Book Review

Juka Fatou Jabang is one of Gambia’s finest and most consistent writers. She is a poetess that informs, educates and empowers through her well-chosen diction and intellectual prowess. She is a retired public and international civil servant with more than four decades of governance and capacity development experience in the national and international spheres Juka is better profiled as an educationist, a public sector management expert, a writer, a literary critic and an advocate of gender equality. In her recent collection of poems, an anthology named ‘The Phoenix: A Collection of Poems, which comprises poems with themes on colonialism, Imperialism, gender and sexually- based violence cum social injustice, challenges patriarchal norms, inequitable traditional practices and neocolonialism. Her poems tell so much in bare reality thereby, providing pointers to Africa’s history, a history hardly honestly told to the children of Africa. These historical narratives include colonialism which had ravaged and emaciated Africa on the pretext of civilization. In this poem, for instance, Juka explores and recollects the past dark days of Africa and its incessant quest for  total economic and social liberation. As the poems opens:

“As white teeth disguise

The shade and make up of

The red stream that

Give them life,

So does their smile

Lie to you”

            8-13 [They Wear Masks]

Juka deploys Simile to describe mischievous colonialists who deceived and exploited mother Africa, ‘as white teeth disguise’ illustrates the treachery and malevolence of these colonialists. They Wear Masks is satirical – exposing pretense and deceit. The mask symbolizes mean colonialists who had disguised to be good ‘Samaritan’ to Africans while enslaving and subjugating them. At this juncture, Juka entreats and challenges our reality as she left us in a dilemma with questions to ponder over who wears a mask? or who does not? Hence is too generic.

‘Beware

All of them carry masks’ …..44-45

The anthology ‘The Phoenix’ also imbues pretty much the ignoble traditional practices embedded in socio-cultural African settings. In the fourth poem ‘The Injunction’ the persona seeks to demystify Female Genital Mutilation (FGM); as states in line 22 second stanza ‘The unholy surgery’ a metaphor, referring to the process involved in circumcising young girls. The unearned suffering, pain and trauma inflicted on them as they undergo this harmful practice, is heart tearing. Jabang expounds against harmful traditional practices in a similar poem The Culpable Cutter’ she states;

“For having caused girls and women

Such suffering in their lives

I declare here and now

That a tradition which harms,

Maims and traumatizes,

A tradition which kills

Is not fit to be a tradition”…. 13-20

Through these poems, a quintessential of traditional African socio cultural norms are exposed yet challenged. The anthology pictured patriarchy as the foundation, indeed the basis, of all oppression of women and girls, thus resolve to give them purpose while amplifying their voices in a male dominant society. Like a monarchy, she presents patriarchy as a kingdom where men are kings and women are merely subjects. For instance, women are neat and box into kitchen, gardening, child bearing and housekeeping. No significance is attached to their rights as women. Likewise, in the poem  ‘Billy Goat’ the poetess is agonised over male dominance over women; line 1 -7 first stanza,  which captures sexual abuse, pedophilia and infidelity.

“A saintly visage seemingly chaste and pure,

Deceptive eyes of sanctity and reverence

Disguise the pernicious soul

Of the relentless maestro, 

Aggressor and violator

Of virtuous lasses

Harem-keeper par excellence”.. 1-7

She dispel adultery, condemn the violation of women. Her arrant  indignity for sexual violence as she metaphorically presents rapists as Billy Goats in the streets who shamelessly crave to prey on young women – is pretty much fulfilling in a bid to name and shame rapists and ‘sugar daddies’ she wrote;

“A cheating chameleon outside his den,

Cunningly hankering for new acquisitions 

He fakes and poses

Astutely attracting fresh prey,

This mean old fox is

A lion at home and 

A lecherous goat in the street.”27-33

Unequivocally, The Phoenix is a thrust   defending women rights and gender equality. This is evident in the poems; Raw Demise, Docile Wife as the persona projects an African society in which traditional practices (even harmful ones) are still upheld with very high esteem, and marks some moral significance as per societal norms. Juka Jabang is fierce in her quest to empower African women. Her poems challenged the systematic abuse of women in contemporary Africa societies, with an overpowering diction to put the message across. For instance, wife battering remain a common and normal practice in most families and communities in Africa. The poem states;

“Her life is full of beatings.

She is battered all the time.

