Book Review: My Traitor’s Heart

Done with what is most likely the last book I’ll get in before leaving: My Traitor’s Heart by Rian Malan. (I also read Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos, but I think that I’d have an even smaller audience than usual were I to go off on how people can’t understand basic probability. For the record, though, I think that a basic class on how to understand statistics and probability should replace calculus or trig as a basic high school course. </rant>) It’s a hard read; well-written, but a book that leaves you wondering just what to do with the world.

Rian Malan is a journalist from South Africa, who traces his roots to some foundational Afrikaner figures in South African history. Hence one meaning of the title – he is a white liberal journalist who rejects his Afrikaner background. But as the book goes on, the issue becomes more and more of how deep an issue racism is and has been in South Africa, even for someone who ostensibly rejects it. Want to end apartheid? Want to heal the race divisions? Good – now what do you do? What happens when everyone has become too paranoid to lay down arms? What to do when one is called to take sides, or be tortured and killed? What can be done when even the peace-makers are assassinated – and that by the people they were trying to help? And in the midst of this, what can one do when one discovers that despite one’s own pretensions, one is still scared of and completely ignorant of this other world?

So the “traitor’s heart” is as much about Malan’s own darkness that sabotages every attempt at reconciling the races. But through reading his book, I can’t honestly say I’d do any better. And I have absolutely no idea how to do it better.

Which seems to be the best thing I got out of the book – it disabused me of notions that I can go in and fix things, or that I actually understand the racial tensions in the country.

Now on that note, I have less than 48 hours before I fly off to orientation. Time to get packing. Tomorrow.

(Here’s a link to a longer take on the book:


Kuzwayo and Everyday Life

(Continued from here.)

Ellen Kuzwayo writes about the status of South African black women in her book Call Me Woman through her autobiography. She was born into a farm which had been in her family for a hundred years and which was taken away through apartheid laws. She got a divorce due to horrible spousal abuse when divorce was still highly uncommon. She was a social worker in Soweto, which is where the blacks of Johannesburg were shoved off to. It’s an interesting counterpoint to Mandela’s autobiography – not just because it is the memoir of a woman, but because it presents a more everyday sort of courage.

You see, when Mandela talks about going to prison, or getting banned (in which one would be limited to seeing one guest at a time and would have to apply for permission to travel), it sounds so glamorous. Here is the great freedom fighter struggling for his cause! But Kuzwayo talks about her son getting banned for the sin of helping improve literacy among black students. Her son was not doing anything groundbreaking, and did not go on to be a “great person.” He did not break his banning orders to run an underground organization, but out of psychological stress and loneliness.

The people she helps are the average people living in the slums. When she travels, she is not seeking military assistance, but is helping set up business opportunities for village women to sell the clothing they make. She goes to jail herself as part of a local group trying to deal with the aftermath of the 1976 student uprising (in brief: students were required to be taught in Afrikaans, a language most of them did not know; the students protested; police shot students; there was a riot since people don’t like being shot at.). The humbleness of the jail environment comes through more clearly as she is not using elaborate communication systems to work out strikes and impromptu classes amongst the prisoners. Not that Mandela overstates his prison conditions, but it’s hard to imagine how dreary and dirty they were when he talks about what he was doing in the midst of them.

So Ellen Kuzwayo’s book may not be quite as well-written as Mandela’s smoothly flowing autobiography, and it doesn’t have the satisfaction of a happily ever after ending (it was written in the 80s, before apartheid was over, and indeed before some of the most violent struggles had begun). But it provides a nice look at what life was like on the ground in South Africa during the apartheid era while also praising the often overlooked courage and intelligence of South African women during her time.

Mandela and Violence

Time for the book reviews I’ve been promising. I finally finished Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela. It’s quite a good book. Go out and read it if you haven’t. It’s a history of apartheid in South Africa in autobiography form, from a guy who’s had an interesting enough life to read like a novel.

I think of the quote “some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them” in relation to Mandela. He falls into all three camps, and this is what makes him interesting to me. He worked hard to become the person he was, but also found himself in the midst of events that forced themselves upon him. He is human enough to be relatable, but great enough to be inspiring. As I’ve mentioned before, he is not shy about admitting his brasher, immature views which he had to outgrow. He is the soul of courtesy and modesty in praising all of those who helped him along his way, and genuinely distraught over the toll the freedom struggle took on his own family. Plus, I mean, he was born into a chieftain’s family and was groomed to be the advisor to the Thembu chief, and one of his daughters married the prince of Swaziland. That makes for fun reading.

One of the issues that comes up throughout Long Walk to Freedom is the use of violence in the struggle for freedom. Mandela supported as much non-violence as possible to accomplish goals. However, what does one do when one is peacefully protesting for a couple decades, and the government only cracks down harder? It was at that point that Mandela started the military group Umkhonto we Sizwe – both to step up the pressure on the government, and to channel the growing frustration of his people into something organized. He figured that disciplined acts of sabotage, aimed at destroying resources instead of people, would be better than letting unfocused angry people run rampant. While Mandela would fully agree that one should pursue peace as much as possible, at what point does one have to use violence? When does one use a little violence in order to preserve the overall peace, a peace which might be shattered if one does not act?

I’ll write about Ellen Kuzwayo’s book Call Me Woman later, but I’ll try to keep this post to a readable size for now.

