Friday, October 8, 2010
Teaching "A Wreath for Udomo"
When I started teaching Peter Abrahams's A Wreath for Udomo in my African Literature and Politics course, over a week ago, I did not know what would happen. I might have read this novel as a young man, back in Tanzania, but I am not sure. Whatever the case, I had never taught it.
We are now about halfway through the novel, and what an experience it has been. Having started with Cesaire's Discourse on Colonialism my students and I now read A Wreath for Udomo in the light of that classic. It is interesting to see how a writer of fiction approaches the very problems and issues Cesaire raises in his political discourse, to discover and explore the overlaps and intersections between the two texts. What Cesaire discusses in a general theoretical way acquires concrete expression in the individual and collective experience of Abrahams's characters.
When I designed this course, I wanted the readings to project the spirit of the fifties as the Africans, suffering under colonialism, mobilized themselves and fought for independence. A Wreath for Udomo meets that goal very well.
Peter Abrahams is a skillful writer. His prose is engaging, and there are many passages in his novel that I have found impossible not to read and re-read, because of their descriptive power. Here is one:
The door near which Udomo stood opened quietly. A little black man, not much more than five feet tall, stood framed in it. The others didn't notice him for a while. His face was long and lean, tapering to a point at the chin. His long thin black fingers were strong and restless. His huge mop of kinky hair was a crown about his face. He had big pop-eyes. The lids drooped over them like an owl's, giving him a sleepy appearance (p. 31).
This book provides a sense of what living under colonialism and struggling for independence was like for Africans in the fifties and earlier. But this book is not only about the past; it is very much about today's Africa, which dwells in both the past and the present, so to speak. Abrahams captures this duality very well in his description of the African market:
The market was old, timeless Africa; loud, crowded and free. Here, a man sat making sandals from old discarded motor-car tyres; there, another worked at an old sewing machine, making a nightgown-like affair while the buyer waited; a little further on an old goldsmith worked at his dying art, but using, now, copper filings instead of gold to fashion the lovely trinkets women wear the world over; elsewhere a woman sold country cloth fashioned with such fine art that only Africans think of it as a garment of utility. Trade was slow and loud everywhere. This was as much a social as a shopping centre (p. 148)
The description does not end there. By observing the dynamics of the market, Abrahams reveals key aspects of African culture. I was delighted to read this passage, recalling what I wrote about the African market in my Africans and Americans book.
We are halfway through A Wreath for Udomo, even though we have spent more than a week on it. I decided that spending a lot of time on a book like this would help the class build a good framework for understanding not only key aspects of the African experience but also other texts we are going to read.