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Five Questions from African Literature to Help You Reflect on 2018

Searing insights gleaned from some of our favorite books of 2018.

We often have the same dull reflections at the end of each year. Why not reflect with questions from your favourite African writers instead?

I still have many books on my shelf published this year that are not mine, some are borrowed from friends and many have been long overdue to be returned to the library. It is becoming costly literally and emotionally not to buy my own books. Recently, I decided to buy Emmanuel Iduma's A Strangers Pose which came with a beautiful foreword from Teju Cole. "Dream of a perfect book, a ballad with all the lyrics remembered...That book is in your hands." Cole wrote. After finishing the book, I knew I could not risk lending it to anyone.

Many books and magazine issues that came out this year felt like literature I had dreamed of filled with fascinating questions or had stories that made every day questions seem urgent.


Here is a list of questions from the best literature to help you usher in the new year:

Morning cloud has come, will you be under its shade? — Sunrise Poison by Phillip Zhuwao


Mornings are not what we think they are. We do not all wake up well rested, and often when I leave my house at 6:30 a.m. in the morning there is still no light to distinguish night from day. "Tall dreams possess that short zest/ of energy that makes you run all night/ In that dark 27 hours per day/ When 11 pm rings at 7 o'clock," Phillip Zhuwao writes in the opening lines of Sunrise Poison. It's rare to find poems that help me describe life in graduate school where rest is hard to come by.

Zhuwao finished writing Sunrise Poison in 1994 a year after I was born, and he died three years later at twenty-seven. His poetry collection was only published this year. He had a difficult life and his poems are obsessed with death as he grieves his literary hero Dambudzo Marechera, as well as other friends and family that have passed. It takes a moment to settle into his poems because his rhythm is a little unsteady, but his gentle tones come out in his questions. "Have you slept well?" He says in "the jar of chrysanthemums."

Where will all my nothing go? — Selves: An Afro Anthology of Creative Nonfiction curated by Basit Jamiu

It's not surprising that the poet Megan Ross designed the cover for Zhuwao's Sunrise Poison, which is a picture of torn notes, roses, and toxic clouds. Both writers are obsessed with imagery of breaking and exploding bodies. In her essay "Monstrous" from the anthology Selves, Ross writes about the inspiration behind her poetry collection Milk Fever. "The collection grew from the word corpse, a word I wrote in an old journal on the day postpartum women are told to expect the onset of baby blues." It's an essay that reflects what the editor sees as one of the strengths of the book, a fearlessness the writers have of "going where it hurts."

Not everything hurts in Selves, much of it is hilarious and delightful. There's amazing essays like Oris Aigbokhaevbolo's "Going to Gappah's Geneva" and Sada Malumfashi's "Finding Binyavanga" that show how we become ourselves through the writers that we love. Malamshafi writes "The Binyavanga way is the hurricaning way, the thundering way, the lighting way." It's electrifying to read how he borrows from that lightning in his writing without sacrificing his own wonderful voice.

Can you pray into your own ear? — Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

In the introduction of Selves, the editor Otosiriezi Obi-Young writes that we are seeing the "Confessional Generation" of African writers. These writers are "emoting boundlessly" on social media, unafraid of their vulnerability. Akwaeki Emezi has a stunning Twitter and Instagram, but their book Freshwater is a reminder that there are also older and more interesting ways to think about multiple selves than just online personalities. In a book that explores the world from the perspective of an ogbanje, the concept of selves becomes more vivid when you involve the gods.

Freshwater is filled with the best questions I have read from any novel this year that can help you reflect on your internal battles. How can one tell the story of a rain that fell on him, when he is ignorant of where the rain started falling on him? How do you survive when they place a god inside your body? Can you pray into your own ear?

​Do you have my book? — A Stranger's Pose by Emmanuel Iduma

Sometimes a question is only as good as the story behind it. Emmanuel Iduma's book The Strangers Pose combines memoir, travel writing, and photo criticism but it also has some of the best passive aggressive email exchanges I've ever read in African literature.

In one of the stories about Iduma's travels to Addis Ababa, he writes about a woman he meets there who he is attracted to. Iduma later finds one of her books mixed with his things after he has left Ethiopia, and in a rush of nostalgia he writes an email, "How have you been? You've been on my mind but I'm sorry I've been unable to call." She later responds, "Do you have my book? I've been missing it and I see that you've reproduced the photograph used on the cover for an essay on your blog." She was not trying to play cute games with an unapologetic thief. This frankness is the kind of energy everyone needs for the new year.

