Book Review: All you ought to see in “Nothing to See Here”

A Book Review
Book Title: Nothing to See Here
Editor: Hilda. J. Twongyeirwe
No. of Pages: 283
Reviewed by Jacob Katumusiime

The bird perched on an electric wire, peering into the distance, on FEMRITE’s fifth residency short story anthology book cover is a reflection of the expectant readers. The anthology’s title however reminds the readers that there is ‘Nothing to See Here.’ Ironically there is all you ought to see.

Sixteen adept African women writers illustrate that when a story commands, ‘Here I am. Write me!’ you don’t have to receive other directives. You write it the way it wants to be written: the aesthetics of the stories follow the compass directions of the content.

Makhosazana Xaba’s ‘People of the Valley’ is the best example of this assertion. The radio programming style in which  the events unfold is telling of how the kind of story leaves the writer no other better choice. In the story, Thulisile Thabethe, a radio presenter captivatingly uncovers fresh stories that often  don’t come down to us as headline news. It reminds me of the news bulletins we watch on Bukedde  Television, one of the local TV stations in Uganda. Matron Langa an accredited midwife is found  with a myriad of babies’ placentas in her fridge. Her intention can’t be fully established unless the writer uses a radio programme where different people call in and give their different views  about the matter. And callers have different characters; many call and code switch to Xhosa. To  maintain the weight of their contribution, the writer doesn’t translate into English yet you still perceive the meaning. The message still sinks. Some callers like Libuyile, a teen caller are  unlikable but you can’t resist wanting to listen to them.

Sixteen adept African women writers illustrate that when a story commands, ‘Here I am. Write me!’ 

More fascinating is the canon of arranging the story titles. The titles can be sectioned into three  major ones, the opening story being an introduction, the second representing other stories as the body and the last story making a conclusion on issues raised. Through the titles, you instantly realise the political statement being underlined. ‘Always the Head,’ a story by Melissa Kiguwa opens the anthology and in it, a mother advises an adult daughter to always use and follow the head rather than the heart in all situations. ‘…the head is what led us to better places. If I followed my heart, we would not be where we are.’ The message is delivered on the onset to especially ladies who always have to be bruised (by men) because of wanting to follow convictions of their hearts.

Xaba’s story, ‘People of the Valley’ then follows, opening a chapter for the rest of the stories. Different voices situated in different localities of the same continent provide eyes through which to view the inside of Africa. Africa is the valley here. The last story, Sylvia Schlettwein’s ‘Shortcut’ subtly reasserts the concept of ‘Always the Head.’ The narrator, a mother of three leaves her husband, Thomas to drive them through shortcuts and they have often gotten lost. On this fateful day, they hit a cow. Had the wife insisted that Thomas uses the right directions, may be they wouldn’t be stranded. Had she not followed instinct but reason, you never know. Nevertheless, the story closes on a different note: Man and woman should harmoniously live together despite the hiccups.

The African backdrop weaves through most of the stories, creating a fusion of cultures and giving the reader a varied scope of experience to associate with. Davina Kawuma’s story from which the anthology picks a title, ‘There is Nothing to See Here’ reminds me of my childhood where children’s ears, both boys and girls, would be pierced so as to protect them from child sacrifices because ‘Witchdoctors can’t sacrifice children with pierced ears and scars. It’s against the rules.’ Whereas most of the narrators are adults, Kawuma’s narrator is Patricia, a naive girl child whose innocent narration creates a mirror through which society’s reflection clearly comes out. Through rumour mongering, superstitions and misconceptions which are characteristic of young age, society is presented as chauvinistic, corrupt and cruel. Yet there still remains kinships that make life count.

Grace Neliya Gardner’s ‘The Sausage Tree’ presents another strand of African sensibility through the story of a family which fails to give birth after ten years of marriage. Mazuwa, blamed by society as a barren wife is believed to have bewitched her husband, Getemani not to have another wife. Through faith, Mazuwa eats of the Sausage Tree and is able to conceive. The story is telling of the many mysteries of life in Africa which are beyond man’s wisdom.

…but everyone knew salaries were going to be a few weeks late because the Minister had travelled again.

