Author Archives: Jacob Atkins

Digital Participation: Homosexuality in Cameroon

My last post for the night, I swear. Tonight I stumbled across this really interesting video on Youtube called “Cameroon: Where being gay is a crime.” After all of our in-class discussions about Nigeria’s draconian laws criminalizing homosexuality, this video shows that similar policies (and prejudices) are occurring in neighboring Cameroon. For example, lists of expected homosexuals have been published, which ultimately result in an array of “witch hunts” to target (and to harm) these individuals. Although Nigeria and Uganda are the most notorious African countries in terms of their homophobic laws, Cameroon happens to be the nation with the most imprisoned homosexuals who experience severe harassment and abuse behind bars- many of whom are jailed simply by word-of-mouth. To counteract these deplorable circumstances, there is one lawyer by the name of Alice Nkom who has the courage to defend homosexuals from further persecution (not to mention willing to denounce the government) although she herself faces a multitude of death threats from Cameroonian society. Nkom equates state-wide sanctions on homosexuality to apartheid. Other aspects of this report also showcase that anti-gay sentiment is fueled over the media (because people are less interested in what shenanigans Biya is up to) and that there are conspiracy theories that a “gay mafia” exists within the upper-echelons of the government. Check out this video!

Digital Participation: Le petite vendeuse de soleil (The Girl Who Sold the Sun) – a film review

The forty-something minutes that comprised of “The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun” were pretty fantastic. Produced in 1999 in Dakar, this film is rather retro for today’s cinematic standards. Viewers are quickly introduced to the protagonist- a young girl named Sili Laam who decides to sell (or for a more appropriate term, to hawk) newspapers (le Soilel/ the Sun) in a boy-dominated industry. However, Sili is crippled and forced to navigate Dakar on crutches. Stylistically, the contrast between this young crippled girl and the ruckus of Dakar is astounding. In such a loud bustling congested city, there are scenes where (in terms of audio) all you can hear is Sili walking on her crutches with distant noises of traffic. This creates an intimacy between her and the viewer, not to mention that this stark differentiation eludes to her vulnerability, especially when she is hawking newspapers on the highway where there are blatant displays of roadkill. The thing about Sili, though, is that she is one of the most precocious and determined children one could ever imagine. There is a very aesthetically-pleasing scene where an image of Sili’s face is superimposed over newspapers being printed. In this short yet memorable sequence, she is declaring that she is capable of doing anything (if not better) that boys can do, which demonstrates her immense self-determination to overcome adversity as a crippled girl. Throughout the movie, even when her male competitors try to sabotage her, she counteracts any notion of perceived fragility through her strong attitude, tenacity and generosity to others. Furthermore, I really enjoyed this film due to it’s portrayal of Senegalese culture. There is a scene where Sili is wrongfully accused of theft when a business man (impressed by her valor) purchases all of her newspapers (and the police view her possession of so much money as suspicious) the manner in which the police were receptive to Sili’s explanation (albeit aggressive) seemed to convey the strides Senegal has made in trying to lower/eliminate governmental and police corruption. Sili even convinces them to release a woman who is also wrongfully accused of theft! Along similar lines, it is mention in the film that le Soilel is the “government newspaper.” When Sili and her friend Babou Seck (who sells the “people’s newspaper” called Sud) are arguing about which newspaper is better, Sili makes a poignant statement that “the more Soilels are sold, the closer the government will get to the people.” Probably my favorite line of the movie, especially after conducting so much research this semester on attempted democratization in Senegal. Additionally, this movie serves as great commentary in terms of demonstrating Senegal’s “civil society” where the city-goers of Dakar seem to be quite informed (through newspaper readership) about the politics of the time period, such as Africa trying to veer away from the franc zone. Lastly, the “small-scale” newspaper distribution industry that Sisi is part of seems to reinforce the large-scale economic issues surrounding Dakar- with the port, cargo and trading ships serving as a visual testimony to these circumstances. If I were to critique this film, though, it would have to involve the lighting. It seemed as though the producers failed to properly “white balance” on set, for the movie was incredibly bright at times. I wasn’t sure if this brightness, which became distracting after a while, was accidental or intentional. By the end of the movie, though, I realized it was done for stylistic reasons- for Sisi and Babou (who is carrying Sisi on his back after Sisi’s crutches are stolen) are walking into the shining white light glistening through the doorway. Symbolically, I couldn’t help but interpret this entry into the light as Sisi and Babou walking in the unknown- one step closer to reaching some semblance of economic stability. Perhaps the glow symbolized that everything will be okay in the long run.