“No Place at Ease” and New Booklist

Finally getting back to reading some of my book list, since I can only process so much more isiZulu in the meantime. I read through No Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe. Great book. If you ever read Things Fall Apart, it’s the same author (actually, No Longer at Ease is a sequel of sorts; I guess the two were originally written as one draft, concerning the violence of change in Africa across generations). It’s about a man from a Nigerian village who is educated in England and who becomes a civil servant. He wrestles with reconciling his idealism, the colonial British mindset, and traditional values.

Not exactly an uplifting story, but a quick and powerful read, not least because it really makes you feel Obi Okonkwo’s struggles. But I found that even so, all of the other characters seemed to be people and not merely foils. Mr. Green has his faults as a bureaucrat, for example, but there are points in the book where you understand where he is coming from. Similarly, you can see the puzzlement in Obi’s family and village as they wonder why their favorite son seems to have abandoned them, even while seeing that this is not at all the case. Simply put, Achebe made me feel the force of the problem: there is no quick solution, no pat answer to resolving these conflicts. There is no easy “good guy” versus the “bad guys.” Of course, there is more sympathy with the African villagers than with the colonials, but it’s not like the Europeans in the book are monsters.

What’s up next? Currently I’m reading Call Me Woman by Ellen Kuzwayo. It’s part sociology, part autobiography. The author was born into an educated, rural black family in South Africa. She became involved in social work and was eventually detained under a “terrorism” act and vague charges. I’m only at the second chapter, but already it is shaping up to be an insightful and incisive commentary on the nature of oppression. A good read not only to understand South African history, but to understand how institutions can work to systematically crush people.

Of course, no book list on South Africa would be complete without Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. And while we’re at it, why not read his favorite folktales for fun?. I have another book on my list as well, but I forget the title. I’ll post when I pick it up from the library’s hold shelf.

Book Review: Nine Hills to Nambonkaha

I just finished reading Nine Hills to Nambonkaha, aided in part by illness keeping me in bed and in part by a head that just won’t take in any more French at the moment.

Another very helpful read, the presents the author’s experience in PC as a sort of optimistic roller coaster. This author was involved in health work in the Côte d’Ivoire, shortly before it devolved into civil war. She paints her village in lively detail, making the assorted personalities come to life. She shows the many frustrations that beset her mission as well as her initial struggle to find a place in the community, while also sharing her (rather significant) successes. On top of all that, the book is well-written and a quick read.

I’ll write some more soon on issues that the book raises – two that come to mind are the complexities of polygamy and whether health efforts should try to use belief in sorcery instead of stamping it out – but I’ll wait for my head to feel a little less cotton-filled.

Cultural Dilemmas

I finished The Village of Waiting. It’s a good book, in that the author is brutally honest. He’s honest about the problems he sees in Africa, about the superficiality of many westerners over there, about the challenges of improvement, and of his own failings (he left Peace Corps early, after having a breakdown on a trip to Europe). And whether or not I can agree with him or whether I would like him, I can appreciate his honesty in the story he tells.

One issue he raises is that of corruption in African politics. But what I liked about his assessment is that he shows just how complicated the matter is. For example, test results have to be run past the minister of education before they are made public. Said minister generally pens in some names of people from his own tribe, crosses off some others from another tribe, and voilà – the official list.

Of course this is problematic. But how would the minister be viewing this action? It would be the one way he could concretely help out those people he grew up with, the villagers and kin who always had food for him, no matter how little was going around. Family ties, including extended family and tribes, are all-important in West Africa.

And this is the difficulty: the same values that help communities survive drought, famine, sickness, and poverty in such a rough region, and which produce an amazingly generous and hospitable people, are the exact same values which produce nepotism and corruption. It is a clash of systems, between the concrete world of family and the abstract system of public authority. (Do note that a large part of the problem is that European powers came in and imposed their own governmental systems, oftentimes purposefully drawing up political states in ways that cut across tribal boundaries.)

In the next book I’ve been reading, Nine Hills to Nambonkaha, the author notes that often the fonctionnaires in any given village throughout West Africa are from a different area of the same state. This sometimes produces conflict, but sometimes produces greater understanding and provides an actual point of contact between peoples. Perhaps this is one solution. Still, the problem is difficult, and it does touch on perennial problems of the public versus the private, of natural ties versus abstract duties, and of community versus the individual.

Reading List

I’m putting together a reading list on Africa in general and West Africa in particular. I don’t know if anyone might want to read along with me and chat about it, either now or while I am (hopefully) abroad (I do try to keep reminding myself that it is not a done deal yet, but the excitement is kind of carrying me away as well). But here are some books I’m looking at going through:

  • West Africa by Eugene Mendonsa: This is the book I’ve written about in the past couple posts. At 660 pages, I don’t expect anyone else to read it with me, but I’ll try to post interesting factoids from it.
  • Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen: Not really about West Africa, or about the type of life I will be living there, but a classic that I probably should read in order to know how Africa has been interpreted in the West.
  • The Village of Waiting by George Packer: A more pessimistic view of Peace Corps service in West Africa that I’m reading in order to keep myself balanced. It seems to be simultaneously loved and loathed by PC volunteers, so I figure it is probably brings up some of the hardest issues to face while on site.
  • Ponds of Kalambayi by Mike Tidwell: What appears to be a more optimistic view to counter the preceding, though still dealing with life in a very poor African village.
  • Nine Hills to Nambonkaha by Sarah Erdman: Another PC memoir, this time a bit closer to where I might get stationed.
  • Things Fall Apart by Chinua Acheba: I read this for AP English in high school and remember it being a very good book. Time for a reread.
  • No Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe: And while I am at it, why not read a second Achebe book? I want to read books about Africa by an African.
  • The Epic of Sudiata: A classic Mali epic.