The Stranger by Albert Camus

“He wanted to talk to me about God again, but I went up to him and made one last attempt to explain to him that I only had a little time left and I didn’t want to waste it on God.”

 
Albert Camus was a French-Algerian writer best known for his absurdist works, including The Stranger (1942) and The Plague (1947). He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. Camus started his involvement in political activities during his student years, joining first the Communist Party and then the Algerian People’s Party. As a champion of individual rights, he opposed French colonization and argued for the empowerment of Algerians in politics and labour.

“The Stranger”, or sometimes translated as “The Outsider”,  is considered the best at highlighting Albert Camus’ philosophies towards life of absurdism and existentialism. The story has two parts. It follows Meursault, the main character, before and after he commits a murder.  The philosophical contemplations are embodied by Meursault, a pied-noir office worker, who appears as a blank canvas, barren of any real emotions.

 

The novel opens with the news that Meursault’s mother has died – something that he greets with his usual indifference – and goes on to describe his lack of grief at the funeral, and his subsequent relationship with Marie, a young woman he takes to the cinema the day after the funeral. Later, when he is befriended by Raymond, a man of dubious character, Meursault is drawn into obnoxiousness, which ends with his murdering an Arab. The second half of the novel is concerned with Meursault’s subsequent trial and incarceration and, more significantly, his awakening to the absurdity of life, and his passage, in the full knowledge of death, into authentic existence.

 

The Stranger touches on a number of philosophical schools of thought, and Camus borrows from his forbears, notably Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Even though Camus claimed not to be an existentialist, Meursault undoubtedly embodies the existential spirit; he recognises that life is limited to this world and that death, the fate common to all mankind, is inevitable and final.

By embracing authentic existence, Meursault sets himself apart as the outsider. Meursault’s most striking characteristic is his strict adherence to truth; he lives without motive, with a complete congruence between his thoughts and actions. In perfectly embodying one of society’s moral ideals, he causes friction between himself and an hypocritical society who cannot themselves achieve the standards they set. That Meursault will not make concessions, will not bring comfort to others by buying into the illusion, is the true cause of his condemnation.

 

There are philosophical works that offer a deeper and fuller discussion of the human condition, and The Stranger can feel a little lightweight. However, the novel is so luminously constructed, the ideas presented in such an accessible and immaculate form, that it is indisputably one of the very best introductions to existentialism and the ideas surrounding absurdism and authenticity.

The enduring appeal of this work can be attested by the continuous disconnection that we as individual have with norms impose by society. The world that Meursault inhabits is a strange version of our own, and his attitude, his disconnect from society, still strikes a chord.

Moolaadé- “African solutions to African problems”

Ousmane Sembene was for many, including myself, Africa’s greatest ever film director. His last work,  Moolaadé (the title means physical and spiritual protection) is a fine and brave work, set in an Islamic village in Burkina Faso.

On the surface, this is a cheerful, traditional community, clean, colourfully dressed, not prosperous, but getting by. A beautiful 17-year-old girl is awaiting the return from Paris of the headman’s son to whom she is promised in marriage. But her mother, Collé, the independently minded second wife of a weak, wilful husband, has refused to have her subjected to female circumcision. Then five 12-year-old girls come to Collé in flight from the regular ‘purification’ (i.e. mutilation) ceremonies and she gives them her ‘moulaadé’.

This unleashes powerful conflicts in the village. The elders turn on Collé, as do the team of red-robed women called the Salidana, who carry out the often fatal circumcisions. Her daughter can no longer marry her fiancé, who, despite his new Western ways, bows before his father’s demands.

Detecting the source of subversive knowledge, the males seize the women’s battery-operated radios and make a bonfire of them. An itinerant trader, a rebellious outsider, who has a background of insubordination in the army, takes Collé’s side when her husband whips her in public. That night, he’s driven out of town and murdered.

This powerful movie addresses female mutilation as both a cruel practice to be abolished and as a metaphor for the traditional subjugation of women in a society dominated by self-regarding men who stand idly by as their wives do most of the work, the thinking and the child rearing. It ends affirmatively with the women on the point of controlling their destinies.

The film has as its centrepiece a stomach-turning scene of a screaming girl being ritually cut, juxtaposed with an image of Collé’s husband enforcing his conjugal rights. Collé’s stand leads to a kind of martyrdom for her; the village elders order a totalitarian bonfire of radios, which are filling up the women’s heads with modern ideas – but it ends on a note of hope and change.

This is a movie about contemporary sexual politics in which there is something very real at stake. The final contrasted images are of an ancient ostrich egg that has stood atop the mosque for two centuries, and a TV aerial, a hopeful link to a future of information, education and a world elsewhere.

Thomas Sankara – “The Upright Man”

 ” You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness.”

 

 

 

Thomas Sankara, was a charismatic leader and president of Upper Volta, which he renamed Burkina Faso (“the land of upright people”) during his period of office between 1983 and 1987. As a professing Pan Africanist he fought for a United Africa.

