African Roar 2012 edited by Emmanuel Sigauke and Ivor Hartmann, StoryTime (E-Book edition), 2012.
The short story is a genre of writing that is loved by many and criticised by more. Short story anthologies have often been described as harder to publish, hence harder to sell. But collections such as the 2012 edition of African Roar are testament to why short stories will continue to fight for their place in the literary sphere. African Roar is the third of an annual collection of short stories, selected from StoryTime E-Magazine. Edited by Emmanuel Sigauke and Ivor Hartman, who also contributes to this collection, this anthology offers little journeys across the different African countries where the stories are set.
Wame Molefhe provides the first destination with “Sethunya Likes Girls Better”. In this story, Sethunya finds herself obsessing over a story in the newspaper about Johnnie, an ape who has recently escaped from the local zoo in Botswana, and eventually gets shot down. Sethunya nurtures a kind of connection with Johnnie and clings to it, because like Johnnie, she feels trapped in her marriage to a man who showers her with suffocating love while pelting her with demands for an heir. She often thinks back to her stolen moments with Kgomosto, her childhood friend with whom she shared a forbidden first kiss. She received harsh rebuke from her mother when the rumours of their clandestine affair reached her, and Sethunya was banned from seeing Kgomotso and experimenting any further. When Sethunya spots Kgomotso walking around town gay and proud, she is envious of her beautiful freedom in the same way that she is of the freedom Johnnie finds when he is eventually killed.
Nnedi Okorafor explores another unholy trinity with animals in “How Nnedi got Her Curved Spine”. This piece offers a touch of nostalgia to those who grew up reading folklore that explained why zebras are stripped, why tortoises have cracked shells, or why the lion is the king of the jungle. Nnedi finds herself trapped in a forest in Southern Nigeria when her friends abandon her and flee at the sight of several baboon-like creatures. Then the creatures begin to speak to her in a strange written language, which she is eventually able to learn. After days of sitting on the ground, leaning forward so that she may read what the baboons are scribbling on the ground, Nnedi discovers that her spine is permanently bent. At first glance, it would seem that this piece is misplaced and would be better suited for a collection of children’s stories. But it is a surprisingly enjoyable read and is proof that one is never too old for a little folklore.
Unemployment and the failure of government turn the main character in Chika Onyenezi’s story, “You Smile”, into a different kind of animal. It has been two years since Emeka graduated from the Federal University of Technology in Nigeria, and he still finds himself living in a town that “contradicts his existence and buries his dreams before they are hatched.” In spite of this, Emeka is hopeful, and remains so in the face of sceptical blue-collar businessmen who are keen to offer him work. But Emeka is too good for that, and feels that he deserves a life filled with corporate success and air-conditioned cars. After all, he holds a degree and Nigeria will not let him down even if he is a murdering rapist who slips back into old habits after a few drinks. He wakes up the morning after raping a waitress from a local food kiosk, positive that his religion will offer penance for his transgressions.
The street vendor in Ivor Hartman’s “A Mouse Amongst Men”is a lot more helpless. Time means nothing for this man, whose life has been one of un-capped success. He lived the kind of life that Emeka in Onyenezi’s piece is so desperate for, but loses everything in an unfortunate turn of events and is forced to migrate to South Africa, where his quick spiral into poverty continues and he finally hits rock bottom. Hartman offers a well-written insight into the life of a character that we have all encountered and probably thought nothing of. The character, who remains nameless in the story, only seems to exist in order to provide small conveniences to those who spend a few seconds at his cardboard kingdom. Unlike Emeka, who seems blinded by hope, Hartman’s street-vendor only allows himself a brief moment of optimism when he encounters a young toffee-seeking lady with whom he shares a gentle smile. For that short-lived moment, he toys with the idea that perhaps he may actually be a man and not the mouse that his harsh life has led him to believe he is.
The gem in this edition of African Roar has got to be “Soldiers of the Stone” by Uko Bendi Udo. Kulaja is a fifteen-year-old former child soldier who was kidnapped and forced to serve in the rebel army in Sierra Leone. His older brother Abu finds him and makes arrangements for Kulaja to live with him in the United States. When Kulaja encounters Marco, a troublemaking teenager whom he sees defacing his brother’s house with graffiti, Kulaja’s immediate instinct is to fight. Their first encounter leaves Marco curious about his new neighbour. The next day, he visits Kulaja to offer an apology and the two boys realise that they have more in common than either is comfortable with. The wars that they are both forced to participate in may vary in extremities and consequence but they are wars nonetheless. Kulaja laments that he fought a meaningless war that was supposed to be about protecting his people and ended up being a war over precious stones – he was a soldier of stone. Marco, whose father was also a soldier, fought for a worthy cause, but Marco seems stuck fighting to maintain a hollow status quo. This short story has several strengths that venture past the incredible dialogue and the fully formed characters, which is typically more challenging to achieve in shorter pieces of writing. Udo succeeds in reminding us about the function of storytelling and the universality of stories. In our human experience, regardless of race, tribe, or national allegiance, we will always tend to mirror each other.
The characters in “Sheltering Hearts” by Gothatone Moeng and “The Colours of Silence”, an experimental piece by Ifesinachi Okoli-Okpagu), all seem to be fighting different kind of battles. In “Sheletering Hearts”, Katlo is trying to separate herself from the powers that dictate that a woman of her age has no business being unmarried and living in the city by herself. The child narrator in “Colours of Silence” uses colour as a lens through which she expresses the different emotions that she experiences as she watches her parents’ marriage disintegrate.
African Roar 2012 is a quick and delightful read for any lover of stories. It is, however, an even more interesting book for a writer to read. At the end of each piece, each of the authors has included a biography as well as a paragraph that provides a brief overview of what inspired the short story. Some of the pieces are a result of a personal experience such as Abdul Adan’s visit to his hometown in Nairobi, and Nnedi’s Okorafor’s paralysis. Some are reactions to public events such as the 1998 bombing of the American Embassy in Kenya. In all cases, it is an interesting exercise to examine each of these events and experiences alongside the pieces of fiction that they inspired in an attempt to figure the writer’s process.