P.S. you can now find this review on IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0196848/reviews-9

Short Story: The Evidence of Things Unseen- a Speculative Fiction by Chinelo Onwualu

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Considering that it’s the first day of vacation, and I’m staying on campus (NOT TO MENTION IT’S BEEN SNOWING ALL DAY!), I’ve had a wonderful time reading various short stories on brittlepaper.com today. One narrative in particular really caught my attention: the Evidence of Things Unseen- a Speculative Fiction by Nigerian writer/editor/journalist/self-proclaimed dog person Chinelo Onwualu. In a style that some may call “surrealist realism,” this story certainly has some magical (and dark) undertones unlike anything we’ve read all semester.

The story begins with a 12-year-old girl adorned in a hijab selling groundnuts at a bustling market in some undisclosed location. Characterized for her maturity (that I interpret as some kind of hidden wisdom or clairvoyance), her attention becomes fixated on a foreign man (presumably a white tourist) who she internally declares “to be the one” that she and her “sisters” have been looking for; specifically noting that they cannot afford to be mistaken once again. Upon deciding that there will be no more sales for the day, she puts away her groundnuts and hurriedly proceeds to follow this man as the sun starts to set, for “the coming of night would give him power.” Along the journey other hijab-covered girls (her sisters) join the protagonist until all 12 of these “Warriors of Light” have surrounded the man, their shadows elongated from the setting sun and their coverings strewn across the ground. From the depth of their dresses, they yield long swords as the man mutates- his face suddenly reminiscent to melting candlewax, his fingernails like sharpened daggers, and a laugh sounding “like the scream of a thousand tortured children.” The girls succeed in chopping this man to pieces, only to stand and watch his body melt into a “blackened pool” of nothingness. The story ends by attributing different names to this man, some calling him the Lord of Chaos, the Unmaker, or the most common: the Destroyer. My literary curiosities are left dangling as the 12-year-old protagonist mentally recites a prayer of thanks, wipes the blood off her sword, and returns to normalcy. I’m left considering the significance of the title for this story: the Evidence of Things Unseen- a Speculative Fiction. Who or what does this man represent? Would it be too obvious to think of him as a predator who has pried off children? Does this story relate to how Westerners are viewed in Africa? One thing’s for certain- I’ll be contemplating the meaning of this story for days.

http://brittlepaper.com/2014/10/evidence-unseennew-speculative-fictionchinelo-onwualu/

Stereotypical Gayness

As much as “Walking with Shadows” is a poignant testimony of a closeted man being forced to come to terms with his sexuality in the most inhospitable of social environments, I have one critique (or question that I should have asked him tonight) that I would like to address:

If the general consensus is that Adrian passes as heterosexual, I find it interesting on pg. 36 when Ada begins to contemplate about all the initial “signs” of Adrian’s “gayness-” attributes mostly relating to his physical characteristics that should have informed her that she was barking up the wrong tree. For example, Ada believes that Adrian’s “prettiness,” his “elegant gait,” his well-maintained appearance like his “pretty eyebrows,” his immaculate neatness, etc are major indicators of her husband’s homosexuality. She even reminisces about how Adrian “was always arranging things and had all the best ideas for doing up the house,” that she equates as “subtle signs.” (36) Granted Ada embodies the rampant homophobic sentiment alongside her fellow Nigerians, I find it interesting (and somewhat disheartening) that Dibia decided to showcase the most “obvious” characteristics that some consider to be synonymous with gay men to justify Ada’s initial suspicions. However, I don’t understand why Dibia would use these stereotypical associations, and in a way, subtly create a stereotypical portrayal of gay men in his novel~ that idea that of course a man is gay if he has a fashion sense or “struts” around with confidence!

