La Salle de Depart written by Melissa Tandiwe Myambo is another story on the shortlist of this year’s Caine Prize for African Writing.
It is the story of Fatima and Ibou her brother. Ibou lives in America with his Egyptian lover (she’s a fine woman who accidentally happens to come from a rich and enlightened home). Ibou loves this woman who seems to understand his fears and longings. She is also extremely intelligent and apparently has good taste. Her family was everything his family would never be.
Fatima, a divorcee, lives at home and takes care of their half-blind father, she has one male child. She hoped her brother will take the boy with him to America, but he refused point blank, the problem was not financial but a lack of space. According to him “... we have no space for him in our lives.”
Fatima of course was bitter and words burnt at the tip of her tongue, but years of conditioning made her not to spit the words out. She remembered how her father had sacrificed her own education at the altar of furthering Ibou’s because he was supposed to ‘save’ the family and bring good fortune for them. She remembered how an uncle had taken Ibou to America with him, no questions asked. Now he looks down on them. Their way of life was not ‘classy’ enough for him. They leave globules of shit floating in the toilet (is there something about toilets and the Caine Prize this year?)
It was very difficult getting a profile on the writer of this short story, I spent about two days and God knows how many hours trying to discover who Melissa Tandiwe Myambo is. I still don’t know much except that she read comparative literature at New York University and she lives in America. She has also published a collection of short stories Jacaranda Journals published by Macmillan(South Africa).
This is a typical story of another marginalized African woman. A woman who was denied an education because she was the wrong sex. She had been kicked out of her home because her husband wants more children (what’s one child when you can have 20?). Victimhood suits Fatima to her dainty little toes.
In spite of the fact that the writer tried to give an insight into what made Ibou, Fatima’s brother, behave the way he did, you came away with the feeling that he is just selfish and suffers from a severe case of inferiority complex. His sister like I said in the previous paragraph suffers the same affliction, both characters are as dull as dishwater.
I must be frank I struggled with this story, it was precise,with hardly any editorial flaws and the language was great but man the story was boring. I took the longest, most long-winded taxi ride, I’ve ever had when I climbed in the backseat with Fatima and her brother Ibou on their way to the airport. I was rather hoping that something really exciting would happen at the airport (a terrorist attack, maybe? That would have stirred things up a bit, but then Africa is the hunger capital not the terrorism capital of the world).
There was too much thinking in the story and too little talking. Resentment simmered underneath the conversations but neither side had the guts to actually speak their minds. Sometimes you can’t help but wonder on whose side the author really is because her impartiality did not shine through.
Who is the villain of the piece? Is it the family that waits on their son to bring them trashy, touristy gifts from ‘abroad’ and give them money which never amounts to much at the end of the day? Or is it the son who gets suckered into the ‘great’ American way of life and does not look back? Or maybe it is even our hardworking victim, Fatima, who expects too much of her brother.
One thing though, if the brother is not broke why then is his father half-blinded by cataract? Does that mean the boy doesn’t even send money home? I’m just wondering out loud.
I tire of writers who make African women appear to be washed out and gutless. The part that really got my goat was after Ibou told Fatima that he cannot take her son to America with him(and in a very snide and hurtful manner) I thought that for once she was going to show some spirit or in the least blackmail him with good old ‘you owe the family’ diatribe, all she could say was “I am the one who waits always and watches others come and go. I am the one who always remains behind so that you can go.”
I wanted to slap her upside her head and afterwards ask her who has stopped her from going? After all she’s a divorcee and has only one son. A woman who is strong enough to make a life for herself after a divorce and creates a business out of nothing should be strong enough to tell her brother to take a leap off the closest cliff.
The African women I know are strong resourceful women. They always find a way round things. They do not sit down and wring their hands when things don’t work out for them, they find alternatives.
I’ll be the first to admit that women, generally don’t find life easy and this not only applies to Africa, it cuts across the whole world. Yes, women who live in Africa struggle twice as hard as women from other parts of the world, but they do not see themselves as victims. Up till the 19th Century European and American women faced almost the same challenges so why are we making out like all human problems originates from and ends in Africa?
Why do some writers portray ‘African’ women as victims? And since we are fond of generalizations may I ask Ms Melissa Tandiwe Myambo ‘Who is an African woman’?