The South African town of Eldoret

Having moved to Kenya, there are many things I miss about home. There is one glaring thing that I don’t miss however and which I thought I appreciated Kenya for. I do not miss the, I don’t know how else to say it, need for strange men to chat me up. And they come from men of all races and in different places whether it’s the street sweeper asking for my phone number in Port Elizabeth; the BMW driver driving beside me as I take a walk in sweatpants, sneakers and t-shirt asking me whether I need a ride in Polokwane; the policeman telling me he loves me in Durban; or the taxi driver wanting a minute of my time so he can pay me a compliment at a Johannesburg taxi rank (the compliment? “Sisi, you have hips made for twins”). And not having to deal with a random male who feels the need to chat to me as I walk is one of the most enjoyable and freeing experiences for me as a woman in Nairobi. In this city I go around my merry way and, save for polite hellos, the only ‘stranger’ who talks to me for any length of time is the local mad man who tells me he loves South Africa every time he sees me and then proceeds to sing Yvonne Chaka Chaka’s Umqombothi before letting me continue my journey. I was beginning to think this freedom to walk without any form of harassment from the male species was widespread in Kenya having experienced it in more than just one town in this country until recently.
The advent of South Africa’s Women’s Month found me doing a literature seminar at a university in a Kenyan town founded by some Afrikaners who trekked northwards back in 1908. Eldoret is the name of the town. In addition to having some brilliant alumni now academics at South African universities, Eldoret is also famous for its long distance runners. I think everyone in town is a long distance runner because on arrival, I saw a sign for a hotel that was supposed to be 50 meters distance but when I tried walking there, it turned out to be a kilometer away. In my mind, Eldoret is also now famous for its men with the bad habits of some South African men. As I walked with my partner, I cannot tell you how many truck drivers blatantly hooted – some even stopped – and then proceeded to give a thumbs up or vocally compliment my partner on HIS woman. Partner reckons it’s because most of the women in Eldoret are marathon runners and do not have the sort of curves the truck drivers saw in the woman in jeans and fitted top. Me? I am convinced that the South Africans who founded this town over a century ago imported their bad male habits and passed them on to the forbears of the town. I enjoyed lot of things about Eldoret and will probably go back there as often as I go to SA, but just as I do not miss SA’s leering strange men, I certainly will not miss Eldoret’s truck drivers.

The Legend of Ugandan Vince

There are five people in our party when a Kenyan friend who stays in Kampala takes us to a nyama choma place (East Africa’s equivalent of a chisa nyama) during a literary festival. An American, our host, another Kenyan and a Ghanaian. I’m holding it down for the SADC region.  The joint is no Busy Corner for ambience but it’s passable. A man in a white jacket sitting on the next table summons our host as soon as we order the food.

According to Phil when he returns to the table, the man who called him is a police officer and wants to see our passports or, alternatively, we ‘treat him nicely.’ Everyone on our table knows what treating an officer of the law nicely on the continent means. We agree that Vincent is not going to see as much as USh500 from any of us. Our party chats and ignores the cop and when the food arrives, we dig in. As we are finishing our meal, he comes to us.

“Good evening. My name is Vincent. I am a Ugandan officer on duty and I would need to see your passports.”

Ghana responds, “No. You’re not on duty. You were drinking.”

Vincent is looking for something to set him off. The statement from Ghana is it. “Are you saying I’m drunk?” he asks angrily. “I want your passports, now.”

Ghana answers, “I didn’t say you were drunk. I said you’ve been drinking. An officer on duty cannot be drinking.”

I wink at Ghana. This guy is disturbing our fun night out. So I say, “Sorry sir. May I see your police ID.” TIA. People have had their pockets emptied in the past by civilians who just know a good hustle when they see it. He shows us his ID. I then give him my passport. The two Kenyans pass on their IDs. But then it all becomes problematic with Ghana and America. They give him their driver’s licences and he insists that he wants passports. “You’ll have to come to the police station with me if you don’t have a passport.”

