Thursday, November 24, 2005

Reading Uganda, reflecting on ghettoes and vengeful justice...

Today, I started reading a new book, set in Uganda and in London. It's by Maggie Gee,one of the original set of Granta's Best of Young British writers and it's called My Cleaner. It's a beautifully written book about a middle class English woman who invites the Ugandan woman who used to clean her London home in the eighties back to England in a bid to heal her chronically depressed son who as a child had formed a strong attachment to the cleaner. It carefully charts the shift in the balance of power between the two women and captures quite realistically, I think, the conceptions and prejudices of both women. Even more remarkably, Gee has managed to capture the essence of Ugandan life, at least as far as I can tell, having only experienced it in Doreen Baingana's excellent Tropical Fish and in Isegawa's Abyssinian Chronicles and Snakepit. Not being a Baganda speaker, I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the phrases and interjections with which Gee sprinkles her prose, but she certainly seems to get the atmosphere right. And I again marvel at how similar the experiences and issues Ugandans at home and abroad face are to those faced by Nigerians at home and abroad........ Gee acknowledges support from the Ugandan women writers association Femwrite, to which Monica Arac de Nyeko and Jackee Butesta Batanda both belong.....

Last week in Madrid, the English language version of El Pais, the Spanish national paper carried a lengthy feature on the riots in Paris and worried "Could it happen here?" It also pointed out that Germany, Britain and France had all adopted different approaches to the immigrant "problem" and wondered what the right approach was. Everyone seems to go on about people living in the same neighbourhoods perpetuating their own culture and so on, but I think it's not necessarily the living apart that's the problem. Most Western cities are segregated on the basis of wealth anyway. The problem occurs when an area that is poor and rundown also happens to be largely inhabited by immigrants of another race who perceive that the reason the authorities cannot be bothered to clean up their streets, provide street lighting or other amenities is because of their difference. And inevitably these perceptions are fostered and strengthened by their day to day experiences........

There has been much talk in recent days of victims' rights and justice following the tragic shooting of a policewoman here in the UK, with calls for arming the police and bringing back the death penalty. A similar story has played out following the attempts to provide some sort of amnesty to perpetrators of terrorist acts in Northern Ireland in exchange for securing a peace agreement. It's difficult to put in a word not having been at the receiving end, and I cannot even begin to imagine the pain the victims' families have gone through.....but I can't help but be disturbed at the hectoring calls for vengeance........reminds me of an argument I had with some Naija friends after the 7th of July bombings where they insisted that the most draconian measures be put in place to forestall a repeat. When I insisted that some calm,moderate thinking should supercede emergency rag tag measures, one of them shouted "What if YOU had been on one of those trains? Or your brother or sister?" I replied that I would hope that if that happened, I would have the strength and magnanimity of spirit to respond with humanity.....or perhaps...superhumanity......It IS a lot to ask of victims and their families but there are examples through history that show it can be done....and that forgiveness can be liberating....

2 comments:

chika said...

I got the impression reading the book that Maggie's Ugandan protagonist does not quite evolve. Dont you think that she speaks with a certain naivete/simplicity that is somehow at odds with her status? A woman with an MA, who has lived abroad and was once married to a quasi diplomat. That bothered me but apart from that, I enjoyed the book.
Chika
PS the interjections are correct: jackee checked them over for her before it went to print (-:

isioma said...

maggie gee is amazing. i loved the white family. you must read it. you've actually reminded me to track down her latest work