When a tragedy like the one in New Zealand happens, I prefer to share the stories of solidarity and humanity. Of the man standing outside a mosque while Muslims pray though he knows a bullet can get him just as well, but felt that the gesture was necessary. Of the female politician who, in solidarity with the victims, identified with them by wearing a hijab and by refusing to speak the name of a murderer and terrorist. Of Jews, straight from their own massacre in Pittsburgh, making solidarity with another community of faith in their own time of grief. I share these because I know the stories that can save us and I know the stories that will destroy us.
Am I naive? Maybe. But my faculties will not share the call by scavenging terrorists for avenging the acts of their brother terrorist with whom i see no difference in quality or degree of hate. I will not share coverage that humanises the perpetrator of a hateful crime nor his smirking pose in a courtroom.
It’s not like I do not know about differences and how valid, potent and explosive they can be. I do. But I like to think of the moment before difference sets in, and in the gestures I refuse to make, because I reject the reality they entrench, I reclaim the quality of that penultimate space of calm. It is possible that I am naive. But it is true that also I hope this naivete might show the world it yet can save itself from the peril of terror and those who vend it, regardless of who they are and what creed they pretend to.
The eponymous Charles is Charles Agwok, the northern Ugandan
protagonist of Joel Hirst’s latest novel. He is of the Acholi ethnic
nationality. For those even mildly familiar with the recent geo-politics and
history of East Africa, these key words—Acholi, Ugandan—furnish a third, the
LRA. The LRA, which stands for the Lord’s Resistance Army, is a fundamentalist Christian
guerilla militia that has been fighting against the present Museveni regime
since the late 80’s. It is led by the elusive Joseph Kony and seeks a Uganda
governed by the Ten Commandments. Untold horrors, from rape to child soldiers
to the use of girls as sex slaves to terrorism, have been left in the wake of
its every entanglement with Ugandan forces.
The novel, told in the first person, is a peculiar coming
of age story seeking to set out and engage the realities of recent Ugandan history
through personal narrative. It starts with Charles in one of the camps and
traces his career from camp hustler to petty criminal to Kampala underworld
enforcer to being a commander in the LRA, in his thirties, with the nom de
guerre Okot. At the end of the novel though, he is in another camp, this time an
old man, this time somewhere in Tanzania where he now has a wife and children
who know nothing of his earlier life. Charles has, by the end of the novel,
obliterated his own brutal history except for the novel which is, in truth, a
confession and an attempt to justify his life against his times.
When dreary conditions at the camp he’s lived in see him
seize the opportunity to steal a stash of cash from a foreign-run NGO in the
camp, his naiveté and the imminent betrayal of his confederate force him to flee,
even though he knows his father will be in a lot of trouble for this. The clear
eye of Joel Hirst for details shines from these very early pages of the book,
in the creation of a visual and emotive panorama of the web of despondency of
youth in IDP camps, corruption of camp officials and the often hypocritical objectives
and practice of camp NGOs. Our protagonist, who is not the hero of this tale,
hightails it to Kampala where he first befriends a dog. As he makes a reputation
for himself in the Kampala underworld, he meets the love of his life, Ruth, a
girl from elite circles whom he seduces. Fate, and jealousy, sees him murdering
Ruth’s lover during a shakedown. The inevitable flight away from Kampala and what
the law in the hands of the powerful can do to him lands him in the arms of the
LRA. A precocious character who reads books and is fascinated by the written word,
his innate violence sees him continue on the path of evil already set upon in
Kampala. By the end of his time in the LRA, there is no textbook crime of the stereotype
“savage African” trope he has not committed.
The issue of stereotype casts a heavy pall on this book
and, I admit, in the very first few pages I was put off by the self-loathing of
Charles and his denigration of his being African and ruing the terrible luck of
living in an African camp, emphasis African. This continues through the
book, with highly relevant conversations, as recollected by Charles, framed
through this negative imaginary of what it is to be African. Yet, Africa is not
a country. It is 54 plus countries on one island and in each of these
countries, there are hundreds of thousands of African narratives just as authentic
as Charles’. Even within his own Uganda, even within his own camp, alternative
Africas exist. The preponderance of these alternative Africas are not cliché terrible
and savage and brutal as this protagonist would have us think he believes. As a
character trait, Charles self-loathing is unconvincing and to the extent that
this book is his attempt to gain emmpathy, by deploying the device of telling
his story in which he is a victim of circumstance and then asking “what would
you have done different” it fails. At every pivotal point in the downward spiral
of this life, alternative choices could have been made. An example of the
earliest: if he knew that a place like Kampala existed, he did not need to go
there only after stealing from an NGO and being on the verge of capture. There
were no gates to the IDP camp, it was not a concentration camp. He, and all
there, could leave at any time. Africa played no role in his not leaving or
making different choices.
