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Why I love Doreen Baingana

Chielo Zona Eze praises Doreen Baingana's 'Tropical Fish: Stories out of Entebbe', describing Baingana as a 'clever wizard who conjures a world of possibilities in the reader’s mind'.

Every once in a while you read a book that opens a whole new world to you. Or, it confirms, in a very subtle manner, some ideas that want to take shape in your mind. Such a book never allows you to rest; it literally comes to roost in your head at the most unsuspecting times. One such book is Doreen Baingana’s collection of short stories, 'Tropical Fish: Stories out of Entebbe'.[1]

I stumbled upon the book by chance when I was designing a course for my undergraduate class in post-colonial African literature. I remember taking it up, ignoring the hype in the blurb and then flipping through the pages. Captivated by the brilliant titles of the stories, I sat down and read one of them in a swoop, 'Green Stones'. I was blown away by the surefootedness of the writing and the narrator’s control of the world she shares. So, it became one of the required books for the course. And what luck I had.

What I observed about the writing was just one of the many virtues in the collection which some of my students (what a smart bunch they are) also observed. It was one of my most enjoyable classes so far. The stories in 'Tropical Fish' practically taught themselves, by which I mean that I didn’t have to explain much. I didn’t even have to try the time-tested Socratic Method with the goal of goading students to ideas in the book. The students came to class armed with questions and interpretations and ideas and, ach, please read this book.

And me? Why do I love this book so much? It solidly confirmed what I have always known about Africa, and provided me with new vistas for understanding my continent and its peoples and cultures: Africa is complex, and so are Africans. This shouldn’t be news, for human beings everywhere are; every individual is a web of infinite possibilities that can never be mastered. She is a work in process.

Doreen Baingana’s 'Tropical Fish' is a collection of loosely connected stories in which Christine is either the protagonist or at least a major character. Baingana, I think, undertakes a radical redefinition of identity in the age of global capitalism; she understands that the African post-colonial world goes beyond, in fact ignores, the gaze of the empire, and unhinges African identities from their autochthonous underpinnings.

Now to some of the stories in detail. In 'Tropical Fish', the story that lends the collection its title, Christine is a naïve but inquisitive college girl. She meets and falls for Peter, an English expatriate, who exports rare Ugandan tropical fishes. Their liaison comes to a seemingly inevitable end when Christine becomes pregnant and aborts the child without telling Peter before doing so. Not that Peter feels offended. Quite the opposite; he does not even register the abortion as an event. The complex web of Christine’s attraction to Peter is illuminated by an understanding of her life and desires. Christine sees herself as trapped in her native culture; a culture in which women are sold into arranged marriages. Even with her degrees, she laments she would be 'worth exotic cows'. In contrast to a life marked by 'eating roasted maize for lunch; getting debts and kids', Christine enjoys for the moment 'bubble bath', the 'lovely warm green froth that was a caress all over.'

It might be a bit disturbing that Christine appears insensitive to the very fact that she is liaising with one who is intent on robbing her people blind; she has given away herself to the white man, who is there specifically to exploit and deplete the country of its precious tropical fishes. The old colonial paradigm of white colonisers and African co-conspirators is touched upon.

What amazes me here is that Christine does not claim to be a victim here. Rather, she is part of the exploitation machinery that has taken hold of her country. She is aware of her having lost her innocence. It is true that Christine regrets having her 'legs spread open before kind men poking things' into her. She realises, however, that it is a conscious decision on her side: 'I let them.' She rebuffs self-pity. It even appears liberating that she loses her innocence here. Her loss of innocence is representative not only of Africa’s loss of innocence in history, and her participation in the ongoing exploitation of the continent by outsiders. It is however remarkable that, rather than play the victim, Christine courageously bears the consequences of her decisions because she has acknowledged her agency in all of the happenings around her. This, perhaps, seems more important to her as a morally conscious member of her society. The awareness that she is not merely an innocent bystander in the corruption of her society is, to me, the beginning of a deep moral awareness. She rejects the cloak of victimhood with the knowledge that there is no other way to usher in a new era of responsibility. It is like the Catholic mea culpa.