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Another example of these stereotypes is Abdul’s apartment on pg.25. Based on the description of his living arrangements, the “scented candles with a hint of jasmine and lavender” and the “sofa a beautiful shade of red,” Dibia depicts an environment that sounds like it was arranged my a member of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy-” that every gay man is inherently good at interior decorating or destined to be a talent home maker.

My point is that there are many nuances within queer culture and I wish I saw this more in the novel. To give him the benefit of the doubt, though, I understand that Dibia has to start somewhere in hopes of dismantling all the cultural misconceptions surrounding homosexuality in Nigeria. Perhaps by starting with the most blatant (or easily understood) portrayals of gay men (even in the Western media!) the Nigerian audience can gradually see that even the most masculine and testosterone-filled of men can be attracted to other men- that homosexuality isn’t exclusive to men with an impeccable fashion sense or top-notch designer skills.

What do you all think?

Prisoner of Conscience

In Chapter 8 // Part II of Dog Days, it becomes apparent how fickle and temperamental law enforcement officers can be during such a debilitating economic crisis. Specifically, we see Etienne lose his cool when somebody (Doctor’s son Takou) refers to him by his first name, which to me illustrates the “societal incoherence” of the times where people weren’t able to distinguish between right versus wrong. Outraged by somebody’s audacity to address him by his first name instead of “Police Commissioner,” he blames the Cigarette Vendor and haphazardly decides to arrest him. However, when the enigmatic Crow arrives to the scene, he, too, gets in trouble when he coyly asks Etienne if he has a warrant for the Cigarette Vendor’s arrest. (96) In no time at all Crow is also taken into custody under the premise of being a member of “the opposition.” (97) In this regard, Crow becomes a “Prisoner of Conscience-” an appropriate term for the events that unfold throughout Dog Days.

Amnesty International defines a prisoner of conscience as somebody who is wrongfully jailed based on their perceived race, sexual orientation, religion, or in this case, political views. The term was tokened by Peter Benenson in his 1961 article entitled “The Forgotten Prisoners” and relates to those jailed simply for voicing their unfavorable opinion on certain “taboo” or “off-limit” matters. Often prisoners of conscience are individuals incarcerated for questioning the status-quo of their authoritarian or totalitarian leaders- political figures who use censorship as a means to preserve power- like Paul Biya and his 30+ year tenure as the incumbent president of Cameroon.

Arrests such as Cigarette Vendor’s and Crow’s were not uncommon. For example, one of the most well-known cases of the Biya’s administration abuse of power was back in November of 2010. From my understanding, a writer by the name of Bertrand Teyou was arrested and jailed for the publication of book entitled La Belle de la Republique Bananière: Chantal Biya – de la rue au Palais = The Belle of the Banana Republic: Chantal Biya, From the Streets to the Palace. As some of you may have already inferred, Chantal Biya is the wife of Paul Biya.

With an immense head of Dolly Parton-esque hair, Chantal Biya opposed this “unlawful” publication that delved into scrutinizing detail regarding her humble beginnings as an impoverish villager in eastern Cameroon. Apparently the books investigates exactly how she managed to achieve such high levels of affluence, which according to Teyou, was solely based off her good looks. In addition, Teyou critiques the lack of administrative transparency of her charitable foundations (making it clear that he suspected her funds to be funnelled from public money expenditures) to RUMORS surrounding her hidden motives to alter the nation’s constitution that would theoretically allow her to inherit the role of president from her husband ~ if need be.

Due to her high levels of opposition, the majority of these books were confiscated and destroyed before a book signing event happened in the coastal city of Douala. On top of this destruction of intellectual property, Teyou was arrested for “insult to character” and for orchestrating an “illegal demonstration-” at no other place than a book signing. Unable to pay a fine of $4,500, Teyou was sentenced to two years in prison and experienced grave health problems due to the maltreatment he received in the Cameroonian prison system. After many months of activism and protest, though, Teyou was released early when the London chapter of International PEN (a word wide group of activists and writers dedicated to ensuring peaceful exchanges of creative freedom) paid his fines.

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Source: http://fpif.org/cameroons-chantal-biya-streets-halls-power/

Alcohol-induced “Fugue”

The more I delve into The Memory of Love, the more references there are to alcohol. There seems to be at least some talk of alcohol in every chapter, some more explicit than others. Whether they involve Adrian leisurely unwinding at home with a glass of whiskey, the Western doctors at the hospital drinking wine for a colleague’s birthday, or Elias in his drunken stupor at the lunar landing party, I feel as though there is this omnipresence of booze that coincides with this notion of leaving one world and entering another. While characters like Elias, Adrian and Kai retreat into their most inner-memories, alcohol seems to temporary serve as an escape from the confines of reality. As Agnes’ story comes into fruition, and all of the fascinating information surrounding her “fugue” diagnosis, I cannot help but consider this: is Aminatta Forna’s continual mention of inebriation and intoxication a metaphorical reference or comparison to this psychological condition?

I made this connection in Chapter 17 when Elias, with all of his disdain towards Julius, said, “He possessed the ability to drink himself to incoherence and back to lucidity.” (131) Immediately upon reading this sentence, I made a footnote that said “between two worlds.” While Julius appears to be a “happy drunk,” as gregarious and co-dependent upon human interaction as he may be, then there is Elias who is what we can call a “sad drunk” for all intensive purposes. He himself says he becomes “maudlin” when he drinks (152) and “lost in self-pity, frustration and alcohol” (150) at the climactic Ocean Club party where he becomes a “sloppy drunk,” for lack of a better term within this context. While drinking elevates Julius, alcohol makes Elias “close in upon himself.” (107) Even with Adrian we see an exaggerated mood at the bar alongside Kai where he was “drunk enough to follow.” (106)

To me these feel like a parallel to Agnes’ mental disposition where she is unknowingly “searching for something” and failing to find it (116)- just like Elias who is eagerly looking for solace in alcohol but to no prevail. Considering that alcohol is a definite mood-altering chemical, to what extent are these characters using it as a intentional means of escape or as a temporary means to cope with the harshness of reality? Considering that cases of post-traumatic stress escalated after the Civil War, I wonder whether or not alcoholism also did as people attempted to self-medicate themselves in hopes of forgetting prior events.

The Self-Determination of a Man and a Nation

After reading and thoroughly enjoying Nervous Conditions, I believe that watching Lumumba was an excellent continuation in our understanding of self-determination. Allow me to backtrack. When I completed Nervous Conditions, it dawned on me that Tambu’s development as a freethinking liberated individual was essentially the birth of her own independent nation. Even under the impressionable dominion of the English, Tambu slowly but surely found her autonomy.

While learning about Lumumba’s role in Congolese history, however, I drew upon similar parallels. Granted that Lumumba and Kasavubu were the bearers of Congolese independence in 1960, there is no denying (at least in accordance to how the film portrayed history) that Patrice Lumumba bore the brunt of responsibility in bringing (valiantly trying to bring) stability to the Congo. The self-determination of a sovereign Congo was encapsulated in his every action, for he was truly a man of the people striving to instill unification across the nation.

Allow me to analyze a couple of scenes were Lumumba’s self-determination to prove his (and Congo’s) independence were blatantly clear and interconnected. For example, the scene where Lumumba reprimands General Janssen for his ill-treatment of the Congolese soldiers signifies how former Belgian tactics of governance were no longer acceptable. Not only was Lumumba telling the general to address him appropriately as “excellency” but also stressing the point that the brutal authority the Belgians once yielded over their military constituencies has ended. As the utterly shocked expression dawned upon Janssen’s face after hearing that he must resign, we can see how strongly Lumumba wanted to rectify the dehumanizing facets of Belgian governance.

Another example of Lumumba’s (and consequentially Congo’s) self-determination was his outright refusal to accept foreign aid from Belgium. Soon enough Lumumba went off on a tangent about Belgium being responsible for the strife engulfing the Congo, signifying the manner in which he believed his colonial predecessors were plotting against him. Perhaps Lumumba was so vehemently against Belgian foreign aid because it would have signified to the world how unprepared the Congo was to be its own nation, and consequentially, this would have been a reflection on himself. Along similar lines to this proposed outside assistance, this scene also related to Lumumba’s conversation to the American ambassador where he coyly delivered a Bantu verb: “the hand that gives, rules.” Is foreign aid a subtle way of controlling the affairs of another nation? How can this relate to modern day examples of neocolonialism? 

Blame does not come in neatly packaged parcels

Assimilation; brainwashing; cultural conditioning- these concepts are omnipresent throughout “Nervous Conditions.” Intertwined with rigid gender conformities in a hostile world against women, where silence and obedience is inflicted both among women and Africans alike, our author Tsitsi Dangarembga solidifies the theme that these value systems are formed during the earliest years of a child’s upbringing. Due to years of accumulative influence, whether in terms of the Anglicization of the Shona or the domestication of women, “blame does not come in neatly packaged parcels” (12).

How does one going about changing repressive behavior (biases, judgments, prejudice) if it’s all they have ever known? For this entry I shall provide examples of some characters who were exceptionally susceptible to external forces that gradually resulted in their own individualized nervous condition.

Babamukuru may not exactly have a nerve-ridden condition, but he is the man that cultivates such instability in the lives of the women throughout this novel.  We can view this as a colonial attitude that he learned early on. He was considered to have been “a good boy, cultivable, in the way that land is, to yield harvests that sustain the cultivator” by the “white holy wizards” that are the Christian missionaries (19). As expected, the missionaries took advantage of Babamukuru’s susceptibility as a poverty-stricken child in order to embed their European principles of decency and moral conduct into him. Successful in his endeavors and seen in a holy light, Babamukuru cultivates authoritarian dogmatic tendencies that subtly or explicitly torment Nyasha.

Some will say that Nyasha’s nervous condition derives from her upbringing in England- how she was Anglicized at a young age and the manner in which it clashed with African formalities. Is becoming un-assimilated ever an easy process? Overtime she develops an identity crisis that makes her the antithesis of her father’s relentless expectations for tameness and civility. From my recollection, Babamukuru never questions the decision he made to string his family along for his academic pursuits. Instead he views her non-African manners as indecent and a pathway to whoredom, constantly hindering her self-development as an autonomous woman.

With such constant ridicule, Nyasha becomes “a victim of her femaleness” (118) and develops a complex sense of self-loathing due to her perceived moral deficiency. Often Nyasha confides in Tambu that she isn’t deliberately trying to spite her father, that maybe if she and Chido had returned to Rhodesia earlier on, her parents wouldn’t be “stuck with hybrids for children” (79).  Nyasha’s disdain for her Anglicization becomes incredibly vivid when she denounces their history and the negative impact they’ve had on her family, calling them liars and exclaiming “look what they’ve done to us!” (205)

Okonkwo’s Fondness for Ezinma

Some might consider the protagonist of “Things Fall Apart,” Okonkwo, to be a household tyrant. Whether intimidating his wives with violence or murdering his adopted son, Ikemefuna, every act of aggression is meant to prove his masculinity. However, in Chapter 11 I saw a compassionate side to Okonkwo that feels worthy of discussion.

Overtime Okonkwo’s soft spot for his daughter, Ezinma, becomes apparent. He wishes she was born male, which is rather interesting considering that Ezinma is an obanje: a child who repeatedly dies and returns to its mother to be reborn. Her mother, Ekwefi, gave birth to nine children prior. I’m inclined to say that Okonkwo is empathetic toward Ekwefi, although he’d never outwardly express it.

When Chielo, under the spiritual influence of Agbala, took Ezinma away from Okonkwo’s compound for unbeknownst reasons, though, he dealt with the situation quite admirably. Primarily I was surprised by the manner in which he didn’t react to Ekwefi leaving the compound without permission to ensure Ezinma’s safety. Considering that Okonkwo “rules his household with a heavy hand,” I expected him to later reprimand Ekwefi for her boldness. Instead he showed no objections. Ultimately I believe Okonkwo allowed Ekwefi to leave freely because he was equally concerned for Ezinma’s wellbeing.

Secondly, in the following chapter we sense how troubled Okonkwo was with Ezinma’s abduction. Apparently he traveled back and forth from him obi to Agbala’s temple on four occasions, allowing “manly intervals” of time to pass before another visit. Although Okonkwo’s rigid perception of masculinity can be drastic, I respect the way he dealt with this whole ordeal. He demonstrated to Ekwefi that he would go to great lengths to protect their daughter. In my opinion this was his most redeeming moment as a father, a husband and a warrior.