Like the proverbial Man of humankind, Chinua Achebe’s Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart was a man of many personal achievements but one always challenged by his arrogance. As a young man, he had brought honour to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat and worked hard to earn his place as a clansman, warrior, farmer and family provider in Umuofia. Okonkwo did not want to be like his father, whom he saw as a cowardly, lazy lover of the arts. He had had many years of success and prosperity, but when we find him in the story, we see him at the beginning of the many years of challenges, when he is obsessed with the fear of failure and weakness. The years when things began to fall apart.
In The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Salman Rushdie tells us that disorientation is the loss of the east. This year, however, our disorientation may very well have come from the Orient. Like being giddied by the most extensive social experiment ever conducted on the human race – the great big carousel from Wuhan. Our world stopped, and then everything that we just couldn’t live without, we did.
At the beginning of the Greek world, the titan Prometheus stole fire from the gods which he gave to humanity to help men begin civilisation. For that, he was punished. At the beginning of the Semitic world, Adam had eaten from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. For that, he was banished. We have always been too clever, have always overreached ourselves, and we have always paid the price. This then was the year of our frailty unfolding helplessly before us, like watching crash test dummies in a slow-motion car wreck. Will the airbag open? Or will it not?
This has been a year where we lived in purgatory, neither here nor there. A new abnormal disguised as normalcy. We masked like criminals and forbade ourselves human touch. We kissed new babies through screens and schooled our own children, pulling our hair out. We cancelled holidays, then booked them again, and cancelled them again. We postponed weddings or got married anyway. We danced on balconies, we danced in virtual parties, we danced alone. And then we all danced to the song of salvation that could only have come from this beautiful continent – all of us in our despair and loneliness sought joy in the choreographed rhythm of an African ode to hope.
This year preyed on our weaknesses, cultivated our fears, challenged our trust in the ability of governments to protect us. We promoted conspiracies. It’s been a year of loss- more death than we have ever witnessed in a non-conflict situation. We cried for so many that we lost but couldn’t bury. We looked for churches in our souls when they locked up the cathedrals. We turned to Mecca, even when Mecca was closed. Like in that Pet Shop Boys song, there were no feast days or fast days, or days of abstinence intrude. But we lived anyway. And we found compassion in the smallest of places. We looked for our purpose and found new meaning.
It’s been a year when the seams of political disorder tore open everywhere, and the lust for power and greed reared itself even at humankind’s lowest moment. Nero golfed as Romans died. Aid for the dying was stolen by the beasts of corruption. The homes of the jobless and the hungry were demolished in the night to build a road to Armageddon. And Herod’s soldiers kept killing the poor just because they could. It was the year of one of our greatest infamies. But we persisted. We, the mad men and women who looked at tyrants and parted oceans. We found heroes in those who risked, and lost their lives as they saved ours.
It was a year we knew we just had to breathe, so we took the inequality of our societies by the throat and made our voices heard. Black lives mattered, as loudly as they ever have. Our futures mattered, and the survival of our species. We stayed home and stared at screens finding common cause with tragedies everywhere, our innate sense of justice flared, and the realisation that equality is a universal struggle. We had faced annihilation many times before – in slavery, colonisation, the holocaust, genocidal wars. We have always endured.
The Orange Pharaoh was mailed out of office.
We filled our lungs with air, grateful for life on earth. For the dolphins that swum back into the Venice canals. For the deer who walked back into the city streets. For G_d’s mountain that showed itself to Nairobi, having been clouded by decades of the city’s sins. It was a year of living abundantly for everything we have. For our coping mechanisms, and like in the Sheryl Crow song, the good people of the world who stilled washed their cars on their lunch breaks.
I am grateful for the day I went soul deep into the Indian Ocean and the skies opened up all its blessings, and the sea’s calm affirmation that followed.
