If you want to enjoy African literature, you have to accept African medicine and African magic as real. Not as real in the sense of magical realism either, but as true. I’ve been willing to do this so far, and was willing to continue doing so with Grace Ogot’s novel The Promised Land, but I wonder just how far most readers would go along.
I wouldn’t be so charitable with Christian fiction, as I understand it. The only Christian fiction I’ve read is that of Japanese author Shusako Endo who has not taken his stories into the realm of the miraculous. Not in the two I’ve read so far. (Shusako Endo is wonderful, by the way. One of my favorite authors.) Endo’s books are about questions of faith, specifically Christian faith, but he never grants his characters the miracle or the revelations that would prove things once and for all. For Endo, faith always remains an unanswered question. From what I have read about mainstream American Christian fiction, questions of faith are answered, very clearly, with miracles or revelations.
Even when African fiction is not about faith or about the spirit world, it is often about a world that includes a spirit realm as an essential part of “reality.” This is not magical realism because it’s not unusual. In much African fiction I find a form of realism that includes a spirit world as part of the real world. This spirit world is not critiqued either the way Endo critiques faith as he questions it. In realist African fiction there simply is a spirit world that interacts with humanity.
The reader has to accept this in order to enjoy African fiction, at least much of the African fiction I have read, including Grace Ogot’s The Promised Land. But, if I can accept a book full of elves and hobbits, then I can go along with just about anything if it’s good.
Grace Ogot’s The Promised Land is good.
The Promised Land is the story of one Luo couple, who migrate from their ancestral Kenyan homeland across the lake to Tangenika where they start a new farm in the hopes of become wealthy. They do. But after several years, the husband is put under a curse by a jealous neighbor which gives him a disturbing skin disease. At first the couple tries a series of local tribal medicine men, then they go to the hospital to seek treatment from a white doctor. When nothing works, they begin planning on returning home to their family where he can die. Then the only true medicine man, one who refused payment when his treatments failed the first time around, arrives with “medicine” he thinks will finally provide a cure.
I enjoyed the first half of The Promise Land for the story and for the depiction of East African rural/tribal life. This is not a subject I am familiar with, except through African novels. There is a long party scene after Ochola and his with Nyapol have settled and become successful. He asks her to make beer for the party, which is something only wives are supposed to do. The depiction of the beer making and the celebration at the party are wonderfully described and sound like a lot of fun. The entertainment, a harpist, sings songs about each of the important women at the party while their husbands and families shout slightly off-color praises throughout. I was reminded of the wedding sequence in The Godfather. It’s a big, brash, sequence that manages moments of intimacy which made for wonderful reading.
The second half of The Promised Land, when Ochola falls under the spell, reads like a thriller. Will he recover? Will the treatments work? How will Nyapol deal with his family, her neighbors, her children, her own future? This was not meant to make for suspenseful reading, The Promised Land is not a thriller, but it had me reading well into the night.
Past my bedtime.
I have no idea how or why The Promised Land came to be on my bookshelves–my copy is a very old edition, something I probably found at a library book sale–but I hope I stumble on more by Grace Ogot. I was very impressed and I’m hoping for more.