Oppressed and shattered every day”. ‘The Docile Wife’, line 12 – 14:

The poetess reiterate on marriage; a union to be instituted on the footing of equality, compassion, love and understanding, unfortunately it is the opposite often in traditional Africa. Despite women build homes, make families, feed and upkeep houses; indefatigable in their matrimonial tasks, yet all they’re rewarded, is but ingratitude and threats, at worst battering and intimidation. She’s either beaten for “late lunch or over-blued laundry”. The poem depicts an extant domestic violence perpetrated in patriarch, prevailing by day. Comparatively, the persona expresses remorse and sorrow for the wife’s unfettered love and care for the “family and children”. Ambivalent of their compassion, women are emphatic beyond all odds. As the poetess states;

“This battered wife is lonely 

And friendless,

But she is resolute

And resilient, 

Worn down by persistent deprivation,

And neglect,

She has no confidante to share

Her struggles and dreams.

All that resonates in her soul

Is the strong will to live

For her family, 

A deep longing for a better future, 

A future of her children, 

Bright and glowing 

Is all she years for.” 41-55

Other major themes captured in the anthology includes spiritual piety and death [The Way of all Creation, In Stages, Insomnia, Wonders & Lamentation] of love and romance [Obsessed], of hope and faith [Hope is a Gift & Time and Again]. These poems invoke the power of divinity, and mankind’s relationship with their Creator. On colonialism, she creates an image of Africa in the past when white colonialists disguised as ‘good Samaritans’ and exploit the innocent Africa, leaving her with wounds and aberrations that still hurt and obstruct its development and progress, as illustrated in Africa’s Anguish“Deep gashes born of

Indignity and barbarity,

In tune with exploitation and control

Blight

My pass filled with pain and

Cruelty,

Scars that blot

My now, crammed with

Intricacies and barricades”. (8-12)

The poetess aim is not limited to desecrating sexual violence as shown in the anthology, but as well the invasion and occupation of Africa. Thus, she demoralizes white invasion and stripped it off  any iota of honour as implied:

“They came from far-off

Beyond the deep wide sea

Over the horizon

To tell me who I was…” 13-16

The poetess historical presentation of Africa and their colonial masters serves as an induction – explaining the onset of matters; the brutality, crude and terror inflicted on African descendants in the guise of civilization. In similar poems such as The habitat of Homo Noirus, the poetess captures the past dark days of slavery and present day mental slavery of the African As a matter of fact, she smirk the occupation of Africa, and condemned slavery outright: She wrote;

“Pilferer of the original gems

Homo blancus,

The economic prostitute,

Political impostor…..” 20-24 [The Habitat of Homo Noirus]

Juka’s ability to depict Africa in two distinct angles explained our realities as a continent that has endured so much injustice, thus, she re-imagine an Africa that will emerge liberated. Implying that Africa cannot continue to allow to be fed by the west in the name of aids and grants which aims at usurpation and neocolonialism. Hence, the persona resolve to decolonize and reinvent Africa from the bondage of imperialism. she wrote:

“While they wreak on me

Myriads of projects, programs

Trust Funds, studies

And other addiction designs,

I am the dumping bazaar for

Their discarded wares,

Employer of their untested toddlers

Masquerading as experts,

Client of their inept scum

Posing as consultants,

All of them

Funded in the name of aid…” 46-56 [Africa’s Anguish]

The poetess expounds how Africa is stuck in a vicious circle of exploitation that seems unending. The persona poignantly profile these camouflage characters who are bent on exploiting African resources, in a hindsight, symbolizing foreign aid as the new colonialism.

“They came from the far-off

Over the horizon

To tighten the nose,

They lend me bucks

I do not solicit

And make me indebted

Eternally and always”…. 49-55

Also, there are major themes of feminism and gender activism which can be spotted in poems such as ‘She is Nothing’ a poem that depicts the plights of  female children born in a patriarchy, where the delivery of a female child is accorded little or no jubilation; ‘mountainous hopes shattered, ‘They preferred a boy child‘. Likewise, in the poem ‘The Fold is Muddle’ demonstrate the spitefulness, glory, glamour, splendor and grandeur of women in their entirety. This poem is an epic to all women as a solemn recognition of not only their selflessness, but also as the natural epicenter of procreation and continuity She states;

I, all fervour and passion

Stanch to serve and revere,

I, the chosen curator

Of the imminent progeny… 55-58 [The Fold is Muddle]

The poetess unapologetically presents the inequality, oppression and subordination of women in a male dominated society, where women are reduce to keepers of the house; executing all domestic chores. The persona reveals the preference for a male child over a female child in a male certain African set ups – triumphant is a woman who deliver a boy child, while no celebration or victory is a due a woman who delivers a girl child. The persona states;

“Greeted with no exaltation,

No joy, no jubilation

she is of the feeble species

Replica of ignominy

valueless and frail….” 5-9

“Genitor, kith, kinsmen

All broken and melancholic.

Their mountainous hopes shattered,

They preferred a boy-child”…. 10 -13

In stark reality, the poem divulged the ill treatment of women (as wives) and as a girl child in male chauvinist set ups. The self-entitlement syndrome among men over women has pretty much undermined women rights, as they can neither reject nor complain in executing their tasks as girls and as married women.

“Tomorrow’s exalted offspring, 

Must all be earned today

Only by service, honour 

And worship of her keeper”….29-31

It is fundamental to note that, Juka Jabang concern over women’s fate in a patriarchy is geared towards liberating women from oppression of male dominion. A similar poem is ‘The Beggar’ where the poetess highlights child labour in poor African setups. This theme is prevalent also in the poem ‘Teenage Housemaid’ in which the poet highlights the predicament of maids and maidens in the house of capitalists as they seek to fend for themselves and their families. The poem opens, “a young girl with lofty dreams, long to get away from her rustic life, to earn an income stable and sure, To aid her folks and plan her future.” The person is explicit as she portray the ramifications of poverty and economic inequality. Juxtaposing, the poetess  nonconformity to how children are sent away from home to seek knowledge on the holy scripture, a term popularly known as “almudism” in vernacular, questions parenting. As she states;

“Criss-crosses the road to make a living.

Little calabash in hand,

This dejected effigy is a beggar”… 15-18

Continuing, the persona spew on the ignoble man who goes out to beggar for the christening of a new born baby, and only for him to use the same donations in wooing other women:

“Obligatory contributions heartily delivered,

He amasses everything 

To tie a new knot elsewhere,

This rogue too is a beggar”… 34-37 [The Beggar]

The anthology ‘The Phoenix’ reaches far and beyond human caprices to empower the woman – notwithstanding, desecrating harmful traditional practices in African socio-cultural fabrics. Three-thirds of the poems in the anthology cajole the need to uplift the African women; love, care and treasure them. In addition, the poetess is determined to see the total liberation of Africans from western incursions. Such attempts are made explicit in the poems such as ‘Borrowed Existence’ and ‘The Exodus’ which talks about brain drain in Africa; as young Africa intellectuals, brilliant and industrious sons and daughters of Africa are lost to the international communities. The persona discerns the search for greener pasture as the new wave of slavery, hence Africans have become civilized slaves, alienated and acculturated; she wrote:

“In the land of milk and honey,

Where the plunder is laundered,

And the sun shines day and night.

These destitute people are transformed

Their minds, souls, spirits

All transposed and alienated.

Sold for survival, their

Submissive talents undervalued.

These gems are

Victims of the new slavery”. The Exodus 31-41

Juka Jabang could not spare corruption, a symbolic theme captured in the poem, ‘Graft’. The Phoenix takes a multifaceted dimension, diminishing the politics of greed, deceit and corruption. Herein, Juka is set out to let the cat out of the bag on unscrupulous leadership that continue to deny Africa of democracy and economic independence. Although, colonialism have ravaged Africa politically and economically, in contrast most African leaders are not very different from colonialist masters. Today, in Africa you have leaders as individuals wealthier than the nations they’re leading. They amass state wealth to enrich themselves and their close affinities at the expense of the masses: she wrote;

“Concentration of wealth

In the hands of a few,

Control and hegemony

It is heartless and brutal

Corruption negates life”…11 – 12

On the powerlessness of widows and their children,  Juka describe the predicament of a widow in a patriarchy upon the death of a husband. The poems ‘The Death of a Man’ and  ‘The Vicious Circle’ recounts the experience of a widow as children become fatherless, often wives become victims,  stigmatize on the demise of the husband. As days past, old “pachos” come and share the inheritance among themselves, like ‘covetous vultures’ they prey on the wealth of orphans, the poetess pointed ‘when tomorrow he breathes his last, the insatiable tentacles – Of the fiend gluttonous – will encircle his children – children

