I have washed my feet out of it

Hilary Mantel

  • Hustling Is Not Stealing: Stories of an African Bar Girl by John Chernoff
    Chicago, 480 pp, £16.00, January 2004, ISBN 0 226 10352 8
  • Exchange Is Not Robbery: More Stories of an African Bar Girl by John Chernoff
    Chicago, 425 pp, £16.00, November 2004, ISBN 0 226 10355 2
  • Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
    Fourth Estate, 307 pp, £12.99, March 2004, ISBN 0 00 717611 2

Hawa, the bar girl to be, was born in a village in Ghana in the early 1950s. Her family were emigrants from Upper Volta, which is now called Burkina Faso. When she was three her mother died, and this was the beginning of her misfortunes. For a time she was indulged, because it was believed that dead mothers watch over their babies, and come back to carry them off if they’re not treated well. But with middle childhood, indulgence ran out. Her father, a cocoa farmer and a polygamous Muslim, passed her around the extended family.

Hawa never stayed anywhere for long. She was lippy, pert and contrary. If you told her not to do something, it was the very thing she would go and do. She made friends with a local witch. Told to avoid a certain tree, she climbed it, and was stung by a swarm of bees. Staying with her grandfather, she was discovered crouching in long grass to watch a secret all-male ceremony. After this escapade, it cost her grandfather a cow to get back into the community’s favour – and Hawa was soon on the road again, ‘posted’, as she puts it, or ‘sacked’.

When Hawa was bad, her relatives beat her and rubbed into her eyes a mixture of ground ginger and pepper. She must suffer, she was told; that is the nature of childhood, the nature of womanhood. When she was 15, an Indian man, brother of a cinema owner, got her drunk and raped her. The following year she was married to a Muslim who already had two wives. It was the custom for the youngest wife to do most of the chores, but Hawa soon downed tools. I’m not some sort of slave, or washboy, she said; call this a marriage? Faced with rebellion, the first wife said: ‘We will see.’ These words, pregnant with menace, caused Hawa to shoot back to her father, carrying as many of her possessions as she could manage. Some negotiation ensued, and some toing and froing, but Hawa could not be persuaded to stay with her husband.

‘We Africans, if somebody tells you that you can see, it’s very hard, because that person can make some juju to kill you or make you crazy.’

An aunt took her in, but this caused trouble in the family. Aunt had a Lebanese lover, and a houseboy did the work while Hawa played. The family thought Aunt was too soft, that she was going to ‘spoil’ her niece. Her father declared: ‘I have washed my hands and my feet out of it.’ After a few weeks Aunt offered her some money. ‘Look, I am not sacking you. But I will show you the way . . . Travel to where you want. If you have money, it’s not hard.’

And so she came to Accra, and the Paradise Hotel.

When John Chernoff met Hawa in Ghana in 1971, she was a round-faced doll-woman who spoke ten languages. She entertained her bar and nightclub companions with stories of her life, punctuated with bursts of laughter. Chernoff heard such laughter everywhere. Travelling through West Africa, ‘a student of society and a musician’, he was amazed by the spirit of the people he met; they seemed cheerful, gregarious, and above all adaptable, meeting misfortunes philosophically. What he saw contrasted with Western ideas about Africa, a continent where, if you believe the figures and reports, ‘no one is having any fun.’

He was travelling in a part of the world where cultures and languages met and mingled; where wealth was in the hands of an elite, with not much trickle-down. He wanted to get an idea of ‘what life is like at ground level’. How was he equipped for this? He liked nightclubs, and luckily found them ‘full of cultural substance’. He is anxious – over-anxious – that his reader doesn’t assume any familiarity with the milieu, tipping us off in his introduction that ‘drinking bars in West Africa do not have names like Ryan’s Pub or TGIF or Boardwalk or Graffiti or Electric Banana, for example.’ They are more likely to be called ‘Las Palmas, Weekend-in-Havana . . . Pussycat . . . Tropicana . . . Flamboyant . . . Don Camillo . . . Metropole, Lido, Apollo Theatre’. All the same, it’s no use tucking this list in your top pocket and heading for the tropics in search of a wild night, as Chernoff makes a practice of ‘switching them from one town to another’ and tells us that ‘although the name of a place or enterprise may exist and may seem likely as a venue, that particular name probably does not represent the actual name of the place or enterprise depicted in this book.’ Just to add to the amiable sense of dislocation, he assures us that he has done his best ‘to confuse any potential effort to identify specific individuals or places, and readers should assume that any name in the text is not the name of the actual person or place described’.