We discovered in our collective wisdom our species’ will to survive. The resilience of the Homo Sapiens and the worlds we create in our imagination to numb the tragedies of reality. We understood why art, music and poetry thrive when man is most hurting—our catharsis. Like the rock paintings that our ancestors left us when they were still haunted by the mysteries of a frightening planet, and the songs the villagers sang to get through an endless drought. It was a year of many sorrows, but we didn’t stop the music – because we know why the caged bird sings.
In this year of uncomfortable strangeness, I only wanted to be with the familiar. If this was the last year I was to live, then let it be with the warm, soothing music of my youth. Or new music that sounded like it was from that time. Like Taylor Swift’s folklore, a piano and strings indie record that played itself on my quarantine loop. Powerful, thought-provoking songs that are raw, revealing and vulnerable. I’ve had a hard time adjusting, she sings in one of the album’s tracks. Haven’t we all, love?
Yes, this was a year I listened to a lot of The Beatles, remembering yesterday and learning to let it be, so a surprise new album by Paul McCartney, and a great one at that, was manna from the sky. You never used to be afraid of days like these, he sings on the second track, but now you’re overwhelmed by your anxieties.
Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud was the album playing in my car on the long drive to my hometown when the lockdown here was lifted in July, and it filled me with the sunshine of newfound freedom. If I could love you unconditionally, I could iron out the edges of the darkest sky, she sings in Fire, for some of us, it ain’t enough.
This was a year of many, many fears, but I was still that rock star in my car, drumming my steering wheel singing, ooh, I’m blinded by the lights, no I can’t sleep until I feel your touch…
- folklore TAYLOR SWIFT
- McCartney III PAUL McCARTNEY
- Saint Cloud WAXAHATCHEE
- Set Fire to My Heart Immediately PERFUME GENIUS
- Letter to You BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN
- Jerusalema MASTER KG feat NOMCEBO ZIKODE
- Blinding Lights THE WEEKND
- Damage H.E.R
- Texas Sun KHRUANGBIN feat LEON BRIDGES
- Uwrongo PRINCE KAYBEE
This year our social lives shrank to the size of the living room. We lived through screens, big ones and small ones, our working and living hours turned topsy turvy. We watched films and binged on everything we could to escape harrowing news of rising case numbers, Zoom calls that wouldn’t end and network connections as consistent as political promises.
For me, Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series of films turned out to be the most amazing offering in black cinema that we’ve seen in a very long time. Lovers Rock, the second in the series, is a sublimely beautiful novella of an early 1980s party night that bursts with the colour of youthful black adults in search of belonging and pairing, enveloped by the raw, virgin sounds of lovers rock reggae. In Sound of Metal, Riz Ahmed gives the performance of his career, playing a heavy metal drummer trying to come to terms with his hearing loss. He is a restless soul, like we all were in these past months, facing the truth of his new reality – his new normal. Was it something he could fix, or something to live with, and his realisation that whatever he did, somethings would never go back to the way they were again. We would all eventually have to find calm and peace in the silence.
I looked for stories of a world without filters. A juvenile criminal who finds G_d and defies convention (Corpus Christi), the Afro-Caribbean community in Notting Hill challenging racism and police brutality (Mangrove), a teenage girl conflicted through her abortion journey in a big city (Never Rarely Sometimes Always) and an apprentice’s eternal quest for the divinity of musical perfection (The Disciple)
- Lovers Rock
- Les Misérables (France)
- First Cow
- The Disciple (India)
- Corpus Christi (Poland)
- Sound of Metal
- Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
- Never Rarely Sometimes Always
And of course, we read. Between washing our hands, taking temperatures, swallowing vitamins and elbow bumping. When the only moment I could get away from my screaming boys who turned the home into a Vietnam War scene was an escape to the Arboretum to lose myself in the enchanting world of stories.
