Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 4, 2018

Africa 39, New Writing from Africa South of the Sahara (2014), edited by Ellah Wakatama Allfrey

I haven’t read all of the 39 stories in this anthology – just the ones from countries that I hadn’t encountered before…

The countries of Africa (Wikipedia Commons)

Africa 39, New Writing from Africa South of the Sahara was commissioned as a Hay Festival Project – there’s a similar collection called Beirut 39: New Writing from the Arab World.  The 39 writers who are included had to be under 40, and to come from the region or diaspora.  The collection includes well-known authors such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Purple Hibiscus; Half of a Yellow Sun; and Americanah) and Taiye Selasi (Ghana Must Go) but most of them are writers I’ve never heard of although many of them have published prize-winning novels and short stories.   I did read Adichie’s story ‘The Shivering’ (because it was first in the collection) but my criteria for choosing which ones to read was the countries of origin, and the authors I chose came from Malawi; Ivory Coast (Cote D’Ivoire); Liberia, Angola, Uganda and Zambia.

‘The Banana Eater’ is by Monica Arac de Nyeko from Uganda in southeast Africa.  It explores the emergence of non-traditional values about property ownership because it’s about a conflict between people who are used to making themselves at home in the communal backyards of other people without invitation, and a woman who has different values because she had learned to create a beautiful garden when at the Catholic girls’ school.  Widowed, she has no clout when it comes to asking her unwanted visitors to leave.  They pay her no attention:

‘Your compound?’ one vendor said.  The rest joined in, and they did not allow Ma to speak again.  If she wanted to live like the rich, she was on the wrong estate.  She should hire a truck, load her household items on it, and head for Kampala’s hills, where the houses were large and double-storied [sic] and there were dogs and long fences to keep people away. (p. 19)

Values are changing, and despite her distaste for the politics and beliefs of Naalia’s father, Ma accepts his help because he has the power to summarily enact a law to keep the intruders out.  However, there are signs of the ethnic tensions which have marred Uganda’s post-independence years and the story concludes with the end of the narrator’s childhood friendship with Naalia.

‘The Occupant’ is an excerpt from a work-in-progress that became the speculative fiction novel Azotus, the Kingdom (2015) which won the 2013 Peer Gynt Literary Award.  It’s by Shadreck Chikoti, from Malawi in southern Africa.  I’m not very keen on reading excerpts from novels because they lack context, but this one appears to be a dystopian novel with similar preoccupations to the surveillance in George Orwell’s 1984, and also echoes of the chilling conformity of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.  The excerpt is only seven pages and it’s about a man called Kamoto who hasn’t ventured out of his house for many years, content to eat the food that is brought to him and to view the world through the ‘Telecommunication Curtain’ that he has in his living-room.  But on this day he ventures out to see the sunset, noting that nature’s unfamiliar beauty made him feel he was at one with his surroundings.  He is not aware that Tina, one of the Room Service Personnel, is observing him, and that she is pondering whether Kamoto, an Occupant, like all the subjects in Azotus’ kingdom, [had] the freedom and right to wander round outdoors even if no one else found it worth the bother. (p.79)  And she is wary of finding out what he is up to, because…

… no one went to any house for any reason without being given instructions to do so from their superiors.  It was Azotus’ way of running an efficient system so that every Occupant would have everything they needed at exactly the time and in exactly the way they needed it. (p.80)

It sounds quite an interesting novel but it looks impossible to get hold of.

Another story from Malawi is ‘The Old Man and the Pub’ by Stanley Onjezani Kenani.  The pub is an Irish-themed place called the Three Little Boys Irish Pub – operated by an expat Malawian in Geneva in Switzerland.  He had decided not to name his establishment a Malawian pub because he thought he would struggle to attract African customers from the rival Nairobi Bar, much less any Irish and European tourists – since nobody he met on the streets of the city seemed to be aware of Malawi as a country. For ten years the pub has been a great success but once some real Irish fellows opened a pub right next door, his clientele vanished.  Now in serious financial trouble, he is considering a change of name to wrestle business from the Nairobi Bar, poaching their best waitress and playing Fela Kuti and Allan Nomoko instead of Mozart and Mahler.  (Huh?  They’re not Irish!)  This one is my favourite of the stories I read: I like its dry humour and its clever plot twist at the end. 

‘The Professor’ is a short story by Edwige-Renee Dro from Ivory Coast, the former French colony Cote d’Ivoire’ in West Africa.  It’s a rather slight tale about a young woman who learns at a school reunion that her old teacher is dead. Addressing this dead professor in the second person, she reminisces about how he influenced her love of French literature, and how when they met up in Paris when she was studying at the Sorbonne, they declared their love for one another but never even kissed perhaps because they didn’t want to break the magic.  Although it’s always nice to see the pivotal role that teachers can play in someone’s life, I was a bit disappointed by this story.