Why? Did he think the drinkers would pursue him through the US courts, or that the proprietor of the Pussycat would hound him down the years? When Chernoff went back to Ghana in 1974 for a second visit, the country’s situation had changed. There was a military dictatorship. Thousands were emigrating. The clubs were still functioning, but sometimes there was no beer, which dampened the atmosphere somewhat. Fortunately, he had daytime contacts, and one of them was Hawa. She had left Ghana, but he followed her to Togo and to Burkina Faso, listening to her stories and recording them over a five-week period in 1977 and a seven-week period in 1979. They gave him everything he had hoped for as a researcher, and more; Hawa was street-smart and well-travelled, and had moved through all sections of society and among all races. She was observant, intelligent; she was able to reflect on her circumstances. The advantages of the relationship, he believes, did not just flow one way. He was incorporated into Hawa’s cast of characters; more than that, he says, he was her aid to the construction of her own meaning. He claims that this is ‘Hawa’s book in her own voice, recorded faithfully, transcribed carefully, and edited minimally’.

All the same, the introduction to his first book quakes with intellectual anxiety: between 1979 and the issue of his first volume, in 2003, he has had plenty of time to worry away at the meaning of what he is doing. He takes two pages to say ‘the names and locations have been changed.’ He has a good thrash through ‘what is poverty?’ ‘what is culture?’ and ‘what are stories?’ Should he have turned his material into a novel? Some of his colleagues said so, when they read the early draft; they thought it didn’t seem like serious research. Chernoff rejected this prospect. Not because his material was suspect, he having been drunk at the time – if such strictures were applied, there would be many fewer novels. Not because such a novel would have been a piece of brass-necked theft, or a massive act of cultural appropriation. But because he found the implication demeaning: novels don’t tell the truth. Fiction ‘is synonymous with invention and creation but also insinuates myth and fantasy, fabrications of the imagination – vehicles of enlightenment, perhaps, but not of knowledge’.

So after this piece of sternness, Chernoff is honour-bound not to fantasise and not to mythologise, though he is gathering his material from a woman who may not feel under the same constraints. Within a page or two he is mythologising away. He links his storyteller imaginatively to Lucy, ‘our fossil mother’, the hominid discovered in Ethiopia in 1974; and Lucy the fossil to Wordsworth’s Lucy, ‘A maid whom there were none to praise/And very few to Love’. Not that Hawa is marginal or outcast; she moves freely, it seems, in and out of societies, over borders, while retaining, like other urbanised drifters he meets, a set of cultural values that insist: this is the African way, this is how things should be done. Their ties to tradition have loosened, but are still strong, and ‘tradition’ itself has always evolved. ‘Perhaps . . . the modernists and the traditionalists are the marginal people,’ he says. The ordinary people of West Africa are just getting on with their lives. We see his difficulty. What does he want Hawa to be? What must she be, to satisfy his research demands? We associate marginality with self-consciousness, with the possibility of critical distance; the outsider becomes a sociologist. Yet Hawa cannot be placed: she is not outside or inside, or between; her position is shifting, and everything around her is shifting. It is all rather a puzzle; in his introduction he puzzles for almost 120 pages. In the end it seems that Hawa’s personal qualities matter greatly, but they are not unique. What does make her special is her encounter with a man with a tape recorder who needs to feel he has contact with someone authentic, someone valid.

