Saturday, 14 June 2008

Dreams, Miracles and Jazz: New Adventures in African Writing, edited by Helon Habila & Kadija Sesay.

On 31 May 2008, I went to 'WORD FROM AFRICA', part of Africa Beyond - a day-long celebration of African literature and languages held at the British Museum.

My main reason for going was the launch of the anthology Dreams, Miracles and Jazz, which includes work from prize-winning and new African writers from all over Africa, the USA, Europe, Australia and Asia.
Contributors included Tony Mochoma (Kenya), Mamle Kabu (Ghana), Gitta Sumner (Sierre Leone), and Ken Kamoche (Kenya) who read from the book.

In this anthology of 25 writers, I have selected A Pocketful of Dreams by Jackee Budesta Batanda, shortlisted for the Caine Prize, as my favourite so far, as I am still reading the book.

A Pocketful of Dreams tells the story (politics) of the oppressive visa queue. With a blend of humour, tragedy, irony and joy (albeit short-lived), this first person narrative takes the reader right there with Taaka on her mission; her journey, which starts at 4am when the special taxi drives her to the British High Commission in Uganda.

On arrival the visa line has already expanded into hundreds of eagerly and anxiously anticipating individuals, all waiting for 8.30am when the consulate offices open 'and the privileged few for the day are let in.' During this anticipation, the waiting game is vividly and tensely portrayed and I felt like I couldn't stand the suspense (and couldn't put the book down either). During those hours that seem like days, tragedy happens, by way of a commotion among 'the unchosen that have been told to come back next week' and a boy faints and dies.

Eventually, Taaka gets her visa and three days later flies on board Emirates Air with a pocketful of dreams...and multi stops - Entebbe-Nairobi-Dubai-London. Her journey takes her to Terminal 4 in England, followed by a tube ride to Wood Green Station in North London, where her mother's friend Anika meets her.

On route through London's overwhelming underground maze, Taaka has a 'friendly' encounter with a gay man from Paris, an auto cation with a girl who Taaka can't help staring at, and more. If that isn't enough for Taaka's first day in England, there is more than a few challenging tube encounters to deal with as her pocketful of dreams are beginning to fade into the realities of her new life in England as Anika briefs her 'about the rules.'

Taaka finally meets her mother who has covered up Taaka's identity and introduces her to her husband as her sister. Taaka's first day ends with her dreaming 'about the boy who fainted and died in the line at the Consulate.'

I've never been to Uganda, but writer Jackee Budesta Batanda's sense of place made me feel as if I had been there. Not only does the writer make me see the things she sees, she makes me feel the things she feels.

A Pocketful of Dreams is extremely well written and captured my full attention, providing me with a sharp and realistic insight into the realities and traumas faced by individuals seeking an adventure into the unknown, with hope and faith, with great and sometimes mythical expectations. Individuals whose drive and faith won't let them give up as they negotiate their way through the world of rigid officialdom - the chosen few will 'escape', to start a new life and join their relatives.

Judging by this contribution, I look forward to reading the rest of the anthologies' new adventures in African writing.

Jackee Budesta Batanda lives in Kampala, Uganda. She was the Africa Regional Winner of the 2003 Commonwealth Short Story Competition, and was short-listed for the Macmillan Writers Prize for Africa 2004. Her story Remember Atita was highly recommended by the judges of the Caine Prize, 2004. She has been Writer-in-Residence at Lancaster University. Her stories have been broadcast on the BBC and around the Commonwealth. She is a member of the Uganda Women Writers Association (FEMRITE).

Dreams, Miracles and Jazz: New Adventures in African Writing was first published by Picador Africa 2008 an imprint of Pan Macmillan South Africa.