AiW Guest: Jovia Salifu
The essays in this anthology, Safe House: Explorations in Creative Nonfiction (Dundurn 2016), address the very topics that have made Africa the centre of the world’s attention over the years for all the wrong reasons — disease, political violence, racism, homophobia, neocolonialism, slum development, and war. But grim as they are, these stories depict the reality. And for optimists like me, this sort of publication bodes well for African writing that is not Achebe, Ngugi, or even Adichie. It is a good thing to see the name of a familiar nonfiction writer like Kofi Akpabli on a major publication. For years I enjoyed reading his articles in Ghanaian newspapers before the plethora of online news outlets took all my attention away from the conventional newspaper. I have no doubt that readers from other parts of Africa can express a similar familiarity with the work of the other authors of this anthology. It is gratifying to know that this genre of writing merits the attention of major publishers.
From chapter to chapter, each contributor crafts a captivating narrative steeped in the everyday reality of their own lives or the lives of people they have interacted with. Common to most of these stories is the theme of Otherness. The stories, though varied, each explore the challenges of sexual, social, biological, and racial minority peoples, and spatial settings that can be considered Other. Whether it is through the horrid experiences of sexual and gender minorities; the physical and emotional isolation of Ebola-plagued parts of Africa; the deprivation of slum dwellers; or the conflicts between local traders and migrant Chinese shop owners in Dakar; the reader encounters the ever-present tension between the majority and the minority, the mainstream and the marginal, the conformists and the subversives, the Self and the Other.
Take for example the persecution of sexual and gender minorities in deeply conservative African societies. For those unfortunate to be born homosexual, trying to live normally in such societies is to live a life punctuated by regular bouts of beatings, extortion, sexual torture, and harassment, from family and strangers alike. Mark Gevisser’s heart-wrenching account of the torturous existence of a nineteen year old Ugandan gay transgender seeking asylum in Kenya will leave the reader wondering what the world is coming to. It is sad that a teenager should have to suffer all these because of his sexual and gender orientation to the point of saying: ‘I don’t think I can make it here. Let me go back to Uganda to die’ (p105). Similarly, any yan daudu (effeminate men) daring to live in a Sharia-governed State in Nigeria has to maintain a constant look out for predators: ‘I have to safeguard myself. When I go to a safe place in the midst of yan daudu then I can relax and do my thing. But once I leave such a place, I begin to act normal’ (p148).
Likewise, the lives of other social nonconformists are equally of little consequence. Bongani Kona writes about the murder of a tiny woman considered to be a hippie, and how the culprits nearly escaped justice because of the negative social perception of eccentric people. It did not matter whether the ‘pretty little pixie woman’ got justice (p151). Her crime was that she ‘was eccentric — barefoot, dreadlocks, so when she went missing people didn’t think too much of it’ (p162). And even though she was the victim, ‘it seemed as if it was Rosemary’s unorthodox lifestyle that was on trial’ (p161). Even hapless victims of temporary misfortune become personae non gratae overnight, to be avoided like a plague. In one of my favourite chapters, Hawa Jande Golakai shares her experiences of the Ebola crisis within and outside Liberia. When she travels outside the country at the height of the crisis, the experience is not the most pleasant: ‘Guys grin and flirt, then flinch; one actually wipes the hand that brushed my shoulder on his jeans as he walks away. No hard feelings’ (p46).
So what is it that makes humans mistreat their fellows on account of difference in physical characteristics or fortune? Is it an issue of self preservation? From Barbara Wanjala’s candid reflections it would appear so. On an aeroplane from Senegal where she had been investigating the plight of lesbians and other sexual minorities, she encountered two West African men who kept sneezing intermittently. Considering that it was Ebola season, she became afraid:
‘I struggled to reconcile my pan-Africanist ideals with my hypochondria. I had left Dakar resolute in my conviction that love ought to transcend all barriers of gender, colour, religion, and origin, but in the face of a steady wave of indeterminate germs I found the love I had for my two African brothers beside me wavering’ (p212).
Can it be said then that those who oppose sexual and gender nonconformity do so out of genuine fear, however unjustifiable? What makes a parent banish his gay son from ‘the presence of his siblings in case he “infected” them’? (p110). Is there a natural tendency for humans to fear and despise things they cannot rationalise in the context of their worldview?
As I read Sarita Ranchod’s excellent retelling of the circumstances of her up-bringing as a third generation Indian girl growing up in apartheid South Africa, I am reminded of a currently unfolding controversy in Ghana where a group of academics are collecting signatures to support a petition to the authorities of the University of Ghana to pull down a statue of Mohandas Gandhi on the campus. The protesters claim that the esteemed icon had expressed very unflattering views about black people during his time in South Africa. He is alleged to have written:
“Ours is one continual struggle against a degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by the Europeans, who desire to degrade us to the level of the raw kaffir whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with and then pass his life in indolence and nakedness.”
Was the Mahatma a racist? Or was he just a passionate crusader of his own people, determined to safeguard their rights by whatever means possible? Does this mean that even the most kind-hearted among us put Self before Other? Readers will have these and many more questions to ponder as they turn the pages.
Overall, the stories in this book are very contemporary and thought-provoking even if they seem to perpetuate the negative perception of the continent. Fairness demands that I acknowledge the few positive portrayals of the continent. Through Neema Komba’s adventures on the rocky magical hills of the Tanzanian countryside, we see snapshots of the beautiful African landscape. And in the final chapter Chike Edozien shows us that it is actually possible to be gay in Africa without being beaten to pulp every time you venture outside your home. You just need to be of middle-class status and be willing to keep your affairs secret. Readers who like to think about what they read will savour these stories.
Safe House: Explorations in Creative Nonfiction (2016) edited by Ella Wakatama Allfrey is available from Dundurn Books.
Jovia Salifu is a Ghanaian doctoral student at the University of Birmingham. His research explores the impact of women’s access to microcredit on household gender relations in Ghana. Jovia also loves to write and publishes his own blog at josalifu.wordpress.com.
“Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, OBE, editor, critic, and broadcaster, is former deputy editor of Granta magazine, series editor for the Kwani? Manuscript Prize, and the deputy chair of the Caine Prize for African Writing. She served as a judge for the 2015 Man Booker Prize panel. She lives in London, England.” (Source: Dundurn Books)
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