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'Natives' Is A Startling Novel About Sex, Migration And Stereotypes Of African Virility

Equatoguinean author Inongo vi Makomè's 'Natives' is the raw story of an immigrant sex-worker in Barcelona.

Inongo vi Makomè, author of Natives


Published last year without a lot of publicity, Inongo vi Makomè’s Natives is one of the very few African novels that have been translated into English from Spanish. It’s an entertaining and very explicit story about an African gigolo and a pair of under-sexed bourgeois ladies; it’s about refugees in Europe, Barcelona, and what it means to be African in the West. There are also some passages that made me uncomfortable and I’ll get to that in a moment.

But first we need to pause and reflect on the fact that it was written in Spanish, and how that could happen. After all, there isn’t that much African literature in Spanish. Equatorial Guinea is the only country on the African continent with a sizable Spanish-speaking population—with the exception of Morocco, whose writers are much more likely to use Arabic, French, or even English—and it’s not a big country, about the size of Massachusetts (with a tenth the population). But the real problem is political. Along with the linguistic barriers imposed by its quirk of colonial history, decades of dictatorial (mis)government—both before and after oil was discovered in 1990—have tended to cut the artists and writers of Equatorial Guinea off from the rest of the continent, and even from each other. As for the rest of the world, well… so long as the oil keeps flowing, the rest of the world is content to forget that Equatorial Guinea exists.

In the last few years, a few translators and publishers have managed to bring a handful of Equatoguinean works into English, but you quickly start seeing the same names over and over again. Before Michael Ugarte translated Natives, his 2008 translation of Donato Ndongo’s Shadows of Your Black Memory had been the first Equatoguinean novel in English, followed by Justo Bolekia Bolekå’s book of poetry, Löbëla, and by Jethro Soutar’s 2014 translation of Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel’s By Night The Mountain Burns. They’re remarkable books, but after that, our pickings become extremely thin: World Literature Today put together a mini-section on Equatorial Guinea, including an excerpt from a play by Recaredo Silebo Boturu (who was also anthologized in Africa39); You can find a short story called “Government Property” by Trifonia Melibea Obono Ntutumu, also translated by Souter, and there’s a graphic novel by Ramón Esono Ebolé, called Obi’s Nightmare, which was translated by David Shook and should come out sometime in 2016.

You can get a sense for what it’s like to be a writer in Shook’s marvelous mini-documentary about going to Equatorial Guinea to find the poet Marcelo Ensema Nsang:

There is a lot that we are missing, of course. The first Equatoguinean novel was published in 1953—five years before the “father of African literature” published his first novel, Things Fall Apart—but Leoncio Evita Enoy’s Cuando los combes luchaban has not been translated, and I can’t imagine how you’d find a copy. The same is true for the next Equatoguinean novel—Una lanza por el Boabí (1962), by Daniel Jones Mathama—and most of the others that follow. If you’re interested, the Wikipedia entry for Equatoguinean literature in Spanish is actually very nicely put together (most of it’s cribbed from an essay by Mbaré Ngom, called “La literatura africana de expresión castellana: La creación literaria en Guinea Ecuatorial”) but it’s a depressing testament to the ordeal of the Equatoguinean writer that the literature can be so easily enumerated and summarized.

The other depressing thing about Equatoguinean literature is that so much of what writing there is was written from exile, or is focused on the diasporic experience. This is not because Equatorial Guineans are “Afropolitans”; it is because so many Equatoguineans do not or cannot live in Equatorial Guinea. In the first decades of independence, state repression was so brutal that by the time the first dictator was overthrown by his nephew—who would become the second of two presidents-for-life—nearly a third of the country’s population had fled the country. Conditions briefly improved after the 1979 coup, but though some of the writers from this lost generation—like Donato Ndongo and the poet Juan Balboa Boneke—returned from exile, the “boom” in Equatoguinean literature didn’t last. Few of even those writers stayed: Boneke passed away last year after many years in Spain and Ndongo has been a voice of dissent from abroad for nearly a decade. María Nsué Angüe was the first Equatoguinean woman to write a novel—Ekomo (1985)—but, today, she lives in Spain. Of the younger generation, virtually all of them live north of the Mediterranean: Guillermina Mekuy has spent most of her life in Spain; Victoria Evita (the daughter of Leoncio Evita, Equatorial Guinea’s first novelist) lives in Madrid. Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel fled to Spain until his request for asylum was denied; now, though he has returned to Equatorial Guinea, he lives in hiding.