Many revolutionary leaders talk the talk, but don’t always walk the walk. But with Sankara, his revolutionary principles guided his own life. At the time of his death he had a salary of $450 a month; and his most valuable possessions were a car, four bikes, three guitars, a fridge and a broken freezer. He was the world’s poorest president, but indeed its richest revolutionary.

His Roman Catholic parents wanted him to become a priest, but he opted instead for a military career – a path that many Africans of his generation pursued as a route to a better life. In 1970, at the age of 20, Sankara was sent for officer training in Madagascar where he witnessed a popular uprising of students and workers that succeeded in toppling Madagascar’s government. Before returning to Burkina Faso in 1972, Sankara attended a parachute academy in France where he was exposed to left-wing political ideologies – particularly as they related to France’s neo-colonial relations with her former colonies.

In 1980s the country was being rocked by a series of labour union strikes and military coups. Sankara’s military achievements and charismatic leadership style made him a popular choice for political appointments, but his personal and political integrity put him at odds with the leadership of the successive military governments that came to power. In early 1983 Sankara was selected as the prime minister by the Council for the Salvation of the People (CSP) headed by Jean-Baptiste Ouedraogo, which provided him with an entryway into international politics and a chance to meet with leaders of the Nonaligned Movement, including Fidel Castro, Samora Machel and Maurice Bishop.

This same year Sankara’s anti-imperialist stance and grassroots popularity once again put him at odds with the more conservative elements within the CSP, including President Ouedraogo. In an internal coup, Sankara was removed as prime minister and jailed. In response to mass demonstrations demanding Sankara’s release the CSP compromised by putting him under house arrest in the capital Ouagadougou.

On 4 August, 1983 Compaore along with some 250 other soldiers freed Sankara, overthrew the CSP and formed the National Council of the Revolution (CNR) with Sankara as its president. Sankara once described his country as an embodiment of “the microcosm of the entire natural evils from which mankind still suffers at the end of the twentieth century”. Upper Volta, which Sankara renamed Burkina Faso (land of upright men), was (and still is) amongst the world’s poorest countries.

 

A campaign for the restoration of women’s dignity and recognition of their role in society was launched in order to free women from the yoke of patriarchal domination. During Sankara’s presidency Burkina Faso was a leader in employing women in government posts. In a symbolic attempt to demonstrate to men what the daily realities of women’s lives were like, he declared a day of solidarity with housewives and forced men to go to market and take responsibility for household duties.

Sankara preached economic self-reliance. He shunned World Bank loans and promoted local food and textile production. Women, the poor and the country’s peasantry benefited mostly from the reforms. Sankara outlawed tribute payments and obligatory labour to village chiefs, abolished rural poll taxes, promoted gender equality in a very male-dominated society (including outlawing female circumcision and polygamy), instituted a massive immunisation programme, built railways and kick-started public housing construction. His administration aggressively pushed literacy programmes, tackled river blindness and embarked on an anti-corruption drive in the civil service.

He discouraged the luxuries that came with government office and encouraged others to do the same. He earned a small salary ($450 a month), refused to have his picture displayed in public buildings, and forbade the uses of chauffeur-driven Mercedes and first class airline tickets by his ministers and senior civil servants.

Sankara was murdered on October 15, 1987, by a conspiracy of European and African interests afraid of what transformative potential Burkina Faso under Sankara suggested and the danger of those ideas spreading.

“Swinging Addis”- The Birth of Ethiopian Jazz

The story begins in 1896, following Ethiopia’s victory against the invading Italians at the Battle of Adwa. Russian tsar Nicolas II sent Emperor Menelik 40 brass instruments. It became the imperial music – and planted a seed. Then, on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1924, the prince who would become Emperor Haile Selassie met a marching band of young Armenians orphaned in the recent Ottoman massacres. He shipped the “Arba Lijoch” (“Forty Kids”) back to Addis Ababa and installed them as the imperial band. The emperor’s new big band ensembles proved to be incubators for the stars of a new sound craved by a young generation demanding musical – as well as social and political – change.

The father of Ethio-Jazz is Mulatu Astatke. Born in 1943 in Jimma, a city in the Western part of Ethiopia, Astatke unexpectedly chose to study aeronautic engineering in North Wales in the late 1950s. Formally introduced to music and the arts during his studies, he eventually discovered his natural talent and passion for music. Inspired by other African students in Trinity College in London who were presenting their music and culture to European audiences, he started to want to compose and promote Ethiopian music. After much thought and improvisation, Astatke finally managed to combine the unusual pentatonic scale-based melodies of traditional Ethiopian music with the 12-note harmonies and instrumentation of Western music, giving birth to ‘Ethio-Jazz’. The bigger jazz scene in New York compelled Astatke to move once again, and it was during the 1960s that Ethio-Jazz fully came to life. Greatly inspired by the likes of Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

In Addis Ababa, Emperor Selassie had made a number of liberal changes following the social turmoil of 1960, and Addis was in full swing. The period up until the mid-1970s was described as the country’s golden age of music and creativity. Although this new music style was first met with distrust of those who feared a cultural colonization, Ethio-Jazz eventually picked up momentum with a fast-growing appreciation during the last days of Selassie’s reign.

