Reading the Africa39 Anthology: “The Banana Eater” by Monica Arac de Nyeko

Over the next 4 months, we’ll be reading the stories in the Africa39 anthology and linking to interesting commentary on them from various sources. This first review was of Kenyan Caine Prize Winner, Okwiri Oduor’s short story, “Rag Doll”.

The Africa39 Anthology.

The Africa39 Anthology. (Click to purchase from Amazon.)

If you or your book club haven’t yet purchased the anthology, do so now and read along with us.

The next review will be of “Two Fragments of Love” by Eileen Almeida Barbosa.

This review is of Monica Arac de Nyeko’s “The Banana Eater”.


Sitting outside the library, or anywhere really, one often overhears conversations between women about fear and violence. In such conversations, a singular, unifying truth, reiterated in foundational works of feminist geography, emerges: what women fear most is not death or disease or war or the apocalypse; no, what women fear most is men. Men on this planet have not only imagined myriad and brutal ways to destroy themselves, women, and the planet’s ecosystems, but they also, by moving and working, thinking and acting, occupying space and mapping the world in ways that privilege men’s desires and points of view, continue to produced subtle and not so subtle aggressions against women. The famous words of Margaret Atwood — oft quoted as apocrypha and thus almost always out of context — is an apt index when reading Monica Arac de Nyeko’s Africa39 anthology story, “The Banana Eaters”. Documentary film director Mary Dickson recounts Atwood’s words in “A Woman’s Worst Nightmare”:

A woman’s worst nightmare? That’s pretty easy. Novelist Margaret Atwood writes that when she asked a male friend why men feel threatened by women, he answered, “They are afraid women will laugh at them.” When she asked a group of women why they feel threatened by men, they said, “We’re afraid of being killed.”

The Banana Eater provides an interesting perspective on the various fears a woman and her daughter must endure, and the stresses that result from living in an environment where men are an ever-present threat. Amito, the narrator, lends us a view of her neighbourhood: a housing estate in which “many things about our houses were similar.” Within this ostensible repetition without variation, Amito’s mother, Ma, establishes her individuality and the home-ness of their home:

Only our back yards were different. […] A house, she often said, starts at the back yard. See the state of the back yard and you’ll know if you want to enter.

Through her skill in gardening, Ma makes this backyard, where the home begins, spectacular. Though such a simple and benign thing, gardening reflects Ma’s daring to be unique, to express herself. “Garden”, in itself, is redolent with biblical and other mythologies. In this, a woman’s garden, not a secret garden but one that is highly visible to the world, we find a mother and a daughter. The labour of creating her garden, of nurturing a woman’s own space, at this point of the story already feels like a rebellion. (We might imagine Genesis rewritten, substituting a woman and her daughter for the prelapsarian man and woman in the garden.)

Plant fences and flowers, on the other hand, were different. They were boastful. They attracted everyone.

Different…boastful. Her will to difference, and individuality, is a boast. Ma plants a garden and the garden is prideful. Ma is prideful. Amito sees that the very act of a woman planting a magnificent garden in the housing estate is tinged with what the world of men will project onto her as hubris. Most of the time, the people who are attracted to the garden are harmless, tolerable. But then:

The lot she found unbearable, though, were the market vendors. Every day as soon as customers turned scarce, the vendors left the market. They crossed Estate Close, the road that separated the market from the estates, and came to sit in our back yard. They were choosy, those vendors. They avoided all the other back yards on the block. They came straight for ours, and laid down their tired and sweaty bottoms. Our back yard was a place to forget about the market and its unsold sacks of potatoes and bananas, a place to gossip, a place to laugh out loud at anyone, including our distinguished house guests.

Africa 39 author, Monica Arac de Nyeko

In re-reading the story, we might pause within the stream of narrated images and events. We stand in the stream and feel disturbances and perturbations as ripples of a mother and a daughter’s attenuated desires; we follow the stream as it flows through Ma’s garden: How does Ma live? Where does she live? When does she live? What does she do to make her life and that of her daughter possible? What life does she want for her daughter? How does she express the individual magic of her irreplaceable self? What does she tolerate? What is she made to tolerate? What does she find intolerable? What does she bear? What is unbearable to her? How does she make do? How does she forebear? Does she complain? When does she complain? Does she protest? When does she protest? When she is up against it, how does she stay standing? What is her daughter to make of womanhood?

