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Fw: Review-a-Day: Hustling Is Not Stealing: Stories of an African Bar Girl

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  • Rand Wise
    ... From: reviews@powells.com Sent: Jun 5, 2005 2:00 AM Subject: Review-a-Day: Hustling Is Not Stealing: Stories of an African Bar Girl Today s Review From
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 10, 2005
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      From: reviews@...
      Sent: Jun 5, 2005 2:00 AM
      Subject: Review-a-Day: Hustling Is Not Stealing: Stories of an African Bar Girl

      Today's Review From
      Times Literary Supplement

      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

      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...

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