Can the body learn freedom again? — The Invention of Zimbabwe from Chimurenga Chronic

Chimurenga chronic is always a reminder that the best writing in African literature is not afraid to challenge political issues with humour, creativity, and honesty. After watching the military kill and intimidate citizens in Zimbabwe this year, this was a great collection of articles and interviews to think through the moment with.

"Can the body learn freedom again?" Bongani Kona asks Nora Chipaumire, one of the most innovative Zimbabwean choreographers. A great response to the question comes from a different article in the issue by Rudo Mudiwa. "Nostalgia, comforting as it is, needn't be our only recourse. Reinvention of all things bequeathed to us by people who were living their own fantasies of freedom is an alternative," she writes. It's important to reflect on the past, but also necessary to find new ways of imagining freedom for the new year.

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The front page of The New York Times on January 16, 2019

Kenyans Are Furious at the New York Times for Posting Photos of Terrorist Victims

After the the deadly attack on Tuesday, many are accusing the American newspaper of having a double standard on which dead bodies they allow into the paper

Is the New York Times guilty of a double standard when it comes to publishing images of dead bodies?

Kenyans, and others fed up with the coverage, took to social media in the hundreds to denounce a Times article that included an image of victims of Tuesday's Nairobi terrorist attack, bloodied from bullets, and lying hunched over their laptops, dead.

It has cause enough debate online to where the Times' incoming East Africa Bureau chief Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura felt the need to explain their photo policy, which is to show the dead only if their faces cannot be seen in the image. The photo in question fits the policy as the faces are facing away from the camera. She would later apologize before posting the official policy to her Twitter account. The photo remains up.

The Times' official response, as those tend to do online, has only created more anger. But unlike many unruly Twitter mobs, those responding to the official statement have a rather coherent message—"you wouldn't do this with photos of the American dead."

Some of the responses to the Times' official statement.

In a response to the controversy from the Poynter Institute, a typically astute observer of journalistic practice in the United States, they run through the typical American journalism school approach to publishing photos that might shock or offend. They write:

Should the Times have run the photo?
There is no easy answer.
The first question any news organization must ask when deciding to publish violent images is: WHY show it?
In other words, what is the news value? Does the public need to see such an image to fully grasp what happened? Does the public need to see such a photo to confirm or disprove the official account of the events?
An argument could be made that a writer's words could accurately describe the scene without being as disturbing as the image. In addition, when it comes to an act of terrorism, might publishing such a photo actually advance the cause of the terrorists, showing the damage they caused, thus fueling dread and panic?
Also this: The photo on the Times website came without warning. As a reader, you didn't know you were going to see a photo of dead people until you actually saw it.
Those are arguments to not run such a photo or, at least, warn readers of its graphic content.

While it's a fine analysis of when to show a violent image, it misses the central issue at play for those aggrieved by the Times' posting—that the American news-gaze values certain lives differently. Black, brown, foreign, poor—American journalism organizations, including the New York Times, cannot escape a base ethnocentrism in their coverage. It's so embedded into how these institutions operate, and the gap in understanding is so wide, that to much of the world, the Times' official response is laughably wrong at first glance.

"We take the same approach wherever in the world something like this happens--balancing the need for sensitivity and respect with our mission of showing the reality of these events"

And while there are examples from the Times that complicate this feeling, like these images of the dead in the terrorist attack in Nice, France, it doesn't discount the wider and correct feeling that the white victims of American mass shootings are treated differently than their African counterparts. And while there are complicated and systematic reasons for this which will always make discussing it difficult, to simply deny that different standards exist, does not increase the Times' credibility with Kenyans or the newspaper's growing online audience which will only become more vocal about how they're portrayed.

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The 10 Songs You Need to Hear This Week

The best music of the week featuring Falz, King Monada, Zlatan, Yemi Alade and more.

Every week, we highlight the cream of the crop in music through our Best Music of the Week column.

Here's our round up of the best tracks and music videos that came across our desks, which you can also check out in our Songs You Need to Hear This Week playlists on Spotify and Apple Music.

Follow OkayAfrica on Spotify and Apple Music to get immediate updates every week and read about some of our selections ahead.

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Violent Attack at Kenyan Hotel Ends With 14 Dead

The remaining hostages were freed after a 17-hour standoff between militants and Kenyan security forces on Wednesday.

The final hostages in the violent terrorist attack which took place at the DusitD2 Hotel in Naoribi's affluent Westlands district yesterday have been freed after a 17 hour standoff between Kenyan security forces and Al Shabab militants.

In a speech this morning, Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta declared the rescue mission over, stating that there were 700 people rescued and a total of 14 casualties. He also stated that all of the attackers had been killed in the operation, according to Quartz Africa. "Every person that was involved in the funding, planning and execution of this heinous act will be relentlessly pursued," added Kenyatta.

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