When we step out of the novel, questions arise about the
underlying narrative. The story is very contemporary. Joseph Kony is still on
the loose though his LRA is no longer considered a serious security threat to
regional stability. Yoweri Museveni has remained in power in Uganda since 1986 and,
remarkably through the device of fortuitously discovered birth documents, is in
fact growing younger. Prior to Kony and Museveni, there was Idi Amin, a
textbook and quite perfectly mad military dictator of the African variety who
took power from Milton Obote who had, in fact, led Uganda to independence. The
history of Uganda has been so unstable because of the British divide-and-rule
that created and emphasized ethnic suspicion competition in Uganda, and, after
Independence, the geopolitics of the Cold War both of which are well out of the
hands of any Ugandan or African. Yet, it is these two factors that bear direct
causality to Charles Agwok being in a camp in the first place. Nowhere is this context
given, or even understood, in I, Charles, from the Camps. A refugee camp
does not just appear out of thin air. It is an effect of other things. In the
exclusion of these ultimate causalities lies my main query with this book.
Nonetheless, as stated earlier, Joel Hirst is able to do
a marvelous job of stepping into the mind of a flawed character in his brave
use of first person narration. Very rarely do we find instances of authorial
intrusion. On the contrary, character-specific observation is acute and very
well developed. There is a kernel of greatness in this book and I found myself
wanting more, wishing to know more of the story from the point of view of the
other characters consigned to bit parts by Charles Agwok. Ruth, for example, who
loved him, who comes across as two-dimensional, and Friedrich as well, who “saves”
him twice. I would have liked to know what happened to his family after he fled
the camp the first time, and what happened to his dog after he had to abandon
it in Kampala.
The first person is an excellent narrative choice which
is difficult to pull off, but it is testimony to Joel Hirst’s ability that we
want to know more about the supporting characters in the tragic story of
Charles Agwok, Ugandan, African, anti-hero and would be reframer of his own brutal
history. In achieving this, congratulations are due to Mr. Hirst.
Yesterday’s adventure involved changing hotels. It would seem I am not very good at picking hotels from booking.com. Perhaps I should just look for the Ibis in any town I’m in danger of nomading through? But, you tend not to interact with the culture of a place when you’re staying at a “proper” hotel and culture really is the point. I enjoyed spending the night at the Old Medina but my lodgings left much to be desired.
I got lost looking for the new hotel. All precautions were taken, including the Google Maps download. Eventually, the taxi driver dumped me—said “ah, it’s just over there” and pleaded traffic. And there I was on Rue Moulay Yusef unable to interest another driver in my stuff and me. That said, I was propositioned by marketers marketing other hotels and spas… The girls in Casablanca are very pretty, alhamdulillah. I deny no favours of my Lord.
Settled into the new hotel on Rue d’Azail but was unable to summon the strength to do any exploring.
This morning, I tried to go to the bazaar part of the Old Medina but gave up the effort. It was unimpressive—less interesting than Rabat, incomparable by any means to Marrakesh. Then I plotted coordinates for the United Nations building but all my effort at saying “Place des Nations Unies” in an appropriate French Arabic accent got met with a universal urban taxi driver huh? Sensing defeat, I respected myself, withdrew the intention and settled to go see the Corniche.
We passed the Hassan II mosque already rhapsodized about HERE and the Phare d’Hank lighthouse then turned into a splendid ocean walk. I walked it all, punctuating that with photo-taking (and catching a breath), ate junk food at a McDonalds, had mint tea at a restaurant, and shopped at the Anfaplace mall.
On my way back that I realize—Casablanca truly is colourful. It is the city of chic and style. Casablanca is the city of people who just wanna have fun and sometimes, I can be that people.
I did not like Casablanca at first sight, but it does have its charms. And, the work the Moroccan government is doing with upgrading its port infrastructure reiterates the fact that Morocco is a destination for the African businessperson. The King, like Comrade Paul Kagame, is exactly the sort of leader Africa’s youth should rally around in the slow but necessary process of creating a new African market.
It is quite impossible to capture the Hassan II mosque in #Casablanca. Perhaps because my camera is rather limited and not being a professional, I was unable to find the right angle? Further, the ornate grandeur of both scale and design humbles the person, affects the eye…
Here is my best shot.
It was closed for renovation today. You can see the scaffolding. The minaret is 600 plus feet high and I was told it’s one of the biggest mosques in the world. The courtyard is massive and I can imagine the denizens of Casablanca praying here in orderly, colourful rows.
First impression was to not like Casablanca. It seemed a let down from Marrakesh—missing my train station didn’t help. But Casablanca does have its charms. The mosque is by the corniche, which I could not walk because I got a call from Naija. I will go there. There is a lot of development going on at the Marina. Urban renewal, urban maintenance everywhere you go.
Arrived Casablanca this morning. But I want instead to tell you about my adventure yesterday in #Marrakech. I am pining for The Red City even as we speak. A friend of mine said I just might have found my “city of memories”, referring to the title of my 2013 novel.
