Updated: Aug 30
“Where is my African counterpart?” asks MaryKarr.
Where are the African tales of personal struggles with alcoholism and drug addiction? I’ve been studying the history of alcohol use in Africa for more than twenty-five years and more recently I’ve also been looking at drug use. Yet I can’t recall a single such story in my unsystematic sampling of African creative writing. Here in the United States, hardly a week goes by, it seems, without publication of a memoir or fictional account (or public celebrity testimony) of the individual torments and collateral damage associated with alcohol and drug abuse and the redemption (and royalties) found in sobriety. Why don’t we have an African Mary Karr? Why aren’t African writers cashing in?
Are Africans simply more abstemious? This is hardly the case. Scholars have amply documented African drinking practices. The history of drug use is much less studied, but in the recent past at least illicit drug use has become ubiquitous in many African societies. And the fact is that African fiction and autobiography are awash in alcohol—and increasingly provide rich accounts of local drug cultures as well. But the addiction story is mostly missing. Why is that?
In this post, I want to suggest answers to that question, drawing on an admittedly highly fragmented knowledge of African creative literature—in this case exclusively written in English (perhaps readers will suggest examples that undermine my case). Like many of my historian colleagues, I routinely use fiction to enhance my classes in African history. And like my fellow contributors to Margaret Jean Hay’s collection on African Novels in the Classroom (Lynn Rienner, 2000), I believe that they convey the diversity and complexity of African cultures to American students whose knowledge of the continent is limited and largely confined to crises. Again like my colleagues, I tend to present these writings not in literary terms, but for the pictures they provide of what life is like for Africans.
Meja Mwangi (Kenya), 1976
My own chapter in African Novels in the Classroom, examined a book by Kenyan popular novelist, Meja Mwangi, Going Down River Road (Heinemann, 1976). I chose to write about this book precisely because Mwangi devotes pages to vivid descriptions of drinking and drunkenness in tawdry, working class bars in Nairobi in the early years of independence. The book depicts life for the working poor, people who at any moment can find themselves cast into a rapidly growing underclass (a population that has increased dramatically since that time), eking out marginal existencees as sex workers, petty criminals and distillers in disease-ridden shanty towns.
Mwangi’s book belonged to a genre of African novels, including Ghanaian author Ayi Kwei Armah’s brilliant The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born (1968) and Es’kia Mphahlele’s classic autobiographical account of a boy growing up in South Africa, Down Second Avenue (1959), that attribute rising urban poverty to colonialism, neo-colonialism and the greed of new elites. In these and many other works, alcohol and drug abuse emerge of symptoms of an urban immiseration that is in turn the product of global economic and political forces. In Nairobi, Mwangi’s main character, “nods. The drinks arrive immediately. They drink quietly for some time. In the clam quiet of the bar one can smell the toilet…. ‘Guys like you and me, Ben,’ Ocholla says suddenly turning to face his comrade, ‘we have got to drink, Ben. Drink and drink. That is the only way to stay sober in this bloody hell.’” In early passages bar scenes convey a vibrant conviviality, but by the closing pages drink for men like Ben and Ocholla has become a kind of anesthesia.
In his celebrated 1966 narrative poem, Song of Lawino (1966), Ugandan poet Okot p’Bitek wrote through the voice of a “traditional” wife to criticize her husband, Ocol, and by extension Ugandans who had abandoned their cultures in favor of western practice—including drinking practice: “It is true, Ocol/I cannot dance the ball-room dance. Being held so tightly/I feel ashamed…/They come to the dance dead drunk/They drink white men’s drinks/As well as waragi [local gin]/They close their eyes,/And they do not sing as they dance,/They dance silently like wizards.” Like Okot p’Bitek, novelists portrayed colonial and post-colonial drinking as essentially foreign—a commoditized product of the expansion of capitalism that swamped the traditional (in scholarly terms, “integrated”) forms of drinking that had supposedly characterized pre-colonial rural societies. The drunks that populated novels like Going Down River Road and many other works rarely if ever emerge as individually flawed addicts. Instead, they are the victims of colonial and neo-colonial misfortune—economic decline and cultural and political disintegration.
The African fiction canon formed rapidly in the independence era, and there were for many years no obvious successors to the iconic novels of the 1960s and 1970s, most of which carried the imprimatur of the Heinemann African Writers Series.
