books, Reading, Women Writers

“Tropical Fish” by Doreen Baingana

51yk4gt0lalChristine Mugisha is a young girl coming of age in Uganda under the specter of Idi Amin’s terror-filled reign and the emerging horror of the AIDS epidemic. Christine and her sisters are fortunate; though they live with want, they are well-off and well-educated.

“We were at Makerere University; we were the cream of the crop. We had dodged the bullets of Amin, Obote, all the coups, the economic war, exile and return, and here we were on the road to success. We were the lucky ones, the chosen few. No one said this out loud, of course, we just knew we were different, protected; our fate was privilege. We didn’t consciously think it, but the knowledge sat at the back of our minds like a fat cat. We were intelligent, read books for fun, had worn shoes and socks to school while villagers went barefoot; we spoke proper English; listened to Top of the Pops rather than Congolese music; ate with forks, not our fingers. And, of course, we would one day leave this place to work in southern Africa, or go to Europe or America for further studies. Escape, but not by dying.”

For Christine, her family status certainly gives her advantages, but the path to success is anything but clear. Facing the universal struggles of coming of age – discovering your own voice and deciphering the rules of the adult world – is only part of Christine’s battle. She must also cope with an unstable government, threats to her health in the midst of sexual revolution, racism and sexism, and the expectations of a nation.

“So, in Higher, as it’s called, we have this extra duty in school and as privileged young women in Uganda, a third world country, don’t you forget, because we are getting this excellent, government-subsidized (white) education. We must represent all the impoverished throngs who are not as lucky as we are, especially the women. We must be graceful, hardworking, and upright; disciplined enough to withstand the hordes of lusty men at university, in offices, or on the street who will try to ‘spoil’ us – unless, of course, they want to marry us. Then, as educated, faithful wives, we will work alongside our Christian husbands in our modern civilized homes (bedsheets folded to make perfect hospital corners), while serving our country in a lauded profession.”

The simple beauty and stark contrast of the cover image perfectly capture this book’s nature. Baingana’s words are quiet and measured, peppered with lilting phrases and vivid imagery that fill the mind’s eye.

“As my parents’ voices receded toward their bedroom, an argument inevitably began. Taata grunted a word or two, low commas to Maama’s continuous sentence of complaint, a wail, a plaintive song. Her voice choked with tears. She seemed to be forcing them back while letting streams of anger pour out.”

At times, I felt Baingana relied too heavily on the reader to conjure up emotion; her characters were stoic and her words were often flat, even in highly emotional situations. Though her work contained beautiful outtakes of delicate phrase, they were often buried in lengthy, dispassionate  passages. I appreciated her skill and, even more, her story, but a greater balance with more pops of color and passion would have made this novel leave stronger mark.


2 thoughts on ““Tropical Fish” by Doreen Baingana”

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