His own position? ‘I must have become an African when I was there,’ he says hopefully. His introduction creates a certain comic persona, poised somewhere between street and sociology library, which allows the reader to imagine him pursuing his studies in the bars where ‘groove’ comes in at a dime a wrap, African music belts into the street, and your drink is topped up by fellow ‘believers’ as soon as you take a sip. ‘I still can’t believe how much I was able to drink in those days.’ He is one of the ‘guys’, one of the ‘believers’, able to ‘hang with’ the local people: ‘I figured they liked my style of dancing since I had been trained by a very cool guy from Newark whose revised moves had not previously made it back to the motherland.’ He fitted in, and he is proud of it: ‘As an American, I had to learn my share of tricks to avoid being typified by people who didn’t know me, but by and large, I was just another one of the young boys who were there with no specific purpose apart from hanging.’

But – pleasant as it is to dwell on American self-delusion – this is Hawa’s story, and he has made a life’s work of bringing it to us. There is more to poor people than their poverty, as he says, and more to Africa than disease and want. The trucks cruising the dust roads were painted with a slogan: ‘Observers are Worried: Believers are Enjoying.’ He tried his best to be a believer, which means someone of an easy understanding, congenial, someone whose style is ‘Afro’, which means free, improvised, hand-to-mouth and just-for-now: the ethos is public, communal, satirical and fatalistic though not resigned. It is not revolutionary. It admits personal envy. It has trouble with the idea of progress. Hawa’s own life is a series of funny and fantastic escapades, with a marked quality of circularity. Sometimes they have that surreal edge that narratives take on when people are desperate. What lies behind even the most confusing and convoluted tales seems to be a project Hawa has, not just of surviving, but of retaining integrity. ‘What my heart tells me, I will follow it,’ she says. It is her sense of self-worth, her touchiness, her resistance to exploitation within her family, that leads her into the wider world; where, as Chernoff would have it, she leads an existence that is precarious but free. In Accra she joins the ashawo life – part-time prostitute, occasional concubine, all round good-time girl and the life and soul of every party.

Ashawo is a Yoruba word that has found its way into the languages of the region. It has connotations of sex for sale, but also of independence, freedom from traditional ties and family obedience. An ashawo woman is a woman alone; under her own control, not the control of a man. Some of Hawa’s colleagues have a boyfriend who lives off them, but she, she says, has not fallen into that particular trap. Some of the girls take to the life to save up for their marriage, so that afterwards, if the husband behaves badly, they have some money of their own. No one exactly plans to live this life. ‘There is not any girl who will wake up as a young girl and say, "As for me, when I grow up I want to be ashawo, to go with everybody.”’ But if you are adrift in the city and you have no education, what can you do?

Story by story, the ashawo life unfolds. In Accra, the first thing she learns from her new friends is ‘I also must go and find some material to sew some hot pants.’ She lives for three months with a Dutchman called Henrik, who is kind to her and lets her go out with her friends, so she enjoys her usual bar and nightclub life without the worry of looking for clients. But she has bad dreams, in which Henrik has the head of a man but the body of a snake, so she leaves him to try her luck with casual clients. The ashawo art of negotiation is a delicate one. She seldom knows, before the act, how much money she can expect from a client; by naming a price, she says, you can lose out, as he might want to show his appreciation. She won’t allow anal penetration, she tries to avoid sucking cocks because she is tempted to bite; and if she did, she asks with relish, what would the man tell his wife? If the clients insult her with a paltry sum she throws it back at them, saying: ‘Keep it for your repairs.’ When the client says innocently, ‘What repairs?’ she says: ‘You wait.’ Then she smashes up their house or their car.

Sometimes the clients try it on – beware of the Lebanese identical twins, who try to go two for the price of one. In these cases Hawa runs out into the night, sometimes in her underwear. She runs all the way to the police station, with a sob story in the course of which, as transcribed, she actually says ‘boo-hoo’. ‘French police, in this kind of case, they are very good people for it,’ she says. ‘But Ghana police!’ Their problem is, they want to discuss what she did with the client, and how much they would be inclined to pay, themselves. If they help her get money from her clients, they take a cut. So if you have dealings with Hawa, expect an officer at your door, kpam, kpam, kpam, beating it with his police stick. Expect to be hauled off to the police station and charged ‘70 cedis without a fuck’, or 80 if you have to bribe the inspector too.

