AiW Note: AiW’s annual review series of what is now the AKO Caine Prize is back. We’ve been talking about prize culture for a long time at Africa in Words; Kate Wallis’s post on our joining the Caine Prize “blogathon” back in 2013 reflects on this in the context of the many other forms of “prizing” African literature. Through July, we are reviewing the stories shortlisted for the 2020 AKO Caine Prize for African Writing. Normally the winner is announced early in July with a series of events and celebrations; this year’s exceptional circumstances have delayed the announcement of the winner and in-person activities. We don’t want to deprive you of some good reading, though! Enjoy working your way through these reviews and the shortlisted stories this month.
Our second review, of Rémy Ngamije’s “The Neighbourhood Watch” is by our Editorial Assistant Ellen Addis. You can read the first review in the series, Zahra Banday’s review of Irenosen Okojie’s ‘Grace Jones’, here.
Rémy Ngamije’s “The Neighbourhood Watch”, published last year in the Johannesburg Review of Books, opens with a timetable: “Mondays: Auasblick, Olympia, and Suiderhof (maybe Pionierspark)”, placing the story in the suburbia of Windhoek, Namibia. This timetable divides up Ngamije’s narrative into districts of the city, districts in which we quickly find out “the Neighbourhood Watch”– Elias, Lazarus, Omagano, Silas, and Martin – a crew of homeless scavengers, search for food and supplies. The typical image that comes to mind when you hear “the Neighbourhood Watch” – of a middle-class suburban community initiative created to reduce crime – is ironically undercut by Ngamije’s reclamation of the title for the haphazard crew. This initial subversion of expectation sets up the multiple explorations of class, race, violence, inequality, time, and survival which run through the story.
Splitting up the city geographically, place becomes a marker for success and class – inextricably linked to one another and signified through the contents of each area’s rubbish. The crew picks and sifts through “the detritus of suburbia”: “Auasblick is nice. They still know how to throw things away here.” In the townships of Olympia and Suiderhof, the actual neighbourhood watch operates, meaning there are “Too many heads peeking through curtains to find the source of disturbances, too many dogs barking, too many patrolling vehicles with angry, shouting men.” The worst is the affluent Klein Windhoek, where:
people only put out their bins at the crack of dawn to dissuade the dustbin divers from perambulating through their streets. That is how bad it has become, Lazarus says. The rich have got so rich they have started hoarding their trash.
These portraits of greed contrast directly with the old neighbourhoods the crew used to scavenge: Katutura, Hakahana, Goreangab, Wanaheda and Okuryangava. Ngamije launches into a flashback to “Tuesdays and Thursdays: In Days Past” in these neighbourhoods, where the crew find a dead baby, a violence of poverty which leads Elias, the crew’s leader, to ruefully declare, “On Tuesday and Thursday nights we stop going to poor people’s places because poor people have nothing left to throw away but themselves.” Segregated townships, a sign of the post-apartheid Namibia, illustrate the inequalities created by race and class, and force the crew to discriminate in order to survive, targeting areas “Where there are white people”, “Or black people trying to be white people.”
Violence becomes necessary for survival by any means on the streets, and Ngamije masterfully uses time to emphasise the precariousness of homelessness: “Everyone brought a past to the street and a present was always hungry. The street snacked on those who regretted, who dreamt up a tomorrow that still required today to be survived.” In fact, the first thing that Elias tells Lazarus is: “the street has no future, there is only today. And today you need food. Today you need shelter. Today you need to take care of today.”
If there were a single line to take from “The Neighbourhood Watch”, it would be Elias’s statement that “Every day is today”. It sums up the crew’s insistence to ignore the precariousness of their future, and the traumas of their past. Yet the crew’s demand on presence is undermined by Ngamije’s narrative structure, both in the timetables framing each section of the story, and the flickering tenses which force us to look back at the crew’s struggles, even if Elias and Lazarus do not want to.
The flashbacks are quick, and often happen mid-paragraph: “The Neighbourhood Watch never enters Khomasdal because people drink too much there. Alcohol is what took Amos. Not really. It was pride.” The flitting between tenses changes to a retrospective tone, correcting itself and demonstrating how the crew’s belief system (that “Every day is today”) infects their memory; pride becomes the culprit for mistakes and as the past grapples to override the present-tense narrative, it chokes and weaves its own story. We see snippets of a life before, Elias’s insurgency fight against the South African Defence Force, Lazarus in prison, and their lost crewmate’s murder.
The repeated sentiment that “there is only today” speaks to the unavoidable and inexplicable violence of life on the streets. Ngamije portrays the streets as a permanent threat to the crew: “They rove and roam across the neighbourhood like wildebeest following rains, the street following them like a hungry predator.” The street creates a wormhole of “today” in which looking beyond basic needs of survival in food and shelter, imagining a different future, are dangerous distractions.
The story ends with the crew’s seemingly only ally – Mrs Bezuidenhout. She lives in the wealthy Eros, an area that has “people who recycle” – a plus for the scavengers – and is empathetic to the Neighbourhood Watch. Each Sunday, Mrs Bezuidenhout calls them as they walk past and gives them gifts of canned food, old clothes, and books which they burn for warmth. The narrator plainly states that “The Neighbourhood Watch has three pillars: Elias’s street savoir-faire, Lazarus’s contained violence, and Mrs Bezuidenhout’s generosity.” When Silas asks Elias why they never ask the compassionate old woman for more – for toothbrushes, soap, medicine, shelter – Elias replies: “She gives something from her home to us and takes some of the street away from us. We need all of the street to survive the street.” Hence, the street signifies an unending cycle, which simultaneously keeps them alive yet cripples them.
“The Neighbourhood Watch” is a quietly powerful tale of inequality and waste, pride and desperation, with characters who are portrayed empathetically. However, the real triumph of “The Neighbourhood Watch” is Ngamije’s narrative presence. Decisive and confident, Ngamije’s voice is no doubt what has led to his success so far, and what will ensure his success to come.
Rémy Ngamije is a Rwandan-born Namibian writer and photographer. His debut novel The Eternal Audience Of One is available from Blackbird Books. He writes for brainwavez.org, a writing collective based in South Africa. He is the editor-in-chief of Doek!, Namibia’s first literary magazine. His short stories have appeared in Litro Magazine, AFREADA, The Johannesburg Review of Books, The Amistad, The Kalahari Review, American Chordata, Doek!, Azure, Sultan’s Seal, Columbia Journal, and New Contrast. He has been longlisted for the 2020 Afritondo Short Story Prize and shortlisted for Best Original Fiction by Stack Magazines in 2019. More of his writing can be read on his website. Follow Rémy on Twitter @remythequill
Ellen Addis is studying for her doctorate at the University of Birmingham. Her research centres around social reading practices and literary festivals.