Speaking of – Africa – Africa.
21 December 2002
Africa is a continent made for – and of – storytellers
“Emma’s War”. By Deborah Scroggins. Pantheon; 389 pages; $25. To be published in Britain by HarperCollins in March 2003″Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight”. By Alexandra Fuller. Random House; 368 pages; $24.95. Picador; £15.99″The Devil that Danced on the Water”. By Aminatta Forna. HarperCollins; 403 pages; £17.99. To be published in America by Grove Atlantic Press in January 2003
DEBORAH SCROGGINS begins “Emma’s War”, a memoir of her years spent studying famine relief and radical Islam in Sudan, by recounting an ancient African myth about Man and his greedy enemy, Stomach. Once upon a time, Stomach lived by itself in the bush, eating small insects roasted in brush fire, for Man was created apart from Stomach. Then one day Man was walking in the bush and came across Stomach. Man put Stomach in its present place that it might feed there. When it lived by itself, Stomach was satisfied with small morsels of food, but now that Stomach is part of Man, it craves more no matter how much it eats. “That is why”, Ms Scroggins tells us, “Stomach is the enemy of man.”
That Ms Scroggins used a tale like this to illustrate a point is nothing unusual. Africa, with its oral tradition, is full of stories, and this one said a great deal about the politics of food, which plays such a large part in Sudan’s dark and unruly tale. What was surprising was that Pantheon, the publisher of “Emma’s War”, succeeded in October 2002 in selling a four-page serialisation of the book to American Vogue – of all magazines.
Now, New York fashionistas do not normally take any great interest in the curmudgeonly civil war that has plagued southern Sudan for the past 19 years. If they have heard at all of the biggest country in Africa, it is more likely because they saw the beautiful moon-faced Alek Wek, MTV’s model of the year, in the 2000 Pirelli calendar: Ms Wek is a Dinka and was born in southern Sudan. Or it might be because President Bill Clinton once ordered his air force to fire upon a pharmaceutical plant outside Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, in the belief that it was a factory making chemical weapons. Or because the conflict in the south has on occasion spilled over into Somalia, the scene of Ridley Scott’s gladiatorial epic, “Black Hawk Down”. Of anything else regarding Sudan, like of so much else in Africa, most Americans remain blithely ignorant. How then did Ms Scroggins get American Vogue hooked on Sudan?
The answer lies not in what she wrote about, but how she wrote it. “Emma’s War” is one of three remarkable works of narrative non-fiction about Africa which have come out this year. The second is about the white farmers who still call their country Rhodesia until they remember that its name has been changed to Zimbabwe. The third is set amid a sprawling African family divided between high government in Sierra Leone and exile in Britain.
Africa has provided the setting for a host of narratives, ever since Isak Dinesen published “Out of Africa” in 1937. These new books are among the best of Dinesen’s children. Each one is a feat of story-telling, with its own inimitable voice. Each of the three authors writes about place by putting her characters at the front of the dramatic narrative, rather than heading straight for a dry political analysis of the countries in which they live.
Similarly, the authors have cherry-picked techniques more common to fiction writing. Pacing and narrative and, in particular, the development of character, are all vital to drawing the reader into a story he or she might never have thought to visit. All three are also first books, which says something about the passion that authors feel for their earliest subject; first books, like first love, live long in the heart. And all three are by women.
Of murder and mini-skirts
Deborah Scroggins was 26 when she first went to Sudan in 1988. As a reporter for a crusading southern American newspaper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, her job was to write about a growing food crisis in southern Sudan and what the West was doing about it. “Aid makes itself out to be a practical enterprise,” she writes at the start of her book, “but in Africa at least it’s romantics who do most of the work.”
One of the most romantic figures she came across during an early visit was Emma McCune, a tall young Englishwoman with the legs of a colt and a dazzling smile. Where other aid workers wore sexless, shapeless khaki, Emma wore a red mini-skirt. She drove around southern Sudan distributing pencils and blackboards to local primary schools on behalf of an idealistic Canadian charity.
McCune might have remained a footnote, another addition to the long list of humanitarians who, for at least a century, have become involved in Sudan for reasons often half-hidden from themselves, had it not been for her sudden marriage to an African warlord named Riek Machar, or Dr Riek as he was known to his followers.
Despite the evident sexual attraction between them, Emma regarded the match in more idealistic terms, seeing it as a way of bridging the gap between black and white. Without telling her, though, Mr Machar was soon to launch a violent quest to take over the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the southern Sudanese rebel movement. Murder and kidnapping became part of his quest for power, and, like so many Africans, he sought money for his cause from a debonair businessman with a growl of a voice, Tiny Rowland.
