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.


Ndugu Nkwazi N Mhango said...

African literature has always been something emancipatory save that western machinations and bigotry made it nothing. But as the time goes the truth will surface and nobody will have any wit to sink it back to historical dustbin.
I'd like to read the same save that I don't know where to get it in North America.

Mbele said...

This novel was published in London by Faber and Faber.

Here in the USA, it is often difficult to obtain foreign books. I have experienced this over my twenty years of teaching here, when I wanted to have texts from Australia, India, UK, Anglophone Africa, and so on.

In my "African Literature and Politics" course, I have had to make copies of several of the books I am using, including "A Wreath for Udomo," following the appropriate legal channels, of course.

Certain online bookstores feature copies of such books, but not in quantities enough for the kind of classes I teach.

Anonymous said...

I am teaching "A Wreath for Udomo" in a 20 week honors Post-Colonial African Literature class in high school. As a happy accident, the history teacher chose to focus on African history this term as well, so we were able to collaborate on details of our study periodically to enhance one another's class. I chose "Udomo" (before I knew of the history class) because of the beauty of the prose--my intention was to have to students look at wide selection of works (novels, plays, poetry, political writings, non-fiction essays, etc.) to look at the cultures of different African societies and the effects of European education and colonization have on those societies. (We have also studied Achebe, Coetzee, Farah, Fanon, Dangarembga, Dasenbrock, Shohat, Sugnet,Busia, and the poets Awoonor, Okara, Diop... the list goes on.)

With "Udomo" along with the concurrent African history class, an unexpected line of thinking developed. My students have begun exploring beyond cause and effect, assimilation of culture vs. coercion...they are making connections of how culture evolves with shared experience. They ask the questions: once change is forced upon a culture, can the culture ever go back to what it once was? Can complete assimilation ever happen? What happens to a political system that is uprooted? How does education affect subsequent generations?

My students had begun making their own assertions, but "Udomo" made some of them look at the material in a completely new light as they tried to sort out the politics of African cultures as they deal with the history of their colonization.