Macondo Festival: A timely portrayal of Africa’s quest to rediscover itself

Angolan writer Ondjaki. [Courtesy]
Award-winning Angolan writer Ndalu de Almeida, popularly known by his pen name Ondjaki, is in the country. 

Ondjaki joins other artistes from across the African continent and Brazil for the Macondo Literary Festival at the Kenya National Theatre in Nairobi. The three-day event started yesterday.

Themed “Re-imagining African Histories through Literature”, the festival started in high spirits with great performances that will continue until tomorrow. They include free workshops, book launches, panel discussions, meet-the-author events, storytelling, improvisation performances, exhibitions, film, music and dance.

Petty thief

In Nairobi, Ondjaki speaks about his novel The Transparent City that won the 2013 José Saramago Prize. He speaks about how the novel echoes the tenet that a literary text is of timeless and boundless significance. The text is a translation from Portuguese title Os Transparentes, which is timely and convenient since translation is a key concept of discussion in the literary forum at the Kenya Cultural Centre.

The novel paints a picture of countries in the continent whose futures have been corrupted by vices that have rendered them fragile to the point of total collapse.

The author accurately portrays this deteriorating nature of African urban cities and countries through the futile struggles of key characters comprising thieves, journalists, car-washers, seashell sellers, former soldiers and taxmen among others.

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Of significance is the life of a character, Odonato, who roams Luanda city in Angola looking for his son, Ciente-the-Grand, who is a petty thief. Odonato is a symbol of most African states, rundown by the failing leadership so much that they have deteriorated to become shadows of their former self.

Odonato’s doomed search for his son renders his body fragile as he becomes emaciated and transparent that his organs and blood can be seen with an ordinary eye; it is magical realism at work that the author employs to demonstrate the situation at hand.

It is a picture of sadness and the spirit of resilience in Africa where people, despite their grinding challenges, can afford to smile or at least pretend to do so. Africa is struggling through changes in socioeconomic aspects, what some critics refer to as postcolonial nostalgia for futures and stalled histories.

Odonato’s wife, Xilisbaba, is the first to observe (the way many observant citizens witness the declining state of the countries due to mismanagement) the degrading physique of her husband. She sees blood running through her husband’s veins. Odonato simply answers without being asked, “I know Baba, I’m becoming transparent.”

The acceptance of his condition echoes the realities in most African states: the nose-diving to misery is so obvious that one does not need an outsider to make them aware.

The situation can be explained though; Odonato shows the journey to deterioration that could have been averted if action was taken. He explains: “It started with hunger, I was hungry and I didn’t have anything to eat…but I was sick of eating out of helping hands, I wanted to eat from the hand of my government, but not the way our rulers eat, I wanted to eat from the fruit of my labours, from my profession”. 

He concludes: “I figure the city is speaking through my body.”

Hunger and food are common metaphors that speak volumes on situations that people and society in general are facing. It captures the basics of human life. When people are unable to access food, the situation is considered dire. It is a society that does not live beyond the struggles synonymous with that of the animals in the jungle.

The problem in Africa is leadership and Ondjaki pictures it well. Despite the tribulation facing Odonato, and African countries by extension, the government is busy engaging in corrupt deals that add no value to the Odonatos.

In fact, efforts by those in leadership are actually depriving ordinary citizens the more, pushing them deeper into the dungeons of misery. In the novel, we see ministers importing scientists to drill oil in Luanda City with zero regard to how it threatens the lives of the residents. The greedy government officials are picturing how they will make their own fortunes from oil prospecting business.

Despite the unpromising state of his transparent and weak body, Odonato does not stop looking for his thieving son, Ciente-the-Grand, being a symbol of slippery future of African countries. The son later appears but having been shot in the buttocks while shoplifting. A doctor who attends to him becomes worried of Odonato’s state than that of the son.

One wonders why Odonato is so keen on his son yet he is in dire need. Odonato’s character depicts Africa’s obsession with the future when the present state is too fragile to guarantee a better future. In fact, the narrator juxtaposes the nature of Odonato with that of an albino cockroach, a strange insect that fascinates a scientist in the novel. The cockroach is whitened but at least is not transparent like Odonato.

The coming of Ondjaki to Kenya to speak of historical realities in Africa through fiction is timely considering the recent developments in the country. They include news of eight pupils of Precious Talent Academy in Nairobi who perished after a classroom wall collapsed. The classroom in question is reported to have been constructed using substandard materials. The tragedy was brewed by corruption. 

Brewed by corruption

Like Ondjaki, similar in-depth discussions into African histories through literature will be covered through an engagement between audience and other award-winning writers including Kenya’s Peter Kimani and Yvonne Owuor. Others are Geovani Martins (Brazil), Dina Salustio (Cape Verde) and Yovanka Perdigao (Guinea-Bissau).

Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa (Mozambique), Abubakar Adam Ibrahim (Nigeria), Johny Steinberg (South Africa) and Novuyo Rosa Tshuma (Zimbabwe), writer and translator Jethro Soutar (Portugal) and filmmaker Joao Viana (Angola/Portugal) are also in attendance.

But as Ondjaki accurately captures, Africa is aware of its challenges best depicted through the testimonies of the dying Odonato: “I think I suffer from the illness of national malaise…my country hurts me…the war, the political misunderstandings, the internal ones and the ones set off by people outside…Heart pains of feeling, yearnings in all directions, not only yearnings for the past, I even have yearnings for things that haven’t happened yet.”

In other words, the author brings a warning and message of hope about Africa to Nairobi: since we can diagnose our problems and their sources, we can identify a potential solution. If we don’t, the future is doomed by forces that we can tame, much like the symbolic fire that appears ravaging the city at the end of the novel. Or else, Africa will degenerate and become transparent with time owing to failing leadership driven by greed.

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OndjakiMacondo Literary FestivalKenya National Theatre