Gétatchew Mèkurya

Apart from Astatke, there are others musicians who greatly contributed to transform the country’s musical landscape in the 1960s. Saxophonist Gétatchew Mèkurya, who started his career at the Addis Ababa city band and went on to play alongside many of Ethiopia’s biggest orchestras, later releasing his acclaimed album Negus of Ethiopian Sax. Another unforgettable Ethio-Jazz veteran is Mahmoud Ahmed, who is often mentioned together with Astatke, whenever Ethio-Jazz comes to mind. Ahmed became similarly famous for combining Ethiopian music with western jazz and rock, and released the album Ere Mela Mela in 1975. Famous Ethio-Jazz singers include Alemayehu Eshete who, together with Girma Bèyène, founded the Alem-Girma Band and composed about 30 singles before the arrival of the Communist regime.

The Derg, the Marxist regime of Mengistu Haile-Mariam in 1974 squashed Ethiopia’s budding musical scene and liberal social life. Considered a Western import, much of Ethiopia’s popular music was censored, and musical creation and practice were largely limited to patriotic songs. As a result, many musicians fled the country or kept a low profile, and a generation grew up with hardly any memory of Ethio-Jazz. In spite of this, Astatke opted to remain in the country. As a board member of the International Jazz Federation, this afforded him a certain amount of freedom as well as a chance to travel.

The revival of Ethiopian music as a world export started in 1997 with Francis Falceto, a French music producer, fascinated with “World Music” by compiling a 23-volume series called Ethiopiques on the French label Buda Musique. Through this extensive series, Ethio-Jazz finally hit the international scenes on the eve of the new millennium as various actors in the world music arena become acquainted with and captivated by Astatke’s work. Ethio-Jazz reached an even wider audience when Jim Jarmusch, completely taken in by Astatke’s work, used a number of Astatke’s songs in the soundtrack of his film Broken Flowers in 2005.

Just over 70 years old, Mulatu Astatke is as active as ever. Completely absorbed by music, Astatke continues to innovate, modernising traditional instruments, taking up new opportunities for musical cross fertilisation and tirelessly working on establishing a profound imprint of Ethio-Jazz on the history of world music. On top of participating actively in a number of festivals and speaking at international events, Astatke has also established the African Jazz Village, a music school and jazz club dedicated to promoting Ethio-Jazz in Addis. Working closely with young bands and his students, Astatke is paving the way for the next wave of Ethio-Jazz musicians. Far from being a passing music phase of the moment, Ethio-Jazz has continued to thrive in the modern day Ethiopia and beyond, against all odds, constantly evolving but staying true to its strong Ethiopian roots.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings —
I know why the caged bird sings!

  “Sympathy”  by Paul Laurence Dunbar

 

 

 

 

 

The caged bird “sings of freedom”, writes Maya Angelou in her poem “Caged Bird” – a poignant recurring image throughout her work, as she eloquently explores the struggle to become liberated from the shackles of racism and misogyny. This evocative first volume of her six books of autobiography, originally published in 1969 (1984 in the UK), vividly depicts Angelou’s “tender years” from the ages of three to 16, partly in the American South during the depression-wracked 1930s, while also offering timeless insights into the empowering quality of books.

The painful sense of being unwanted haunts her early childhood, for when Maya (then known as Marguerite) is three and her brother Bailey four they are sent to the “musty little town” of segregated Stamps, Arkansas wearing tags on their wrists addressed to “To whom it may concern”, dispatched by their parents in California who had decided to end their “calamitous marriage”. Living with their grandmother, “Momma”, who owns a general merchandise store, and Uncle Willie, they suffer racist incidents both in the store and on the streets – nowhere feels safe. Sent to live with her mother, Maya endures the trauma of rape by her mother’s lover Mr Freeman (“a breaking and entering when even the senses are torn apart”). After Freeman is murdered, she stops speaking, frightened of words.

Angelou finds her voice and a love of language and books through the help of Mrs Bertha Flowers who, writes Angelou, “has remained throughout my life the measure of what a human being can be”. The memoir’s absorbing emotional arc traces Angelou’s growth from inferiority complex to confidence, finding the strength to tackle “the puzzle of inequality and hate” and be hired as the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco thanks to her “honeycomb of determination”.

Challenging societal structures, Angelou also succeeds in altering literary structures, experimenting with the capabilities of memoir – indeed, her editor had dared her to “write an autobiography as literature”. Told with a winning combination of wit and wisdom, this is a paean to the powers of storytelling to build bridges across divides, and heal what has been damaged.

 

 

“The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power. The fact that the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste and even belligerence.”