Author: Karim F Hirji
Publisher: Daraja Press 2018
Reviewer: Ambreena Manji
Karim Hirji has had a long, varied and distinguished academic career. Spanning four decades from 1971-2012, he taught mathematics and statistics in several disparate places: first in a University mathematics department, then in an educational institute focusing on transport and finally in University public health and medical departments. In the midst of this, in 1980, Hirji went to study at Harvard University. He obtained a doctorate in medical statistics. He subsequently worked at Universities in both the USA and Norway. His published scholarship is similarly diverse and profuse and has been published in statistical and medical journals and in books.
Hirji’s memoir focuses on the first decade of his career. Known as both a social activist and a committed teacher, Hirji has never shied away from expressing his views. In this memoir, he sets out to tell it as he sees it. His assessments are blunt. ideological disagreements on open display.
In my view, the current book is best read alongside Hirji’s other works of memoir. His Growing Up with Tanzania: Memory, Math and Musings is a reflection on his childhood and school days. In the collection, Cheche: Reminiscences of a Radical Magazine a valuable account is provided of his generation’s student activism and political engagement at the University of Dar es Salaam. As Travails of a Tanzanian Teacher reminds us, the aim of Cheche was to provide an outlet for well-known campus activists to express their views on the most important social, economic and political issues of the day: ‘It took the ruling party to task for its half-hearted implementation of socialism. It did not come as a complete surprise that…later it was banned by the government of Tanzania.’
Author: Samba Gadjigo
Publ: Indiana University Press. Pps.188
Reviewer: John Sibi-Okumu.
In the preface to OUSMANE SEMBENE- The Making of a Militant Artist, the first of a two volume biography, the US-based, Senegalese-born lecturer Samba Gadijo relates how a certain Madame Pagot, a politically radical teacher sent from France to his native country in 1972 was to lead his high school year group to the discovery of new, literary heroes. ‘For the first time in our life we had to study, as part of the curriculum, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and….Ousmane Sembène’s God’s Bits of Wood…..Through this mere novel, we caught a glimpse into a world-actually ours-which proved to be an intricate fabric woven out of juvenile, sometimes a bit wild, dreams, and an ever-present angst.’
Curiously enough, three, like-minded academic exiles from France -names withheld in the interest of privacy - also embarked upon a similar, world-view altering mission when the reviewer entered the University of Nairobi in 1973 as a student of French. It was, indeed a revelation for him, too, to discover ‘dialectical materialism’ and authors like Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Ferdinand Oyono and Ousmane Sembène, also as part of the formal syllabus. And without a doubt, it was Sembène who was to make the most lasting and most emphatic impression, if only because he crossed over from writing novels and poems into film making in order, by his own account, to reach a larger African audience. Therefore, as with most readers who turn to biography and autobiography, there was already interest and knowledge, in some measure, about the subject at hand: Sembène it was who had filmed La Noire de….(Black Girl) considered to be the first short film officially released by an African director, about a housemaid whose alienation, once taken from Senegal to France by her employers, leads to her suicide. Sembène it was who had filmed Mandabi (The Money Order) about a man who ends up broken and in despair for his country after any number of corruption driven obstacles thwart his efforts to cash in money sent by his nephew, a labourer in France, for support to his own parents. Sembène it was who made Camp de Thiaroye about Senegalese soldiers who, having fought for France in a World War, are massacred in their garrison for demanding their pay; a subject of historical fact. Sembène it was who had made Xala about a politician whose sexual impotence is put down to his abuse of power. Sembène it was who, in his very old age (he was born in 1928 and died in 2007) had made Moolade, a film against female circumcision in a traditional village setting. In these and other epoch-making films, Sembène did not shirk from tackling momentous themes. Therefore, with his creative credentials well and truly unassailable, there is a great expectation of the biographer seeking to make this exceptionally talented and visionary man come to life on the page.
Author: Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
Original Publ: Kwani? 2014
Reviewer: Garnette Oluoch-Olunya
At the 2nd East African Literary & Cultural Studies Conference held at Makerere University, Kampala in 2015, I read a paper on J N Makumbi’s Kintu as part of a panel on Ubuntu. Afterwards, I was approached by a Ugandan participant who asked if I was not aware of the novel’s potential role in the resurgence of Baganda hegemony? Makumbi admitted to me, at a different forum, that she had variously been called a ‘royalist’. Our national identities, so new, remain fraught, caught up in a historical fabric that is patchy at best. And so, as some suspect that Makumbi may be purporting to tell the single Uganda story, yet others have celebrated Kintu, hailing it as the new Uganda novel that will do for Uganda what Chinua Achebe’s Things fall Apart did for Nigeria. If Achebe was concerned that Africans wake up to the fact that our imperfect pasts were not ‘one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God's behalf delivered [us],’ Makumbi states a similar anxiety. She places colonialism in perspective as just one of many encounters in Uganda’s long history. As she explains: ‘Kintu flowed out of a desire to give Ugandans a taste of their own long and complicated history, to do for Ugandans something like what Chinua Achebe’s novels did for Nigerians in the 1960s: to make them look at a hill, for example, and know that the Ganda have been climbing it for centuries. To remind them that Uganda’s history did not begin in 1962, when it gained independence from Great Britain, or even a few years earlier, when Europeans first “discovered” them.’ Indeed, that Uganda was more than what she calls ‘a European artefact’.
Makumbi worked on the manuscript of Kintu for ten years, and so it is not surprising that she has given us a powerful story, an intricately interwoven family web, an epic of origins based on the story of Kintu, the first Ganda, and his descendants into the present. The novel opens with the seemingly senseless killing of Kama Kintu, drawing the reader into a vortex of intrigue as the murder peels back the layers on centuries of tensions, both new and ancient. And out leak deeply held family secrets, superstitions, religion; we encounter benevolent, and oppressive patriarchal structures, the colonial, twins as signifying, HIV, and of course, the centrality of the Buganda Kingdom. We get a glimpse of the horror of Idi Amin even as we laugh at the absurdity, presented in a school textbook that ‘J H Speke Stood in this Exact Spot Somewhere Nearby’. She offers the ridiculous - that Speke allegedly ‘discovered’ the source of the Nile, led there by the local people - with a light touch. And yet we are aware that for Makumbi, some of these issues hold pain and personal loss.
Author: AK Azad Konor
Publisher: Grosvenor House
Reviewer: Mirfat Sulaiman and Bridget Parson
The Battle of Brick Lane 1978 by AK Azad Konor tells the story of how a community was galvanised by the murder of a young Bangladeshi textile worker, Altab Ali, in a Whitechapel park in east London.
Azad Konor, Rafique Ulah and others formed the Bangladeshi Youth Front (BYF) in response to the National Front (NF), who had moved its headquarters to the heart of the Bangladeshi community and were selling their papers on Brick Lane.
They led a march of 10,000 Bengalis and anti-racists from Brick Lane, carrying the coffin of Altab Ali, and went to Downing Street where they met then Prime Minister James Callaghan and demanded action was taken against racism.
The BYF confronted the NF every week on Brick Lane. When the police refused to stop the NF selling its papers the BYF slept out on the streets, supported by anti-racists, “the Anti-Nazi League and Socialist Workers Party”, so that they could claim the street before the NF arrived.
Local people would bring them food and drink. Their posters and slogans were “black and white, unite and fight”, “here to stay, here to fight” and “self-defence is no offence”. They also attempted to organise a local strike against the presence of the NF.
Konor says he wrote the book so that young Bengali people would know their history and take up the struggle today.