Imperfect Places and People

Without really planning to, in April and May this year I read three books all set (primarily) in Africa. Through them I learnt things I’d never known, or most likely had forgotten. It was also interesting to note in all of them a strain of imperfection – imperfect places and imperfect characters.

The first, Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, is set mostly in Ethiopia, an Ethiopia that faces revolution, civil war and a movement to liberate neighbouring Eritrea. The presence of multiple cultural influences in the book adds to its richness, Italian being one of those, since Italy occupied Ethiopia for a period. It is the political situation that leads to the American section of the book. One of the protagonists, Marion Stone, has to flee being wrongly accused of being part of the Liberation Movement. He heads for the Bronx, New York, where he works as a doctor. In a city so often lauded for its quality and status, New York is presented here in its imperfections. Compared to hospitals with more prestige, Our Lady of Perpetual Succour where Marion works, is underfunded and attracts a mix of foreign doctors. The inequity in modern-day America is highlighted, but is done so in a matter-of-fact way, which I appreciated. The earlier story contains a wonderfully detailed family life at a mission hospital in Addis Ababa, and for the full book we are treated to in-depth explanations of medical procedures. Although fascinating, the latter is a little heavy-handed. Still, it is described lyrically and forms the really intense parts of the story.

The Crossing by Manjeet Mann, actually starts in Ethiopia’s neighbouring country, the now-independent Eritrea. Sammy, a teenager who lives there, flees enforced conscription and makes for England. His journey as a refugee is harrowing and it is remarkable that he makes it as far as the English Channel. Here he has just one last body of water to swim across before reaching his goal, ‘the promised land’. At the same time, we read about Natalie, a teenager who lives in England. An England that is far from the ‘promised land’ of Sammy’s imagination. Natalie’s family is to be turfed out of their accommodation, her brother protests bitterly about ‘refugees coming in to take the locals’ jobs’, and Natalie grieves her late mother. It is the latter that spurs Natalie into swimming the channel to raise money for a refugee charity. In a series of coincidences Natalie and Sammy learn about each other and set out at the same time to ‘cross’ the English channel. The Crossing, aimed at Young Adults, is written in verse, in simple language, and with clever use of typography and concrete poetry. It was shortlisted in this year’s Carnegie Medal.

The Country of Others by Leila Slimani is set in Morocco in the 1950s when Morocco is still a French colony and then later rebels against its colonisers. The main characters are Amien and his wife Mathilde and their daughter Ayesha. Amien is Moroccan, Arabic and Black, while Mathilde is French, Catholic and White. They meet in France during WWII, when Amien is conscripted by the French to fight for them against the Germans. I found this interesting – how difficult must it have been to for Amien to fight for the coloniser to whom he did not really owe allegiance? I say ‘don’t really’ because a great deal of ambiguity is written into the characters. The relationship between Mathilde and Amien especially is reflective of the relationship between Morocco and France: at once in love and in hate. This relationship is likened in the book to the Lironge tree – an orange tree into which a lemon tree has been grafted. The result is an unpalatable fruit. Fittingly, Morocco itself is not portrayed as salubrious, unlike the delight I understand the tourist’s Morocco to be. The characters in The Country of Others are unlikable, a fact that only serves to underscore the ambiguity and to provide a good, thought-provoking read.


The truth about documentaries

By Brenda Daniels

I enjoy watching film documentaries. There’s something about “true”/factual stories that make me feel my viewing time is worthwhile. But of course even documentaries are framed in ways that influence their message, and hence their viewers. In other words, they’re not objective. In some, the construction of the story is more obvious than in others.

Two documentaries I watched at the 2015 Durban International Film Festival provide an example of different levels of “interference” in their making and presentation.

(Dis)honesty – The Truth about Lies (By Yael Melamede)

This film was particularly interesting and showed the reasons people lie. A group of scientists, headed by Dan Ariely, do a number of tests on people to discover when they lie and why. Ariely explains the tests and their results to viewers and this narration is interspersed with interviews with people who have all been imprisoned for the consequences of their lies.

Ariely is an engaging, humorous and non-judgmental speaker. He describes how people lie or “fudge” for reasons such as personal gain or distance from the indiscretion, and how they (read we) actually lie, for example; by justifying their actions or identifying with a peer group who are doing the same. After watching this documentary I was left knowing for sure that lying is an all-pervasive human trait, and that we are all capable of lying to the extent of committing a crime.

The “framing” of this documentary certainly achieved its aim with me!

Atlantic (by Jan-Willem)

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Atlantic is a different documentary altogether. Styled as a “reality” show, it follows the story of a Moroccan fisherman, Fettah, who takes up windsurfing. Friendships with visiting Europeans, and a longing for his mother who died at sea when he was just a child, compel Fettah to embark on an unusual journey. He packs a backpack and sets off on a trip of hundreds of miles – using only his windsurfer as transport.

The filming and sparse Arabic narration is lyrical in quality. I admired the simplicity with which Fettah managed to live his life at sea and when he came ashore – just a bottle of water, a bag of nuts and a tiny tent seemed to sustain him. But towards the end he encounters difficulties and is left in a desperate situation. Will he survive? Well of course we know he must have – he was being filmed after all and was never as alone as the documentary would have us believe!

Whilst I enjoyed the actual story, the obvious “interference” in the filming process of Atlantic left me with some doubts about the truth of this documentary.