Tuesday, 2 June 2015

''You don't look Ghanaian''

Check out the audio version of this post below!

I've apparently stopped looking Ghanaian. 

And I am not talking about the numerous times I have been erroneously described as Nigerian, including one bizarre encounter when a strange woman leapt out of a queue she was in and forcefully hugged me, all the while insisting I was the long lost Nkechi - "or, at the very least, Nkechi's sister!" (I've been Nigerian a number of times, but this was the most dramatic circumstance yet).

When the Nigerians "claim" me as one of their own, I am told I could be an Igbo woman anyday, and that it is as a result of any one or combination of the following: my height, complexion, eyes, cheekbones and, lately, my natural hair. I don't know how true any of it is, but it certainly always makes for interesting conversations. 

But as I say, I'm not even talking about these peculiarities here.

I refer instead to the statement that often gets levied at me every time I am in Ghana, so ubiquitous as to keep rearing its head in various settings, by turns amusing and perplexing me: "You don't look Ghanaian." 

I have heard that statement one too many times, sometimes even expressed in an accusing tone by the speaker as though, somehow, I'm also to blame for their getting it wrong. It has been uttered in 'formal' settings (such as passport control in Accra's Kotoka Airport and the Ghana High Commission in London) and informal contexts (meeting friends of friends, and of course, the many times I've randomly been 'Nigerian', 'South African', 'Sierra Leonean' and once, - whilst transitting through Madrid - 'Guinean'). As much as these various encounters would have me believe I'm rocking some kind of 'global African look' (and I will have some lipstick with that, please), the main thrust of this post is how this perceived lack of "Ghanaian-ness" about my person has coloured what would otherwise have been unremarkable events in Ghana. Let me illustrate with three examples from a particular trip home.   

1) I went to sort out an internet data plan at one of the telco offices in Accra and encountered two male customer service staff. At first, I was being attended to by only one customer service rep who treated me with acceptable professional courtesy. In the course of our transaction, he was joined by a colleague seeking his opinion on something. As soon as the second rep joined, the professional courtesy hitherto shown to me whimpered, withered and died quite the death as they started trading comments in Twi about me. There were crude sexual innuendos interspersed with giggly observations that I looked like I needed the nearest swimming pool (moments after I dabbed a bead of sweat on my forehead with my hanky). Then from this last, they started to wonder how my body would look in a swimsuit. Despite the incredulity that was coursing through me, I stood there quietly and re-arranged my facial expression into one of careful neutrality, waiting to see where it would end. That they could be so crass wasn't nearly as surprising as the realisation that such commentary was first of all being passed on the assumption that their target was none the wiser. You know, because somehow or other, she didn't look Ghanaian - and by extention, couldn't possibly understand the Twi that was being spoken. Oh, but I have never enjoyed reading the riot act more vigorously than I did when I revealed my Twi-speaking status at the end of our transaction.

2) Arranging a flight from Accra to Kumasi, the airline office couldn't say if a plane would be available to fly us on the selected date, even if one made a confirmed payment! Oh, but wait! They would be more than happy to arrange "a refound" if we arrived at the airport and found there to be no plane on the day of departure.


Then, giving me a critical onceover, an assistant added helpfully that, if it indeed happened, they would process my "refound" quicker because I neither looked Ghanaian nor like I lived in Ghana. I was speechless for a moment. Until, irked by how much the word "refound" was bandied about, I eventually snapped, "it's refund!", left and booked my flight with a rival airline who would actually have a plane to fly us on the day! (Side note: I will blog about  the first part of her observation soon, this selective appraisal of which customer deserves better service on the basis of perceived foreigner privilege, instead of great customer service for everyone). 

3) Over lunch with a friend, I questioned the "freshness" of a piece of chicken that was supposed to have been grilled that very day and yet tasted anything but. The waiter exclaimed, "Ei madam, so you can tell it's not fresh, eh? But you don't look like the kind of Ghanaian woman who cooks oo..." Oh, shame! But the eejit wasn't to know that I have been honing my cooking skills for a very long time. Besides, who, even if they do not like to/cannot cook, can't tell when they're eating a poor excuse for the real thing? At least he thought I was Ghanaian...so yay, progress. 

They are but few examples, often compounded by other moments of intuitive knowledge which make me wonder about these criss-crossing encounters. Why should the baggage handler on the tarmac at Kotoka Airport say an instinctive "welcome home, sister" to me, but the immigration officer minutes later inside the terminal give my Ghanaian passport extra scrutiny whilst insolently asking, "are you sure you are even from here?" Why should the market woman haggle good-naturedly with me in Twi, but a taxi driver blatantly ignore me in the same respect, choosing instead to negotiate in English when that is not the language I approached him with, all the while quoting an inflated price on the presumption I wouldn't know any different. Like I said, criss-crossing encounters. 

