Bacon on the Bookshelf

Savory picks for the free range reader

Africa On My Mind: Part 1 of 4

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My husband and I have daughters who are 13 and 15 years old.  I think about the kidnapped girls in Nigeria every day.  I think Peggy Noonan had it exactly right in her column in the Wall Street Journal on Saturday:

There is nothing wrong with taking action—when possible—that is contained, discrete, swift, targeted, humanitarian and, not least, can be carried through successfully.  And then shutting up about it.  That might remind the world—and ourselves—who we are.  And it might have very helpful effects down the road.  “If we do that, the Americans may come.”  Leave the monsters guessing.

I have several stacks of books in my kitchen (doubling as office/study) waiting to be read, but the only ones that reach out to me right now are set in Africa, at least in part.  Reading these books, I am aware, does nothing for those girls in Nigeria.  Reading them does make my mind a bigger place – and the world a smaller place – which Boko Haram hates.  For the next four weeks, I’ll read and think about the following novels:

  • Ghana Must Go, by Taiye Selasi,
  • Radiance of Tomorow, by Ishmael Beah,
  • Every Day Is For The Thief, by Teju Cole, and
  • Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

9781594204494_p0_v1_s114x166Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go is a story of immigrants, families, abandonment, and finally, reconciliation.  American missionaries give “genius-son, sixteen, shoeless” Kweku Sai the chance to leave a life of poverty in rural Ghana to attend school in America on scholarship, where he thrives.  He continues to achieve at every level of his education.  The hard-working immigrant makes good:  he becomes a very successful surgeon at a prominent Boston hospital.  By his side is wife Fola, who has put aside her own dreams to support his and to raise their growing family of four children.  Fola, born in Nigeria, is the “princess” daughter of a loving father killed in internecine violence between Hausas and Igbos.  After his death, her circumstances become precarious and dangerous.  Through her own determination and the help of a family friend, Fola makes it to America.  Fola and Kweku each arrive full of hope and need:

Folasadé Savage on the run from a war.  Kweku Sai fleeing a peace that could kill.  Two boats lost at sea, washed to shore in Pennsylvania (“Pencil-wherever”) of all places, freezing to death, alive, in love.  Orphans, escapees, at large in world history, both hailing from countries last great in the eighteenth century – but prideful (braver, hopeful) and brimful and broke – so very desperately seeking home and adventure, finding both.  Finding both in each other…

Ghana Must Go is first and foremost the great love story of Kweku and Fola, yet the novel begins with Kweku dying alone in his garden in Ghana, his second wife asleep in their bed.  The novel traces his journey from Boston – abandoning his family – back to Ghana, but it is a big novel, so it also tells with great conviction the stories of Fola and their four children.  Upon Kweku’s death, Fola and the children confront his complicated legacy and their own frayed relationships at his funeral.  I have rarely been so transported by a novel, its prose shimmering in both the humid heat of Ghana and the fallen snow in Boston.

Ghana Must Go helped me understand what one journey out of Africa might feel like.  Here is how Fola reflects on her life after her father was killed in Nigeria:

Had he died a death germane to this life as she’d known it – in a car crash, for example, in his beloved Deux Chevaux, or from liver cancer, lung, to the end puffing Caos, swilling rum – she could have abided the loss.  Would have mourned.  Would have found herself an orphan in a four-story apartment, having lost both her parents at thirteen years old, but would have been, thus bereaved, a thing she recognized (tragic) instead of what she became: a part of history (generic).

She sensed the change immediately, in the tone people [in Ghana] took when they learned that her father had been murdered by soldiers; in the way that they’d nod as if, yes, all makes sense, the beginning of the Nigerian civil war, but of course

She felt it in America… that her classmates and professors, white or black, it didn’t matter, somehow believed that it was natural, however tragic, what had happened.  That she’d stopped being Folasadé Somayina Savage and had become instead the native of a generic War-Torn Nation…Surely, broad-shouldered, woolly-haired fathers of natives of hot war-torn countries got killed all the time?

How had this happened?

It wasn’t Lagos she yearned for, the splendor, the sensational, the sense of being wealthy – but the sense of self surrendered to the senselessness of history…

Taiye Selasi claims history as a series of stories which must be understood specifically, not generically.  She claims that people are complex and that legacies can be complicated, but that love can endure and strengthen us.  She claims not least the power of education, which Boko Haram also recognizes: perhaps the one thing they strangely share.  Nicholas Kristof put a fine point on it last weekend in his column in The New York Times:

When terrorists in Nigeria organized a secret attack last month, they didn’t target an army barracks, a police department or a drone base.  No, Boko Haram militants attacked what is even scarier to a fanatic: a girls’ school.

That’s what extremists do.  They target educated girls, their worst nightmare.

That’s why the Pakistani Taliban shot Malala Yousafzai in the head at age 15.  That’s why the Afghan Taliban throws acid on the faces of girls who dare to seek an education.

Why are fanatics so terrified of girls’ education?  Because there’s no force more powerful to transform a society.  The greatest threat to extremism isn’t drones firing missiles, but girls reading books.

 

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