Our suggestion to Officer Vincent that he get on a cab with us to our hotel so that he can come and see the passports falls on deaf ears. Another suggestion that America and Ghana go to the hotel while he waits with the other three is again ignored. Bribe is what he wants and bribe is what he must get. We have the money but we are not giving anything to crooked officers today. By some miracle Ghana realizes that he in fact has his passport in his bag. Officer Vincent scrutinizes the passport carefully.

“May I have my ID now?” Ghana asks.  Officer Vincent then goes through a crazy song and dance as he tries to remember which pocket he put the driver’s licences. If he wasn’t an officer of the law who is on duty, I’d say he’s drunk. He finally finds the pocket (top left of his white blazer) and hands it back to Ghana. But he is still insistent that he wants to see America’s passport. And for this reason he says he is taking America to the police station. We tell him we are all going with him. So we accompany him and America to the police station.

It’s quite some distance to the police station and on our way, we joke with Vincent that he took us from our drinks and as soon as this is all sorted, we hope that he will buy us a round or two. “Don’t worry, I shall buy you drinks all of you.” These words shall return later. America hopes we can sort it out before the police station. “I’m wearing a short skirt. They may put me in jail for my short skirt.”

“Don’t worry, it won’t happen,” we all assure her – as only people not wearing short skirts on their way to a police station in Kampala can. Ghana keeps talking about profound stuff like international law and rights and what what but Vincent is not hearing any language that’s not shillings.  I think he is surprised when we get to the police station because he thought we would have relented long back. But now that we are here, he has to make a case out of it.

When we get there, Switzerland is playing France. The Officer Commanding Station (OCS) listens to us in an attempt to resolve the issue. “Our neighbours in Kenya are having terror attacks,” Vincent justifies to his superior, “I picked this woman because she is white.” America pulls out the race card from her back pocket, “you are being racist.” My writer’s mind comes to play. I whisper to Kenya that now that Vincent has said it, America could be the White Widow’s little sister. I mean, how well do we know her? How do we know that her ID and American accents are not fake? Vincent back pedals, “I mean European,” he says.

“You said white. It’s racist. And I am not European, I am American.” America asserts.

Our host then poses a question to Vincent in the presence of his colleagues, “if you thought there was something criminal about our activities why did you offer to buy us drinks after we’ve cleared this issue on our way here?” OCS wants to know whether Vincent did offer to buy us drinks. Vincent says yes he did, “but I had to. I was feeling intimidated. They were five of them and I was alone, that was the only way I’d get them to come.” Ghana says, “Yes of course, because we are all so intimidating.” Vincent smirks. We all laugh including the OCS and Vincent.

Later while trying to put a point across I say to Vincent somewhat patronizingly I admit, “But boss…” I don’t get to finish.

“I’m not your boss. I’m your brother,” he answers. I never do get to make the point I wanted to make.

The moment Vincent disappears to the toilet, OCS Peter tells us, ‘we know he’s wrong and you’re right but we can’t embarrass him so stop arguing with him otherwise we will have to lock all of you up and let you go tomorrow.’ Dickens was on to something when he wrote of laws and donkeys.

Later, much later after conversation about our countries, the games, our children and and and, the OCS tells us to write our names on a piece of paper and our phone numbers so we can leave. We do. Honduras and Ecuador have just finished playing.

I am convinced we stayed that long at the station because the OCS and the other two policemen at the station wanted company to watch the game with. The OCS insists that Vincent accompany us and ensure we get our transport home safely. All the way to the boda boda stage Vincent keeps apologizing. “I was just doing my job,” he keeps repeating. He also keeps saying two things to Ghana who, in addition to being a writer, freelances with the BBC and The Guardian and made sure the OCS knew it, “why didn’t you tell me you were an international journalist?”

And, “I would have let you go a long time ago but your sister here abused me,” pointing at yours truly. I admit to having said what he was doing was nonsense as he knew there was no case a few times but abuse? Ghana asks in an awed voice, “she abused you? Was it sexually?” It goes over Officer Vincent’s head.

