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Review-a-Day
Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, June 5th, 2005


 

Hustling Is Not Stealing: Stories of an African Bar Girl

by John M. Chernoff

And make it snappy

A review by Michael Peel

"Hawa", the prostitute subject of John M. Chernoff's West African monologues, tells a story of how she typically deals with an unpleasant white expatriate who pushes her out of his house after she refuses his request for a blow-job -- or, as he describes it, "French love". She rips her clothes, goes to the police in tears and tells them the man has assaulted her. The police make her alleged attacker pay for her damaged garments and taxi home. It's left unclear whether the officers take their own cut; but, either way, the West's exploitative economic power is momentarily checked by West African canniness and instant justice.

This bitter-sweet story is typical of two books that the author insists are more than a "pitiful chronicle of hypocrisy and exploitation". Chernoff, an American academic who spent seven years studying music and culture in Ghana, claims that Hustling Is Not Stealing and its sequel, Exchange Is Not Robbery, are mainly a "giddy celebration" of his heroine's "will to dignity". He urges readers to look beyond Africa's statistics of misery and admire the ingenuity of people who have found a way of functioning in these tumultuous post-colonial societies. He wants to do justice to the West African region's sociable inventiveness and to provide a kind of counterweight to bleak foreign commentaries that suggest "on the entire African continent, no one is having fun".

This trite and banal comment is one of several similar observations that give a sour edge to an otherwise valuable social anthropology. In his praiseworthy efforts to explode lingering Western prejudices about helpless, hapless and hopeless Africans, the author risks romanticizing life on the continent and drawing attention away from its huge material deprivation and the many egregious reasons for it. Hawa herself is not so sentimental: as she comments near the end of the second book, "I am suffering at every place I go".

Apart from an extended introduction by Chernoff, the books consist almost exclusively of more than 700 pages of transcripts of taped conversations he recorded with Hawa in 1977 and 1979. Hawa, who was born in Ghana, leads a peripatetic life in a region assaulted by European slave-traders and then carved up territorially mostly by British and French invaders. She has little formal education but speaks ten languages. The author knows her milieu better and more deeply than most outsiders: he has lived in both urban and rural areas of Ghana, played traditional drums and is the author of the highly regarded book African Rhythm and African Sensibility (1981).

Hawa's mother dies when her daughter is three years old, leaving the young girl to grow up with "none to praise her and few to love her". She walks away from her family after rejecting as exploitative the arranged, polygamous marriage that is her lot in the Muslim community she comes from. Her early adult life is spent as a prostitute, sometimes in relationships with men with whom she gets on and who treat her well. Unsurprisingly, many of Hawa's boyfriends treat her very badly and she is frequently physically attacked. For a while, she finds a kind of stability with "Nigel Manners", an ex-British Army Captain who is prone to drunkenness and violence but is capable of personal kindness. He asks her to come to live with him in England, but then dies before she can find out whether he was more serious about the plan than another expatriate who made a similar, unfulfilled offer to one of her friends.

Hawa's stories convey well the sense in which the corollary of West Africa's urban poverty and lawlessness is an engaging spontaneity and a life-affirming intensity of existence. For Chernoff, the region's squalid cities are "the heavens of this earth": all humanity is there and cultures mix in highly creative ways. He originally planned to complement Hawa's stories with those of one of his male friends; he had to abandon the idea after the man started to speak in an invented mix of English and local languages that generated witty wordplay but made his conversation unintelligible to people outside his social group. Hawa's storytelling shows the sophisticated ways in which people of the region already blend their traditional languages with English, French and evocative local pidgin variants. Her English is limited -- Chernoff says he has made "extensive grammatical and stylistic adjustments" -- but she juggles those words she does know effectively. She describes an untrustworthy brother as a "dangerous, secret boy"; she says of a Lebanese man who tried unsuccessfully to pick a fight that "he wanted to talk war, and nobody would hear". She reports wistfully that Nigel Manners told her that "money cannot buy love, but money can rent love".

Chernoff's decision to present Hawa's observations unedited gives them authenticity at the expense of a repetitiveness of phrase and theme. There is a narrative of sorts as Hawa travels from Ghana to Togo to Burkina Faso, but her movements are hard to follow for someone not familiar with the galaxy of place names mentioned (some of which have in any case been switched to protect people's identities). The presentation takes little account of the differing requirements of oral and written story-telling: a tale that is spellbinding when told in the bar or over the cooking pot, where Chernoff first heard Hawa speak, looks less compelling when stripped from its theatre and placed verbatim on the printed page.