As if obeying the Abegyenda proverb – 'Those who travel, see' – Christine finds herself in Los Angeles ('Lost in Los Angeles'). She makes an interesting encounter in the city. In a café, during an open-mic poetry reading, she meets a young woman, Lightfeather, who claims to be Native American and who takes an instant liking for Christine because of her being African, black, in America. Christine is suspicious of Lightfeather and her moral persuasion. Her suspicion becomes explicit as Lightfeather’s refrain about victimhood and oppression peaks in her claiming ownership of America: 'This is my people’s land, you know', she says. Christine does not let it go unchallenged: 'Mine too', she says.

We are forced to rethink our conventional understanding of the world when a Ugandan immigrant challenges a putative Native American’s claim of ownership of America. But the challenge is not hollow. Rather, it calls for a closer consideration of the obvious moral or cultural tendencies, namely, Lightfeather’s attempt to weave solidarity based on victimhood.

Christine in a way challenges Lightfeather and us to construct our solidarity on something that is the universal, raw humanity of the other, and not because he or she belongs to my group. Perhaps no portion of Baingana’s text expresses this as clearly as the last couple of paragraphs in 'Questions of Home' – the last of the stories in the collection – do. Christine goes back to Uganda. Initially she observes Uganda nearly in the same way a tourist would, with apprehension. But even while many things appear strange to her she calmly resolves to carve out a home and to make meaning out of the strange old world, knowing that it is not going to be easy. She knows she has to conquer this strange world with the same moral arsenal that helped her survive in Los Angeles. Beautiful!

The first sentence of the last paragraph – 'the dark was closing in' – indeed reflects Christine’s initial doubt. She is not happy with her condition and she 'could hardly see now as the last blood-red streaks across the sky turned indigo'. Given this condition – darkness closing in, and the fact that she can hardly see – her 'deep sigh' becomes more than significant. It is a sigh of acquiescence. At the same time, it is also a sigh signalling a readiness to dig deep within her. The metaphor of her digging 'deep down into this mud with her bare hands until she couldn’t remove it from her fingernails' entails some positives. Digging one’s hand into mud is a call to become human, hence one is consciously reaching to the humus. It is while tilling and cultivating the soil that Christine can mould it the way she wants. And tilling it at first suggests becoming one with it by merging with it 'like day had smoothly become its opposite, night'.

In Christine, tilling the soil replaces being sprung from it (autochthony); it places emphasis on doing rather than on being. Beyond this, however, it is important to highlight the philosophical weight of the greyness of the moment in which day becomes night or night becomes day. It is in this uncertainty that the binaries between the different worlds Christine has experienced are erased. In fact, she had long realised that different worlds have already begun to merge into one another. She notes that the locals themselves have created new words from English ones. 'The word she had heard the whole day were like that too: Queenzi, Leeke, cente', adaptations of the English words queen, lake and cent.

They signal the birth of a new world resulting from the contamination and mixing of different worlds. Thus Christine’s condition is like a new 'language formed by old ones running underneath and over one another. An ever-changing in-between.' The in-between state of modern reality is nothing more than what Kwame Anthony Appiah identifies as contamination, an absence of purity. What is in-between, of course, lacks categorical definitions or pigeonhole. The in-between sees the world as becoming.

I love writers who do things with their stories. Baingana is one of them; she understands that no story is innocent. She is a clever wizard who conjures a world of possibilities in the reader’s mind with her deft manipulation of words and images. In so doing, she midwifes a discourse that seeks to broaden the African worldview, a discourse that places greater emphasis on global solidarity.

Oh, did I remember to say that I am ready to make her the queen of my village in Nigeria? Oh yes, she is. A Queenzi Africana.


* Doreen Baingana's 'Tropical Fish: Stories out of Entebbe' (2003) is published by Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
* Chielo Zona Eze teaches English and anglophone African literature at Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago. His blog can be found at [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.

[1] Doreen Baingana, 'Tropical Fish: Stories Out of Entebbe', Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003