Africa, not as the West sees it

2011-06-04 10:49

Shortly after Aminatta Forna was announced the winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book, fellow writer Nick Twinamatsiko wrote a Facebook note entitled “Aminatta Forna has won the Commonwealth Prize, but is her novel good for Africa?” I was intrigued as I had just finished reading The Memory of Love.

In his piece, Twinamatsiko admitted to not having read the book and basing his views on a review he read in The Guardian, an excerpt of which reads: “She captures exactly the sense of numbed brutalisation . . . in the eyes of former child soldiers who had been forced to mutilate and murder their parents. . . and abandoned by their families because of the ‘shame’.”

Twinamatsiko then concludes that while he celebrates Forna’s win, perhaps her book is not good for Africa as it feeds the stereotype of a warring, tragic continent.

I, too, am tired of the victim stereotype of Africa and I would agree with him if indeed this book even half-implied what the review suggests. Alas, I may well have read a different book from The Guardian’s reviewer.

The novel’s protagonist is a British psychologist, Adrian Lockhart, who, dissatisfied with his lot in England, spends a year in Sierra Leone’s Freetown counselling victims of war-time trauma.

On arrival, he realises that he has a lot of spare time as most people do not return for a second counselling session. So when a dying Elias Cole sends for him, Lockhart jumps at the opportunity to have a “case”.

What Lockhart does not realise is that the wily old man is looking for a confessor who will excuse his sins and perhaps reunite him with his daughter. The history of Cole’s relationship with his country, his university, his friends and the women in his life is in some way the history of post-colonial, middle-class Africa.

It is not damning – there are some good people, but it also does not gloss over the failures.

Many times, Lockhart is asked by the Freetown residents he encounters what it is he hopes to achieve with his mission – to which he has no answer.

When Lockhart falls in love with a local woman, his assumption that she will jump at the chance to go with him to a “better life” in England is thwarted. She tells him in no uncertain terms that she “likes it here” and will raise her children in Sierra Leone.

This is a bit of a shock for the Westerner, who wants to bring salvation to Africa, one African at a time.

Calling The Memory of Love another “African woe novel” is the same as referring to any writer from this continent by that strange liberal label: “good African/black writer”.

Instead I found it to be a well-researched, well-crafted and compelling novel about an unapologetic people who love their country and are not waiting for salvation to come from the West.

To The Guardian reviewer, I ask: “What book did you read? Or should that be, with what expectations did you read it?”
» Wanner’s book, Men of the South, competed with Forna’s for the prize 

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