‘Pigeon English’

21 01 2012

Thoughts for the Day:

‘You are not responsible only for what you say, but also for what you do not say.’

‘Everything that is done in this world is done by hope.’

‘Whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is really your God.’

Martin Luther King Junior (1929-68)

Martin Luther King Day (17.01.2012)

A principal figure in the US Civil Rights campaign, the Baptist minister advocated non-violent direct action in the battle against discrimination, winning the 1965 Nobel Peace Prize before his assassination, in Memphis Tennessee, on 4th April 1968.

King will forever be remembered for his, ‘I have a dream…’ speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, following the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of the US nation – August 1963

The 3rd Monday of January – close to his birthday of 15th January – is designated a US Federal holiday. This year he would have been 82 years old.

‘Jambo Rafiki!’

It was an unexpected surprise to briefly catch up with my friend (‘rafiki’) Msafiri last night, owner of the ‘KMC’ bar in downtown Nyakarambi (Rwanda) – home of the special omelette, goat (‘iheni’) kebab, ‘Primus’ beer and big screen Premiership football.  

During my ‘VSO’ stint in Rwanda, a visit to ‘KMC’, a couple of times a week, was a social highlight. It was the only bar in Nyakarambi with its own generator so when the regular power cuts cloaked the village in darkness we were still in business.

The Internet in Rwanda, as with the rest of Africa, is notoriously unreliable, painfully slow, and so it’s difficult to maintain regular correspondence. But last night, quite by chance, Msafiri and I were both on ‘Facebook’ at the same time and managed ‘talk’ for a while.

Msafiri was in the capital, Kigali, closing a deal – expanding his ‘business empire’ by the acquisition of a 30 room hotel (with its own small garden) in the city. I really hope it works out well for him.

It’s nearly a year since we last met up in Rwanda. It was Msafiri, with his safari guide friend Ben, who accompanied Chris and me on our unforgettable Tanzanian voyage of discovery in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro.

Africa is calling. It would be great to return – perhaps next year!                       

 ‘Pigeon English’  

Perhaps I’m a bit slow off the mark, but I’ve just finished reading Stephen Kelman’s debut novel, ‘Pigeon English’. It was brilliant, ‘Asweh!’  – to pinch a favourite Ghanaian expression from the central character, eleven year old immigrant, Harrison Opoku.

It is a story written from a child’s view point, but it is not a children’s book. Recovered from a literacy agency’s ‘slush pile’, it famously became the subject of a bidding war between twelve UK publishers, before being secured by Bloomsbury for a high six-figure fee and gate-crashing the 2011 ‘Man Brooker Prize’ shortlist.

Putting the hype aside, it is an excellent read, funny, moving and ultimately, as Harri might say, ‘hutious’ (frightening).

It is a tale about the pressures of growing up in modern urban Britain, with its attendant poverty, gang culture and knife crime. It owes much to the real life experience of the author, growing up on a Luton housing estate, and the tragic case of 10-year-old Damilola Taylor, killed on a Peckham estate in 2000.

Harri, newly arrived in London from Ghana, with his mother and older sister, Lydia, lives on floor 9 (out of 14) in ‘Copenhagen House’, a ‘Dell Farm Estate’, tower block.

His father, grandmother and baby sister Agnes are left behind in Ghana, until enough money can be raised for them to relocate, to a ‘better life’ in England.     

Harri is pre-occupied with the excitement of adjusting to a new lifestyle in an alien culture, and coping with the half-understood menace that pervades the shady underworld that surrounds him.           

Harri narrates the story and much of its humour comes from the mixture of ‘pidgin’, that he naturally uses, and his interpretation of new ‘Londonese’ words and phrases he picks up along the way. “In English there’s a hell of different words for everything. It’s for if you forget one, there’s always another one left over.”              

The title refers not only to the way Harri speaks but also to a feral pigeon that he tries to befriend and that he comes to believe is watching over him – a sort of guardian angel.  

Alongside Harri’s childlike desire to outrun everyone in Y7, in his treasured ‘Diadora’ trainers (from the Cancer Shop), and his growing affection for bespectacled, blonde, Poppy, sits a dangerously naïve fascination for the threatening Dell Farm Crew gang members.  

There’s also a murder mystery to solve. Who ‘chooked’ the dead boy outside ‘Chicken Joe’s’? Harri and his friend Dean, who knows everything about being a detective, aim to find out…

‘Advise yourself!’ – it will make you laugh, and cry, ‘for donkey years.’    






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