So what gives? I can be bemused by non-Ghanaian strangers insisting I'm Nigerian, South African, Guinean and goodness knows whatever else. But it sure does throw a spanner in the works when it is inferred that I don't look Ghanaian...by Ghanaians...in Ghana.

Pray, tell, good people of the world - what is this crucial Ghanaian look that has gone walkabout in my life?

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Where will your travels take you?

On an unseasonably warm day in February, I board a bus.

I am going on a journey.

My breakfast is still swimming around my throat in protest at how fast I've gobbled it down, threatening regurgitation. I am pressed for time, yet I can still pause to acknowledge porridge oats as the one food I can make and eat within seven minutes. I have timed it and it is a remarkable feat, because usually, I can nurse my food till the cocks come home to roost. When I was fourteen and about to go to boarding school, one of my mother's valid concerns was that I'd be the soul left on her lonesome at the dining hall while everybody finished their food and left for their next class.

The sun is out and I am appreciating this rare opportunity to wear just a light blazer as opposed to the warm winter jacket that has been attached to my body for the last few months.

A cacophony of sounds jostle for dominance in the bus. Noisy children ask tedious questions of their parents, whilst they in turn respond with the patience that only a parent can muster. There is loud chatter and general bonhomie which only the appearance of the sun can bestow on the good people of the United Kingdom. That it is also a Saturday adds a certain gaiety to proceedings.

I go to the upper deck and I spot them immediately.

He is blond, with a face that looks like it is always on the verge of bursting into raucous laughter.She has skin the colour of rust, and an accent she later assures me is supposed to be Kenyan, as though she could tell my geography fails  me on various occasions.

'Do you think I have the face for it?' She asks without preamble as I take the seat behind them.

'For it?' I echo dumbly.

'For a perm cut. Come on, be honest with me.' She adds conspiratorially.

Before I know it, we are discussing hair types, cheekbones...and the luminous Lupita Nyiong'o for whom the world has gone loopy.

They are good friends, she tells me, turning to her mate, ruffling the blond hairs on his head, and he retaliates by telling her that a perm cut would not suit her prominent forehead. I am touched by their easy banter.  

With mock solemnity I assure her that life is so much better when you accept that yes, your forehead is prominent et alors? I point to the scar on mine, the one I can't hide especially now my hair is short, and we share a smile.

I am nearly at my stop so I say goodbye and go downstairs, feeling like my day can only get better thereon.

It does.

I am attending a travel writing workshop run by Peter Carty, an experienced writer whose travel features have graced numerous publications including The Guardian, Conde Nast Traveller, The Telegraph etc.

It's a full house, chatty with enthusiastic people from all walks of life, and it doesn't escape me that for all our differences, one thing unites us all in that moment: our passion for travel. During the ice-breaker session, I meet Georgina, born in Serbia, raised in Sydney and now living in London. Seated on my left is an English woman from Kent, whose transatlantic accent reveals on further probing, an early life spent in Nairobi. I want to tell her that the only Swahili I know is from playing 'Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?' as a child, but I don't think now is the time to outdoor my limited language skills. (I can say 'Stop, thief!' and 'Are you a detective?', just in case you're wondering.)

Through various conversations and writing assignments in the course of the day, I am taken on a food tour in Bologna, hiking up the Scottish Highlands, navigating local life in Colombia and back for a culinary tour de force in San Sebastian, amongst other exhilarating experiences brought piercingly alive through text.

The workshop is intense, packed with nuggets of information, and so easily whets my appetite for travel until I can almost feel the ants in my pants move down to give me itchy feet.

And so as the day ends, I am buzzing, thinking of passports, finances and travel destinations. But mostly, I am also thinking who will I talk to next? 

Because to travel is to allow yourself to experience a people, a place, an adventure.

Where will yours take you?

Travel Writing Workshop

Thursday, 6 March 2014

57 Words For Ghana Livin'

So you've heard about us Ghanaians. We are the lively, captivating bunch who light up the west coast of Africa. You've seen us banter with each other on various social media platforms and been entertained by some of the more dotty stuff. Your timelines occasionally flood with 'in country' jokes that everyone else is in on. Well, continuing the blog tradition of a Ghana-centric post on 6 March, here are 57 words for Ghana livin' and lovin'.

1) Akwaaba 
We bid welcome with this word that rolls pleasantly off the tongue. Although it is an Akan word, Akwaaba is that warm outstretched hand of Ghanaian hospitality which you'll see all over the country.  