Before we leave him, Vincent gives us his contact details and asks us to keep in touch so that he can take us out next time we are in Kampala. “I’m not a bad guy,” he asserts.

“None of us are,” I answer as I jump onto a boda boda.

Africa39: Young, Afro’d and Gifted

Dear All,
This serves to notify you that some people beyond my family members and friends believe that I may be all of the above. Yours Trully has been selected as one of the top 39 sub-Saharan African novelists under 40 writing in English, French, Portuguese or an African language. The announcement was made at the London Book Fair this morning. it would have been done at Lancaster House but they weren’t enough Britons on the judging panel :-).
Among the judges waa Elechi Amadi author of one of my all-time favourite books, The Concubine. I hold him in such high regard that as soon as I got the africa39 news my first reaction was, “Elechi Amadi likes my writing! I bet I was Top 1 on his list.” Paused. Said, “oh and the other judges possibly liked my writing too,” then went on excitedly to break a full Castle Lite bottle with my bare hands from sheer excitement. RIP Castle Lite (NB SABMiiller, please call me to chat about that brand ambassadorial role. A reading nation is a leading nation – ask Nigeria).There are 38 other writers on the list. Whilr I would like to congratulate my little sisters Chibundu Onuzo and Novuyo Rosa Tshuma; and my mates Hawa Golakai, Sifiso Mzobe, Ondjaki, Jackee Batanda, Chika Unigwe, Shafinaaz Hassim and Nthikeng Mohlele among others, I’m still convinced I was top of Elechi Amadi’s list.
A shout out should also go to my publishing house, the amazing Kwela for having five of their authors on this list. Given that this was open to writers under 40 of African origin from all over the world, it goes without saying that you’re one of the top publishing houses in the world. Well done Team Kwela – past and present.
Now back to NUMBER ONE.
If you’ve read me, you probably know why I’m one of Africa’s 39 (I reserve the right to brag for a month. This is a hell of a big honour folks). If at this juncture you haven’t, you probably feel like crap. You want to slash your wrists, drink poison, or start a fight with a 7 foot, 400 pound brawler in a bar near you so you can be beaten to a pulp and be in enough physical pain that you don’t feel the mental anguish of not having read me. Despair not. My books are at a good bookstore near you. If they aren’t, it’s not a good bookstore.
The titles are: The Madams (Oshun, 2006); Behind Every Successful Man (Kwela, 2008); Men of the South (Kwela, 2010); Maid in SA: 30 Ways to Leave Your Madam (Jacana, 2013) and London Cape Town Joburg (Kwela, 2014). One of the above was shortlisted for the South African Literary Award’s K.Sello Duiker Prize (The Madams); another was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Best Book Africa Region (Men of the South); while my latest is about to be shortlisted for the AU Best Book Award [just because you haven't heard of this award it doesn't mean it doesn't exist. in my head]. If you’re an uncle, aunt, parent or grandparent, I’ve also written a children’s book, Refilwe (Jacana, 2014), a contemporary retelling of the classic fairytale Rapunzel. A major reason to buy it is that its endorsed for your nephews, nieces, children and or grandchildren by my very intelligent son and his almost-as intelligent classmates.
Be happy for me.
Zooks

The Literature and Magazine/Newspaper Editors’ Rant

I’m tired but I can’t sleep. I’ve been having conversations with the darkie South African literati and I felt I needed to write this. I know it won’t make me popular in the SA hood but, oh well, maybe that’s why I left the hood. So here it is my book-loving white compatriots (and no. This ain’t addressed to you Lauren Beukes, Jassy Mackenzie, Kevin Bloom, Helen Moffett, Tiah Beautement, Margie Orford, Fiona Snyckers, Jo Ann Richards and and and  so step away from the burning building, thank you!), please read carefully. The next three or four columns are addressed to you. The rest are to the rest of you, literati –black and white. So here goes:

Songeziwe Mahlangu. Napo Masheane. Yewande Omotoso. Lesego Rampolokeng. Phillipa Yaa de Villiers. Pumla Gqola. Maxine Case. Thando Mgqolozana. Shafinaaz Hassim. Lebo Mashile. Niq Mhlongo. Cynthia Jele. Sifiso Mzobe. Mary Watson. Angela Makholwa. Siphiwo Mahala. Angelina Sithebe. Kgebetli Moele. Ndumiso Ngcobo. Futhi Ntshingila. Nthikeng Mohlele. Sihle Khumalo. All these, among others are your literary compatriots. They write. BUT. And here’s the big but. They are NOT ‘good black writers.’  In a country where the majority of the population is black y’all have suddenly decided that white writing is the standard? Really? There are either good or bad writers. There are no good or bad black female/male writers so stop that ‘good black’ crap, stop it.  

And oh, we always think you are individuals so please don’t ask us to speak for our race. We call that white privilege. At literary festivals, don’t ask us about football, because we may actually be rugby or cricket fans or dammit, no sports fans. Don’t question (as some judge at an award I was shortlisted for did) why we don’t write about townships because not all of us were raised in townships. Some of us were raised in villages, others on farms, and others in some burbs or weird bourgeois exile neighbourhoods. That’s our reality. And just as you are not uniform, neither are we.

Artists, be they writers, film makers, musicians or dancers, are the easiest way of bridging gaps. Too often, we have hoped you, our fellow literati, will bridge those gaps through actually reading what has been written by some of us to help you get to know what we are all about. Too often, we have been disappointed. You live in South Africa. You claim to be as South African as the rest of us. How then do you explain that we know everything about your culture – through observing you, watching and reading your works – but you choose not to engage with ours ?  Why do I bring this up? Ahem, a few years ago a born and bred South African editor suggested that I remove a scene in a book because she assumed it was done by mistake. It was a scene where someone pours liquor in remembrance of the deceased. “Don’t you think you should say he mistakenly spilt the alcohol? You make it sounds deliberate.”  Err, duh. I started wondering how it was possible that this person was so out of touch with something so common. Said editor was also a writer, by the way.

Folks, if we’re going to make this the rainbow project that all those glass-is-half-full peeps keep talking about you will have to show us that you are in this, with us, for the long haul. We read you. We have read you since we could read. We attend your theatre performances. Some of us don’t like some of your kos like koeksisters much but we’ve tried it. We are even okay with a white dude to be lead singer of Mi Casa. When are you meeting us half way?

And white publishers, white publishers white publishers. Many of you may not be aware of it but we’re in Africa. A lot of the stories that your black writers write about resonate with many people on this continent of 53 other nations so before you do your very best to market us in Germany, in Italy, in the US, wherever, try for some publishing deals on this continent.  Try to distribute in bookstores on this continent. Africa is not that scary. Believe it or not South Africa is in Africa. And my very real experience is that there is a hunger for literature that people can relate to.

And South African bookstores: you do realize that no European or American bookstores have South African writers in their store fronts right? So why do you have Americans and Europeans in your store fronts? What’s with the clear distaste for South African and African literature? Have you ever considered having African writers in your store fronts (and I’m not talking just nonfiction)? It may give you more sales. Truly. I know it’s sexy for you to believe that your own writers are mediocre and to sell the myth you gave yourselves that “no-one buys local books.” Too often I have encountered many people who tell me that they cannot find a certain writer’s book which they wanted to purchase. And the response from your non-reading staff? A disinterested “It’s sold out.” No, “it’s sold out, may I get your number/email sir/madam so I can order it for you and call you when it arrives,” just, “it’s sold out. Next.” I know Exclusive Books is slightly better than others with their one month of Homebru but wouldn’t it be nice if local literature was believed in enough that it was Homebru twelve months a year? Try us out for at least three months and see how that goes? The results may pleasantly surprise you.

