Mema by Daniel M. Mengara
Publisher: Heinemann Educational Books (African Writers Series)
Genre: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4 Stars
Mema's sharp tongue and apparent barrenness makes her a target for dislike and disapproval in her village. When she finally succeeds in having four children, her husband dies in a witchdoctor's haven, followed by her daughters. Her in-laws accuse her of being a wicked witch who sacrificed her husband and children to the dark forces. In spite of this Mema's strength and courage cause her to fight for her sons and her family's rights. In this story of a practical African society her actions owe nothing to Western feminism and the theme of struggle against colonialism is left behind in favour of a struggle between new and old values. The author demonstrates that a story relating the impact of psychological and social forces on Africans can also focus mainly on conflicts within African society. (Source: Goodreads)
The setting: I’m 10 years old in the village with my cousins. Its where we’re forcefully shipped off by our parents over the school holidays to get away from the city and keep us from mischief. They’ll never admit this though, they claim it’s because they want us to spend some time with our grandparents. But, we get to run around, help with picking coffee, climb trees and be wild with no parent supervision and so we don’t complain.
It’s night time and we’re all sitting by the fire trying to keep warm. Most times after we’ve had dinner, grandma will tell us tales of ogres, of the old days, of the cunning hare and the greedy hyena. Every lesson passed down in folk tale form. This is the setting this book transported me to.
As an ode to his mother, Mema, is the reflection of a boy growing up in a village in Gabon and his mother – strong, loud mouthed, dislikeable, brutal when circumstances require – and her unwillingness to bend to societal pressures. Mema defies odds and does what she feels is best for her family despite fierce opposition from her family and the village; and even when it seems she has given in and succumbed to pressure, she still has one up her sleeve and comes out on top.
Mema is a woman of her own ilk. She refuses to be subjugated by the dictates of the society on the position of women. In her household, she does not cower from making decisions and fighting with her husband in public to the villagers’ dismay. And it is because of this, her apparent barrenness and her inability to keep her mouth shut that she is disliked by the villagers. She boldly attends the village’s Medza (communal gatherings) and lends her voice, going against traditions and expectations. When her husband falls ill, Mema decides to take him to the Mimbiri, a move that is highly opposed by his family but their resistance falls on deaf ears. Mema follows through with her plan, a move that brings tragedy to her family. She is ostracized but even this does not silence her.
Borrowing from oral tradition and filled with folklore and stories within stories to pass on messages and lessons as was traditional done in African societies, this 122 paged book is deceivingly small but it’s magic lies in its simplicity. I loved that it is an inward looking story and despite mention of colonization and its effects in post-colonial African societies, this was not the focus of the book. Western influences were kept at a minimum. The literary devices were also very African. It’s been a while since I have read a book that I have felt was authentically African in themes, style, narrative and focus which was such a refreshing change.
I highly recommend this book.