‘The Score’ is another excerpt from a work-in-progress.  It’s by Hawa Jande Golakai, from Liberia, also in West Africa.  It appears to be detective fiction, featuring a journalist being denied a position on the crime desk because of her gender.  The most intriguing aspect of this story was the dialogue about which languages were necessary for a journalist to know in a multilingual country.  It’s these side issues that make reading from other countries so interesting.

From Zambia in Southern Africa comes ‘The Sack’ by Namwali Serpell.  An old man is dying, tended by J, who fails to treat him like a bwana  [boss] and lacks deference.  He fears J, and dreams of a body in a sack.  Intimations of unresolved hatreds are revealed when the man – who has known J since they were children – says that he knows what the colour of his skin means to someone of his generation.  (Zambia was formerly Northern Rhodesia).

‘I’m Going to Make Changes to the Kitchen’ is by Odjaki, from Angola in southern Africa.  Translated by Jethro Soutar, this is a very poignant story which derives, I think, from the civil war that wracked Angola for thirty years.  The narrator has developed rituals to show us how to survive our other routines.  Her sandals protect her feet from the cold of the floor, but they don’t protect her from the coldness of the kitchen which now holds awful memories:

I made this ashtray with my own two hands and all the feelings I had back then.  I made it for you. You still shared cigarettes and moments with me.  You flew different planes from those that drop bombs on people.  Our relationship was far from war, from the screaming, the bombs.  Our kitchen, the wood that you polished, rested undisturbed every night.  The small hours were ours.  Far from the kitchen.  (p. 238)

This particular story reminded me that for most of my adult life, too many post-colonial African nations have been at war with themselves with disastrous consequences for their people, and that too many have been ruled by repressive dictatorships blaming colonialism for their own corruption and brutality.  But in the introduction, Wole Soyinka talks about how the fall of the Berlin Wall liberated African writers from ideological warfare.

… the struggle for independence itself was never completely devoid of a search for ideological anchors.  Whether convenient for the corralling of citizen solidarity and commitment, unity of purpose and obedience to political direction, leadership itself adopted ideological labels, either pitting itself against, or co-opting its writers and intelligentsia into strategies for, social transformation.

For a handful of that leadership, conviction in the social doctrines for radical change was genuine. For the majority, however, it was a sham, a weapon for silencing dissidence and regimenting society.  (p.xi)

This short survey of half a dozen African countries took me to Wikipedia to read about each one, and it seems to me that, Berlin Wall or no, the current situation is not much better than the past.  It would be a great thing if the next edition of a book like this had a more optimistic story to tell…

Editor: Ellah Wakatama Allfrey
Title: Africa 39, New Writing from Africa South of the Sahara
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2014
ISBN: 9781408854662
Source: Bayside Library

Out of print, try Fishpond for a second-hand copy: Africa39: New Writing from Africa South of the Sahara or Brotherhood Books.



  1. I got all excited about this and then came down to earth when I saw your sentence about it being out of print…. I’ve found some delightful writing from African countries and would like to read more but they are often extremely expensive….


    • Yes, I’ve found that too. I went trawling around online for some of these authors but their novels seem impossible to source. I’m guessing they have small publishers, with small print runs, and that the emerging publishing industry in some of the poorer countries like Malawi haven’t yet mastered offering an eBook option for international buyers. Mostly what we get from Africa IMO is books from expat or diaspora authors in the US and UK, publishing books that US and UK publishers think will have international appeal.
      Now that China is emerging as a force in some African countries, it’s possible that they’ll enter the market with translations into Chinese, and perhaps they’ll see potential for English translations too!


      • Even when I was in Africa I found it hard to get some authors in the bookshops. A lot of the titles on offer were ones that have international appeal sadly


        • Yes, I think it has a lot to do with the fact that a publishing industry is still emerging in many places and they often only do small print runs.


  2. I’m never going to have time to even sample the most interesting fiction from around the world so I’m glad you review it for us. And that I run into novels like Americanah from time to time. Saying that, I do know what part of the answer is – try harder to source audiobooks, especially online.


  3. Audio books, because they’re more expensive to produce, are always going to have to satisfy more popular taste to some extent. I think we are lucky to get as much quality lit on audio as we do.


  4. I recently bought a copy at the Book Grocer in Sydney (Martin Place). Other BG outlets might have copies.


  5. […] Africa 39, New Writing from Africa South of the Sahara, edited by Ellah Wakatama Allfrey #BookRevie… […]


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