Sunday, 24 March 2013

Monique and the Mango Rains - Kris Holloway (Mali)

Monique Dembele saves lives and dispenses hope in a place where childbirth is a life-and-death matter. Her unquenchable passion to improve the lot of the women and children in her West African village is matched by her buoyant humour in the face of unhappy marriage and backbreaking work. This is the deeply compelling story of the rare friendship between a young development volunteer and this midwife who defies tradition and becomes - too early in her own life - a legend.

This is the story of author Author Kris Holloway's time in Africa, where she served as a Peace Corps volunteer from 1989 to 1991, working alongside the Monique of the title, midwife Monique Dembele.

This was an interesting book for me, on a subject that I am unfamiliar with, a relatively quick read of about 2 days. Having read several similar books, I was already aware of the issues that midwives in this part of the world face, in particular around the practise of female circumcison, and hoped that this book would add to this, giving more insights. I was then disappointed that it seemed to scratch over the surface of these issues, concentrating instead on the lives of the two women involved - Monique herself and the American born author. Don't get me wrong, it was still an interesting story, and I was still shocked by much of it, particularly Monique's husband and his attitude (Mali is still a deeply patriarchal society), but this book could for me at least, have been so much more. Despite this, due to the quality of the writing, I would still give it four stars.

A proportion of proceeds from the book go towards helping Midwifery services in Mali, so this is a good incentive to donwload a copy.

Evening is the Whole Day: Preeta Samarasan (Malaysia)

Set in Malaysia, this spellbinding, exuberant first novel introduces us to a prosperous Indian immigrant family, as it slowly peels away its closely guarded secrets.

When the family's servant girl, Chellam, is dismissed from the big house for unnamed crimes, it is only the latest in a series of losses that have shaken six-year-old Aasha's life. Her grandmother has passed away under mysterious circumstances and her older sister has disappeared for a new life abroad, with no plans to return. Her parents, meanwhile, seem to be hiding something away - from themselves, and from one another.

As the novel tells us the story of the years leading up to these events, we learn what has happened to the hopes and dreams of a family caught up in Malaysia's troubled post-colonial history. What bought the Rajasekharan family to the Big House in Malaysia? What was Chellam's unforgivable crime? Why did the eldest daughter leave the country under strained circumstances? What is Appa - the respectable family patriarch - hiding from his wife and his children?

Through this vibrant cast of characters, and through a masterful evocation of the clashes and strains in a country where Malays, Indians and Chinese inhabitants vie for their positions in society, Preeta Samarasan brings us an enthralling saga of one household and the world beyond it.

This is an exceptionally good book, set in post colonial Malaysia, and about a highly dysfunctional small town Indian family. The dynamics between the different family members are fascinating to observe - the disapproving mother in law, the pompous son, the laid back son (who seems to have more sense than any of them), and the various daughters - all with their own issues and idiosynchrocies. The down trodden servant is perhaps the most interesting of all, and their treatment and attitude towards her says perhaps more about this family than a thousand other words.

The sttory is presnted as a time line, moving gradually forward in slow motion. This could be be annoying for some, and I admit did take some getting used to, but it actually works quite well when you begin to realise what is happening. I personally feel that this worked better than presenting the chapters in chronological sequence. It helps to build the characters slowly and give a sense of perspective, to see why they behave as they do and what drives and motivates them. You have to understand the past before you can understand the now.

I suppose for me, it was the human interest element that really shone through - the hypocrisy and double standards of the father as opposed to the common sense kindness of his brother, the black sheep, and how the relationships between the different characters developed. It says a lot about the frailties of human relationships and perhaps the characters egos too, highlighting not only the tensions in Malaysian society in general, but also within the family itself, and their treatment of the more vulnerable members. It is in some ways quite a dark book, where the various members fail to take responsbility for their actions and choices. Despite this, one is still left with a sense of hope, hope that the characters (the younger ones at least) will wake up and understand that they can change their fate, and choose a different path. If ever there was a follow up to this book, it would be interesting to see if that happened.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Do They Hear You When You Cry: Layli Miller Bashir/Fauziya Kassindja (Togo)

Like the bestsellers Princess and Not Without My Daughter, Do They Hear You When You Cry? tells the dramatic, compulsively readable story of a woman fighting to free herself from the injustices of her culture.

Fauziya Kassindja's harrowing story begins in Togo, Africa, where she enjoyed a sheltered childhood, shielded by her progressive father from the tribal practice of polygamy and genital mutilation. But when her father died in 1993, Fauziya's life changed dramatically. At the age of seventeen, she was forced to marry a man she barely knew who already had three wives, and prepare for the tribal ritual practice of genital mutilation - a practice that is performed without painkillers or antibiotics. But hours before the ritual was to take place, Fauziya's sister helped her escape to Germany, and from there she travelled to the United States seeking asylum - and freedom. Instead she was stripped, shackled and imprisoned for sixteen months by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Enter Layli Miller Bashir, a twenty-three-year-old law student who took on Fauziya's case. When the two women met, Layli found a broken, emaciated girl with whom she forged an extraordinary friendship. Putting her heart into Fauziya's case, Layli enlisted help from the American University International Human Rights Clinic. The clinic's acting director Karen Musalo, an expert in refugee law, assembled a team to fight on Fauziya's behalf. Ultimately, in a landmark decision that has given hope to many seeking asylum on the grounds of gender-based persecution, Fauziya was granted asylum on 13 June 1996.