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Inongo vi Makomè’s Natives is “African Immigrant Literature,” if we must classify it; it’s probably the sort of thing that Okayafrica columnist Siyanda Mohutsiwa declared, on Monday, that she was “done with.” Inongo vi Makomè was partially educated in Equatorial Guinea—he was born just across the border in Cameroon—but today, like the characters in his novel, he lives in Barcelona. Like so many of the Equatoguinean literary diaspora, he lives in Spain, and writes about it. And diaspora has a tendency to blur details of origin: in Barcelona, Africa is Africa and an African is an African.

The story begins when two upper-class, middle-aged career women decide they want to purchase an African to service them sexually. Because of what they are—and what they think Africans are—the plan makes a lot of sense to them. They are busy women, either too busy to find love or too successful to attract any Spanish men (they suspect that the men in Barcelona are all “blind or impotent or gay”). And so, a practical solution presents itself in the person of a hired African lover. They will pay him well and keep it a secret, but there is nothing illegal about the arrangement. They have money, which he will need; he has a penis, which they want. It makes good sense to them: money for sex is the sort of thing, they reason, that an African in Spain would be glad to exchange.

One of the surprising thing about Natives is that they seem to be correct. A blurb on the back cover describes the book as a “scathing satire [that] takes the objectification of the poor immigrant to shocking extremes, laying bare the dehumanizing effects of immigration today.” But I’m not sure. Can it be a satire when Bambara Keita—a young immigrant without papers, sleeping rough in a park—finds the arrangement to be a godsend, and a practical solution to his very real problems? He has a few reservations, of course; sex with middle-aged white ladies might not be precisely what he came to Europe for. But given the practical realities of his life, he is up for it, without hesitation. Sex work is a good deal better than no work and, as he rationalizes, a man with two wives is not so unusual where he comes from.

Sex-work cannot dehumanize him, in other words; as an immigrant without papers, he is already dehumanized.

It would also be hard to call this novel “scathing.” However cold and mercenary the arrangement may seem in the abstract, it works in practice because of the characters’ very human needs, and because their lives really do fit together nicely. The two women have everything—except for the one gaping hole in their lives—and the one thing he has, basically the only thing he has, completes them quite nicely. It works. And work is constructive, after all, the labor that brings the world into existence, weaving human relationships and even community out of what begins as rough economics and need. At its best, then, the novel is curiously warm and awkward and complicated. Characters that began as clichés and fantasy caricatures—after all, the adventures of these wealthy but sex-starved Europeans and their hot-blooded and virile African gigolo seem straight out of a romance novel—evolves into a story about human beings living in a world where an arrangement like this one is anything but unrealistic.

In fact, “satire” might be exactly what this novel isn’t. Satire tends to be unstable, volatile, and unrealistic; too much realism will kill the joke, so satire is usually hit-and-run. Take Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal: there are actually excellent reasons why Irish babies couldn’t be used as meat-cattle; your average 18th-century English gentleman would be horrified at the prospect of “giving ten shillings for the carcass of a good fat child [for] four dishes of excellent nutritive meat.” This is the joke: Swift mocks the utilitarian rationality that reduces human beings to economics, by suggesting that, if the rich metaphorically eat the babies of the poor, why shouldn’t they literally turn them into dishes of excellent nutritive meat? It’s funny because this could never literally happen: it’s easy to make money from child labor—or to maintain London’s commercial supremacy by immiserating Ireland or India—because economics obscures the dismal connection between exploiter and exploited. But you can’t enjoy the meat if you know how the sausage is made. And in showing how the sausage is made, Natives describes an arrangement that’s too viable, practical, and satisfactory to become anything but realistic.