I’d cancelled my trip to Fes so the extra day in Marrakech saw me moving from my riad in the Medina to the new quarter called Gueliz. While I’d loved the medina and its colourful traders and characters, the hotel was rather small even if quaint and I kept losing my way getting around anyway. I had breakfast, went shopping for a leather bag and checked out. I’d been told it would cost 15 dirhams from the medina to the Boulevard Abdelkarim el-Khattabi. The drivers in the rank said it was 100 dirhams and then proceeded to teach me how to pronounce both “el-Khattabi” and “Hotel Ezzhia”. I settled for 30 dirhams.
I had an ominous feeling when, just outside the old city, a horse-drawn tourist carriage showed up in front of us. And, sure as a slap, the carriage took off the bumper of my taxi. See drama! The skinny horse driver and skinny car driver go down to it speaking universal urban you-don-hit-my-car English (Arabic actually). Me? I took my bags out the boot jejely.
Took a different taxi. The driver was a true born Marrakech native and when another accident happened, he said “These two, not Marrakchis. . . the accent.” I smiled. He told me only 25% of the city’s dwellers were natives. We talked about the Nigeria—Morocco gas pipeline. I found it fascinating that a regular Joe Marrakchi knew about that. Moroccans are involved in their country in a way Nigerians are not. It speaks of two very different types of elite and ways which societies can be ordered.
In the afternoon, I went to my friend, Housain’s, favourite café which is not far from my new hotel—a 300-metre walk. It is called Le Diamant Vert (The Green Diamond), just opposite the University of Science and Technology, at the corner with Hamza Road. I had lunch, spaghetti, and watched the students come and go as I worked on a document.
Later, Housain came around. We drove around the city including the Menara arcade, which was closed, and then we parked the car and flanuered for a few hours about Gueliz, drinking coffee, trying street food and taking serious philosophy—H has a Ph.d in psychology and in showing me his city, I learned again what friendship truly can be.
And that, my friends, is how I fell more hopelessly in love with Marrakech.
What’s a city without street food? Went back to the Jemaa Lfna square to look around and try for dinner. Got fried sole so greasy (oily) it can’t possibly be good for me. At a stall called Chez Aicha No. 1. It tasted really really good, good for me or not.
Tourists and Marrakechis alike milled around, sitting at the stalls to meals, the smoke of open-air grilling rising like an offering to a gastronome god. As I waited for my order, a posse of Europeans join the table beside me. The noise becomes a mix of Arabic, Spanish, French, and my English when I recommend one of the girls should try the tagine d’angeau (lamb) if it’s on the menu.
Dinner done, I walked around a bit and people watched then headed home.
Here’s the thing. I walked confidently to my riad, the confusing streets had cleared somewhat in my head. Just when I’m about to leave the medina for a hotel in the New Quarter. Home becomes familiar and then it’s not home again.
A bunch of kids were playing football just outside my street. I smile and nod, they smile too and it’s good night.
So, today. As you know, I have been living in the Old City of Marrakech and was unhappy because of my bank card issue (now resolved).
I’ve cancelled my trip to Fez. The original idea was to spend two days in Marrakech, two days in Fez and two days in Casablanca.
Today, I got lost again in the old city, which has mostly been turned into a market. The medina here is far far superior to the one at Rabat. Some houses have been turned into hotels, called riads. I am in fact living in one of these riads within the Radha Lakdima part of the Medina.
The effect of all this is a warren of alleyways full of all sorts of merchandize, lovely smells ranging from spice to perfumes, and people, people, people. Streets are narrow and only foot traffic is possible. The braver folk maneuver ladies’ machine motorcycles though and you are always in danger of being hit or pickpocketed. These last smell a lack of confidence like a piranha blood. Can you imagine how a pre-middle-aged glasses wearing but always-lovely man would fare? Yes, I have been getting lost all over the place.
My friend, Captain Housain, had to come find me. I had stayed put at some point in being deliriously lost. He did find me and we caught up and made our way to his Citroen as he showed me around the medina. He is a native Marrakechi but had not been to the medina for years. We’d met two years ago at a conference on CVE in Vicenza and had spent half a day walking around Venice and shopping.
The centre of life of the Marrakech medina is the Jemaa Lfna square and it is a movable feast—about two football fields wide. It had everything from snake charmers to folk musicians to fruit sellers. At night it becomes the haven of street food. I’ll drop by later. Jemaa Lfna translates roughly to “Square of the People of the Apocalypse”. Apparently, quite a number of executions were carried out there.
The lodestone of Marrakech is, however, the Khutbiya Mosque—900 years old, built by the Almoravids. Its minaret is about 70 feet high and is of huge stone blocks the length of my forearm by half the length of it. Thoroughly impressive. One gets the sense that if we are lesser sons of greater fathers, it cannot be the fault of our fathers.
Marrakech is a very seductive city—great cafes and wide streets outside the Medina and I felt it would be a shame to not see some more. Marrakech is Magic City, Red City. I could live here (will sign up for French classes when I get back to Abuja). So, Fez loses one day more to Marrakech and loses one day to Casablanca. No day left for Fez. Part of the reason though is it’s quite far away. Maybe next time.