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