Of course, there are some startlingly lengthy passages of lurid sexual detail, and since our hero turns out to be endowed with a startlingly lengthy narrative device, he wreaks orgasm after orgasm on the bodies of his employers, living up to all their fantasies about African virility. This dip into stereotypes might have been worrying if the sex weren’t also described with such a casual frankness that becomes almost ordinary, even workmanlike. The multiple-page sex scenes are explicit, but they’re not quite pornographic: for every “heights of ecstasy” that our protagonists reach—and there are a few very purple and veiny passages—we get a correspondingly wide range of bodily messiness, from bad breath to awkward silences to blood on the condom. Even the (relatively) happy ending is messy and awkward; as with sex, climaxes need to be cleaned up.

It’s hard to imagine this book having a happy ending if its hero wasn’t male. Bambara Keita’s work is physically taxing, but the dangers and demands of the job are very different than for a woman in the same position. When his employers require him to be sexually aggressive, he obediently (but carefully) “savages” their welcoming bodies; in return, they nurture him with a kind of care and attention that verges on racist, infantilizing condescension, but which is also very maternal (and not dissimilar to what the young Bambara Keita seems to imagine a “normal” polygamous relationship to be). He enjoys a very patriarchal marriage arrangement, in fact: at night, he works for their play; during the day, he plays while they work.

The contrast between Natives and a novel like Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sisters Street (2009) couldn’t be sharper. Sex work is not illegal in Barcelona, but there’s a reason why female sex-workers are lobbying for official government regulation: without protection, the work is very dangerous. Men are dangerous, as is a capitalized but unregulated sex industry for which women are simply bodies to be sold. If patriarchy puts Bambara Keita in a sustainable position, humanizing him from a position of undocumented official non-existence, Unigwe’s novel tells a very different story about African immigrant sex-workers in Europe: in her book, the central character ends up dead. Piling gendered violence on top of global economic inequality is a much less sustainable situation for the sex-workers in question. Purchasing immigrant bodies is an industry when they’re female; Natives shows us something more like artisanal sex-work, sustainably produced and free-trade.

In the end, the best thing about Natives is that it never becomes predictable. It would have been easy to write a romance novel about a hunky immigrant and his harem of rich ladies, or to satirize these ugly old hags and their dumb African stud. But perhaps because these kinds of arrangements are neither titillating fantasy nor scandalous hyperbole—because these sorts of arrangements exist—Natives eventually becomes a story of people in a world that’s as messy and as weighed down by the awkwardness of bodily needs—to eat, to be warm, and to be comforted—as sex itself. And if you’re looking for work, it helps to be a man with a good tool.

Aaron Bady is a writer and recovering academic in Oakland, CA. Check out aaronbady.com and follow him on Twitter @zunguzungu.

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Nnedi Okorafor attends the 70th Emmy Awards at Microsoft Theater on September 17, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

Nnedi Okorafor's 'Binti' Is Being Developed Into a TV Series at Hulu

The award-winning novella is coming to a screen near you.

Binti, the acclaimed book by award-winning Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor, is being adapted into a TV series, set to premiere on Hulu. The Hollywood Reporter was the first to break the news.

The three-part, science fiction novella will be adapted for screen under the studio Media Res. The script is being written by both Okorafor and writer Stacy Osei-Kuffour, who has previously written for Watchmen and The Morning Show amongst others.

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Here are 10 Recent Books from Black South African Women Writers That You Need to Read

These 10 books have both shifted and unearthed new narratives within South Africa's literary world.

A few years ago, we celebrated the eight most influential Black South African women writers during Women's Month. The list featured the likes of Miriam Tlali, the first Black woman to publish a novel during Apartheid, Sweet Medicine author Panashe Chigumadzi and beloved poet Lebogang Mashile. We now bring you our selection of ten literary gems by various Black South African women writers which have shifted and even unearthed new narratives in the South African body of literature.


This list is in no particular order.

​"Collective Amnesia" by Koleka Putuma, published 2017

It is unprecedented for a poetry book in South Africa to go into a ninth print run and yet, Collective Amnesia has managed to do just that. The collection of poems, which compellingly explores religion, womanhood, Blackness, queerness, traditionalism, trauma and everything in between, has also been translated into Danish, German and Spanish. The winner of the 2018 Luschei Prize for African Poetry, Collective Amnesia has also been adopted as reading material for students at various institutions of higher learning across the country. It is a truly phenomenal and unrivalled first work by Putuma.

