The Many Shades of Water

By Tolu Akinwole


  • Title: Water: New Short Fiction from Africa
  • Editors: Nick Mulgrew and Karina Szczurek
  • Publisher: Short Story Day Africa
  • Number of pages: 272
  • Year of publication: 2015
  • Category: Fiction

‘He sat by Lake Retba knowing its every shift of colour. Mauve, lavender-pink at dusk, magenta at dawn and crayon-pink during the day’. – Efemia Chela, ‘The Lake Retba Murder’ (p 24)

The twenty-one stories that make up Water: New Short Fiction from Africa acquit themselves as articulate contributions to the (re-)negotiation of a place of pride for African literature in English, each of the stories deftly exploiting the complex configuration of the thematic focus of the anthology. These twenty-one brilliant writers attempt to problematise the seemingly bland, colourless liquid that nurtures life, to discover within its essence the many shades and hues of the turbulent existence of the humans it nurtures. The stories in this volume engage the reader on many levels. The reader travels from the familiar present to the blurry past and even to the inaccessible possible-future. This fine blend makes for an enjoyable voyage through the entire landscape of the African story.

Perhaps the boldest in the collection, Cat Hellisen’s ‘The Worme Bridge’ captures the unsettling transformation of an entire family into scaly aquatic creatures. The gripping story almost forcefully drags the reader into the strange world of the unfortunate family, pushing the borders of imagination to the lofty realm from which the writer conceived this grim tale. Dayo Ntwari’s ‘Mother’s Love’ also belongs in the category of the fantastic. Set in a fictitious, theocratic city, the story is of a battle of wits between the church and Yemoja, the water goddess, and her minions, even though the battle arises from a pastor’s attempt at covering up his unholy alliance with a half-human.

A futuristic, genderless Switzerland in which government totally controls the production and distribution of water provides the setting for Louis Greenberg’s ‘Oasis’. There is a group of people known as Makers, endowed with the preternatural ability to produce water from nothing; it takes just pressing two fingertips together. It is in this situation that a woman is called upon to escort a young Maker out of the country, to Oasis, where they can produce water without the unwanted interference of government. Though thirsty, she rebuffs the Maker’s several offers of water. However, when the airline operators announce that there is no water to serve, she succumbs to her thirst and enjoys the Maker-produced water, which tastes of love and hope.

Efemia Chela’s ‘The Lake Retba Murder’ dramatises the internal conflict of a young man caught betwixt and between staying true to his principles and satisfying his sexual urges. Roberto, the young lover of fifty-year-old Mireille, discovers the corpse of his friend Fatima, a beautiful teenager, and decides to find her murderer. His quest reaches a dead end when he discovers the culprit. It is at this point that he must answer life’s frequent, daring question: ‘It’s up to you now…. Fuck me or betray me?’

Alexis Teyie’s ‘Mama Boi’, Megan Ross’s ‘Traces’ and Christine Coates’s ‘How We Look Now’ bring a touch of feminism to the collection. Populated by the stock characters of feministic tales – a diligent modern woman, a careless husband and adversarial sisters-in-law, Alexis Teyie’s ‘Mama Boi’ confronts us with the issues that beleaguer the modern African woman. As a result of Baba Boi’s negligence, Boi drowns in a large basin of water. While Baba Boi and his friends aid their mourning with roast meat and beer, Mama Boi clings to the memory of her only son. Her anguish triggers her mental illness.

Megan Ross’s ‘Traces’ is the monologue of a frustrated wife and mother. Having established that her story is common to many other women, Natalie recounts how she fell in love with her smooth-talker of a husband, hoping to help him achieve his dreams, but the grim realities of her life with him have given the lie to those dreams. Jo, her irresponsible husband, goes to gamble with his pay, giving the impression of being held up by work. When he returns, he settles to food, and while at it he soils his shirt. In a fit of anger, Natalie flings a fork at him when he asks her to wash the shirt, and thus supplies him a pretext for abandoning his family. Now that Jo has left her, there is only one thing left for her to do: wash away every trace of him – thanks to water. It is in this manner that the opening story of the anthology, Alex Latimer’s ‘A Fierce Symmetry’, also evokes the purifying nature of water through the enthusiasm of a young boy for washing the fat off a tiger’s bones.

Through the eyes of two mermaids, Coates’s ‘How We Look Now’ questions societal attitudes towards women. The story, somewhat recherché, cleverly outlines the shift in the respect accorded women in contemporary African society. By describing the conditions of some statues erected to celebrate the 2010 World Cup, Coates paints vivid pictures of the fetters – of violence and rejection – that the female must seek to escape. Her engagement of mermaids as characters both feeds into the widely held belief that mermaids are female and that women are nourishers, just like the water that houses the mermaids. One cannot miss the motif of male dominance presented in the form of a historical allusion to King Alexander (Alexander the Great), known in history as a foremost emblem of conquest and dominance, so that the recurrent question in the story, ‘Is King Alexander still alive?’, comes off not as solicitation for information but as a desperate wish for the end of a stifling patriarchal milieu.