Finally magazine and newspaper editors – you don’t work for free, why do you expect us to? If you are selling your magazines or newspapers, why is it such a big deal to pay for content? This idea of “I’m giving you publicity” doesn’t quite cut it when you choose to pay some untalented pop tart to talk about their relationship with a sugar daddy. More so when you decide afterwards to do editorials on the “dumbing down of SA society.” If you’re confused, here’s the rule of thumb. If you’ve never asked a doctor who’s not a family member to give you a free consultation, please don’t ask a writer to write for free. Writing is a profession. Many of us in it love it because in addition to its professional aspect it’s an art form but believe it or not, writers sleep under roofs and they get hungry if there is no food. So let’s agree. You want quality writing from any writers, you pay for it as much or more than you are willing to pay for the pop tart cover girl. You don’t want quality writing, you ask said pop tart cover girl to write something for you, deal? After all, everyone can write, no?

And no DA and ANC, this was just a rant. I have no plans to vote for either of you. Soreee (well unless you invite me to one of your rallies with thousands of people and my books are in goodie bags)

EXCERPT: Maid in SA

MAID_IN_SA_COV

With some exceptions, the middle-class African madam is a single parent/divorcee.

Which is great for you as you will have to be an epic fail before she fires you; after all, she needs consistency in her child’s life (at least you are not like that stupid bastard who always claims he will come and see the child and never turns up). You know how much she needs you because once you overheard her on the phone after your leave saying:

“Eish choms, I have finally established that uRefilwe is an alien or a super Mary Poppins. I don’t know how she manages to cope with such an energetic toddler and still find time to keep the house clean, laundry washed and ironed, dinner cooked. When she returned, I was so exhausted and it had only been one week. Eh. Eh. Neo is so exhausting, I decided I was going to take an extra day off work and just sleep. Ja neh? I don’t know how housewives who don’t have helpers do it day in and day out. Or those women with four children? Ja sies.”

So you know for sure; this woman needs you. When you are on your day off, she will call you to ask where the spoons in her kitchen or the coffee mugs are. Because you are both African, if you are her age or younger she may call you by your name but she will insist that her child calls you aunt. If you are older, she will also call you aunt. The middle-class African madam prefers someone her age or older, ideally with children. This ensures that you both have something from each other. You have a regular income to send to your child(ren) and she has someone reliable that she can trust with her child(ren).  She is a pretty fair employer and will pay you a good salary to ensure she keeps you. Unlike her white married counterpart however, she will not say ‘Your children can come through anytime.” That is because she is probably staying in a townhouse complex in Midrand, Fourways, Melville or Orange Grove and there is not enough room for you, her children, and your children. Additionally, she is not such a big fan of children even though she has her own. When she is home, she wants to relax. Sometimes, she will call you to tell you she is coming home late because she is meeting her friends for dinner. You will know when she rings the doorbell and she walks in, that she did not mean only dinner as she returns, possibly with one of her female friends talking too loudly and smelling like major investors of SAB Miller.

But if madams can be said to be cool, she is cool. The middle-class African madam is your boss but is the closest to a boss who is a friend that you will ever have. When you first arrived and she asked you to make dinner, “there is meat in the deep freezer” and you made rice served with nicely fried bacon with tomato and onion gravy, she did not yell at you. In fact she said, “We cannot throw it away. Besides, it smells good,” and she dug in with the children, only telling you after the children had gone to bed, that bacon is meat made for breakfast.

When drunk, she has revealed things to you that she should not have and you have told her not to cry. You also know which of her friends claims to be a mzalwane yet has had multiple abortions; which one got fired at her work for swindling; and which one always talks highly of her husband, yet he beats her.  You know who among her friends she does not really like but keeps because they have been friends since they were children.  Because of this lack of boundaries, the black madam does not raise her eyebrows when you tell her that you may need to leave the house at six pm because one of the men in the townhouse complex invited you over for a drink. She just smiles and asks what unit he stays in so that she can verify that he is single and you will not be chased with a broom by his wife. When she verifies, she will let you go. And she will laugh with you when you return twenty minutes later in a rush because when you rang the doorbell of this good-looking man you met at the gate who was driving a BMW, you could not see who opened the door. When you finally looked down and found out that he was a dwarf, you ran back to the house in shock and panic. “Hawu ‘Filwe, you didn’t know? I thought you liked them short when you told me that was where you were going.” To which you will both laugh. Sometimes if the child is away on holiday visiting her gogo for the weekend, she will even delete all boundaries and buy you some Hunter’s Dry. Imagine.