The female voices in the stories are not blind to the politics of their nations and once in a while, they stride aside to make masked political commentaries on the politics of their nations.  Even the children know about politics, ‘Museveni’s Man won’t fight the punisher. He tries to drown
them both. No matter how much he tries, neither Museveni’s Man nor the Punisher will drown.’ The statement makes a comment about the insecurity in the state. The impunity of the people in power is explored in Famia Nkasa’s ‘Phoenix’ where the narrator tells us, ‘…but everyone knew salaries were going to be a few weeks late because the Minister had travelled again.’ Hilda Twongyeirwe’s ‘Baking the National Cake’ vividly presents the women’s awareness of contemporary politics.

Using an imaginary country, Kabila the narrator is observing the struggles of a young man, David who is eyeing the seat for presidency of his country after the incumbent president has come of age. The politicians’ greed is illustrated through the actions of Jacob, the Vice President and later the President himself who betrays the expectations of many by rescinding his position to step down after his term of service. ‘The contentious issue of Succession to the presidency Bill occupies the bigger part of his mind. As minister for Presidency, he feels like an altar boy- watching the priest swig the wine while he waits to receive and wipe clean the empty Eucharist Chalice cup…’ David’s anxiety is identical to all other people bidding and not bidding for the same position.

‘Fuck your church.’

Besides politics, religion is examined as a fundamental aspect in people’s lives. Whereas it is an anchor for some, to others, religion has failed to comfort them. The narrator in Monica Cheru- Mpambawashe’s ‘My Fault’ expresses her disbelief in the church’s consolation. ‘I have never found solace in the pew because the devil has not played any part in the hell that I have lived on this earth.’ Monica Lauri Kubuitsile’s story, ‘The Do-Gooders’ further contributes to the narrative of religion. Besides the rifts between the Anglican Church and the Catholic Church that are mirrored in the story, Rene’s mother finds it insulting that the church has donated some stuff to them. ‘Fuck your church.’ She screams.

The women writers sing inviting African songs whose rhymes narrate their plight and also highlight their strength. Their voices beckon society to harmonize her relationships with everyone and every other creature. They are redefining themselves through exploring spaces such as education and independence.

In the face of the men’s conjugal neglect, the women have held high the flag of perseverance; some having to bear the battering from their husbands, an issue Lisa-Anne Julien’s story, ‘Mama Dearest’ hints on; who takes the blame when society takes it as a normalcy for men to batter wives? Should it be the older generation of mothers who never said no to torture? We observe the narrator in Cheru-Mpambawashe’s ‘My Fault’ questioning, ‘But how could I shame myself, my husband and the whole family by washing our filthy bed linen in public?’ In the face of infidelity, frustration and fear, the women are willing to go through thick and thin, and sin for the sake of their children. Doreen Anyango’s stupefying story  ‘Reconstruction’ presents the Mother Courage figure who challenges the face of disappointment and misery.

The question of responsibility also springs up in reading of Olufunke Ogundimu’s ‘The Silent Laugh.’ The reader is left wondering; who is to blame when a child errs? In the story, the Gbemi’s father blames Gbemi’s mother over Gbemi’s misbehavior yet the mother also blames the father: ‘It’s your father that is deaf. That skirt-chasing demon that killed my daughter.’ You continue to encounter empty souls seeking solace and more often you visualize the face of poverty peeping from behind the walls of the families you come across.

 ‘every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its denouement before anything be attempted by the pen’.

In their trail against the standoffish society and the search for identity, the women writers make stopovers in their stories to share toasts of drama, dreams and humour. And the satisfying ending given to each of the stories aptly illustrates Edgar Allan Poe’s belief that ‘every plot, worth the
name, must be elaborated to its denouement before anything be attempted by the pen’.

As you appreciate the bios of the writers at the end of the book, the question, ‘Where is the man?’ resoundingly rings in your mind and you can’t find answers. You are left sympathizing with Anyango’s character, Greta Nadine Rukundo who confesses, ‘My husband on the other hand seems to have fallen off the face of earth.’ Will you believe Favour’s assertion in Linda Nkwoma Masi’s ‘Queen of the Pearls’ that ‘… man is like a coin. He has two faces, a good one and a bad one. He could pass one face off as another…’? May be finding happiness in other creatures like the narrator in Bolaji Odofin’s story, ‘Happiness’ does, is worth more than the stress of humanity.

Jacob Katumusiime is a scholar of Literature

This title is available on Turn The Page for purchase and delivery.

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