They

Swiftly carved up the pillage,

then,

Like covetous vultures they devoured 

Everything

All the acres, stocks, coffers and 

Everything he owned. 23-29 [Death of a Man]

To an ordinary level, Juka Jabang presents a dialogue between a mother and her child in the poem ‘The Repeal’. The dialogue is initiated by the mother to admonish her daughter about life, the life of a woman and most importantly the life of a teenage girl. The mother aims to break the culture of silence and defy the odds that disallowed the discourse on sexuality and reproductive health. The poem opens;

“I am not ashamed

To share my knowledge

With you my daughter

I will tell you about puberty

And menstruation

About sexuality, pregnancy

And childbirth…..” 7-8

Talking to your daughter or a girl child about certain issues are considered taboo, thus many young girls in traditional African communities are left unformed and unenlightened on such sensitive matters to their suffocation at some point in their lives. As they begin to experience changes in their body, without proper counselling – they are bound to derail in fear and anxiety. This is didactical as it seeks to teach young women fundamental stages of their lives, particularly on reproductive health. She wrote;

I am not inhibited

To hand out tuition

To you my daughter

I will teach you about rights

Your right to choose a husband

And to learn about your body….. 8-14

Also, ‘In His Eyes I am Weak’ and ‘The Way of All Creation’ are poems of fulfilment – the former is a description of motherhood and the ordeals of a mother during nine months of struggle while the latter painted divinity. In the poem ‘Disclosure of a Rape Victim’ is pretty much a protest poem – recollecting the ordeal of a rape victim; from the assault stage to  when she faces the society. The persona opens; ‘I am not bashful to confide in you, My sister.’ The poetess confides in a sister, something so difficult yet courageous of a rape victim; to retell an insidious story. She seeks refuge in confession, hoping to help get rid of the penitent while providing solace and enlightenment. She wrote:

“To uncover the cruel

Egomaniac vile and degenerate

That controls your uncaring world,

I divulge my story

I stir you up

And to make you wise…” 8-13

These poem is an epoch of Juka Jabang’s writing prowess and intellectual enablement. The poem is so contemporary and poignant. Reading through the lines, one would be touched, remorsed and challenged to live in such a society, while informed and embolden as a woman to break the culture of silence. The Poetess lament the terrible ordeal of rape victims in tandem thwart perpetrators. Indeed, rape is a horrific encounter. The persona states:

The assault was odious

Sudden, unexpected and forced

Like the portent wings of a full-grown eagle

His merciless hands large and powerful

Grasped me fearfully

Overpowered, stripped

Ripped nad ruptured… 27 -33

The poetess continued………..

From then to today i am eternally

Visited by sensations of terror,

Guilt, shame and indignity

As the world looks on

I have not forgiven

I cannot forget… 41-46

Besides, ‘The Old Woman’ is a poem where the poetess recollects her youth life when she was in her prime; wild and plumb, then her immaculate face was naturally pretty. But old age ensued, beauty fades, limbs no longer able to carry her . As touching as this may sound, it is pitiful and didactical listening to the persona narrates her transition from childhood to old age. The old woman’s pitiful condition of loneliness, ill health, confusion and regrets are associated with old age and are poignantly delineated in this poem. The poem opens;

“When atlast

The fantasy is debunked,

Certainty is compelled

To rear its ugly face, and

Nature takes control,

To obliterate vitality and

Demolish grace

To conclude; Juka Fatou Jabang’s anthology ‘The Phoenix’ is a rare collection with multi voices calling for change, justice, total emancipation of both the Africa continent and the African woman. Touching on all facets of life, the Phoenix is a milestone in Gambian poetry and by large Gambian literature. A work that will go generations in impacting lives, challenging and quelling socio-cultural and traditional structures, as well as norms and values that undermine women rights and indignify them. More so, it goes far and beyond condemning the illegitimate incursion and occupation of Africa.

Finally, to the anthology’s first poem and the title of the book, The Phoenix: It is the opening poem of the anthology with a striking beam to self-independence and rejuvenation, as well as mysticism, divinity, immortality, ‘unmatched longevity infinite’:

I self- ignite,

Blaze ferociously and out of my ashes

A new me arises,

I self-regenerate

When mutilated by my adversary,

I am phoenix

Never ending,

Invincible……. 13- 20

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