In the city of the lost: review of ‘City of Thorns’ by Ben Rawlence

The Times Saturday Review

9781846275876Dadaab is a confounding place, a low-slung conurbation of wind-swept, sun-beaten shelters adrift in Kenya’s wild northeast. The wind is unrelenting, the heat unbearable, yet it is home to 350,000 people, refugees who escaped war and famine only to find themselves trapped here.

They depend on food handouts yet the markets are also stuffed with fresh mangos and Samsung smartphones. There are few jobs yet some are spectacularly wealthy. It is a place of hopelessness and opportunity. Dadaab is temporary, but has existed for 25 years and is the focus of Ben Rawlence’s book.

City of Thorns is a portrait of a place that should not exist, and the people who by turns survive or thrive, live or die, love or mourn there. Most are Somali; some are the third generation to be raised in Dadaab on paltry UN rations, trapped between al-Qaeda militants in Somalia and the rapacious Kenyan police. Continue reading In the city of the lost: review of ‘City of Thorns’ by Ben Rawlence

Amid increasing persecution of gays in Africa, author Binyavanga Wainaina comes out

GlobalPost
Nairobi, Kenya

Binyavanga Wainaina has a hangover. Last night friends gathered for his birthday party, which turned into a coming out party, because Wainaina, one of Africa’s most powerful modern literary voices, had just published an article entitled, “I am a homosexual, Mum.”

On a continent where secrecy defines the gay experience and where a majority of countries outlaw homosexuality, coming out is a rare step for a public figure. Wainana’s piece, first published on Saturday, is being shared widely across social networks. “My dear @BinyavangaW writes a piece that springs open the prison doors of the heart,” tweeted Nigerian-born writer Teju Cole. Continue reading Amid increasing persecution of gays in Africa, author Binyavanga Wainaina comes out

Contemporary art in modern Africa

The Times
Nairobi, Kenya

Michael Soi at work in his Nairobi studio
Michael Soi at work in his Nairobi studio

Michael Soi is flecked with paint when I meet him at his studio, a high, rough-walled room in a converted warehouse in Nairobi’s industrial area. Stacked against walls and tables are his large acrylic on canvas paintings in flat, bright colours: buxom women with towering Afros, leering men in uniforms and suits, corrupt coppers, fat-cat politicians, pickpockets preying on bus queues.

Continue reading Contemporary art in modern Africa

Mzungu prizes

LRB
Nairobi, Kenya

‘Ah, the tyranny of mzungu prizes!’ the Kenyan author and journalist Parselelo Kantai said when I rang him up to talk about literary awards for African writers. Mzungu is Kiswahili for ‘white person’ and Kantai was only half-joking.

Since its inception in 2000, the annual Caine Prize for African Writing – awarded, more narrowly than the ‘African Writing’ of its title might imply, ‘to a short story by an African writer published in English’ – has been the most high profile award for contemporary anglophone African writers. But it’s administered in Britain and the £10,000 cash prize is bestowed during a gala dinner at the Bodleian Library. ‘There’s something that rankles,’ says Kantai, who has been shortlisted twice. ‘Once the conferring is done in London you become big on the African landscape.’ Continue reading Mzungu prizes

How Timbuktu Saved Its Books

Harper’s
Bamako, Mali

Abdel Kader Haidara, Mamma Haidara Manuscripts Library, Timbuktu (Photograph by Tugela Ridley)
Abdel Kader Haidara, Mamma Haidara Manuscripts Library, Timbuktu (Photograph by Tugela Ridley)

I first met Abdel Kader Haidara in happier times. It was five years ago, and I had come to see his family collection of ancient manuscripts, which were stored in a grand house midway down one of Timbuktu’s sand-blown roads. Continue reading How Timbuktu Saved Its Books

This season we’re mostly wearing…

The Times Magazine

A century of war and colonial occupation has resulted in the curious dress of the Herero people. Photographer Jim Naughten documents their look
A century of war and colonial occupation has resulted in the curious dress of the Herero people. Photographer Jim Naughten documents their look

For most of the 20th century, Namibia’s history was one of hidden violence and brutality. Unspoken horrors were perpetrated by its occupiers – first Germany for 31 years and then South Africa for more than twice as long. It was only in 1990 that Namibia won its independence.

Six years later I went to Namibia to teach. Arriving in the capital, Windhoek, I found a strange and orderly place. Outlying shanties, spread across the city’s arid plateau, gave way to a high-rise centre bisected with paved roads. Continue reading This season we’re mostly wearing…

Heart of Darkness to the hearts of people

The Times of London
Review of ‘Radio Congo’ by Ben Rawlence

Riding pillion on a motorbike piloted by a beer-loving priest through a rain sodden town lost in Congo’s endless jungle, Ben Rawlence arrives at an art deco villa built by a Belgian mining company half a century ago.

Like the town, Manono, in which it sits the villa was abandoned after independence, devoured by corruption and the voracious undergrowth, pillaged by war and eventually reclaimed by more foreigners, this time from the United Nations. Continue reading Heart of Darkness to the hearts of people

Binyavanga Wainaina: “If you donate to Oxfam, don’t buy my book”

The Times of London
Iconoclastic and bitingly funny, Binyavanga Wainaina turns clichés about Africa on their head. Tristan McConnell meets him in Nairobi

Binyavanga

Into the groove: Binyavanga Wainaina at home in Nairobi (Times photographer, Tugela Ridley)

The door is open. Inside the apartment eviscerated suitcases lie on the floor. Mugs and glasses, books and an iPad clutter the dining table. Yesterday’s socks and shoes are dumped by the sofa. In the open-plan kitchen among half-unpacked shopping bags and a stack of unwashed plates stands a stocky, barrel-bellied man with orange and blue-striped hair wearing a towel.

“Sorry!” Binyavanga Wainaina calls out cheerfully. Continue reading Binyavanga Wainaina: “If you donate to Oxfam, don’t buy my book”

First Grader reveals wisdom of oldest schoolboy

The Times of London
Eldoret, Kenya

In Kenya an 84-year-old pupil who went back to primary school inspired a new film.

Maruge
Kimani Ng’ang’a Maruge at school (AFP/Getty)

“Maruge was a great man,” says 16-year-old Douglas Wekesa, speaking of a former schoolmate. “He taught us many things about life, about discipline, about hard work. He also taught us about how he fought the Europeans, how his wife was killed and how he was tortured. It was strange at first because he was older, but he became one of us.”

Continue reading First Grader reveals wisdom of oldest schoolboy

Gift of life with a story to tell

The Times of London
My daughter’s premature birth inspired a book to help other families.

L
Lyra, who is now nearly three

The night that Lyra was born a thunderstorm raged outside the hospital in Chelmsford, Essex. At 24 weeks she weighed just 1lb 10oz (735g) and emerged still shrink-wrapped in the membrane sac that was supposed to nourish her for another four months.

A doctor cut her free with a scalpel, her tiny form slipping out on to the hospital bed in a rush of amniotic fluid; silence where her first life-affirming cry should have been.

She was scooped into a Tesco freezer bag to keep the moisture in her tissue-thin skin, then placed under what looked like a grill to keep her warm. A doctor blew into a straw to inflate her lungs and used a finger, pressing gently and rhythmically, to encourage her weak heart to beat. Continue reading Gift of life with a story to tell