In Mark Winkler’s ‘Ink’, the reader is made to work through a stack of cards in search – or assertion – of psychological normalcy and in search of water. Angela is member of a government-funded cartographic research team that is burdened with the task of studying old maps of the parched city, searching for any hint of the pre-existence of the precious liquid. In the story, Angela administers an online inkblot test to herself. Through each card, she digs into her life and tells of how the city came into being through the displacement of the first inhabitants of the land, of how the city government forbids any probe into its generation of water, of how the government rations the water, of how water seems to lurk somewhere under the foundation of the city and yet is inaccessible, and of how Douglas, her lover and employer, flirts with a slim woman. Winkler engages the search motif quite deftly in this story, turning a stack of cards into a vehicle for constructing a vivid, delicate world.

As far as the connection between water and mental balance goes, Siyanda Mohutsiwa’s ‘And Then We Disappeared into Some Guy’s Car’, Warimu Murithi’s ‘Love Like Blue’, Florence Onyago’s ‘Nyar Nam’, and Louis Ogbere’s ‘Were’ present tales worth the reading. Mohutsiwa’s ‘And Then We Disappeared into Some Guy’s Car’ presents a familiar story of ‘the sugar-daddy-poor-student dynamic’ (p 70). It recounts the wild adventures of a young, female student who, caught in the crossfire between her desire to break free from poverty and her pursuit of self-assertion, finds herself on the brink of mental collapse. In the end, the coming of rain holds some hope of purification and translocation to the immortal pedestal from where her ancestors gaze down at her.

In Murithi’s ‘Love Like Blue’, a rising artist watches her mother’s slow mental deterioration occasioned by tinnitus. The old woman finds her way out of her asylum and seeks refuge with the ocean voices ringing in her ear. Onyago’s ‘Nyar Nam’ recounts the gripping lot of young Atis. Her psychopathic mother had drowned in a lake, an incident tragic enough to cause her father’s mental illness. When Atis comes to recognise her father, she figures she can restore his sanity if she brings back her mother from the lake. She goes into the lake in the middle of the night in search of her mother and her father’s sweetheart. Ogbere’s ‘Were’ traces the thin line between madness and a marriage slowly falling apart. On the morning of the seventh anniversary of her bleak marriage, Margaret Ati plays host to a madwoman with whom she feels some affinity.

The place of sex in African storytelling has been the subject of much rigorous debate, as evinced in Tanure Ojaide’s Indigeneity, Globalisation, and African Literature: Personally Speaking as well as Chimalum Nwankwo’s ‘Historicity and the Un-Eve-ing of the African Woman: Achebe’s Novels’, to take but two examples. Donald Molosi’s offering is a contribution to this debate. Prefaced with an epigram attributed to French poet Edmond Haraucourt, ‘To leave is to die a little’, ‘Beetroot Salad’ presents the reunion of two lovers separated by distance. Now united in America, they relish each other’s bodies as they relish the warm water in which they bathe themselves.

With a telling title, ‘Inyang’ is Mary Okon Ononokpono’s examination of the role of water in the forceful dispersal of Africans through slavery. The tale trails a girl’s venture into a thick forest in pursuit of a boy who snatches her bracelet. Lost in the forest, she has a nightmare in which her father plays a prominent role in the transportation of slaves across the sea, the current of which threatens to wash over her.

Bordering on the humorous, Fred Khumalo’s ‘Water No Get Enemy’ examines the extent to which young freedom fighters are brutalised and very subtly questions the effects of social media on the African creative imagination. Thabo Jijana’s ‘Native Mayonnaise’ and Mark Mngomezulu’s ‘Urgency’ tell of how basic natural urges often interrupt inter-human ties.

While Chido Muchemwa’s ‘Finding Mermaids’ is an account of cultural reimmersion, Wesley Macheso’s ‘This Land Is Mine’ is one of uneasy tension between tradition and modernity. And, one can barely resist the urge to read Pede Hollist’s ‘The Tale of Three Water Carriers’ as an allegory of sorts. The story calls attention to the greedy control of natural resources by the rich few, to the detriment of the many poor.

What plays out in this rich collection is a stimulating re-imagination of water: as giver and taker of life, as nourisher of life and harbinger of woe, as purifier, as an unstoppable change agent. Each of the writers featured in this anthology dares to plunge into deep water to deliver a rich serving, a robust contribution to the discourse of life (reminding us that the African story is not a single trite tale but, like water, a refreshing outlet into the intricate design of a fertile continent). The editors of the volume declare unambiguously that Short Story Day Africa anthologies seek to instigate a vigorous, intellectual debate and to upset prevailing views about the nature of the African story, and to that extent this volume stands them in good stead. The constellation of stories that graces the pages of this volume indicates indeed that the place of the African story – nay, African literature – among world literatures is long overdue for reaffirmation.


Photograph: ‘Ramsgate Mirror Mermaid’ by Funk Dooby


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Tolu Akinwole is a student of literature. Because talk is cheap, he writes.

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