Americanah, by Chimamamda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah is a tale of two countries, Nigeria and the USA. The protagonist, Ifemelu invites the reader to sit with her at a braiding salon in Newark, New Jersey as she prepares to return to Nigeria after ten years in the USA. She chats candidly with the stylists and other customers—mostly Africans and West Indians. They poke fun at the American accent, argue that public education in Africa is better than in the USA, and bemoan the institution of racism.

At home, Ifemelu is an Igbo, a Nigerian, and an African. It’s only when she visits America that she becomes “Black.” Four hundred years of race-related baggage instantly burdens her. She reveals the subtle racial slights and prejudicial mindsets that she never experienced at home. They shape her interactions with whites and African-Americans. In the US, she could be herself only with a foreign student—national origins didn’t matter as long as they hail from somewhere else—Africa, Asia, Europe, or South America.

Ifemelu speaks her mind, earning rebukes and slaps. Her safest soapbox is her anonymous blog on “race, from the Non-American Black” point of view. As a homage to blogging, the novel appears as a series of blog posts. Between her opinion pieces and narrations, she reveals the secrets of her successful and eventually profitable blog.

With seemingly unconnected essays and short stories, the novel follows a loose plot line. Like a hidden electrical wire connecting a string of lights, the blog bulbs glow, but they derive their power from the story cord hiding in the background.

It’s a love story, but it is not necessarily a romance. Passion and tragedy abound. Denied an American visa, Obinze, Ifemelu’s college crush travels instead, to England where he ekes out an existence with the aid of a “rented identity.” He hopes that a sham marriage will allow him to stay. Meanwhile, Ifemelu’s partial scholarship barely covers her tuition. She desperately struggles to pay rent and feed herself in an America where she cannot legally earn money. Isolated and stressed, both Obinze and Ifemelu explore desperate alleyways to survival. Ifemelu’s shame and desolation lead to depression. The reader wonders if Obinze and Ifemelu have jaded too much to find happiness with each other.

The novel compares Nigeria and America, but focuses on Africa’s most populous and wealthy nation. Nigeria’s wealth, controlled by the few, temps the poor and middle class to cash in. Money becomes a religion to those who read books like Praying Your Way to Prosperity. Both the church-going and secular aspirants to wealth use flattery and other enticements to ingratiate themselves with the wealthy and powerful.

Americanah introduces Nigerians and American to each other as Nigeria’s star rises. Readers in both nations benefit from Adichie’s articulate if blunt description of how the values and mindsets in each country affect the understanding and appreciation required for fellowship and cooperation.

The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon: No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (14), by Alexander McCall Smith

The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon (No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, #14)

For those who have never read any of the previous episodes of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, this is a wonderful place to start, I would think, because episode 14 reviews so much of the past. Otherwise, the faithful followers of Precious Ramotswe and Grace Makutsi will enjoy another visit with the Ladies, along with a cup of red bush tea, especially while sitting with Mme Ramotswe and Mme Makutsi in the cool shade of an acacia tree, during the interminable dry season where the vegetation, wildlife and humanity all cry out for relief and hope for the rains. Mme Ramotswe notes that the corrugated tin roof of Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni’s Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors is so hot “it could fry eggs.” She thought that in fact “the eggs would burn.”

Readers will visit again with friends and acquaintances such as mechanics Charlie and Fanwell, recall stories of Sir Seretse Khama and Obed Ramotswe, enjoy Mme Potokwane and her fruit cake, update the achievements of Rra Phuti Radiphuti, refer to the inspirational Clovis Andersen (who receives a distinct honor in this episode), and look in on the children, Motholeli and Puso. The author re-introduces such villains as Note Mokoti, Violet Sephotho and Phuti’s aunt, the senior female member of his family who, in the name of tradition, presses her will on her nephew and his bride.

Conflicts, especially between traditions and modernization play in the background whether it’s Mme Makutsi status as assistant or associate detective, the evolving roles of men and women, the worsening traffic in Gaborone or the use of the postal services to deliver “muti” (bad-luck charms or curses). There is no need to fear traditional monsters under your bed when you have real, live cobras, mambas and puff-adders in the neighborhood or perhaps under your roof. Is that bad luck or good?