What had raised the stakes for Mr Rowland, his new best friend the warlord, and the warlord’s fellow rebels was the discovery of oil in the south of the country. Western oil companies were paying the northern Islamic government to gain access to the oilfields, while Christian groups in America were pouring money into the south in the belief that by propping up the rebels they were establishing a vanguard against Islam. What the outsiders were really doing, Ms Scroggins demonstrates, was fuelling the civil war.
Emma’s aid-worker friends, who smiled away her defiance and flamboyant clothes in the name of English eccentricity, were becoming increasingly concerned that she had crossed the line between idealism and partisanship. Meanwhile, Mr Machar paid a visit to his first wife, a fellow Sudanese whom he had married very young and then abandoned, and they conceived their third child. Despite his many betrayals, Emma stood by her man. Two years later, at the age of 29, she was killed by a speeding bush taxi.
For a short time, the SPLA was suspected of complicity in her death, but it was more likely to have been just one of those wasteful road accidents that happen with such dismaying frequency in Africa. Emma was five months’ pregnant, and her last words were for her unborn child. American Vogue headlined its excerpt of the book, “The Warlord’s Wife”. It was, as one magazine editor said, “irresistible”. No wonder Ridley Scott is trying to buy the film rights.
In the company of Emma McCune, misguided though she might have seemed to some, Ms Scroggins takes the reader by the hand into the hot dust of southern Sudan and the politics of the belly, where black meets white, rich meets poor and the fat white paunch of the West gets to look upon starving Africa’s distended stomach. It is an encounter that reeks of brutal inconsistency; dry political analysis could never achieve the same dramatic effect, nor could news journalism.
If you think of the main recent television reports from Africa – the genocide in Rwanda, the limb-hacking in Sierra Leone, the deadly effects of AIDS in Botswana or lava snaking through the centre of Goma town in Congo – you remember just how much television’s appetite is for the grotesque. In television, there is no room for little people in Africa unless they are dead or, at the very least, dying helpfully in large numbers. Reporting from the top down of this kind can be impressive, but it offers little flavour of life on the ground. More important, it sheds no light on how Africa survives, or thrives even, among all the flood, blood and famine that is its reality television. And yet thrive it does.
To explain how takes another kind of storytelling, and a different storyteller.
Alexandra Fuller is one of the many women writing narrative non-fiction about Africa today, perhaps because women – who occupy fewer positions of power, particularly in Africa – are good at telling a story from the bottom up. Ms Fuller’s cast is made up of her father, a gruff but gentle tobacco farmer with cigarette ever in hand, her mother, blonde and brittle as an eggshell, and her sister. Featured too are the family’s three other children, who are all dead. The setting is Rhodesia as it turns with hope into Zimbabwe, and then through fear and harassment into something darker.
Quietly, Ms Fuller evokes the smells and sounds of southern Africa, the lemony light of early morning and the song of the Cape turtle-dove, “Work-hard-er, work-hard-er”. But it is her ear for the rhythms of speech – a Rhodesian policeman in tight-squeaky shoes explaining that the way to avoid landmines is to avoid opening tins of buttery shortcake, or two sisters in an outside lavatory bickering in the dead of night over who gets to pee first and who has to hold up the torch against scorpions and snakes – these are the voices that make this book so rough, so sad and so absurdly funny.
It is not easy, or has not been until recently, to create sympathetic figures out of white Rhodesian farmers. Ms Fuller’s parents are in turn drunk, loud, bigoted and visibly exasperated with their workers. Her mother, she reports, calls Kelvin, the cook, “bloody idiot” to his face when he tries to get rid of the flies in the Fullers’ kitchen by spraying it and himself with an entire tin of an insecticide named Doom. “Idiot!” she shrieks over Kelvin’s near-comatose body as she realises he first took care to close the windows. “You could have killed yourself.”
In time, Mrs Fuller has a nervous breakdown. It is not Africa that drives her mad, but her dead children, one stillborn, one killed by meningitis, one drowned. “It is almost lunch before anyone notices Olivia is missing. She is floating face down in the pond. The ducks are used to her body now, paddling and waddling around it, throwing back their heads and drinking the water that is full of her last breaths.” Ms Fuller’s talent as a writer is there on every page, and it is sentences like these that elevate her book into a timeless portrait of human folly, and a love letter to two people whose devotion to the land they till is equalled only by their bewilderment at those who have come to rule over it.