When Chernoff recorded Hawa’s story, no one had heard of Aids. He admits that ‘any talk that links sex and self-betterment in Africa no doubt strikes a sour note these days.’ Yet he gets angry at the thought that his readers might see Hawa as a victim. ‘Send your donations to an appropriate agency,’ he says, sarcastically. ‘You may find, however, that some of your sadness covers a wistful admiration and even envy of her.’ It is as if her bubbly manner, her readiness to laugh, has made it difficult for him to hear what she is saying. It is clear to the reader that Hawa has no freedom. She can cause a bit of trouble for those who use her – that’s all. The lack of a tariff makes her seem less of a hardened professional, but the complicated, contrary expectations of her customers usually end in a dispute which involves Hawa being beaten up, or dumped in the bush and left to make her own way home. Strong drink takes the edge off the evening’s pains, but they have to be lived through when morning comes; it’s in the morning that the corpses of her free-loving friends are found.

In the second part of her adventures, Chernoff claims, Hawa is more in charge of her life. It is difficult for the reader to share his faith. The ‘sour note’ has been struck, and struck too often. It is true that Hawa is endlessly inventive. She has a legend to live up to; her own comic persona is sustained by escalating levels of complication. She has more experience, but she never learns from it. What the reader learns, with a sinking heart, is more about the ashawo economy. The girls operate a sort of reverse banking system, in which they hand over their earnings to a money-minder, a walking safe, who takes a percentage at the end of the month. There’s nothing to stop the girls using a normal bank, except the fact that they have poor impulse control. With the money-minder, they can’t take all their money out and spend it, simply because they can’t locate him.

Hawa reckons she manages her body well, fitting it for the demands of the trade. It’s not clear whether she’s taking the contraceptive pill or whether she’s being given long-term injections; her clients don’t seem the types to use a condom. She has been pregnant three times. Once she had a hospital abortion, twice she got rid of the child by, in effect, poisoning herself. She has known many girls, she says, who die in trying to abort. Is there a way out of this life? Marriage maybe, one day; but then married men spend their money on women like her, don’t they? If you divorce, the man will often take your children. There is no equality for Hawa in sexual relations, and no freedom; Mr Chernoff, ‘hanging’ with his tape recorder, must know this. Because Hawa is telling him clearly: ‘I know – every man, every kind of man, it’s not black or white, it’s any kind of man; they are just like a dog. He can go out and do whatever he likes.’

From time to time, expatriate men offer bed and board. Sometimes it turns into a lengthy relationship. For a year she is with ‘Nigel Manners’, a teacher at a training college. He’s fat, he drinks, he swears, sometimes he waves a pistol around; but in retrospect, life with Nigel seems a golden age. He opens a bank account for her, pays school fees for her younger brother and sister; she is able to send money home to her village. But she should have been smarter, she says, and saved some for herself. Nigel goes home to London, intending, he says, to send for her; the next thing she hears, he is dead, and Hawa is on the road again. She lives with a German called Max in a white compound in Togo, and is sucked into a series of murky episodes involving pornography, imprisonment and sudden deaths. As for her dealings with the French people she encounters: ‘I don’t give them even an inch of respect.’ The expatriates are baffling to her, but she does sort out one rule: don’t interfere in their private disputes, however murderous they seem. Don’t call the police. Or it’s you who ends up in trouble.

The past makes a few claims on Hawa. She wouldn’t like to be one of those girls who runs away from her village and is never heard of again; she does care for her siblings and half-siblings, and besides, you have to get back in touch, if only to boast to your family that after all their harshness you’ve survived. She is obliging with what the visitor to an African culture usually wants: sorcery, divination, juju, the furniture of an alien mindset; something other, something left-field, some sinister thing to stir a pleasurable ripple of disquiet in the over-controlled Western brain. But the memory of Hawa’s village childhood frightens her in other ways. To teach children, you hurt them; it is your duty. Her little brothers were ‘pocket lawyers’ who used to talk their way out of beatings, or at least postpone them; but she, the infant Hawa, was so scared that she used to piss herself when her father picked her up. ‘I didn’t get my stick yet, and I started to cry . . . Then he started to shout on me to shut up, to swallow up my crying.’ Her father is volatile, violent and prone to be maudlin after the violence is over, telling Hawa: ‘You know that I love you more than all.’ She drops into her reminiscences an account of a half-sister of hers who refused an arranged marriage, and was systematically starved, beaten and tortured by her father, with the knowledge and sanction of the community. These years on, she remembers the rope-marks on the girl’s wrists, left after she had been hanged from the roof of a hut; they were like tattoos, she says. This went on for three days: ‘This girl would be like she was dead.’

We see what Hawa was escaping, but we also see what she was escaping to. There is no comfort at either end of her story. Chernoff has romanticised her, written her up, passed her by. Twenty-five years on, now that he is an eminent musicologist, now that she has helped secure the post-doctoral fellowship to which he refers in his acknowledgments, is she still alive to tell her tales? Chernoff thinks he will tease us on the matter. ‘I know what happened to Hawa. But there is no need to say it. If she escaped and found her dream, would it matter? If her life changed and took on the problems of maturity, what would that show? . . . Choose the ending you like. She is an example, and we shall leave her at the place we found her.’

It is a surprising and callous conclusion. Is this what Hawa is reduced to, all her ‘patience and good humour and grace’: an example? The reader is invited to dole out an arbitrary fate, as if he were a bad novelist, or as if Chernoff were the kind of novelist who leaves the story in mid air.

Fiction of a higher order is offered by the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose first book was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and longlisted for the Booker. Her novel begins with a reference to Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe’s great chronicle of dispossession and loss of identity: ‘Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the étagère.’

The stage is set, and it is so small; it is the hearth and home. But these rooms are a battleground, and bear witness to atrocities. It is a perfect beginning; it takes us into the heart of the action, to a fussy cod-European drawing-room in the city compound of a wealthy family where adolescent rebellion bubbles beneath surface conformity. In this house every object carries its freight of meaning, every glance must be decoded: shadows must be interpreted. In the outside world, too, there are layers of translucency, layers of darkness; imported Catholic superstition is laid over the superstition of the country, so that miraculous visions of the Blessed Virgin mix and mingle with juju and oracles. Kambili, the main character, is a girl of 15; her brother Jaja is 17. Papa is the owner of a newspaper and of factories which make bottled juices and wafer biscuits. The family are keen attenders at St Agnes Catholic Church, and Papa’s piety is effortful and ostentatious. He pays out to Catholic charities and Catholic causes. His faith is Westernised and authoritarian; at St Agnes, African-style displays of fervour are frowned on, as recalling ‘these Pentecostalist churches that spring up everywhere like mushrooms’, which are for the poor and the half-educated.

Papa is at home with his family when radio broadcasts are interrupted by martial music and the announcement of a coup. There is a new, anti-democratic government, and Papa and the newspaper he owns will soon be in the forefront of protest. What Nigeria needs is more democracy, not less, he claims. Working with a light hand, the author lets the irony work away, the narrative describing a graceful loop backwards from the missal-throwing incident, so that we come to understand the tormented lives of the two dutiful and silent children, and we come to understand, and shrink from, the magnate who dictates their opinions and disposes of their time: a man stoutly keeping at bay the forces of disorder that rage outside the walls of the family compound, a man obsessed by the need for control, order and unthinking obedience. Adichie’s book is a telling and skilful portrait of a society in crisis, executed with the minimum of fuss and a powerful appreciation of how metaphor works on the reader; but it is also a classic case history, a textbook account of a household tyrant, who could flourish in any time and place. She observes and records the self-censoring contortions of a victim-family, as they allow the tyrant to have his way and at the same time deny his own nature: ‘I meant to say I am sorry Papa broke your figurines, but the words that came out were, "I’m sorry your figurines broke, Mama."’