2Abeg (I beg)
Think 'Oh, please!' or 'Yeah, right!', and occasionally, 'Wow, impressive!' 

This is a verbal pat on the back that means 'well done!'

These days, your dance moves are seriously lacking if you haven't learnt how to pull off the arm-raising, hip-moving, knee-bending, leg-twisting dance that is Azonto.  

5Bele Bele 
You've not met a more industrious hawker than one who changes their wares in response to supply and demand. Bele Bele is small-time hawking of just about anything that is hot right now. It is loyal to no one product or place and brings new meaning to bric-a-brac.

6Bronya ade
During the festive season, peace and goodwill to all mankind won't suffice. You must also expect to be asked for bronya ade (Christmas gift) by just about anyone, including relatives, friends, the waakye seller, the tailor, the taxi driver, the mechanic (fitter), the hairdresser, the trader in the market...you get the point.

7) Boss
Yes, you could be talking about your superior at work. But because the word 'boss' is..well, such a boss, you could also use it in the context of 'buttering someone up', 'cajoling' or 'coaxing.' Think flattery, without too much insincerity.

8) Blow
As a student, academic excellence comes in the form of 'blowing your exams', which is simply to say you have passed with flying colours. Rather neatly, this takes us to the next word. Because in order to blow your exam, you must first be a...

9) Shark
Sharp-toothed as those marine fishes, and brimming with general brilliance. 

10) Bend down boutique ('Fose')
 Second hand clothing usually spread out on mats in the market, hence your needing to 'bend down' in order to make a selection.

This is not the onomatopoeic dance of Latin-American origin, but gambling in local parlance. 

12) Check-Check
Bright, and, often, crudely designed kiosks from which a lucrative fast food business booms. Check-Check joints are local and lively, with regular customers who are enticed to this street food establishment because of convenience and affordable pricing. 

13) Chisel
If you are miserly, you are a tool. You are chisel!

This is a wooden square box for storing food or 'provisions' when a student goes to boarding school. It is a crucial accessory for survival if your school kitchen staff are notorious for serving what is meant to be food, but actually looks like an Unidentified Floating Object. 

15) Chop Money 
Before you brandish a weapon that hacks through paper, chop money is allowance that a spouse provides for the upkeep of the home. 

16Chale wote
You've never seen a more ubiquitous footwear than chale wote. A Ga language word for flip-flops, chale wote revels in its duplicity as the one footwear all Ghanaians own, whilst also doubling as a local slang for 'Homie, let's go!'

17) Chew and Pour
While this phrase has been coined with characteristic humour, 'chew and pour' is the systematic learning by rote in order to regurgitate on paper as demanded by one school examination or other. The gamut of challenges Ghanaian students face in the education system contributes to the survivalist attitude to simply 'chew, pour, pass and forget' without appreciation for critical thinking and evaluation. 

Born again Christian. 

Someone who is perceived as spoiled and pampered because of their moneyed background. 'MamaBa' is used interchangeably with DadaBa if applicable.

20) Dropping
Local transportation in Ghana is peppered with inside jargon, and 'dropping' is one such. This simply means chartering an empty taxi to get you to your destination as opposed to sharing with other passengers at a station or bus stop. The crucial thing to remember about dropping is that price must be agreed beforehand as taxis in Ghana are not metered. So if you feel as though the taxi driver has plucked the fare from somewhere in the stratosphere, it's because he actually has. Ready, set, time to negotiate!
Did you know the Electricity Company of Ghana puts disco lights in the homes of Ghanaians? Load shedding is the official term for the rationing of national electricity supply, but 'dumsor' is the term that everyone calls it to signify the on-off nature of electricity supply. And there you have it, disco light electricity. Now you see it, now you don't.

22) Feeli Feeli
As in, 'Barack...honey, I saw you two feeli feeli! Flirting! Oh, and a selfie at a funeral?!' Are you thinking feeli feeli means 'with my own eyes', 'live', that sort of thing? You're absolutely on the right track.

23) Flex
Being showy with seeming understatement, or standoffish. Context is golden with this particular slang.  

24) Fix us
Give us a treat.

25) Flash
Not indecent exposure or anything even to do with lighting. Unless you count lighting up the screen of someone's mobile phone with the briefest of flash to signify 'you called', which, in this case, is totally what it's about. In Ghana, you will hear people say they only have 'flashing units' on their mobile phones. 

Ghana's rich mineral wealth is well-known. Unfortunately, so is the process of illegal mining known as Galamsey.

27) Guarantee
You know those shoes with soles so high they put you on another platform altogether? We call them 'guarantee.' I don't know why either.

