Published by Heinemann in 1992, Contemporary African Short Stories is an anthology of stories edited by CL Innes and the late Chinua Achebe. The two are also editors of an earlier work entitled African Short Stories, published also by Heinemann in 1987. The later work features 20 stories written between 1980 and 1991 and which, once again, showcase the range and depth of African writing. They tell of adversity, strife and endurance in a mostly unsympathetic post-colonial environment, and examine the place of realism, superstition and fantasy in those struggles.
The post-colonial order is under scrutiny in ‘On the Market Day’ by Kenya’s Kyalo Mativo. Here the state dissociates itself from the poverty spawned by a two-year drought, dismissing both as “phenomena against which man is powerless”. Aspiring election candidates offer the usual empty promises of change. A long-suffering villager gambles his savings on a cow which turns out to be sick and dies. Other stories repeat this critical line, including Congolese writer EB Dongala’s ‘The Man’ in which the “founder-father of the nation, the enlightened guide and saviour…beloved father of the people,” surrounds himself with impregnable security but one of his many disgruntled subjects manages to get to him and slay him. A prolonged pursuit of ‘the man’ ensues in which terrible vengeance is exacted on his perceived sympathisers. The new leader is even more security conscience even though he has released a decree proclaiming himself to be “unkillable and immortal”.
‘The Housegirl’, by Nigeria’s Chigbo, gives an insight into the trials of a housegirl working for a family from the elite. She hasn’t been paid for a year and cautiously accepts help from the son of the house. But she proves more astute than the other housegirl. Also from Nigeria comes seasoned author Ben Okri’s ‘Converging City’, where in the space of one day, the life of a poor urban man converges with those of three others. Their collective circumstances and actions serve to underline the poverty and desperation within society. The drama affects the head of state only by chance, but his paranoia is sparked and he implements a variety of self-serving measures.
Okri also throws fantasy and magic into the mix as when the main character ponders the impact of he’s burning of a lizard, on the events of that day. The fantasy and magic versus realism theme is evident in other stories such as South African Njabulo Ndebele’s ‘The Prophetess’. Here a boy accidentally breaks a bottle of water meant for his ailing mother and which has been blessed by a ‘healing’ prophetess. In desperation, he pulls off a trick, then decides to rely on it repeatedly. In Mozambican Mia Couto’s ‘Birds of God’ a poor fisherman lets his family starve while he feeds his rare catch to some birds that he regards as messengers sent from heaven as a test. He believes that if some long-term kindness is shown to these envoys, then the drought will end. But when the birds are deliberately destroyed in a fire, he fears retribution for the village and offers himself as a sacrifice for the deed. What follows is for the reader to ponder.
In ‘Government by Magic Spell‘ by Somali’s Saida Hagi-Dirie Herzi, a young woman believed to be possessed by a ‘jinni’, or magical spirit, uses her supposed powers to hoodwink people and ensure continued state power and wealth for her clan. In Cameroonian Ba’bila Mutia’s ‘The Miracle’, a boy and his mother journey to meet the visiting pope in the hope that a touch from him will restore the boy’s withered leg. The father disapproves, wants the boy to accept his affliction inherited from his grandfather whose name he bears and whose reincarnation he believes the boy to be. The story takes an interesting twist, after the papal encounter.
Another compelling story is Malawian Steve Chimombo’s ‘The Rubbish Dump’ where a city boy’s obsession with international plane landings, leads him to an unlikely friendship with an old garbage collector.
On the whole, a worthwhile collection of stories, filled with satire but showcasing the authors’ deep understanding of African society.