Thursday, 16 February 2012

Africa Reading Challenge 2012

I recently committed myself to taking part in the Africa Reading Challenge 2012, whose rules are pretty basic. Here they are as originally suggested by Kinna who started the whole challenge.

Challenge Period  January 1, 2012 to December 31, 2012
Region The entire African continent, including its island-states, which are often overlooked. Please refer to this Wikipedia “list of sovereign states and dependent territories in Africa”. Pre-colonial empires and regions are also included.
Reading Goal  5 books.  That’s it.  There will be no other levels.  Of course, participants are encouraged to read more than 5 books.  Eligible books include those which are written by African writers, or take place in Africa, or are concerned with Africans and with historical and contemporary African issues. Note that at least 3 books must be written by African writers.

But some guys thought that a year was too long a period and they decided to tweak the rules a bit by  suggesting that each person taking part should read one book a month from March to July. 

I decided to set the following rules for myself;

  1. I'd read only books written after 2000
  2. I'd choose 1 book from (or written by an author from) North, East, Central, South and West Africa
  3. The books would be mostly about contemporary life and if possible in genres not generally associated with African fiction. 
Generally speaking, I knew I didn't want any of the stuffy overly literary stuff that reminded me of secondary school if I could help it or the kind of books that Binyavanga Wainaina seemed to have in mind when he wrote his satirical essay How to write about Africa. No books romanticising a pre-colonial Africa and not too much on the wars, corruption and poverty of the post-colonial period. 

With the above rules in mind to guide me, these are the books I have zeroed in on.

This is a novel narrated by an introspective psychiatrist of Nigerian descent living in New York city, who reflects on aspects of his life both in the US where he currently lives and Nigeria where he was raised. I read through. It felt deep. I decided to add.

I first heard about Al Aswany and his book on BBC's world book club a while ago and it was the only  book from North Africa that came to me immediately. It was the best-selling Arabic novel for two years. Considering, as the translator points out in his notes,
...the reader need not pay too much heed to the fact that the events described nominally take place before and during Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait: the novel reflects the Egypt of the present.
I figured it would be as good book as any to give me a glimpse into pre-Tahrir Square/Arab spring Egypt and a good read in the process.

This one had me at "crime novel set in Kenya". After a look through the first pages (courtesy of an amazon sample) I learnt that the main character is an African-American cop called Ishmael (hmm..) who while investigating the murder of a young woman on a university campus in Madison ,Winsconsin, in the USA, unearthes leads about the main suspect, Joseph Hakizimana, a genocide hero who is now teaching at the university, that take him to Nairobi where he partners up with a Kenyan detective called David Odhiambo, who might be high off something illicit when we first encounter him. I mean what was there not to like. Nairobi Heat fits every single rule I had set for myself in this challenge-it is written by a Kenyan (American) post 2000 in a genre that is not popular among African authors (crime fiction).
Though most reviews are largely positive they all seem to hint at some giant leaps taken (or expected of the reader) and plot holes therein but I am guessing Ngugi Wa Thiongo's son makes up for that in other brilliant ways. I mean, his daddy is like the most acclaimed author in our corner of the world. The apple can't have fallen that far from the tree (hopefully).

I first learnt of Alain Mabanckou while reading a list of recommended reading for 2012 and everything that was written about him seemed to suggest that he was the kind of writer I needed to be familiar with  (eg. he seems to have an issue with fullstops and hardly ever uses them). So when I came across Broken Glass (Verre Cassé) I thought I'd give at a look through and I was immediately impressed because its a funny book and it is about the kind of people and place I was all too familiar with until recently-regular patrons in a popular, somewhat rundown, neighbourhood bar (called Credit Gone West). Apparently critics and readers in Francophonia were going gaga about it when it came out. Even the French cultural minister referred to the author as Mabancool . Such a rare convergence of liking is a major plus in the book's favour. Critics, culture ministers and the hoi polloi rarely agree on what's cool.

This one I have reservations about. It makes it on the list basing purely on its genre-bending credentials. According to wikipedia;
Zoo City is set in an alternate version of the South African city of Johannesburg, in which people who have committed a crime are magically attached to an animal familiar – those who receive such punishment are said to be "animalled". The novel's chief protagonist, Zinzi December – who was "animalled" to a sloth after getting her brother killed – is a former journalist and recovering drug addict, and is attempting to repay the financial debt she owes her drug dealer by charging people for her special skill of finding lost objects, as well as making use of her writing abilities by drafting 419 fraud emails. The book's plot focuses on Zinzi's attempts to find the missing female member of a brother-and-sister pop duo for a music producer, in return for the money she needs to fully repay her dealer.
It doesn't get more unconventional than that and I can't help thinking of the book as a kind of cross between Tsotsi and The Golden Compass. I downloaded it yesterday but I haven't looked through it to see how the writing hits me. I am guessing the book must be worthwhile because it won something called the Arthur .C. Clarke award in 2011. I happen to know that during his lifetime Arthur .C. Clarke was the dog's bollocks  in science fiction writing. 

So that's my list for the African Reading Challenge for 2012. I haven't decided in what order I will read them  beyond deciding that Open City will be the first. I will post a review after I finish each book. I hope I have as much fun as I think I am going to have.

P.S. the links above lead to Amazon pages that will let you have a peek inside the books.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Getting the movies over the years, bootlegs and all

I recently visited my friendly neighbourhood DVD bootlegger to see if I could get a copy of Luther and because he didn't have it (or any other British series I suggested) we got into a discussion on the dynamics of access, wholesale, retail and distribution in his line of work. Our discussion got me thinking about how the story of how we have been quenching our thirst for foreign movies and TV series over the years is pretty much a story of bootlegging entertainment. This is especially true in my case.