An Apeirogon is a shape with an infinite number of sides. It is the apt title of Colum McCann’s exploration on the furiously intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Its centre is the story of two fathers whose lives were brought together and connected by grief and loss – the killing of their daughters. One was an ‘an Israeli against the occupation’ and the other, ‘a Palestinian studying the Holocaust.’ It is a hybrid book of fact and fiction that stitches time, art, history, nature and politics. “I don’t have time for hate any more”, says Aramin, one of the fathers, “We need to learn how to use our pain.” I felt a deep connection with this book, not just because of my decades-long interest in the region but also out of the human determination to reconstruct from destruction, to carry on when everything is taken away, to love even more when victimised by hate.
Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar is so astoundingly gripping that you easily forget that it is her debut. As a sucker for first lines, she had me from the opening, “I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure.” It isn’t just a complex exploration of mothering and being mothered, but that thin line between love and hate, of abandonment and the effects of parental neglect. A mother who tells her daughter, “I always knew that having you would ruin my life,” and a daughter who resents the fact that her mother is losing her memory because that means there is “no way to baste her in guilt” over the past. It is a story of alienation, depressingly devoid of hope, coming full circle when the daughter becomes a mother herself. “Maybe our mothers always create a lack in us, and our children continue to fulfil the prophecy”
- Apeirogon COLUM McCANN
- Burnt Sugar AVNI DOSHI
- Shuggie Bain DOUGLAS STUART
- Out of Darkness, Shining Light PETINA GAPPAH
- Travelling While Black, Essays Inspired by a life on the Move NANJALA NYABOLA
In Islamic history, the year the Prophet Mohammed was born (570 C.E.), the Abyssinian ruler of Yemen marched on Mecca with an army of elephants with the aim of destroying the Kaaba, the holy shrine that Muslims believe was built by Abraham and his son Ishmael and which is now the focal point of Islamic prayer. The legend of the story, also told in the Qur’an, is that the army of elephants with all their destructive might never entered the city. They were attacked by a flock of birds who dispersed them in all direction. The Arabs of Mecca called that year, ‘am-ul-fil, the Year of the Elephant. I learnt this story as a young boy in my Qur’an school in Mombasa, and since then have always thought of every monumental year as an elephant year, a term I would borrow loosely from this story from Islam’s history. Huu ni mwaka wa ndovu. The year of a deadly virus may not seem very elephantine, but just like the people in the holy city, we have survived.
It’s been a year of living cautiously and a year for living deliberately. A year of holding on to everything that we love and letting go of everything that didn’t matter. Life as we know it was upended as we scrambled to adjust to the uncertainty and find innovative ways to maintain a sense of togetherness.
I read everywhere now how we all want this year to be over, like we will change the numbers one midnight and things will go back to how they were before. But we know that’s not true. What is true is that we will continue to march on to face the odds ahead, to live still in this dystopian movie. We will continue to make music and continue to write, even as more tragedies will be thrown at us. We will not stop making human connections or reaching for higher goals. The children of Adam are still juggling with the knowledge of good and evil. Billy Joel said it, we didn’t start the fire, Prometheus did, and it still burns on and on and on…
We have faced the fear of the end of the world as know it, and like in that old R.E.M song, we feel fine.
Out of darkness, shining light. This year of.
“The year that Okonkwo took eight hundred seed yams from Nwakibie was the worst year in living memory. Nothing happened at its proper time; it was either too early or too late. It seemed as if the world had gone mad. The first rains were late and when they came, lasted only a brief moment …
The drought continued for eight market weeks and the yams were killed. The year had gone mad. When the rains finally returned, they fell as it had never fallen before. Trees were uprooted and deep gorges appeared everywhere.
That year, the harvest was sad, like a funeral and many farmers wept as they dug up the miserable and rotting yams. One man tied his cloth to a tree branch and hanged himself.
Okonkwo remembered that tragic year with a cold shiver throughout the rest of his life. It always surprised him when he thought about it later that he did not sink under the load of despair. He knew he was a fierce fighter, but that year had been enough to break the heart of a lion.
“Since I survived that year,” he always said, “I shall survive anything.”
– Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe