Liberia: breaking the taboos

This book was recommended to me by Justin at the African Books Collective when I dropped by the their stall at the London Book Fair back in April. I’m glad he brought it to my attention as the subject matter and cover – which makes the book look a bit like a self-help manual – mean that I probably would never have chosen it on my own.

Written by Dr Mardia Stone, a Liberian obstetrician and gynaecologist living in the US, the book is an account of her homosexual half-brother Konkai’s diagnosis and struggle with AIDS in the late eighties and early nineties. Charting her sibling’s decline and death back in the days when very little was known about the killer disease, Stone confronts her and her family’s fears and prejudices, weaving in and challenging the attitudes to homosexuality that she and her relatives grew up with in Liberia and discovering a capacity for love that breaks down social barriers.

Stone’s unflinching honesty and direct style make the book. From reflections on death and mortality through to confessions of her and her other siblings’ tendency to laugh at their brother and sweep his sexuality ‘under the carpet’ in the years before his illness, the book is fearlessly frank as well as touching and tender. At times this can make for shocking reading, as when Stone writes about Konkai’s deliberate promiscuity without protection after his diagnosis when his anger and pain were at their peak.

Stone’s frankness  also paves the way for some refreshingly open discussion of the approach to homosexuality in many African countries: ‘You will sometimes hear African people say that Africans, for the most part, are not homosexuals because culturally or traditionally most Africans know nothing about homosexuality. […] It is still taboo in many countries. Yet, I have seen a number of African homosexuals living “in” and “out of the closet” in Africa,’ she writes. Indeed, as Stone explains in her preface and again at the end of the book, a large part of her motivation for writing her brother’s story came from a sense that, because of this reticence, ‘Africans themselves are not writing their stories, everybody else is writing for them’.

In addition to its personal and cultural discussions, the book is also a valuable documentation of a key moment in the history of modern medicine. Having been a hospital doctor in New York during the eighties, Stone writes powerfully about the fear she and her colleagues felt when they first encountered patients with the newly discovered HIV/AIDS virus. Her account of her first exposure to a pregnant woman with the disease is particularly compelling:

‘The woman was immediately isolated. A stack of disposable gowns, masks, shoe covers, gloves and hats were placed in front of her room door. No one dared to enter without being properly suited. We looked like astronauts ready to enter a space shuttle every time we entered her room wearing our protective biohazard suits. Some of us even doubled [sic] gowned, double booted and wore triple hats and masks. We were that fearful. None of us wanted to go into her room alone so we always arranged to see her in pairs or as a group.

‘In the course of caring for our patient, I had to draw her blood. The very thought of this routine procedure was terrifying. […] Terrified, I searched for a fellow resident to assist me, hold my hand and give me encouragement. No one agreed and no one was ‘available’. Even the nurses seemed to be on the snail track to Timbuktu, and because I had a heavy load of over twenty patients that day, I put on my brave face and with a brave heart entered the room alone, in my space suit.

[…]

‘”You people make me feel like a demon,” [the woman] said in response. “Why do you treat me this way? I may have AIDS, but I am a human being. I feel bad enough already and I am hurting because I may lose my baby. Is there no compassion left in any of you?”‘

Occasionally, the directness of the writing leads to assertions that some readers will find uncomfortable. In particular, the discussion of Konkai’s early abuse as a child by a young adult in Liberia and the role this may have played in the development of his identity and sexuality, while no doubt worth exploring, is muddy and at points seems to conflate homosexuality and paedophilia. However, as this seems at odds with Stone’s views elsewhere in the book, it’s possible that this is down to slightly awkward expression of these ideas rather than deliberate intention – it’s interesting to note the disclaimer at the beginning that states the work ‘is not a pronouncement on any debates about the nature of sexual orientation’. The closing sections of the book could also have done with some cutting.

All the same, this does not detract from the fact that this is a brave and often deeply moving book. Few would argue with Stone’s central discovery in the midst of Konkai’s cruel deterioration that ‘compassion is the key to our human experience’. A welcome voice from a part of the world where such subjects rarely get put into words.

Konkai: Living between two worlds by Mardia Stone (Cotton Tree Press, 2011)

Rwanda: the meaning of fate

If British writers had to translate their work into another language in order to get a publisher to consider it, I doubt many would make it into print. But that was the situation 25-year-old Rwandan author Barassa faced when she submitted the French manuscript of the first of her three novels to Real Africa Books. They responded that they didn’t publish books in languages other than English. Nothing daunted, as she and Swedish-born publisher Bjorn Lunden explained in an interview on Burundian blog Ikirundi, Barassa took just a week to convert the narrative into English so that Lunden could launch her work through his new firm.

All the same, despite Barassa’s efforts, the book is still  not very easy for English-language readers to find. In fact if it weren’t for friend and fellow journalist Antonia Windsor picking it up in a Kigali bookshop while she was on assignment in Rwanda last year, I doubt I would ever have heard of Teta:a story of a young girl.

As the title suggests, the novel follows the fortunes of a young Rwandan woman, Teta. Prevented from marrying the man she loves by poverty, she becomes the envy of her friends when one of the region’s richest men, Boniface, asks her father for her hand. But the loveless marriage quickly becomes a hollow sham and, as genocide and AIDS sweep the country, Teta is forced to rely on her own resourcefulness to survive.

The book is at its best when it discusses fate or ‘the law of the stronger and the richer’ as it is more commonly described. At odds with the romantic Western perception of destiny, the driving forces in this novel are stripped back to their components: want, sickness and fear.

In a society where there are no welfare departments, insurance companies, emergency services or safety nets to soften the blows of chance, people are left with no option but enduring the hardships meted out to them. ‘Life itself had decided on my behalf, no one could change the decision,’ shrugs Teta when her father’s cattle die and it is left to her to save the family through her prospective suitor’s wealth.

As in several other African women’s novels I’ve read this year, the skewed power dynamics of relations between the sexes and traditional marriage form the subject of much of the book. Obliged to leave her family and forgo the rituals that give her a sense of identity, Teta finds herself helpless in the face of Boniface’s infidelity. And when the tension between the Hutus and the Tutsis flares up and neighbour turns against neighbour she finds the predatory attitudes of the men around her create an additional threat:

‘Faustin[…] was participating in preparations of the genocide. He was also one of the men that in vain had asked me to become his mistress. The last time I saw him he had told me that I would regret my decision. He might already then have known the power he would gain within some days.’

The language is rough round the edges, with several malapropisms creeping in. Now and then the narrative veers between registers like a van on a potholed road and there is a perfunctory feel to the scene-setting that sees minor characters created and killed off sometimes within the space of two full stops.

However, given the DIY job Barassa had to do on the translation, most of these bumps are hardly surprising. Every jolt is a reminder of the lengths the author was prepared to go to to tell her urgent, angry and touching stories in a country where few writers manage to publish their works even today. Surely reading them is the least we can do?

Teta: a story of a young girl by Barassa (Real Africa Books, 2010)