Yet at a sign of favour from Papa, Kambili feels ‘as though my mouth were full of melting sugar’. It is common, after all, to idealise such an abuser; in households and the wider society, it is common to identify with the dictator, as a defence against being overwhelmed by the knowledge of one’s own powerlessness. But Papa’s signs of favour are painful in themselves; he gives the children ‘love-sips’ of his too-hot tea, scalding their mouths; when he hugs Kambili, she feels her bones will snap. When Papa goes back to his home village, he is treated like a king. Much largesse is expected, and he hands out money with every handshake. His title, omelora, means ‘the one who does for the community’. Back in the city, his status protects the family from the escalating inconveniences and snags of everyday life, from the food and the fuel shortages; within the house, Papa’s reign of terror is unleashed. In the wider world, executions are public, and televised. Papa’s sanctions are secret, unspeakable. To drop a few marks on a class test means a beating: belt, fists, feet. After the beating, to soothe Papa’s feelings, the children are required to say that it didn’t hurt. The children’s mother is beaten too; they know she will suffer for their actions. For an act of rebellion, Papa pours boiling water on his children’s feet. These are not punishments carried out in anger, but punishments calculated and planned. Emotion comes afterwards, when Papa weeps and tells his children that what he is doing is for their own good.

The psychologist Alice Miller derives the tyrannical bent of African rulers, and the general violence of African societies, from harsh methods of childrearing, applied from early infancy onwards. Humiliation is stored deep in the body, she suggests, and self-loathing is internalised; when political circumstances offer the opportunity, storms of irrational cruelty are unleashed, within ordinary people who have lived seemingly unremarkable lives. If a victim of child abuse is to break the cycle and avoid handing on the pattern of violence to the next generation, she needs a witness in her life, not necessarily a saviour figure but someone who recognises what is happening, and who represents some assurance that there are other values and other ways than those of the abuser; who assures the victim that she is lovable and has potential for good. In Kambili’s life, this figure is her aunt Ifeoma, her father’s sister. She is a widow, and a university teacher in another town. When Kambili and Jaja visit her, their father gives them a homework schedule, and telephones to make sure they are keeping to it; he is afraid to yield control even for a day. But having escaped the constant vigilance that they need to maintain in his physical presence, they can lift their heads and look at the world about them.

They see that their boy and girl cousin are not hectored and controlled as they are, that they have their own opinions, and that their personalities are allowed to flourish. It is at Ifeoma’s house that they come to know their grandfather, a traditional villager whom Papa condemns as ‘heathen’, and who comes to his daughter’s house to die. For Kambili, Aunt Ifeoma represents a ‘proud ancient forebear’, but also a better future. She speaks freely and tells the truth. For this, she will be forced out of her job and out of the country. We see that the authority of the government is not legitimate, but neither is that of the father; it rests on his superior strength, his sentimentality and his own reverence for colonialist values. The picture of the old grandfather is fond and touching, but Adichie does not suggest that traditional authority would have more legitimacy or show more kindness. Hawa the bar girl, speaking of village life, told her interviewer that if she had been treated by her father like the half-sister whom he tortured, she would have poisoned him. Poison is actually employed here, in the closing scenes of the novel: the repressed Mama does the poisoning, Papa is the victim, and Jaja takes the blame. The author’s tight control slips a little as Kambili’s family dissolves, and the plot swerves toward melodrama, but the reader is left with a strong sense of future possibility, of a mind and heart opening to the world.

The secret of Adichie’s style is simplicity, rhythm and balance. She writes a poet’s sentences. On the cashew tree outside the bedroom window, ‘the bell-shaped yellow fruits hung lazily, drawing buzzing bees that bumped against my window’s netting.’ There is no wilful exoticism: no playing to the gallery of Western expectation; but surprising and elegant juxtapositions keep the reader’s attention poised: ‘Dust-laden winds of harmattan came with December. They brought the scent of the Sahara and Christmas.’ She works through delicate insights and half-glimpses; despite the tough and intractable material, and her rigour in confronting it, the final impression of the novel is of gentleness, gravity and grace.