African Love Stories: An Anthology Edited by Ama Ata Aidoo, Jambula Tree by Monica Arac de Nyeko (Uganda) won the 2007 Caine Prize for African Writing
In a time when African women are still often constructed as a monolithic group of “powerless” victims (Mohanty, 1986) every attempt to counter this tragic generalisation is a radical effort to subvert the prejudices of our times. Ama Ata Aidoo’s anthology of African love stories transcends the single African story narrative of all-pervasive famine, death and war and restores part of the humanity denied to Africans by Western media and commentators. African Love Stories: An Anthology tells of (primarily) women who love not just men but other women and children in narratives that capture the essence of that love in a way so tangible the reader can empathise with the plethora of emotions showcased in the anthology.
Ama Ata Aidoo introduces the collection of short stories beautifully, pointing to the fact that “love is at the bottom of nearly all earthly happenings,” implying that it is absurd to think it were otherwise in Africa, a continent she knows is “full of great love stories.” She has edited an anthology that is powerful and necessary in its simple message that says that there is more to Africans than poverty and violence; an anthology that is so unapologetically African that the setting of the stories is not always clear but hidden in words I sometimes do not understand and towns I cannot always locate. The collection spans a wide variety of topics that range from infidelity to loss, interracial love to heartbreak and parental love to lesbianism, some of which touch on social issues like poverty and others that do not, reflecting the fact that Africa is a continent of many stories.
My favourite story is ‘Transition to Glory’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche who is yet to fail in delivering a prose so alive and palpable that it fully captures its reader who becomes fully absorbed in the narrative. ‘Transition to Glory’ tells the story of Ozioma, ‘the other woman.’ It is Adichie’s attention to detail that fascinates me while Ozioma loses herself as she goes into ‘auto-pilot’ to work through Agha’s death who was killed in a road accident. Adichie uses her character to subtly touch on social issues such as gender and class in true intersectional spirit as Ozioma struggles with a mother who values a “nice young man” more than a “good job.” Adichie captures Ozioma’s struggle of “right and need” in just a few pages, acquainting us with her difficulties in juggling her love for Agha but fully aware of the fact that she is a second priority as thoughts of his family continuously haunt her and she imagines herself in his wife’s place, practicing her first and his last name together in front of the mirror.
‘Tropical Fish’ by Doreen Baingana highlights the complexities that can come with interracial relationships built on unequal bargaining power as Christine, who had never interacted with a white person before, suddenly finds herself involved with a white man to the point that she falls pregnant but is forced to abort the baby due to the superficiality of their primarily physical relationship. Christine becomes increasingly aware of her dark features contrasted against his white privileges and the judgment that comes with their relationship passed by the people around them as she enters a relationship with an undercover racist who lives to display his power in a society that allowed him the social mobility his working class background would have unlikely afforded him back in England.
Despite its brevity, ‘Scars of Earth’ by Mildred Kiconco Barya may just be the most beautifully written story of the anthology as the protagonist returns “to the place of first love,” her parents house. She is welcomed back whole-heartedly, communicated with a body language full of a love only doting parents can convey. The protagonist just emerged from the battlefield of a broken relationship, returning with a wounded heart in dire need of soothing as her mother’s restorative touch breaks down the protective walls built so carefully in wake of a “wound… festering inch by inch” and “removed the ache from [her] body, heart and mind.”
‘Jambula Tree’ by Monica Arac de Nyeko insistently defies the notion that homosexuality is “un-African,” narrating the love between Anyango and Sanyu and its difficulties in the midst a homophobic society. The story is told by Anyango who addresses Sanyu years after they were caught doing “things [they] should not have done when the brightness of Mama Atim’s torch shone upon [them] – naked,” anticipating her return from London as she recalls the times they spent together, Anyango’s obvious yearning for her best friend shining through.
Another story that chooses to comment on a social issue is Chika Unigwe’s ‘Possessing the Secret of Joy’. 17-year old Uju “allowed her mother to blackmail her into marrying” their “only hope,” Chief Okeke, in order for them to escape poverty. Chief Okeke claims he is 46 but looks closer to 60 with a stomach that wobbles, white hair and drooping lips that spit while he talks. Uju grew up in a neighbourhood “which stank of urine and dying lives,” all too familiar with poverty and its deprivations, forced to quit school when her widowed mother could no longer afford school fees. However, convinced that marriage should be born from genuine love, Uju “knew that her new wealth would never make her happy.” Her wedding night did not make her “gain wings and fly” like her mother had promised but instead “layers of pain seared through her” and she was certain sex was what death felt like. Uju falls pregnant with a baby she longs to get rid off but this changes when her baby is born, limiting the story not only to poverty and its consequences but putting love at the forefront as Uju felt how “[it] started from the middle of her stomach like a tiny dot of warmth and then it fanned out like an angel’s wings spread vertically and touched her chest. She felt it flutter in her chest before it settled down,” ending with a beautiful description of a mother’s love, Uju’s “secret of joy”.
Ayebia’s African Love Stories Anthology edited by Ama Ata Aidoo remains incredibly relevant today as it restores some of the humanity that Africans have been repeatedly denied as their stories are reduced to those of war and deprivation. Spanning a variety of issues, it is a bold and unapologetic statement that stands out in a world that continuously perpetuates a single story narrative of the continent.