The stuff of good home cooking that ministers straight to the soul. Can I get an amen?

A genre of Ghanaian music that is a fusion of highlife and hiphop, with a bit of dancehall and reggae in the mix. Often recorded in local languages, most popularly in Akanhiplife has arrived to titillate your tympanic membrane and give rhythm to your dancing feet. Enjoy.

30) Item 13
Not a wordy amendment to the Constitution of Ghana or any such highbrow documentation. Item 13 is refreshment, and your party or gathering better have plenty for all attendees to eat. 

Ga word that describes young females who ply a trade in major markets as porters, carrying goods for a negotiated fee.

32) Knocking
When a dating couple have made the decision to marry, the man's family uses the all-important 'Knocking' ceremony to formally inform the woman's family of his intention to marry her. The term 'knocking' comes from the Ghanaian tradition of knocking on someone's door before entering their premises as a visitor.

Is a slang for police officers, whether they are on the beat in the sweltering heat, or at the charge office waiting  to give you an unforgettable 'counter back' experience.

There was a time when your evening meal didn't digest until you had taken a walk to the nearest kyibom stand and made an order. Kyibom is omelette, but enterprising sellers have expanded their offers to include all manner of hot pastries and drinks. Crucially, no kyibom seller worth their eggs sets up stall in the morning, because trust me, kyibom is a roaring joint for the nighttime in much the same way kelewele brings life to a dull evening. 

35) Mate
They are not your chummy buddies with whom you break bread. Mate is the savvy, no-nonsense right-hand man who monitors passenger pick-up and drop-off, and collects fares on the trotro

36) Our Day
Children in primary school celebrate 'Our Day' on the last day of term, bringing in food and drinks to share with their friends. However, it is also very possible that the jollof rice, biscuits, chicken, cake and whatnot that mother has slaved over will end up in carrier bags which a random teacher has brought especially for looting on this day of food and feasting. Our day? You bet.

This must be delivered with the righteous gloating of someone who predicted a particular outcome and was roundly ignored. Because oyiwa means 'I told you so!'

Technically, obroni means white person. But if your complexion is approaching anywhere that society at any point in time may consider 'fair', then you too are 'obroni.' 

Friend. Buddy.

40) Papa
You could be talking about any one of the following - Father (Papa), stressing the effect of something or someone (This annoys me papa!) or any object that can be used as a hand fan - and the word 'papa' becomes handy. All it takes is context and intonation. Some words are just born versatile.

41) Phobia
In Ghana when you say 'Phobia', you're really talking about one of the country's biggest football club sides, Accra Hearts of Oak, whose popular nickname can be traced back to the sixties when their prowess on the field put 'Hearts' fear in opponents. A fiery rivalry with Kumasi Asante Kotoko has kept generations hooked on their football antics, and to yell 'Phobia' is to stretch it till the letter 'O' begs for release. Phooobia!

Oh, you will have memorable birthdays with this one. The tradition in school is to be 'ponded' by your friends on your birthday, during matriculation or any other excuse on university campuses by more senior students: and the gist of what goes on is in the name. Think water, immersion, soaking wetness/ pummelling, and the guffaws of friends enjoying your every reaction. Fun.

43) Post Kaya
It is that person - sometimes at school, sometimes at work - who wants to curry favour with the powers that be by jumping on every task with alarming, ingratiating alacrity. 

44) Raps
Beware the sonnets of a smooth-talking chancer who promises you the sun, the moon, the stars, the Northern Lights  and the nine planets. He is giving you 'raps'. Go figure.

45) Shine!
The streets of Ghana resonate with a rhythmic tapping that the trained ear immediately recognizes as belonging to a passing cobbler. Shoe shine boys, as they are known, often ply their trade on nimble feet, stopping by homes and stores as and when their services are called upon to polish or mend shoes. Before long, a patron will be shouting 'Shine!' in response to that tap! tap!

This double entendre, on one hand, refers to a head completely shorn of hair (baldness), and on the other hand, anything (usually a meal) that is woefully lacking...something - example, koko sakora.

Sankofa is an Akan language word usually typified with an Adinkra symbol of a bird reaching backwards. It signifies the importance of learning from the past in order to forge ahead in the future, and literally means 'go back and get it.' 

Hater. You know, those people others tell to 'go sip on some Gatorade and stop the haterade.' 

49) Some way bi
Something that is not clear cut. Most recently, the term has been popularized by Ghanaian rapper and songwriter, M.anifest.

50) Small chops
...because who can be bothered to say 'hors d'oeuvres?'