"The Ones with Purpose" by Nozizwe Cynthia Jele, published 2018

Jele's book centers themes of loss, grief and trauma. After the main character's (Fikile) sister dies from breast cancer, it is now up to her to ensure that certain rituals are performed before the burial. The Ones with Purpose highlights a lot of what Black people refer to as "drama" following the death of a loved ones. It highlights how often Black people are often not given the opportunity to simply grieve their loss but must instead attend to family politics and fights over property and rights. It also speaks to how, despite the rift that loss inevitably brings to Black families especially, togetherness also results because of it.

"These Bones Will Rise Again" by Panashe Chigumadzi, published 2018

Drawing from Audre Lord's concept of a biomythography in Zami: A New Spelling of My Name as well as Alice Walker's essay In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, Chigumadzi's These Bones Will Rise Again explores the history of Zimbabwe's spirit medium and liberation fighter Mbuya Nehanda during the Chimurenga, Zimbabwe pre- and post-colonization and the Mugabe-regime. The book also pays homage to her late grandmother. Chigumadzi's commitment to retelling lost narratives in Zimbabwe's complex history is a radical act in itself in a world that seeks to tell the country's stories through a lens that centers any and everyone else except Zimbabweans.

"Reclaiming the Soil: A Black Girl's Struggle to Find Her African Self" by Rosie Motene, published 2018

Just as Matlwa's debut novel Coconut explores the cultural confusion and identity crises that result in Black children raised in a White world, so too does Motene's book. In contrast, however, Reclaiming the Soil: A Black Girl's Struggle to Find Her African Self is instead a non-fictional and biographical account set during Apartheid South Africa. As a young Black girl, Motene is taken in by the Jewish family her mother works for. And while she is exposed to more opportunities than she would have had she remained with her Black parents, hers is a story of tremendous sacrifice and learning to rediscover herself in a world not meant for her.

"Period Pain" by Kopano Matlwa, published 2017

Matlwa's third novel Period Pain honestly pulls apart the late Nelson Mandela's idea of a rainbow nation and non-racialism. Through the central character Masechaba, the reader is shown the reality of a country still stuck in the clenches of racism and inequality. Xenophobia, crime and the literal death sentence that is the public health system are all issues Matlwa explores in the novel. It's both a visceral account of the country from the vantage point of a Black person without the privileges and comforts of a White person as well as a heartfelt story about how even the most broken continue to survive. It's the story of almost every Black person in South Africa and that that story is even told to begin with, and told honestly, is important.

"Always Another Country" by Sisonke Msimang, published 2017

Msimang's memoir details her political awakening while abroad as well as her return to a South Africa on the cusp of democracy. Hers is not an ordinary account of Apartheid South Africa and its aftermath but rather a window into yet another side—the lives of South Africans living in exile and more so, what happens when they eventually return home. Admittedly, it's an honest account of class and privilege. Msimang describes the tight-knit sense of community built between families who were in exile and acknowledges that many of them came back to South Africa with an education—something of which South Africans living in the country were systematically deprived. It is an important addition to the multitude of stories of Apartheid-era South Africa, the transition into democracy and the birth of the so-called "born-free" generation.

"Khwezi: The Story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo" by Redi Tlhabi, published 2017

Redi Tlhabi's second non-fiction work tells the story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, the woman who accused then President Jacob Zuma of rape back in 2005. "Khwezi" as she became known throughout the very public trial, was a symbol of the many women subjected to the abuse of men in positions of power. Similarly, she was treated as women like her are so often treated—ostracized by the community and forced to leave and start anew elsewhere. Tlhabi's account of Khwezi's life was a courageous one and one that tries to obtain justice despite the court's decisions. Although Khwezi died in October 2016, her memory continues to live on in the hearts of many South African women who refuse to be silenced by the dominant patriarchal structure. For that alone, this work is tremendously important.