Heinneman African Writers covers, ca. 1960s (http://bookshybooks.blogspot.com/)
Many of those novels were fixtures on secondary school reading lists across the continent, but the economic crisis of the 1980s made books expensive. Self-help books sold well to people in desperate straits but there was no equivalent in African countries to the proliferation of recovery manuals that filled shelves in book stores in the U.S. Local publishers turned out cheap thrillers and romances, but few of these attracted particular notice (although many included similar depictions of poverty, crime, drinking and drug use not very different from those in Going Down River Road).
Chris Abani’s 2004 novel, Graceland (New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux), described those difficult years of the late 1970s and 1980s in Nigeria and was at the same time part of a revival of African fiction, particularly associated with (post-apartheid) South African and Nigerian writers. Graceland tells the story of a young teenager who is brought by his father from a relatively secure life in a rural area of eastern Nigeria to the slums of the mega-city Lagos. Once again, people find themselves vulnerable once disconnected from traditional roots and struggling to survive in an atmosphere of neo-liberal corruption and political oppression. The boy’s father, Sunday, is weak, but a victim among many. “Sunday’s public drunkenness was hard for [his son] to watch. Although Sunday had always turned to alcohol when life became hard, back in their hometown there had been some dignity to his drinking. Perhaps it was because for the most part it had been conducted in the privacy of their house.” Like earlier generations of African novelists, Abani depicted ubiquitous urban drinking cultures. Higher end bars for those with some money and status. Dives serving palm wine or rotgut for those desperate for a bit of relief from their desperate existences.
Chris Abani (Nigeria), 2004
In Graceland the Lagos slums of the 1980s are also stations on the international cocaine trade. The novel’s young hero, always on the lookout for a chance to make a bit of money, finds himself offered a job wrapping up small packets of coke that will be put into condoms and delivered to the U.S. by Nigerian mules. Although fearful he could find himself in prison, he is enticed by the money and by his contact’s assurance that this is just a processing task in a giant global enterprise: “it is not like I am asking you to hawk dis stuff, okay? I am just asking you to help me wrap it. Ten naira per wrap—now are you in or out?”
In Abani’s depiction of the chaotic transformation of Nigerian society in the 1980s drug use remained obscure and foreign. And even as the local consumption of illicit drugs has risen in African countries in subsequent decades, drug use has only rarely been portrayed in creative writing. Among the very small number of African confessional memoirs, none detail the author’s battles with drugs and alcohol. The young Kenyan writer Binyanvanga Wainaina’s widely reviewed 2011 memoir, One Day I will Write About This Place (Graywolf Press) links alcohol consumption to the depression he suffered as a student in South Africa, but booze isn’t the culprit. The older South African artist and writer Zakes Mda describes a great deal of drinking and quite a bit of cannabis use in his, Sometimes There is a Void: Memoirs of an Outsider (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012). In a narrative that alternates present and past, he repeatedly suggests a connection between his current sobriety and his artistic success—but never even mentions how he came to stop drinking (and smoking ganga) and what was involved.
K. Sello Duiker (South Africa), 2001
My search for creative writing on drug use and abuse took me finally to K. Sello Duiker’s novel, The Quiet Violence of Dreams (Cape Town, Kwela Books, 2001). Quiet Violence promises a “startling account of the inner workings of contemporary South African urban culture” and it’s no surprise that the main character’s favorite book is The Beautyful Once Are Not Yet Born. He describes a Cape Town where marijuana (called ganga, dube, or zol) is commonplace. “I forget it is considered a drug,” according to one character, “talking about dube is like asking for a Kleenex or bumming a cigarette.” In this atmosphere the plot is set off when the protagonist is institutionalized because of “cannabis induced psychosis,” a diagnosis that makes the drug itself inherently dangerous. Yet there’s no talk of addiction. No program. No meetings. No promises to go cold turkey. He’s in a psychiatric facility, not rehab. His friend distrusts the diagnosis: “The thing about zol is that it opens you up and if you crack during that process I believe it has more to do with your character than the drug.” That view that seems to align with notions of the addict or alcoholic. The characters themselves are unsure. Drug use is a product of poverty, just as alcohol abuse was in an earlier generation of African novel. Larger forces are at play, but these are not only material. Magic, a malevolent magic, is believed, even among educated people to explain a great deal, including how drugs affect behavior and keep people in their thrall.