Could just be the piggy bank where loose change is grown, or an informal collection and saving scheme operated by any group of people, society or club that is set aside for the proverbial rainy day.

52) Takeaway
The thing about takeaway is that here we aren't talking about food from a takeout restaurant. No, it's the surplus that must also be budgeted for at a private party so that even after guests have eaten their fill, there must still be enough for them to 'takeaway'. A party bag, if you will.

A story that may or may not be as far removed from the truth it purports. Don't fall for it. 

tro-tro is a minivan that typically carries anywhere between 16 to 50 people (or more). It is a crucial link between people and their destinations, packing experiences such as petty squabbles, heated debates, foul-smelling armpits and amusing times into one journey. See more here.

55) Too-Known
All-knowing, all-seeing, all-annoying. Relax, you don't know everything.

Until recently, 'tweaa' was the go-to word to express disdain or derision. Now it is mired in political wahala and has even risen ranks to be a banned word in Ghana's parliament. How's that for notoriety? As usual, my people are having a laugh with this one. 

57) You don't know what is happening in Dodowa Forest
Who knows? It's all a mystery...

And there you have it, some of the words and phrases colouring our speech 57 years after 1957. I love you, Ghana. 


Thursday, 21 November 2013

My Ghana dat!

I have been to the Ghana High Commission in London approximately two times.

On the first occasion, I happened on an invitation the High Commission had extended to my father for an evening with President John Mahama. As he was away at the time, I considered it my patriotic duty to go in his place, and promptly went off to find a suitable attire in my wardrobe. Incidentally, never having been there before, and most definitely lost and running late, I found the High Commission through protesters gathered across the street from the building, self-consciously chanting, ''Mahama is a thief! Mahama is a thief!'' into waiting cameras. It was the first time I saw the president in the flesh, as well as other prominent members of government including Hanna Tetteh, Harruna Iddrisu, PV Obeng and Nana Oye Lithur. It was June, the height of the election petition challenging the validity of Mr Mahama's election as president of Ghana, and so it seemed to me that the speeches that evening were full of irreverent quips regarding this, and re-hashing of party slogans and rhetoric like we were at a miniature rally. It wasn't without laughs, let me tell you, and the entire evening was pleasant enough.

The second occasion was today when I went to renew my Ghanaian passport. After being processed through the reception and ticket counter, I was making my way to a seat in the waiting area when I heard someone call my name. I thought, no way! Who knows me around these parts, and why the flippity floppin' heck is there no such thing as anonymity in a Ghana-centric place?! I was laughing to myself before I turned the smile in the general direction the sound of my name had come from. And as I spotted the familiar face, I felt my skin infused with genuine warmth.

It was Trevor, a darling old English gentleman who'd adopted Ghana as his second home long before he found even more reason to keep going back: a Ghanaian wife and young children in Accra who won't let him enjoy a slow life in his retirement. The first time we met, we discovered our Accra homes were minutes apart (Mataheko to my Kaneshie), and that he'd left Ghana and crucially forgotten to bring his supply of Tetrapleura tetraptera - that's prekese to the uninitiated, something I had quite a bit of in my food basket at home. My nkwan is not complete without some 'preks'. I am my grandmother's granddaughter after all.

We were chitchatting when my ticket number was called. I made my way to the counter.

''I like your earrings,'' the gentleman behind the counter said by way of greeting.
I fingered the beaded hoop earrings and smiled my thanks.

''You like travelling paa, eh?'' He said, flicking through my passport and noting the USA and Schengen Visa stamps.


''Do you speak Ga?'' He asked in Ga.
I wasn't even going to outdoor my paltry Ga here, but an answer in the negative I could manage. So I said, ''Daabi.''

He gave me a look. ''You should be able to speak Ga.''
I rolled my eyes. ''I speak Twi.''
He cocked his eyebrow. ''I don't speak Twi.''
I cocked mine. ''I don't speak Ga.''
He smiled. ''So we'll have a problem understanding each other then, won't we?''
I flashed him my own saccharine smile. ''I don't think so at all. I understood everything you just said. Let's stick to English, shall we?''

He threw his head back and laughed. I think...I think he thought his flirtation skills were up there with the slick professionals. I was bemused - and more than a little concerned this back and forth would make me miss the plumber and surveyor due at mine in half an hour to see a problem with my kitchen pipes.

Eventually, he stamped my form and told me a date to pick up my new passport. I did a bit of haggling. It had nothing to do with price, and everything to do with surely that's a long time to take to process a simple renewal. Mr Speak-Ga said he'd do his best for me. He disappeared for a few minutes and came back with a new, nearer date. I held my tongue and fought the urge to ask why he hadn't offered me that date in the first place.

He gave me a smile like he knew exactly what I was thinking. Ha.

I shrugged my coat on, bade goodbye to Trevor and let myself back through the reception en route to the exit. On my way in, it had just been the receptionist. Now it was lively with chat and bonhomie, whilst three grey haired men with ample pot bellies sat laughing on the chairs. As I walked through, I made eye contact with each and said good morning.

The last one said, ''Oh, you are a good girl!''

I smiled inwardly. Because whether you are in Ghana or not, there's also no such thing as walking past your elders without acknowledging them with some form of greeting.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Book Review: ''Circles'' for #GhanaLit Week

November 11-17, 2013 is Ghanaian Literature Week (#GhanaLit), a celebration of the literary scene in and connected to Ghana. Go on, familiarize yourself with the rules of engagement, and get involved! Below, a review of my first read, Boakyewaa Glover's 'Circles.'

The cyclical roller coaster that is Rabbie Daniels' life is at the centre of Boakyewaa Glover's debut novel, Circles. On the cusp of thirty, and caught up in a situation not unlike the vicious cycle she's experienced since first discovering the tricky thing called love, Rabbie takes stock of the events that have brought her to a pivotal point. And thus we meet her, this successful writer on CNN's International Desk who, it seems, cannot pen a drama-free existence for herself when it comes to her relationships. In order to understand her present fruitless search for love and validation, we must know her past. This is really where Circles begins, an elaborate, kaleidoscopic journey back to that first flush of love and the road since.

Glover takes us on something of an eventful blitz through Rabbie's little black book of boyfriends past. There is Selorm, the significant first with whom she first locks lips during a game of Truth or Dare. (I chuckled at how this 'risky' game has long been an undeniable accessory to many a teenage sexual discovery.) That first game of tonsil tennis seems to be the start of an unofficial coupling for Selorm and Rabbie, who revel in being together, talking, laughing and kissing the life out of each other. It all comes crashing down one night when, without precedent, she enjoys a very public kiss with another guy, Jon, in the full view of Selorm. This event marks the start of a troubling pattern that makes serial cheating par for the course in her latter relationships. Along the way there are other guys, including Junior, Edem, Tei, Kwame, Osei, Asare and Ato, this last the recurring sex buddy and best friend for whom she has a complex bag of feelings. Osei, too, is the besotted long suffering boyfriend who forgives her cheating ways time and again with no sign of change from Rabbie.

As we delve into the story, Circles conveys the circular wheels of a never ending ride that makes the novel so aptly named, because, boy, does that girl go round in circles. She is strong and opinionated, a young woman who doesn't suffer fools gladly, except perhaps when it comes to Ato, the lover who tramples all over her unsuspecting heart with his philandering ways in a manner that cuts deeply. And still she hooks up with him. You wonder how Rabbie, who, though she seems to have a level head screwed on, allows herself to be disrespected thus despite her unequivocal views on similar situations with her girl friends. And even though it's just as easy to dismiss these events as comeuppance for her lifetime of cheating on boyfriends, it doesn't dim the pity some. Because in what is art imitating life, there's always that one person, isn't there? (Thanks, Usher !)

She is likable and full of fizz, her caustic descriptions injecting humour into a story that nearly topples over with the presence of too many characters in a mostly simple plot. The chapter on her boarding school life in Wesley Girls' High School, for example, is a dizzying swirl of names, cliques and crisscrossing friendships. There hovered, however, a tinge of nostalgia for WGHS, incidentally my alma mater, so I definitely read that with a half smile.

Circles is no pressure cooker, coasting more on the simmering heat of a slow cooker. At its epicentre is the idea that we are each the choices we make, and the consequences thereof. And then, just as a kick up the bum, it throws into the ring the question '...so what the heck are you doing about yours?'

Boakyewaa Glover has chalked further success since this novel was published in 2009, and though I was not swept away by Circles, I certainly look forward to checking out her newer works.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Things I've Noticed Since Going Natural

Having natural hair, I tweeted recently, is a bit like being pregnant. People touch it without your permission and offer unsolicited advice.

A few days ago, I was a little distressed to realize the biggest Afro comb sold by Pak Cosmetics was already in my bathroom, and that I'd wasted my time browsing through the shop looking for the next size up. Distressed, because I'm now in possession of an Afro, which, while still a teeny weeny halo, likes to declare a tug of war every time I try to comb it. While still in the shop, I paused by a row of leave-in conditioners and was startled to feel a hand experimentally rubbing the back of my head. 

