Sunday, 9 September 2012


On Wednesday I took my second son to see the great Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong'o speak at the Mantova Literary Festival. Ngugi spoke with wisdom and - we thought - restraint about the neo-colonial state of the African continent. A key sentence in his talk was that 'Africa has given, much more than she has received'.

I wondered how many times Ngugi has said this to a fusty, literary-minded audience. Africa has given. I thought it an extremely polite way of saying, African has been stolen from since the days of Adam! In fact, when he said that 'European modernity has African colonisation at its centre', I felt like cheering. Rather over-enthusiastic of me, but let this old Africa-head explain. My favourite university course, years ago, was Modern African and Asian History - Independence Movements and the Struggle Against Imperialism, and after thirteen years in East and West Africa my favourite conversations still deal with the rich cultural and economic force that is contemporary Africa.

But - not surprisingly - there was silence when Ngugi spoke these wise words. We sat there frowning and nibbling our nails, thinking of the great writer in a prison cell devising his lauded novel. So humbling for this middling writer with a computer screen and constant electricity. And no police detention likely for the material she is writing!

Ngugi - gingerly - also warned the mainly Italian audience about the widespread hostility towards African refugees arriving on shoddy boats, half of which sink in the rough seas off Lampedusa. He asked, Why are people afraid, given Europeans have migrated to every corner of the globe for centuries? Why?

It made me think of so many stories about this new wave of immigration. Stories of how people's humanity caves in because of these age-old inbuilt fears. A Ghanaian truck driver friend, whose truck broke down on an Austrian highway in the middle of winter. He sat waiting for help for eight hours. A Nigerian-Italian lass, brought up in this country, who lost her job at a bakery because people wouldn't buy the bread she touched.

And yet, it also made me think how that hostility is terribly two-faced.

Just a week back I had a dear friend - from West Africa - sitting at my kitchen table with a beer, all het up. She is tired of Italy. She is tired of the beckoning hands that pop out of cars on a city street, in the morning, often when she has just dropped her small kids at school. Vieni, vieni quĂ , how much bella? And today, she is furious because her landlord, called in to check a fusebox, suddenly fondled her breasts and buttocks. A man who knows her husband, who gives toffee to her kids.

'Ah! And he just laughed!' she says. He thought it was just a joke, just a little thing. A prod here, a caress there, skin on skin.

Africa may have given for centuries, but the next day my furious friend told me that she belted back on her landlord's door. At lunchtime, a sacred hour, when all the family gather. Her landlord answered.

Hello? Buongiorno! Shall I have my husband fondle your wife's breasts? Or touch your daughter's bottom??

The man was horrifed.


  1. Insightful and moving, thought-provoking post. Yes, he is a great writer and has suffered much. Africa herself has been exploited and abused - and as a white European Scot I feel my skin signals my complicity. My pelt is my guilt - as is my 21st Century comfortable life built on the suffering of a continent.
    My sister-in-law and my nephew are black. Her story is of illegitimate birth into Franco's Spain and adoption by the married sister. She knows her Nigerian father now - though in a damaged and limited way.
    She has suffered the racism meted out by my shameful fellow citizens. The monkey noises and name-calling - the discrimination of the polite middle-classes is no less painful.
    Thanks for this.

    1. And thank you for coming over here. The stories in this collection mostly revolve around these arguments, which are so close to my heart. I too have seen and heard of some awful things, shocking inhumane sentiments. Where we live immigration has been a sudden and surprising thing - how this generation suffers, and how locals are confused by politics both personal and regional. I have high hopes that the next generation, the mixed bunches of kids you see bumbling along in the street, will be different, particularly because my youngest has an African father and this is home for him, for now. If you have time an earlier post
      speaks of something weird along these lines xcat