Two new books and an exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art break stereotypes about life in Africa.
The books and exhibit bear one common characteristic: it is important to speak of specific countries and the cultures within each rather than discussing Africa as one unified place with a single culture.
"In the House of the Interpreter: A Memoir" (Pantheon, $25.95), by Ngugi wa Thiong'o, is the second in an autobiographical series by this Kenyan scholar.
When he was a secondary school student Kenya was a British colony. Ngugi was one of the natives chosen to attend Alliance High School in Nairobi. At school he dressed in British khakis, played chess, was a member of a scouting troupe and enjoyed the illusion of being part of the noble elite. He was proud of his status and eager to show off at his native village.
On his first visit home he found his house razed and the entire village moved to a place nearby where they were closely guarded by British soldiers. He began to sense the nature of the political turmoil in Kenya and how it might impact his own life, but still felt secure because he was to all appearances a student in a British school and therefore harmless to the ruling nation.
Ngugi was not as safe as he thought. His brother Good Wallace was in an insurgency group in the Mau Mau Uprising, a mass group dedicated to independence from England and sovereignty for Kenya. Good Wallace was arrested and put in a concentration camp. Ngugi was placed under close scrutiny.
At one point Ngugi was arrested and placed for six days in a prison. His pleas that he was educated by the British and was a teacher did him no good. He began to see he would never be more than a subservient person in the British-controlled nation.
This particular account provides an excellent background for understanding how a conquering nation manages to divide citizenry by singling out and placating portions of the population. It also shows how native people will break free of colonial reign eventually and reassert national pride.
Iweala proves with conviction that the impact of AIDS in Africa is not understood by the rest of world, who view it largely as an overwhelming tragedy accompanied by ignorance, poverty and utter devastation of whole groups of people.
He spent four years in Nigeria, interviewing sex workers, doctors, truck drivers, people with AIDS and ordinary people leading ordinary lives. He found populations with a surprisingly sophisticated understanding of AIDS and its prevention, a community developed to cope productively with HIV-positive status, individuals working rather than succumbing to death, and other realities which belied the common image of Africans with AIDS.
The book is told in the voice of the people he interviewed and though non-fiction is highly readable. Iweala's medical background is evident in the pages, but he also shows medical knowledge is not the only important part of knowledge of the impact of AIDS.
"South Africa in Apartheid and After" is an exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through March 5. The exhibit features the photography of David Goldblatt, Ernest Cole and Billy Monk, each of whom looks at South Africa in ways which break the stereotypical ideas about the history of South Africa.
Some of the Goldblatt photos focus on a white suburb near Johannesburg. The lives depicted could not be further from the turmoil and hate dominating apartheid South Africa. In fact these photos could have been taken in any American suburb. It is the absence of the conflict rather than the capture of it in photos that sets apart Goldblatt's work.
The other Goldblatt photos were taken in post-apartheid South Africa. Here the cost of the policy and its impact on human lives is clearer.
Those wondering about apartheid from the black perspective can find satisfaction in Cole's part of the exhibit. A black South African photojournalist, he chronicled the life in the slums and settlements until expelled from South Africa in 1966.
Finally, Monk, who was a bouncer at a Cape Town night club, captured a remarkably frank portrait of life in the after-hours clubs and bars of Cape Town. The portraits capture excess and despair, drunkenness, slovenly behavior and disregard for convention.
Taken as a whole, this exhibit shows a world that was divided, but where the divisions were kept self-contained and largely hidden.