The dark underbelly
Of course, it is not only white people who are bewildered by their leaders. African writers, such as Chinua Achebe, Bessie Head and Helon Habila, have, for the most part, turned to fiction or to the theatre to try to make sense of their continent. Traditionally, it has been white writers, ironically those you would think were most insulated from Africa’s hardships, who have been the first to translate its rawness into narrative non-fiction.
After Dinesen came Rian Malan, writing about interior exile in South Africa (“My Traitor’s Heart”), Peter Godwin on Zimbabwe (“Mukiwa”) and Kuki Gallmann on Kenya (“I Dreamed of Africa”). Ms Fuller is the latest, and one of the best, of a series of writers whose engagement with the cruelties of the continent is as sensitive as it is eloquent. But still, to a man (or woman), they remain stubbornly unAfrican. The black Africans who appear in many of these books are ciphers, soundless props that fill the picture, like furniture or trees. Which is what makes Aminatta Forna’s memoir, the third of the three books, so unusual.
Ms Forna is the daughter of a British mother and Sierra Leonean father who attended medical school in Scotland dressed in well-cut suits, “his dark skin glowing against the starched white cuffs and collar.” Crossing the room to greet a young woman with a French plait rising out of her long neck like a coiled tulip, he held out his hand: “I’m Mohamed. And you are?” This was 1959 and her father was not impressed. “There are black women for black men, Chinese women for Chinamen and, for all I care, green women for green men.” The two married anyway, and, after a party to celebrate his nation’s independence in 1961, Forna puffed away at six cigarettes in one go: “I’m smoking for freedom, man.”
The Fornas returned to Sierra Leone. By day, Mohamed ran a medical clinic for patients who could not afford the doctors who charged for their services. Growing up, Aminatta longed to help him, and spent her pocket money on gauze, splints and Dettol to fill her very own medical bag. The five-year-old rolled bandages, and at night slept the sleep of the satisfied as well as the innocent. Her father, meanwhile, was being sucked into politics.
Forna was named minister of finance by the country’s moody and unpredictable leader, Siaka Stevens. Seven years later, he confronted Stevens over the president’s involvement in illegal diamond-dealing. Stevens retaliated by having him tried with a number of colleagues on trumped-up charges and hanged for treason in the dead of night. Hardly anyone protested. But Sierra Leoneans began wearing their hair in a new style: seven braids descending on either side of the crown and a single braid in the centre, running from the forehead to nape. Mohamed Forna and the 14 others.
Three times, Ms Forna, her brother and sister were sent into exile for their safety. First, with their mother they lived in Scotland, squeezing themselves into a caravan in a field because British landladies would not rent to “foreigners”. Later, after their parents divorced and remarried, it was the young Fornas’ heroic new African stepmother who watched over them, raising money (from Rowland again) and making sure they did their homework.
In 2000, Ms Forna, by then a documentary film maker with the BBC, returned to Sierra Leone to try to find the truth behind her father’s execution and the men who ordered it. Stevens was dead, and much of the country was being ruled by Foday Sankoh’s bestial rebels. Many of those who voted in the 2002 presidential election had to do so with their big toe: both hands had been amputated. Through one of the trial lawyers, Ms Forna miraculously found the transcript of her father’s trial. She also read for the first time the letter that her father had written to his children the night before he died.
Gently, taking her time, she also explores the symbolism of her journey, and how the loss of her father and the years in exile echo an Africa that survives in spite of having lost so many of its hopes and dreams. The passages about life in Britain are easy to colour in; the dark, the cold, the friendlessness. But it is when she moves her canvas to Sierra Leone that Ms Forna’s memoir really explodes into life.
Not for her the romantic Africa of empty landscape and nostalgia for the wild. Hers is a great west African bus of a book, full to bursting with her extended family, her “aunties”, as she calls them, swaying with voices, music and warmth.
Just as fervent as the search for the father she lost is the search for the little Aminatta as she was before Africa, with all its giving and taking away, began to shape her into the person she eventually became. In the midst of her quest, Ms Forna goes to Rokupa, the Freetown suburb where her father’s bones were buried after his body had been soaked in acid. A little girl in a cotton dress that has slipped off one shoulder watches her. “I remember her now, as I write, the little girl who once was me. If I concentrate my will I can still summon her, sometimes. She is there, the girl who believed there was a place somewhere on this earth, a place where a devil came down at dusk to dance alone on the water.”
Mrs Fuller has a nervous breakdown.
It is not Africa that drives her mad, but her dead children, one stillborn, one killed by meningitis, one drowned.