''Your hair looks so healthy,'' cooed an older woman with a Caribbean accent while her friend chuckled approvingly next to her. ''Do you use olive oil?''

I jerked my head out of her grasp.

''No,'' I said shortly.

''You should!'' The woman nodded knowingly and walked away before I could respond. 

I have been here before, I thought,  these nameless interactions when someone tugs on my hair for one reason or other. It is irksome because it is one of those things I don't know about until it's actually happened and my hair sticks out in odd ridges. I am baffled how since cutting my hair, others haven't hesitated in passing judgement on it as though I'd personally walked up to them and requested it. Who'd have thought that my hair would trigger conversations that have amused, engaged and annoyed me in different ways. Here are a few: 

- Some people erroneously think that the new state of my roots means I want to join in a collective weave-bashing rant. They go from complimenting my hair to a one-sided diatribe against women who use extensions in one or other.  Jaysus, I get it! Now you may go rant elsewhere. Because here's the kicker: I really don't care what other women do to their hair. It is their business just as my tresses are mine. 

- Interestingly, a few men have linked my hair to a romance gone sour. ''Who broke your heart to make you do this?''

Now I'm generally familiar with the concept happening to others, but, personally it is so alien to me that any time it comes up, I laugh with genuine mirth. I am amused that these men would think there is a correlation between my hair and my relationships. My heart has also never been broken, but thanks for the concern. 

- There has also been the sub-section that subscribes to ''Is this some kind of black empowerment political statement sort of thing?'' 

Oh boy, that old hot potato.

I laughed at this via email to my friend  who also has natural hair, and her response summed my feelings perfectly: ''Nobody goes natural for the movement. It's always convenience first, and then movement or not, it doesn't matter. Important thing is that your mind is liberated and you make the hair choices you want, not choices dictated by any movement be it straight hair, natural, weave, whatever. Hair and physical appearance must never be an albatross. Be whoever you want to be, not what others say you should. As evidenced here, even at your baldest, you are beautiful!''  Dear Debbie, how I love her to bits!

- I'm being described more and more as a ''strong black woman.'' Well, hide the razors and call me Samson after our man in the biblical  book of Judges! Pre-natural hair, I already knew I was black and strong, but I was never described thus. In fact, I don't remember a time when I was not black or strong, the people who raised me having nurtured the latter from a very early age. But APPARENTLY, my Afro puff shows I'm made of steel and the sterner stuff of life. 

I jest. Yes, this compliment - and I use the word recklessly - is somewhat in connection with short hair denoting confidence (read strength); yes, it is an acknowledgement that letting one's hair grow in its natural state is a form of acceptance of self, and I can see the strong woman tag in this regard. But for the love of all that is natural, how do you explain a statement such as, ''You look like a strong black woman...but I still wanna dance with you,'' as I had at a club recently? No sir, I will not dance with you, mostly because I need to pee right now - and that line of yours only ignited boredom in my cerebrum.

I haven't a particular emotional trigger that  brought on the decision to go natural, and, considering my penchant for melodrama, I'm almost disappointed. In fact, at the time, in that original email revealing the new look to my two best friends, I wrote: I took out my long rasta (at last!) and I balked at the idea of combing through all that undergrowth. Ebei. I went to the barber instead. So there, the political activists have it. I went natural out of laziness. 

I like that there is beauty in opinion. We all have them. Why, I'm sitting here right now writing mine on my blog, so clearly I'm already smug in the knowledge that the whole world is entitled to my opinion, ha. The point, you see, is that whatever your views, freedom is the ability to choose. 

I am loving my hair as it is right now, however, if next month I choose to go back to Claudine, my hairdresser, for a relaxer or whatever, it will be simply that - a matter of choice.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Book Review: We Need New Names

In  a shantytown called Paradise resides a ten year old girl, Darling, from whom we get the story of We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo's debut novel. There is aching loss and poverty and hope that balances precariously over an abyss of despair, yet Darling, together with her ragtag friends - Bastard, Sbho, Stina, Godknows and Chipo - embark on thrilling experiences that make everything piercingly alive from the inside of their adventurous hearts.

Very quickly, you learn that Paradise is far from the serenity and bliss the name suggests. The reality is that its inhabitants live in tin shacks; a microcosm of unemployment, hunger, political violence and the elusive search for change that splits families up as fathers depart to neighbouring countries to find work. It is not so long ago when they lived in real houses, when the kids went to school and learned to read English, when the fathers didn't spend all their time under the jacaranda playing draughts or the women just talking and doing each other's hair. When her father returns from an unsuccessful sojourn and is suffering from AIDS, Darling is unforgiving and resentful of the bony man rotting away in her mother's bed. Still, for their posse, life is fun and there are more pressing needs to see to. Like stealing guavas from the plush homes in Budapest to line stomachs gone hungry from not having any breakfast that day, even if it means they will feel like their anuses are being ripped apart with constipation later when they squat under the trees to defecate. The memories of their real homes being bulldozed by the police, forcing them to move into the tin shacks, is a different kind of horror to the realization that eleven year old Chipo is pregnant with her grandfather's child.