I can’t say I remember when I watched my first movie, although the earliest clear memory I have is of a Clint Eastwood movie (most likely A Fist Full of Dollars) which I must have watched around 1984 at a relative's place. Back then I wasn’t sure whether it was on TV or not. But I have liked movies for as long as I can remember although getting the good ones hasn't always been easy.

We got our first VCR (along with the first colour TV) in 1985 and with it came 3 movies Live and Let DieAssault on Precinct 13 (not the one with Lawrence Fishburne) and All Quiet on the Western Front (I have always suspected that they were just tossed in as freebies). However, owning a VCR meant having a constant supply of VHS tapes to feed it. This is where the problems begun. Many of the Museveni-generation might not believe that there was a time when there was no proper movie library in Kampala (and Uganda for that matter). 

In those days I remember my father used to bring home tapes with the words Whittaker’s (or some such name) video library written on them. Mr. Whittaker (if there was ever any such person) had come up with the ingenious idea of having his friends in the UK record stuff for him off the telly, which they could send over to be lent out to us Kampalans. But because the recording was off TV and the people doing the recording probably just set the timer and headed on down to the pub, the tapes would come with commercial breaks, public service announcements, breaking news etc. We would go some minutes into a movie or TV series like the Far Pavilions or A Town Like Alice and then have a ketchup ad thrown in before we reverted to the “regularly scheduled programming”. Something like that would probably piss me off now but I was six at the time and even the ads were fun.

The other thing about those tapes was that Mr. Whittaker felt that the entire 180 minutes of the tape had to be filled. Along with every movie came a few episodes of some sitcom or series. These were mostly british programmes like Fawlty TowersNot the 9:00 o’clock newsTop of the Pops etc and sometimes an American series like Miami Vice or Kojak. I think its thanks to Mr. Whittaker I developed a love for British TV.

We moved to Jinja in1987 by which time VCRs were spreading all over the land and the movie rental business had started developing. We soon became members of Bashir's Video Library, which was next to a video hall called Town Talkies. Bashir had the movies, the properly edited ones without commercials, however the bootleg quality was not that great and neither was the variety. The movies were generally categorised thus;

-“You kill my father now I kill you too” old style Kung Fu flicks with titles like Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow. Closely related were the latter day versions of previously mentioned movies. High-octane Hong Kong martial arts kickfests all based on the same cop drama/revenge script like Police Story.

-Vietnam flicks. You remember the type where some badass GI would mow down a whole battalion of "gooks" (their words) shooting straight at him and somehow not get hit even once. 

-Those good old shoot ‘em up plotless B-Movies with titles like Exterminator 2000.

Besides the "latest" movie was two years old.

Did we mind? Heck no. That is until we were watching the movies faster than Bashir could stock them up. One thing I remember that stood out of place at Bashir’s was 40 something tapes of Dallas (they just didn’t fit in with the rest). We watched them all and this was the interesting Dallas (up to the point Jr Ewing dies). It’s funny when you consider that all that can now fit on one DVD.

By now the eighties were ending and we were back in Kampala. The good news was that real video libraries were opening up like Bimbo and Ripples (which was the video library to be a member of if you were somebody), but the bad news was that the membership and movie rental fees were way too high. Necessity, therefore, led to the emergence of a coordinated network of lending and borrowing movies among friends.

Will trade this for Kindergarten Cop
If person x had that movie you had to watch like Batman, Rambo 3 or Die Hard you had to find him an equally interesting movie or trade him something just as cool (like an Asterix/Tintin comic book, or a Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew/Famous Five novel). Lunchtime at "The Rocks" in Kitante was the time most of these exchanges could go down. It had the feel of some kind of stock exchange with young boys haggling over what movie was worthy to be exchanged for another or one guy promising to lend movie to another for an extra day on condition that a certain comic book was thrown into the bargain.

It wasn’t long before the Ugandans hooked up with bootleggers from around the world and swamped the market with the latest VHS movies that were on offer. Soon the bootlegged copies started getting bootlegged and every other neighbourhood had a video library stacked with 5th and 6th generation bootlegged VHS tapes. 

Then there came the shortlived VCDs followed by the DVDs. Since these days everybody and their uncle has a DVD player, or computer, VHS has disappeared. The DVDs are ubiquitous on the streets of Kampala and they are cheap. For the price of an “original” VHS tape of back in the day you can have yourself 5 DVD movies.

Many people don't even bother with DVDs any more. They would much rather watch their movies as digital files that they can transfer to the portable gadget of their choice. Over the last 5 years internet access has greatly improved and the costs of accessing the internet have gone down, which has greatly improved access to movie downloads for those with the right bandwidth. Actually one doesn't have to download the movie if they don't want to. There are many sites that offer movies for streaming. Obviously the free ones also happen to be "not very legal" but I don't see anybody bothered by that. Torrent sites have given the world access to virtually any movie for the cost of some patience and bandwidth.

The SOPA people obviously do not like this and it riles them to think that they are not getting a cut off all the movies you and I are watching. However, its unlikely that countries like Uganda are about to get into the cross-hairs of anti-piracy campaigners any time soon simply because we are not considered a worthwhile market. The big movie companies are more interested in the Indians and Chinese because they would love to have a cut of what each one of those 2.6 billion people are paying for their bootlegs.

Back at the DVD place I had to settle for an incomplete season 6 of Dexter after getting assurances from my DVD guy that he will hook me up with more British series than I know what to do with as long as I swore allegiance to him and only him. I could see why he needed all the support he could get. There are no less than 15 similar business within a 100 meter radius of his small shop all with the exact same bootlegged merchandise.