Ma’s backyard is overrun by violent men. The home, which “begins in the backyard” is “defiled”. Her home is vandalised. With the dangerous men there, occupying her treasured space, can her and her daughter’s home be said to be theirs any longer? An everlasting question: where is a woman safe? Its corollaries: What can a woman call her own? The difficulties a woman faces when she desires her own privacy and intimacy: Is her home her own? Ma confronts the vendors. The men riot and retort:

In the back yard, Ma found the vendors laughing and talking, happy, as if all was well. She tried to speak to them. They did not pay her any attention — not until she started to yell at them, her small arms shaking and her wig unstable on her scalp.

‘Leave. I want all of you to leave my compound now,’ Ma said.

‘Your compound?’ one vendor said. The rest joined in, and they did not allow Ma to speak again.

[…]

‘Your house? You think this is your house?’

The vendors were undeterred in their efforts to make Ma shut up.

Her house, her land, are not her own. Her home, her life, are not her own in these men’s eyes. She has to fight men to own what is already hers.

Amito is a witness to the compromises her mother is forced to make to accommodate men in the shadow of violation by men. She watches everything with wry amusement, with bitterness, with anger. For her, “it is war!” She and her friend, Naalu, become militant girl-rebels against “the bastards”. So young, they are learning that at almost ever turn, a woman, to live any kind of life, must be ready to fight against men. Amito turns her anger into action but all she can do, with the meagre means of her child-body, is curse the men, throw stones at them, pour dirty water over them. She flings stones at them then flees. She pours filthy water on them then hides under her bed. Her actions only escalate the problem and infuriate the men who will not be deterred by a wilful child or a belligerent woman. To these men, both woman and child are identical because they must be made powerless in their eyes. Ma and Amito refuse to accept that they, woman and girl, are powerless. These entitled men project their weaknesses and entitlement onto women and girls, and see them, instead of themselves, as weak and entitled. These men, apparently without space of their own, decide that the woman and her daughter should have no space, even as they enjoy the luxury provided by the space — the garden — created by the very woman whom they are bent on violating. These men, powerless before the market management, the Kampala city council, and the vagaries of economics, project their powerlessness onto the woman, treat Ma and Amito as prey, as endlessly exploitable. The confrontations escalate. Ma resorts to returning home from work later than usual, in the hope of avoiding the evil men. She does what all women, always under threat, do within urban and suburban space: she develops a mental map of where and when she can move through various places; her own home is unsafe.

The men were still in our back yard, basking and anticipating another exciting confrontation with Ma […] Ma came home to a riot — men with stones and bricks.

A group of men, in a place they have no right to be, arm themselves with stones and bricks against a woman and a girl. Women fear men; too often, men cause women’s deaths, men are the promise of death to women, men are the death of women. To many women, death may well be male. (We glimpse Amito’s mind. Isn’t this what she must think, seeing armed men ready to attack her and her mother?)

Men, on the other hand, fear women’s laughter. The imbalance of power, inordinately favouring men, remains significant. It seems ridiculous to fear laughter from anyone because, from a man’s perspective, a woman’s derisive laughter, in itself, does nothing no matter how loud and sustained. What men fear about a woman’s wilful, mocking laughter is that women’s laughter gives women power and reveals the absurdity of men’s will to power. The juddering laugh of a woman mocking a man shakes the foundations of his masculinity, his world. If she laughs long and hard enough, his world might collapse. After all, a woman mocks that which has power over her — and this is part of what we also glean when reading Mallory Ortberg’s recent “Texts from Jane Eyre”: A woman mocks a man in order to de-power the object of her mockery. Thus, the frustrated narrator, Amito, in Monica Arac de Nyeko’s The Banana Eater repeatedly says:

Chei, I thought, such nonsense!