He did that, my grandfather. I was coming back from playing Find bin Laden and my grandmother was not there, and he got on me and pinned me down like that, and he clamped a hand over my mouth and was heavy like a mountain.

Chipo, hitherto to this moment, had long ago stopped talking as her stomach began to show, though she is not mute-mute. As the words burst from her, she is met with a helpless, almost desperate do you want to go and steal guavas, from Darling, who, despite grasping the terror of what's happened to her friend, could only hurtle with childlike speed toward the safety of an activity they enjoy. She is but a child herself, after all.

Days are spent thus; petty thefts, playing games, remembering the time before, and wondering how to get rid of Chipo's stomach once and for all, the last being the activity that gives the novel its eponymous title. They dream of escape to the real paradise of the USA, Canada and Europe - or failing that, South Africa, maybe even Botswana.

To play the country-game, we have to choose a country. Everybody wants to be the USA and Britain and Canada and Australia and Switzerland and them. Nobody wants to be rags of countries like Congo, like Somalia, like Iraq, like Haiti, and not even this one we live in - who wants to be a terrible place of hunger and things falling apart?

For Darling, this dream becomes a reality when her long bragged about Aunty Fostalina in Destroyedmichygen (Detroit, Michigan) comes for her and a new life in America begins.

Bulawayo displays finesse in capturing the effervescence in Darling's narration, often rhythmic and funny in its bluntness, as well as her mischievous mind. She pinches a baby her neighbour dumps on her laps at church without her permission because he is an ugly baby; his face looks shocked, like he has just seen the buttocks of a snake. The child obediently howls and the mother comes rushing back to collect him, fearing reproach from the other churchgoers. Job done.

America is big and the food plentiful. The men under the jacaranda are no longer there, nor the vendors gustily selling their wares, and definitely no gang calling her to go to Budapest. It is just the greedy snow covering everything with a whiteness that stretches as far as the eyes can see. This is America, yo, you won't see none of that African shit up in this motherfucker, her cousin TK informs her.

There is a delicate shift in Darling's tone by the second half of the story. A budding teenager, her views are less playfully expressed and more cynical, yet sharp as ever, as she observes life in America: white liberals breezily lumping all of Africa and its problems into one big country like it isn't a continent of over fifty nations, the conduct of an African marriage outside the confines of Africa, the ease of access to pornography online, the obsession with weight against the ever widening crisis of obesity in the West.

In America, the fatness is not the fatness I was used to at home. Over there, the fatness was of bigness, just ordinary fatness you could understand because it meant the person ate well, fatness you could even envy...
But this American fatness takes it to a whole 'nother level: the body is turned into something else - the neck becomes a thigh, the stomach becomes an anthill, an arm a thing, a buttock a I don't even know what.

The first part of the novel checklists raging issues in our continent such as the plight of street children, AIDS pandemic, political violence, hypocritical preachers as represented in Prophet Bitchington Mborro, child rape and over-dependence on foreign aid (etc..)...

They don't care that we are embarrassed by our dirt and torn clothing, that we would prefer they didn't do it; they just take the pictures anyway, take and take. We don't complain because we know that after the picture taking come the giving of gifts.

...so that without the light, sometimes caustic voice of Darling floating over all this as a narrator, We Need New Names would have been a hugely depressing read that fans the idea that Africa is the world's charity case and is to be pitied.

In America, the story takes a predictable turn - in the heroine's disenchantment with the place she thought would be her Nirvana; being faceless in the system as an illegal immigrant doing mind numbingly boring  jobs; the decline in the hope of ever going 'back home' without correct paperwork for re-entry into America; the weird mixture of estrangement and longing for the childhood friends who now think her a traitor for abandoning her burning house rather than dousing it with water, and finally, the restlessness and resignation that come with accepting that she'd rather be 'stuck' in that situation than go back home to nothing; an even bigger failure.

Props to the author for laying down these issues, though, perhaps childishly, a part of me wishes everything could have been neatly tied to set Darling up for her happy-ever-after. In this regard, the novel bordered on anti-climatic for me. But of course, as we all know, happy endings only happen in utopia.

We Need New Names unsettles and moves - and makes you more than a little sad. A good read, nonetheless.