me to buy a meal here. If so, it seemed like a lot of work for one customer.

He motioned for me to follow him to the back part of the main room, where he turned on a low faucet for me to wash my feet. This seemed like an odd thing to do, but still eager to avoid offense, I walked to the faucet and took off my sandals. For a moment, I enjoyed the feel of the water on my legs. But then, the man until he bent down and started rubbing my feet, trying to wash them for me. I stiffened and pulled back from the water. What was he doing? I wondered. By this point, my need to get away trumped my need to avoid offense.

“I have to go now,” I said and started to walk away.

“Stay and have some lunch,” he replied. “The food is excellent.”

“No, thank you,” I said. “I really need to get back to the hotel.”

I was not lying. By this point, I was desperate for the psychological safety of the hotel. I hurried up the gentle slope to the hotel gate. As I did so, I was followed by several hawkers selling their paintings. Normally, I would be interested in looking at the paintings and might have purchased one. At this point, however, I needed to get away and was relieved when the hotel guard let me in the gate. When I looked back on the beach, I saw that some of the men were pressed up against the fence, continuing their sales pitch through the bars.

Because I was on one side of the bars and they were on the other, the scene reminded me of a zoo. However, I’m not sure who was on display and who was being watched. Perhaps Western tourists like me were like exotic creatures—like Panda bears, perhaps–best kept behind locked gates.

As I slunk back to the safety of the hotel, I felt simultaneously relieved and disappointed in myself. Surely, it must be possible to make genuine connections with local people. I, however, had failed to do so. Because of the fraught history and massive economic differences, the Ghanaians saw me as a target and I saw them as harassers. Like the colonialists of the past whom I had always despised, I sought refuge from harsh reality in the protected confines of economic privilege.