Hustling Is Not Stealing and Exchange Is Not Robbery, a two-volume oral diary of a young Ghanaian woman's multifaceted existence as an "ashawo," or bar girl, couldn't be any timelier. Because what little media information we receive of Africa centers on AIDS, genocide and famine, these texts supply us with an anthropological study that not only isn't desert-dry, but allows for some hearty laughs and a breath of fresh air blown in the direction of misguided Western perspectives.
Pittsburgh-based author, musician and traveler John M. Chernoff, who lived in Ghana for most of the 1970s, allows this material to fly in the face of much that is assumed about the continent. Recognizing 30 years ago what so few other scholars did, he wanted to record the stories of young, urban-dwelling West Africans. And because he lived in the country, becoming a master drummer and eventually writing the impressive African Rhythm and African Sensibility, he was able to approach "Hawa," the storyteller in both of these books, not only as a subject but as a friend.
The result is a study of the choices faced by one uneducated West African woman who quickly recognized the limitations life might have for her. Eschewing the subservience of marriage or the tedium of trading in a market, she chooses a world of travel and freedom, centering herself in nightclubs and primarily depending upon male patrons as a means of financial support.
Hustling is Not Stealing takes place in Ghana and Togo, where we find Hawa socializing in the nightclubs, spending time with a succession of men and dealing with a level of exploitation she never bargained for when she escaped a short-lived, unsatisfying marriage. We also witness her integrity being tested when a British schoolteacher, Nigel, with whom she spends an extended amount of time, offers her a sack full of money that he's stolen from his school in Northern Ghana.
Exchange is Not Robbery, the second volume, takes her to Burkina Faso, with members of the extended family who raised her, where she matures and attempts to get a bit of control over her life. The substantial middle portion allows her to explore her childhood at length. Here she speaks of everything from reprimands from her father to her earliest experiences with pot -- or "groove" -- with her brother, who was a dealer.
Hawa's complexities reveal themselves as she moves; yet she is able to tell her stories with a cynical but genuine laugh. Her ability to maintain order and remember detail is rich -- whether she is contextualizing her childhood, speaking of spending seven months in a Togolese prison on trumped-up charges, or recounting how Accra police sided with her after she defensively destroyed the house of a deceptive Lebanese man.
But a series of sad stories this stuff isn't. Most of it shows Hawa's insistence on and ability to maintain freedom, and many of her recollections are downright hilarious. She never gives in to the soapbox of bitching about economics, racial tension or the unmerited treatment she receives. Instead, she offers a straightforwardness that allows the reader to comprehend realities without being beaten over the head with them -- or even worse, having the voice of a Westerner interrupt with an unneeded explanation.
As a result we realize that there are, and have been, many "Hawas" in urban West Africa. The complexities and injustices thus reveal themselves on a larger scale through her ability to simply state them as intricacies important to her tales, not as focal points.
"You can be in these urban cities in the Third World," says Chernoff in an interview, "and not know what's going on in the minds of the people around you. There are people who study urban cultures; they have their own perspective and aren't necessarily into the mentality of the [local] people."
One shouldn't be daunted by the sheer bulk of material here, however. Chernoff has arranged everything into sections, allowing for material that can be picked up anywhere, much like a collection of short stories. Throughout the narrative, the reader can follow the changes Hawa goes through, as well as the hefty amount of experiences she's able to have.
While students and scholars of cultural anthropology, sociology, women's studies in general and African women's studies in particular will see these books as radical pushers of envelopes that, quite frankly, need the nudge, someone who merely wants to read some first-rate stories will find plenty here. And while Chernoff provides a lengthy, record-straightening introduction, the best way to approach the material is to simply dive in, get caught up in the stories' rhythms and go. The payoff is some highly entertaining reading.