Considering Chernoff's prolonged attempts to involve readers in the minutiae of Hawa's life, he is strangely coy about the fate of his heroine in the more than twenty years since his conversations with her took place. The press release for Exchange Is Not Robbery claims that the work "completes the fascinating tale of Hawa". It does anything but: it ends on a note of foreboding, with Hawa reflecting increasingly on what will happen to her in a future when she won't always have youth and energy on her side. Chernoff writes that he knows what happened but that there is "no need to say it". "Choose the ending you like", he writes. "She is an example, and we shall leave her at the place we found her." Intentionally or not, this heavy-handed authorial show-and-tell creates an impression of smugness. It is as if Chernoff is saying, "I will give you a glimpse of what I know, but not so much that it threatens my authority over the direction of this story and my subject". He does not explain why he waited so long before publishing Hawa's monologues, although he says cryptically that "hindsight may make this book more of a eulogy than a celebration".

Hawa's haunts have changed a lot over the past quarter-century, often in disturbing ways. By many estimates, Africa is the only continent to have become poorer over that period. West Africa has been among the most violent and crisis-prone parts of the world. Since 1979, Ghana, one of the most stable countries in the region, has experienced a coup, the autocratic rule of Jerry Rawlings, controversial International Monetary Fund-backed reforms, and a democratic change of government in 2000. But perhaps the biggest social change, especially for someone like Hawa, is the spread of HIV/Aids. While West African countries don't yet seem to have reached the horrific infection rates of southern African countries, the prognosis is still appalling. Chernoff refers only cursorily to the issue, but even his brief comments give an idea of the depth of the problem that Hawa's dated stories avoid. "The world of African nightlife seems now divided into two groups", he writes. "Those who have condemned themselves to death and those who have decided to go crazy with frustration." It is not the only way in which Chernoff's books seem to belong to a more innocent age. Prostitutes in cities such as Lagos today generally seem more urgent, more blunt and less choosy than Hawa. The prevailing sense is of a younger generation, male and female, sustained in large part by the hope of escape: I remember a student in Abuja, Nigeria's capital, who showed me the blank passport she had bought in anticipation of meeting the European or American who would supply the visa to allow her into a land of material comfort.

Ultimately, Hawa's story is one of a spirited but doomed attempt to overcome a broken and grotesquely unjust system. She conducts herself with wit, intelligence and compassion, but her life seems to lack a sense that tomorrow could be better than today. Such feelings are hardly unique to West Africa, but it is one of the regions of the world where the suffocating effects of colonial and post colonial rapacity, corrupt local leadership, and male political domination are most obvious. Chernoff eschews such a polemical outlook in favour of a raw, descriptive approach, telling readers that they may find Hawa's stories "invite analysis yet render it somewhat irrelevant". For him, the most important thing is to let readers see his subject's words, unfiltered by the prisms of the Western development worker, journalist, or academic. Chernoff justifiably sees in Hawa's tales evidence of West African people's strength, adaptiveness, tolerance and "a kind of cultivated gentleness and lightheartedness". "Faced with the mess Africa seems from a distance, I catch a glimpse of that sweetness that I remember as part of life in Africa, a glimpse to make me less forlorn", he writes. "That sweetness is an incredible achievement of the people there."

It is an understandable and in many ways honourable approach, but it carries its own dangers of distortion. Stripped of commentary, the stories risk obscuring essential questions about why things are as they are. Such debate is critical as the world goes through one of its spasmodic periods of interest in Africa ahead of the G8 leading economies summit in Scotland, in July, where the scandals of unsustainable debt, unfair trade restrictions, multinational corruption, and foreign support for African dictators ought to be on the agenda. John Chernoff's books are important and passionate social documents that show how Hawa and many of her fellow citizens are capable, socially advanced and wry survivors; the challenge left to readers is to ask why these qualities in adversity are so necessary, and how things should be changed to enable ordinary Africans to enjoy the freedom they deserve.

Michael Peel is a former West Africa correspondent of the Financial Times and is currently on sabbatical working freelance in London.



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