"Intruders" by Mohale Mashigo, published 2018

When one thinks of African literature, stories of migration, colonization, loss, trauma, culture and traditions usually come to the fore. As a result, Afrofuturism or speculative fiction is a genre that is often sidelined and the stories therein left untold. Intruders is a collection of short stories by Mohale Mashigo that unearths these stories in a refreshing manner. From mermaids in Soweto, werewolves falling in love with vampires and a woman killing a man with her high-heeled shoes, Mashigo centers the proverbial "nobody" and pushes against the narrative that Africans can only tell certain kinds of stories but not others.

"Miss Behave" by Malebo Sephodi, published 2017

There is a reason why Sephodi's Miss Behave has resonated so strongly among women across the board. Drawing inspiration from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's adage that "well-behaved women seldom make history", Miss Behave documents Sephodi's journey to smashing the stereotypes peddled by society in its relentless prescriptions of what women can and cannot be; can and cannot do. Naturally, she's labeled a "misbehaving" woman and hence the title of the book. Sephodi also explores themes of identity and gender issues while allowing women the opportunity to take charge of their own identities despite societal expectations. A book that wants women to discover their bad-ass selves and exercise agency over their lives? A must read.

"Rape: A South African Nightmare" by Professor Pumla Gqola, published 2015

This book is both brilliant in the way it unpacks the complex relationship that South Africa has with rape and distressing in the way this relationship is seen to unfold in reality. Rape is a scourge that South Africa has not been able to escape for years and the crisis only seems to be worsening. Written almost four years ago, Prof Gqola's profound analysis of rape and rape culture as well as autonomy, entitlement and consent is still as relevant today as it was back then—both a literary feat and a tragedy. There can be no single answer to why South Africa is and remains the rape capital of the world, but Rape: A South African Nightmare is by far one of the best attempts thus far.

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University lecturer and activist Doctor Stella Nyanzi (L) reacts in court as she attends a trial to face charges for cyber-harassment and offensives communication, in Kampala, on April 10, 2017. (Photo by GAEL GRILHOT/AFP via Getty Images)

Jailed Ugandan Activist, Stella Nyanzi, Wins PEN Prize for Freedom of Expression

The outspoken activist, who is currently serving a prison sentence for a poem she wrote about the president's mother's vagina, won for her resistance "in front of a regime that is trying to suppress her."

Stella Nyanzi, the Ugandan academic, activist, and vocal critic of President Yoweri Museveni has been awarded the 2020 Oxfam Novib/PEN International award for freedom of expression, given to writers who "continue to work for freedom of expression in the face of persecution."

Nyanzi is currently serving a 15 month sentence for "cyber harassment" after she published a poem in which she wrote that she wished "the acidic pus flooding Esiteri's (the president's mother) vaginal canal had burn up your unborn fetus. Burn you up as badly as you have corroded all morality and professionalism out of our public institutions in Uganda."

According to the director of PEN International, Carles Torner, her unfiltered outspokenness around the issues facing her country is what earned her the award. "For her, writing is a permanent form of resistance in front of a regime that is trying to suppress her," said Torner at the award ceremony.

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Photo: Ben Depp.

Watch Yilian Canizares & Paul Beaubrun's Beautiful Video For 'Noyé'

"Cuba and Haiti come together to share the love and heritage of our deep rooted culture and spirituality."

Yilian Canizares and Paul Beaubrun connect for the serene "Noyé," one of the highlights from Canizares' latest album, Erzulie.

The Cuban singer and Haitian artist are now sharing the new Arnaud Robert-directed music video for the single, which we're premiering here today.

"Noyé is a song that comes from our roots," Yilian Canizares tells OkayAfrica. "Inspired by the energy of love. The same love that kept Africa's legacy alive in the hearts of Haiti and Cuba. We wanted to do a stripped down version of only the essential pieces from a musical point of view. Something raw and beautiful where our souls would be naked."

The striking music video follows Canizares and Beaubrun to the waters of New Orleans, the universal Creole capital, where they sing and float until meeting on the Mississippi River.

"Noyé is a cry of love from children of African descent," says Paul Beaubrun. "Cuba and Haiti come together to share the love and heritage of our deep rooted culture and spirituality."

Watch the new music video for "Noyé" below.

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