Here, for the first time, is Fauziya's dramatic personal story, told in her own words, vividly detailing her life as a young woman in Togo and her nightmarish day-to-day existence in American prisons. It is a story of faith and freedom, courage and inspiration - one that you will not easily forget.

This is an incredible book, certainly the best that I have read in a long, long while. It tells the true story of a young Togolese woman (Fauziya) who was forced to flee her own country for the US and claim political asylum in order to avoid a forced polygamous marriage and female circumcison. Her case made legal history and set a precedant in the US as the first woman to be granted asylum on these grounds.

The first few chapters are a bit drawn out, but provide much needed background information about her family life and particularly her relationship with her father. This is necessary to help the reader get her story into perspective. Her father was a somewhat progressive man by Togolese standards, who rebelled against many of his tribes (Togo in common with many African countries is steeped in tribal traditions) traditions, most notably female circumcison. Fauziya's sisters all managed to avoid this practise by marrying men from differing tribes with different customs, but when her father died unexpectedly shortly after Fauziya's 17th birthday, she became the legal guardian of her aunt and uncle, who were not so progressive. Her mother, whom the aunt and uncle had never approved of, was turned out of the house, and so was unable to protect her either. They allowed her to stay at school for a while, but then the bombshell hit, she was to marry a man almost three times her age, who already had three wives, and at the same time be "cut" (cirumcised).

I was already familiar with the different ways in this procedure can be carried out, having read at least one book about an African midwife, but the descriptions of how it is done are neverthless pretty graphic and not for the faint hearted. Fauziya was to be mutilated in the worst possible way, with all her external genitals cut without anaethetic or proper medical instruments leaving no more than a small hole for urine and menstrual blood. Women who have this procedure done frequently die, as indeed did her maternal aunt (not that she knew this at the time) from medical complications such as blood loss, shock and tetanus. It has been outlawed in most Western countries, including Britain, but of course is still carried out under the radar. The book estimates that something like 2 million girls are subject to this mutilation every single year, or 5 girls a second. This shocking statistic certainly made me think.

Literally hours before the procedure was to take place, with the help of her extremely brave older sister, Fauziya fled across the border to Ghana and then Germany, where she stayed for two months in the company of a German woman named Rudiya. It was then that she met Charlie, another African on a train. It was Charlie who suggested that she go to the US, where she had real family, both a cousin and an Uncle, as she spoke the language and the US was known for its justice system. Little did she know what she was heading into, for when she arrived instead of the warm welcome and sympathetic treatment that she was expecting, she was stripped, shackled and taken to a series of detention centres where she was to remain for the next 16 months.

Her treatment during this time was truly appalling, being subject to threats from predatory women (don't forget this was a young Muslim girl from a traditional African culture), repeatedly strip searched, and worst of all, imprisoned in a smoking area which the officers knew aggravated her asthnma. Even when she started coughing up blood, they refused to let her see a Doctor. It later transpired that she had a peptic ulcer which could have burst at any time, with all manner of complications. Her mental health, not surprising hit rock bottom, and her weight plummetted, being unable to keep anything down due to the ulcer and also partly because she did not know whether the meat she was given was safe for a Muslim to eat.

As in all good stories, Fauziya did eventually get her freedom, largely thanks to extensive media coverage of her case, and her expert legal team, and with support from her cousin, who risked his own freedom in order that she could have hers.

I could say so much more about this remarkable book, but have already said far too much that would only ruin it more for those who do wish to read. Suffice to say that everyone should read this story, a story that needs to be told and that the world needs to hear. I would strongly recommend this book to everyone. I would give this six stars if I was able to.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

The Granta Book of the African Story: Helon Habira

The Granta Book of the African Short Story introduces a group of African writers described by its editor, Helon Habila, as ‘the post-nationalist generation’. Presenting a diverse and dazzling collection from all over the continent - from Morocco to Zimbabwe, Uganda to Kenya - Habila has focused on younger, newer writers, interspersed with some of their older, more established peers, to give a fascinating picture of a new and more liberated Africa. Disdaining the narrowly nationalist and political preoccupations of previous generations, these writers are characterized by their engagement with the wider world and the opportunities offered by the internet, the end of apartheid, the end of civil wars and dictatorships, and the possibilities of free movement around the world. Many of them live outside Africa. Their work is inspired by travel and exile. They are liberated, global and expansive. As Dambudzo Marechera wrote: "If you write for a particular nation, or tribe, then f*** you." These are the stories of a new Africa, punchy, self-confident and defiant. Includes stories by: Rachida El Charni; Henrietta Rose-Innes; George Makana Clarke; Ivan Vladislavik; Mansoura Ez Eldin; Fatou Diome; Aminatta Forna; Manuel Rui; Patrice Nganang; Leila Aboulela; Zoe Wicombe; Ala Al-Aswany; Doreen Baingana; EC Osonduq.

This book presented a unique opportunity for me to read stories from no less than thirteen additional countries to those which I have already read, and to to me, was a must, quite apart from the quality of the writing itself. The book contains twenty nine stories from right across the continent, from Morocco in the north, to South Africa in the south, all of which give unique insights into the issues facing modern Africans today - from tales of arranged marriages, to life in the slums, to European racism.

The stories, which are arraged in order of the writers own age provide an enteraining yet insightful read into the lives of African men and women from all four corners of the continent and the issuees that they face. The characters and the writing styles are each different, but remain well balanced. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested to know more.