There is detective work to accomplish, but unlike the plots of other authors, the reader will neither see reckless car chases nor hear gun shots. There may be marital infidelity among the clients, but certainly none involving the Ladies. As the title of episode 14 suggests, Mme Ramotswe accepts a complementary facial massage as the first client of The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon leading her and Mme Makutsi all over Gaborone in search of a malicious culprit. Another case begins when a giraffe-like lawyer of dubious reputation asks the Ladies to investigate an inheritance. Again travel, research, keen observation, no small amount of luck, a blending of outlooks and much soul searching leads the Ladies to a satisfactory outcome.

Episode 14 incorporates a very small change in the cast of characters, but with potentially major consequences for future episodes. As usual, the content and tranquil Mme Ramotswe leaves us to reflect on the beauty of Botswana and Africa: the motherland of all humanity. She dreams of Mochudi, her home village where she might someday retire to peace and quiet, her cattle around her, with the land beneath her and the pure, dry, fragrant air about her, listening to the music of cattle bells. We await episode 15.

Smith, Alexander McCall. The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon: No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (14). New York: Pantheon Books, 2013.

(© 2013 Donald J. Mulcare)

Emusoi: Maasai Girls Tell Their Stories by Kasia Parham

Front Cover

Kasia Parham relates the story of the struggle the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania as they face extinction as a people. The Maasai have lost much of their traditional cattle raising lands through drought, encroachment from large-scale farms and the expansion of national parks that cater to lucrative tourist safaris. In response, many displaced, young Maasai men have migrated to cities in search of employment as security guards and other trades while the uneducated young women have remained at home, ill-prepared for the changes that swirl around them. Emusoi means: discovery or awareness, so The Emusoi Centre proposed an innovative alternative to pending extinction: the education of girls.

Gareth Thomas, a Minister in the UK Department for International Development wrote in the forward to this book, “educating girls is one of the most important investments any country can make in its own future.” For some, this is a radical concept. Too much of the world regards girls and women as property. That portion of the world asks, “Why would a father educate his daughter when he plans to trade her to her future husband, perhaps a much older man, already with many wives?” Maasai fathers have exchanged their girls, as young as twelve, for cattle or even cases of beer.

The author presents stories by six Tanzanian Maasai girls, a perspective from one of their teachers along with addenda and testimony by Maryknoll Missionary, Sister Mary Vertucci: Director of The Emusoi Centre. The author enumerates the benefits of and obstacles to the Emusoi project as she unravels the complex interactions within the ecological, political, social, economic and cultural forces arrayed against the survival of the Maasai.

At first appearance, this richly illustrated, 56 page book seems destined for a young audience. Actually, young adults may find its contents challenging, but will, perhaps learn why the Maasai girls and their mothers have placed such a high premium on education. Both generations have risked emotional and physical suffering, including running away from home and beatings by husbands and fathers. All of this happened so that educated girls could begin to save the Maasai from assimilation and cultural extinction.

The author’s startling description of the role of women in this ancient society will evoke an immediate response in all readers. The good news is that The Emusoi Centre and its mission to educate girls have endured. In its first ten years, the enrollment at Emusoi sponsored programs, rose from six to more than 600 girls in primary, secondary, university and graduate schools. Some early graduates of the Emusoi program have joined the Centre’s staff. These and future alumnae will insure the longevity of the Emusoi dream for generations of Maasai girls. Through the efforts of The Emusoi Centre, the Maasai may also endure as a unique people.

Unlike many developmental efforts that separate native peoples from their land, heritage and language, the program of The Emusoi Centre arms the Maasai with the means to resist the destructive influences of disease, poverty, ignorance, and bureaucracy, with women trained in medicine, business, education and law. The Emusoi Centre offers the prospect of a Maasai people surviving indefinitely on their own land, with the best of their culture intact.

This publication, certainly appropriate for school-wide teen reading programs, fits many a niche. Every school child in the developed world needs the perspective provided herein, not only as a lesson in cultural diversity, but as a means of appreciating their own educational and economic advantages. The book could serve as a prologue to that famous “coming of age” conversation between parents and children. It can assist citizens of developed nations as they refocus their world view to embrace and revere a broader vision of cultural diversity. It also details contact information and specific directions for channeling funds to The Emusoi Centre.