A Tale of Two Novels

Last week I did it.  Much later than everyone else, admittedly, but it is the action that counts. I decided to find out whether my friends– many of them writers – are literary snobs or just jealous of one E.L.James’ success. So I decided to read Fifty Shades of Grey. I am undoubtedly jealous of E.L.’s instant internet success so I was never going to buy any of the copies of the trilogy even though they were retailing for KSh200 (that’s about R20 to you South Africans) each on the street. So I did the next best thing. I borrowed my neighbour’s copy. I had promised myself that I would read it to the end. And if it turned out not to be as bad as my friends claimed, I would even secretly read the other two in the trilogy.

It was the longest five days of my life.

I get that university students nowadays are supposed to be vacuous. Really, I do. But if the book’s heroine was as much a fan of literature as the writer wants us to believe, surely she could find another word besides ‘hot’? Every page had the word ‘hot’ on it, whether in describing Mr. Gray, the sex they had, the borrowed dress the protagonist wore, or Mr. Gray’s house. How hot were the descriptions? So hot they left me cold. I was, however, grateful to myself that I took time to read Fifty Shades of Grey. I was thankful because I had been suffering from a low self-esteem after a rejection of one of my manuscripts by an agent. Fifty Shades of Grey raised my esteem back up and indeed, put me in danger of being egotistical. My thinking being, if a lot of people were stupid enough to read and recommend that book to anyone, there may yet be hope for my better written manuscripts.

Every once in a while I encounter someone who says smugly ‘I don’t read books.’ And I get them a book that will result in smug non-reader becoming an avid reader. Fifty Shades is that book that would result in an avid reader deciding that they will no longer read contemporary fiction. But I am made of sterner stuff and Fifty Shades was not going to put me off all the writers of my generation.

A few days later I received a copy of Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls. This fast-paced thriller of a time-travelling serial killer set in Chicago shows that Cape Town residing Beukes did a lot of research about the city of Chicago throughout the years. But fortunately for the reader, Beukes does not bog us down with trying to show off how much research she did but instead weaves the details effortlessly into her narrative. The book was a page-turner and were it not for my pesky child who claimed he was hungry – why he could not eat at the neighbours, I do not know – I would have finished the book in one sitting. Instead I finished it in two. When I was done, I wanted to step outside and tell everyone I encountered to buy The Shining Girls.  But it was two in the morning and I was not likely to meet anyone. So I wrote a status update on Facebook instead.

So thank you Ms. Beukes for The Shining Girls.

And Ms.-Whatever-Your-Real-Name-Is of Fifty Shades – no more ink to your pen. Stop writing, dammit. Your book sucks.

TO THE UNPUBLISHED WRITER

I met you this week. It occurred to me that I have met you (or some version of you) many times before.I could have met you at a university, led you in a workshop, chatted to you at a residency OR MAYBE you are the person who comments on my status updates.

Your sentences flow beautifully. Your prose is to be envied at. You write the type of phrases that I wish I could have thought of.

You want to write as well as Adichie. Nay better than Morrison.

You would like to outdo Smith. And wag your disapproving finger at Winterson.

When you are done, Beukes, Bandele, Coetzee and Chinodya will stand and take notice.

Forster, Baingana, Gappah and Wanner will just have to sit down and put their laptops in retirement.

So today as I write this I would like to ask you to please STOP!

Stop revising chapter one over and over again and just finish the manuscript already.

I really should not tell you what to do. of course.

You are just the greatest writer who never published and I, I am an average published writer.

But I am telling you because I would like to read your great book before I die.

So dear greatest writer who never published, please finish that damn first draft!