& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Trenchant yet compassionate

Earlier this week I attended a roundtable discussion of the shortlisted authors for the RBC Taylor Prize at the Toronto Reference Library. Of the five shortlisted works, I’ve only read MG Vassanji’s memoir And Home Was Kariakoo – A Memoir of East Africa.

The other books are:  

They Left Us Everything, by Plum Johnson 
One Day in August: The Untold Story Behind Canada’s Tragedy at Dieppe, by David O’Keefe
The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in our Times, Barbara Taylor
Boundless, by Kathleen Winter

The prize that will be announced March 2.

Mark Medley, the books editor of Globe and Mail moderated the discussion.

The discussion was lively and engaging, and highlighted the increasing popularity of memoir, a genre that is often ignored or not taken seriously by the literary gatekeepers. The authors explained their reasons for writing the book, and delineated their (different yet similar) approaches to writing nonfiction, the availability and accessibility of material for research to augment their arguments, and their desire to reach out to a larger audience to enable a deeper and better understanding of their subject.

Medley’s questions were specific for some authors and general for others, and made me wonder whether he had read all the five books. But he was able to sustain interest of a packed audience at the library’s atrium on a cold February evening.

Vassanji’s memoir is an insider’s story of a changing Africa, and covers a large terrain, both physically and metaphorically. It’s not an easy book to read because it challenges many preconceived ideas especially of readers like me who have not visited Africa. And I’m sure the book would make a reader familiar with Africa even more uncomfortable (just as Rediscovering India – A Place Within had made me).

Vassanji is both trenchant yet compassionate in And Home was Karikoo.

Here’s a passage from the memoir (a long one) that exemplifies this duality of emotion – anger and melancholy:

In 1961 as the “winds of change” ushered in the country’s independence, a euphoric slogan was heard around the country. Uhuru na kazi, meaning “freedom and work.” The idea was common sense. We had our own flag and anthem, we had our beloved president; no longer were we an insignificant part of the British Empire, a pink smudge on the map, overseen by the colonial government and His Excellency the Governor, in a hierarchy where the white man, the bwana, was superior. But freedom came with responsibility; there was a price to self-respect and dignity: hard work. We should have to work for ourselves to make progress. In the years that followed, growing up in the postindependence heyday, we schoolboys and schoolgirls of the nation were exhorted by another slogan: be self-reliant. Jitegemee – “Help yourself.” And yet another one: Nyerere’s words: “It can be done, play your part.” There were many self-help projects in the country. It was implicit in the mood of those Cold War years that it was shameful to be reliant on other nations more powerful and consequently to be subject to their demands. The British and the Europeans were, after all, the former “colonial masters.” What sort of independence was it if we had to go to them, begging bowl in hand, in order to feed ourselves? If they still told us what to do? In 1965 West Germany stopped its military aid to Tanzania in protest against an East German consulate in the country; the country said, So be it, and refused to accept all West German aid. The conflict was resolved in a few months, but the East German consulate remained, standing large and solid, on Upanga Road. Tanzania did need military aid from West Germany, especially after the scare of the army mutiny of the previous year. But this was a matter of principle. We ran our own country.

What has happened since then? A new term came into circulation, donor; it denotes a benevolent foreign entity that looks after you; and the head of the state’s job description apparently includes touring the world seeking more aid from “the donor community.” The donors make demands on economic policies, and surely they have their political and strategic motives behind their beneficence. A few years ago, I heard a news report that at an international conference, the Tanzanian president had told the audience that his country was so poor it could not afford mosquito nets for its people. Immediately a benefactor came forward, a Hollywood actor, with an offer to donate the nets. For those of my generation who have not forgotten the calls for self-reliance and dignity, who volunteered to build houses during our vacations, and recall the pride we felt at Nyerere’s rebuff of a pushy foreign power, this is humiliating. Surely there are enough wealthy people in the country, those who own office towers and insurance companies, who own mines and export fish, who could make the donation? According to a news report in the Citizen, wealthy Tanzanians own a few billions stashed away in offshore accounts. How can a government that purchases costly military equipment, and pays its members lavish travel allowances, say it cannot afford mosquito nets? One wonders, how does the leader of a nation feel, making that statement at an international conference? Have we lost all dignity?

Here I must answer a rejoinder. I left the country after high school, therefore I missed the hardships that others endured in the years that followed. What right do I have to show this outrage? It is easy for me, the comfort of my situation in North America, to condemn the nation’s reliance on foreign aid. To which I answer that leaving a place does not sever one’s ties to it, one’s feeling of concern and belonging. We are tied to our schools, our universities, our families, even when we’ve left them – then why not to the place of our childhood, of our memories? Surely a returnee has some claim to the land which formed him – which is not in some godforsaken corner of the globe but in the centre of one’s imagination. And surely distance lends objectivity, allows one to see a place as the world see it.

I often find myself protesting that media images to the contrary, Africa is not simply wars, HIV, and hunger; people don’t simply drop dead on the streets out of sickness and hunger. (Just as I had to explain to my host family in New Jersey, way back when I was a student, that lions didn’t come roaming into our sitting rooms.) I speak of East Africa, of course. Despite hardships there is life there; people sing and laugh and play music; they go to school, they get married. In many towns, the markets are abundantly full; life is teeming, so much so that Toronto, upon my return, often feels rather moribund. Sitting on my coach at home I sometime find myself, a modern-day Don Quixote, sparring with the television, railing against reporters who fly from one starving place to another, presumably in helicopters – with all good intentions, how can one even question that? – and, with the brand-name pained expressions and sober voices that we know so well, point at the distended belly of a toddler, the fly-covered nose of a child, the shrivelled buttock of an old man. Why don’t you go somewhere happy, just for a change, I protest; report a wedding, a taarb concert, a school games day; show a well-endowed man or woman (but not a fat politician). People do celebrate, not only in Texas, but also in Temeke.

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