The behaviour of the adults around her is baffling and annoying. The men in the housing estates are mucking up the world. These men are violent, weak, blustering, disrespectful; they are, in Amito’s turn of phrase, “such nonsense”. We could imagine her, as a grown woman, shouting “Chei. Such nonsense!” at silly men. When Amito sees her mother invite the churchgoing Patrick Aculu into their home, she knows instinctively that her mother is about to take him as a lover; when Amito hears their conversations turn increasingly intimate and salacious, she sees and hears “such nonsense.” Aculu, in Amito’s eyes, is an insipid man. Amito and other children call him the “The Red Devil.” He is spineless, yet still his maleness, inside the house, is a threat, different only in degree from the violence of the men lurking outside the house.

The chairman, Ma’s nemesis, has to intervene to solve her vendor problem. The problem is indeed solved but Amito has a best friend, Naalu, and the chairman is Naalu’s father. After the chairman’s chases away the vendors, the nonsense caused by men, which had amused Amito before, now takes on a shocking and intimate reality. Nonsense causes a schism. Naalu is cloistered.

Chei, I thought. Such nonsense.

But it was not nonsense, of course, because Naalu did not return.

Amito’s witnessing of the world is harsh and hard. Her resistance to the world of men is playful and disrespectful. But her resistance changes nothing. Through the story, she is animated by a conviction that she perceives everything clearly and that by perceiving clearly and mocking savagely, the world’s effects on her life can be ameliorated, men can have no power over her world. But this, she learns, is not so. Men will continue to shape her world against her desire. This perhaps is a fundamental lesson of girlhood, that even though there can be no civility in the face of violence, the violence will nonetheless be unrelenting; as the violence escalates, so must her tactics, or else, like her mother, she will be beaten down, consigned to accommodating to the presence of men by whittling down her life: bringing an ineffectual suitor into her home, avoiding her own home when it is overrun by men, reaching out to the very man whom she hates because only he can provide the assistance she needs. In The Geography of Women’s Fear, Gill Valentine notes that “the fear of male violence deters the majority of women from being independent. It robs them of the confidence to live alone, to work in certain occupations, and to socialise without a group or male chaperon.” She adds that the inhibited use and occupation of public, public-private, and private space is a spatial expression of patriarchy.

Sarah Ahmed, writing about feminist complaint — about, precisely, Amito’s beating her girl chest, and sneering with “Chei! Such nonsense” — both observes and encourages that “[s]he comes up; she keeps coming up. She has not been beaten. She persists. Mere persistence can be an act of disobedience.” Africa39 author, Namwali Serpell, wrote that “to be a woman is horrific. It is always to be subject to violence or constraint, rape or repression.” To be a woman in the midst of horror, to persist in being a woman, to persist as woman when one is persistently horrified, to persist as a woman when men are fucking up the world, is to exist, necessarily, through and by disobedience. If to be a woman is horrific, then perhaps Amito sees that in order to carve a space of her own, without “such nonsense”, she must in turn become horrible. Disobedience becomes the basic lesson and weapon in Arac de Nyeko’s depiction of girlhood. We read The Banana Eater and we imagine a fighting girl’s future.


In Monica Arac de Nyeko’s interview with Shailja Patel, the Africa39 author said:

I grew up in Naguru Housing Estate, and this is pretty much how Naguru is. In Naguru, you do not even need a controversial thing to set people off; your crime can be wearing something nice and the neighbours would be ganging up against you and calling you a slut. So that is the sort of atmosphere.

Arac de Nyeko describes herself as writing “about violence and its capacity to distort and destroy,” and this is another useful index by which to read her work. Violence manifests in macro- and micro-aggressions. It is the violence of men against women and girls. It is the violence which proscribes the love of the lesbians in her Caine Prize winning story, Jambula Tree, and which curtails then shatters the sisterhood and inter-ethnic friendship between Amito and Naalu in The Banana Eater.

We arrive, again, at the last page of her story, we scroll to the end of the transcript of her last interview, we find what we are urgently hoping for: Arac de Nyeko is, in fact, working on a novel!

References

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