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Here are some reviews of books, mostly from upcoming African writers who are under the Crossing Borders programme which is hosted by the British Council alongside some African made movies and music. An arts page will soon be included.


Wes Anderson, director

One of the sweetest and funniest movies of the 90s. Some people didn't like the main character, but I found him fascinating and charming in a squirmy sort of way. Also one of the best and least contrived happy endings I've seen in a movie recently. Bill Murray is great!
- Submitted by Jim


The Stone hills of Maragoli.
By: Stanley Gazemba.
Review by Richard Bartlett, African Review of Books.

Having spent a week at the London Book Fair and seminars related to books
and Africa I realise how much work has to be done. Not just when it comes to
Africa, but especially when it comes to enlightening ignorant and
patronising Europeans as to what our continent has to offer. Too often the
debates veered away from literature and got stuck on literacy. There is no
arguing that literacy levels in most of the countries on the continent are
less than ideal, but when discussion on the need for literacy leads to the
conclusion that it is not worth speaking of literature, Africa is being done
a serious injustice.

Then along comes a gardener, yes he finished school before dedicating his
working hours to "tending grass and flower shrubs", who creates a tragedy of
such dimensions, such variety, and originality that it should remind us of
how serious that injustice is. What makes The Stone Hills of Maragoli so
special is that it has no pretensions about attempting to address issues of
modernity, of city life, of "clash of cultures", of the rural-urban divide
or other themes that are too often the substance of popular African novels.
Yet the issues it deals with are as immediate, even if they are beyond the
gaze, beyond the limits of the urbanity that attracts most writers.

"There are constant diversions that are the reality of lives lived in the
search for something beyond subsistence"

Stanley Gazemba has situated his novel in rural Kenya, in a village whose
most important employer is the local tea estate. The central character is
Ombima whose dream is to save enough money to build a house of brick with a
roof of corrugated iron, so he and his family can move out of their hut.
That dream is far off as the novel opens with Ombima resorting to stealing
fruit and vegetables from his employer's fields just to feed his family.

From there we are introduced to the quotidian drudge of life as a labourer,
where tending the vegetable garden is a job to be relished because it saves
the back-breaking work of tea picking in the heat of the day. We are
introduced to the many methods used by the tea pickers to avoid that final
arduous task of taking the harvest to market. But more important than the
nature of the work are the lives of the myriad characters who live in
Maragoli. In this aspect, Gazemba has created an epic in that we are
presented with a panorama of characters who add numerous layers to a story
which charts individual idiosyncracies that comprise a community. This is
not an introverted narrative of one person's trials and tribulations - it
tells of an entire community shut off from the advances of globalisation due
to one simple fact of their lives: poverty. This is life on the fringes, on
the periphery where people cannot see beyond the stone hills - not because
they lack vision, but simply because they lack the means of disrupting the
cycle of poverty.

There is Ombima's wife Sayo and his two children Saliku and Aradi, who revel
in their first trip to the nearest town, and its fairground, travelling a
matatu taxi for the first time in the week before Christmas. Ombima's best
friend and colleague Ang'ote falls in love with Rebecca, a woman much older
than him, and they hide their relationship out of fear of both being
ostracised and teased. Divorced from the daily grind of village life are
Madam Tabitha, a teacher, and her husband Andimi, a businessman who owns the
tea plantation which forms the focus of the villagers' lives.

Gazemba takes us on a tour not just of the village but of the events that
comprise the lives of a community that lives on the periphery of the visible
world. There is one story which weaves its way through the narrative, of the
labourer who somewhat unwillingly begins an affair with the lady of the
estate (which ends in a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions), but what
makes the novel so appealing are the constant diversions that are the
reality of lives lived in the search for something beyond subsistence. The
dilemma of squandering savings on spoiling the children with a Christmas
excursion, meaning the new roof will have to wait. The girl who comes down
in the night with some inexplicable illness and dies soon afterwards, and it
makes sense that we never know what caused her death - the doctors and
nurses who treat the child never tell the parents what their daughter
suffers from, and there are no expectations for such knowledge - it makes no
difference and means nothing because the family did all they could and
suffer no less for this absence of neat categorisation that comes with the
privilege of education.

There are rats which live in the thatch roof and the cattle are kept in the
kitchen at night, the men squander their earnings in the local beer hall,
there are arguments between couples over matters of finance, of bringing up
children and of trust. Among all of
this the affair between Ombima and Madam Tabitha develops as Madam becomes
all the more demanding and the man begins to turn his unwelcome situation to
his own advantage. Ombima discusses his dilemma with his close friend who
commiserates and then uses this information to advance his own position.
Thus betrayal on a number of fronts reaches its climax as tragedy on the
stone hills of Maragoli as the Christmas procession passes in jubilation

Gazemba, the self-confessed gardener who has published many short stories,
has created, in The Stone Hills of Maragoli, a work which reflects this
expertise in shorter fiction. It is as if Gazemba has woven together a
number of stories and crafted a novel - but it is remarkable because it
works so well. It is powerful because it offers no pretense of 'great'
literature. It tells an ordinary tale of love, celebration, betrayal and
revenge, but places all this in a context that is at once familiar for its
emotional impact and unfamiliar for its cultural environment. It is an easy
novel to read, but disconcerting at the same time for readers who have not
experienced life in Africa beyond the city limits. Gazemba gives no obvious
clues to slot the story into a particular environment - the cars,
telephones, architecture, shops give few hints as to whether this is set in
1950 or 2000. That being said, however, this is undoubtedly a novel of
post-colonial Kenya. It is a comment on how the lives of ordinary people
have progressed but changed little, on how slowly the trickle-down effect
takes place when it comes to good governance and wealth management. But it
is told by an insider who has an eye for detail and a twist of phrase that
frees the characters, and their environment, from being cast in a mould of
indifference Gazemba succeeds in creating a great book because he does not
attempt to abuse this dichotomy of un/familiarity to appeal to a particular
type of reader. He has written an epic tragedy of Kenya that illustrates how
far modernity has yet to go. And how easy it is to commit an injustice with
a world of good intentions.

The Stone Hills of Maragoli
Stanley A. Gazemba
Acacia Publishers, Nairobi, Kenya
267 pages

The Stone Hills of Maragoli was awarded the Jomo Kenyatta prize for Kenyan
literature in 2003.

Richard Bartlett is the co-editor of the African Review of Books

This review posted 20 April 2004


Josh Rouse

A quirky sophomore effort by a singer-songwriter to watch. Starts strong ("Marvin Gaye" and "Direction" are standouts) but eventually all the songs begin to sound alike, which is unfortunate. Josh should maybe hire a producer more willing to experiment with his sound.
- Submitted by Patricia