Classic Review: Burning Grass by Cyprian Ekwensi

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This tale of Fulani herdsman begins when Mai Sunsaye rescues a slave girl from the infamous, ex-soldier Shehu and takes her into his home. One of his sons, Hoodio runs off with the girl, leaving his infatuated younger brother, Rikku distressed about losing her. He asks his father to get her back for him and Sunsaye gives his word. Sunsaye is taken by the wandering sickness, known as the sokugo and finds himself wandering from village to village. The slave girl is taken by Shehu from Hoodio and she runs away from him, with no one knowing where she is. Hoodio takes on another wife. Their other brother, successful brother takes his mother and sister in another village after their own is set on fire. When their grassy plains are burnt the herdsman have to move towards the banks of the Niger. Sunsaye goes around where he finds each son in a different place. He also discovers the slave girl and with the help of a number of people, they have to find a way to rescue Rikku from the hands of Shehu.

This story of the nomadic lives of the Fulani herdsman transported me to a circle around a fire at night, listening to a croaking voice of an old person. There’s something nostalgic about it and it has that organic quality of African storytelling. It’s short and light. As much as I enjoyed the most of part it, I think I would have enjoyed it even more if I had read it in high school or just earlier in my age. This is because some of the events were a little flat, like what was supposed to be the climax, the rescuing of Rikku. It’s short-lived and could have done with a little more drama and intensity.

What I also took from it was the picture it gives of the culture and traditions of that age, some of which do still exist. The simplicity of their lifestyle, the way in which people could easily open up to strangers who have been exhausted by their long journeys and in need of rest and food. These are things that we have completely lost, with all the crimes that surround us. It’s a great classic and a perfect read for readers who prefer short and sweet, and who want to go back to that richness of African tales.

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Cyprian Ekwensi was born in 1921, in Nigeria. He studied at the Ibadan University College in Nigeria and at the Chelsea School of Pharmacy in London. He was an exceptional novelist, short-story writer, television script writer and a children’s books writer. His most successful novel was Jagua Nana, published in 1961.

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Book Review: The Famished Road by Ben Okri

A compelling story with an elegiac tone, oscillating between the mortal and the spirit world and feeding us extraordinary experiences that leave us both delighted and rattled.

In most-likely post-colonial Nigeria, Azaro is a spirit child, known as an abiku, who chooses to stay in the living world despite his spirit companions’ attempts to get him to return to the land of the dead or the unborn. However, he still has his ties with the spirit world and moves between the two worlds. Life in the mortal world proves to be nothing but a cycle of tragedies; his parents sink into an abyss of poverty, political battles and the hardships that breathe around them don’t seem to reach an end.

On the literary stage, this novel is its own story – it belongs to itself, and that’s what makes it stand out and become a unique read. Ben Okri experiments with the extraordinary, with language, with imagination and creativity and writes past boundaries. The way that he manipulates words, and bends and unbends language, with rhythmic writing and often in poetic construction, makes it clear why the novel is a Man Booker Prize winner and the inspiration behind Radiohead’s song, Street Spirit (Fade Out). Azaro is the main character and the reader sees the world though his eyes and at some parts through dialogue, through his father’s eyes. He’s the lens through which we get to see how mythical elements are incorporated into real life social structures.

It is, however, a long story that is cyclical in some parts, repeating certain events without much change to the outcome. For example, each time his father goes into a boxing match with someone, we know he’ll recover with some unknown force, defeat his opponent who is usually a peculiar sort, spend days asleep and wake up with a strange new energy. Perhaps this is a demonstration of rebirth because he always wakes with a strange change in him. Regardless of that, there’s no element of surprise in some of the events. There’s also the rain that seems to always appear when there’s a heightened event. This can be tiring because it is quite a long novel, more than five hundred pages of repeated scenes only done so in different words, in employing different adjectives.

If you stick around long enough to pass through the taxing stages, you fall in love with it again and it gains momentum with its humour and introduction of changes and towards the end taking on a tone of hope. Some of the characters are also good representatives of reality and Okri succeeds in using them as brushes that paint a picture of the suffering in the ghetto, the socio-political changes that take place and the everyday life events that we sometimes don’t pay attention to. The end has a visionary tone and it’s one of my best parts, where some of the things that Okri wrote at that time have come to exist. In this day of quoting people and employing them as personal mantras I’d suggest you pick some from this book.

“So long as we are alive, so long as we feel, so long as we love, everything in us is an energy we can use.”

The strong ropes of love that bind Azaro’s family are heart-breaking and inspiring at the same time. No matter how severe their sufferings, his father continues to break his back working to feed the family, and his mother makes a lot of sacrifices and is the quintessence of an enduring maternal figure. Azaro could go back to the supernatural world that is devoid of the suffering that he goes through in the real world, but he chooses to stay and wants to make his mother happy.

This magical story is a different take on African literature as most are accustomed to. It is so pleasant to not read recycled stories that focus mainly on breathing the usual problems of Africa through simple, comfortable, familiar and straightforward storylines. It’s refreshing, arresting most of the time, a little eerie in some of the details and it’s also moving. It leaves you with something to take with and to use on your own personal journey.

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(Image: The Guardian)

Ben Okri was born in Nigeria in 1959. He is a poet and novelist, who has become an international literary sensation. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages and he has received a number of international awards, such as the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Guardian Fiction Prize, the Chianti Ruffino-Antico Fattore International Literary Prize, the Premio Grinzane Cavour and many others. The Famished Road is one of the many novels he has written, including Flowers and Shadows, Astonishing the Gods, Starbook and The Age of Magic.

Album Review: Kiss and Say Goodbye: The Best of the Manhattans

“Romance, heartbreak and longing are the fastening ropes that hold these songs tightly together.”

This collection of mature and soulful love songs puts together some of the best works of this well-known American R&B vocal group. The nineteen-track album opens with the ever-popular Kiss and Say Goodbye, a slow number that touches home with a lot of people. This was one their biggest hits and a worldwide success. There’s a love affair in the yearning Wish That You Were Mine. From the first four slow paced tracks we move to a warm dose of the poetically rich The Day the Robin Sand to Me with lyrics;

Cherry blossoms smile in the warm summer bliss

While butterflies plant each flower with a kiss

And dandelions stretch their arms to pray

I miss you a little more

Each passing day

 

The upbeat and perky That’s How Much I Love You is a thing for the dance floor with your lover – beautiful and sweet in its entirety.  The gloomy and sombre songs like Hurt and I Kinda Miss You will have you lost in the blues, bleeding your heart out as you sing along to the harmonious, tender and pleading voices of these remarkable men. The Grammy-winning Shining Star is featured and reminds us of its popularity from 80s and how it always had the audience singing along with fervour and enthusiasm. The album closes with a comforting Goodbye is the Saddest Word, a smart choice putting the first track where it is and closing with this one.

Although a compilation of tracks from different albums here they fit together all well, as if they belong in this exquisite arrangement. Rhythm and blues have a way of permeating your soul and reminding you of your own romantic stories, past or present or a yearning for things to come. Kiss and Say Goodbye: The Best of Manhattans is one of the golden treasures you must add to your collection, sometimes you just need to hear the voices of the old masters to sing you these immortal love songs and make you appreciate the art of music.

Listen with your soul: