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Hustling Is Not Stealing: Stories of an African Bar Girl

John M. Chernoff

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Paperback (496 pages)

University Of Chicago Press


Editorial Description

The prospects of a sixteen-year-old West African girl with no money, education, or experience might seem pretty depressing. But if she's got a hell of a lot of nerve and a knack for finding the funny side in even the worst situations, she just might triumph over her circumstances. Our heroine Hawa does, and she did. In the 1970s, John Chernoff recorded the story of her life as an "ashawo," or bar girl, making a living on gifts from men and her own quick wits, and here presents it in Hustling Is Not Stealing, one of the most remarkable "autobiographies" you will ever encounter. What might have been a sad tale of hardship and exploitation turns instead into a fascinating send-up of life in modern Africa, thanks to Hawa's smarts, savvy, and ear for telling just the right story to make her point. Through her wide-open and knowing eyes, we get an inside view of what life is really like for young people in West Africa. We spy on nightlife scenes of sex and deception; we see how modern-minded youth deal with life in the cities in villages; and we share the sweet and sometimes silly friendships formed in the streets and bars. But mostly we come to know Hawa and how she has navigated a life that few can even imagine. The first of two funny, poignant volumes, Hustling starts with an in-depth introduction by Chernoff to Hawa's Africa. From there the book traces her remarkable transformation from a playful warrior struggling against her circumstances to an insightful trickster enjoying and taking advantage of them as best she can. Part coming-of-age story, part ethnography, and all compulsively readable, Hustling Is Not Stealing is a rare book that educates as thoroughly as it entertains. "You can see some people outside, and you will think they are enjoying, but they are suffering. Every time in some nightclub, you will see a girl dressed nicely, and she's dancing, she's happy. You will say, 'Ah! This girl!' You don't know what problem she has got. Some people say that this life, it's unto us. It's unto us? Yeah, it's unto me, but sometimes it's not unto me. When I was growing up, I didn't feel like doing all these things. There is not any girl who will wake up as a young girl and say, 'As for me, when I grow up, I want to be ashawo, to go with everybody.' Not any girl will think of this."--from the book

Reader Reviews

Lifting the African Curtain
A wonderful inside look at modern life in Ghana. Not to be missed by anyone who loves or wants to know more about contemporary Africa. A refereshing approach, easily read, full of detail and color unavailable elsewhere. The author's commitment to the culture and people of Ghana shines through in the colorful translations and brilliant editorial work required to piece together the main character's story.

Hustling is Not Stealing
Read this book in two days. Couldn't put it down. The main character lives in a culture with few options for women. While the choices she makes may be appalling to the typical American, and while her profane language may at first cause dismay, once you get to know her, her intelligence, a certain grace, sense of fairness, sense of irony, strength and courage make you love her in spite of her chosen life. All the while you are intrigued and trying to understand her, she is slying educating you on the realities of current West Africa in a way that a textbook never could. Excellent book. Don't miss it.

A Phenomenal Book
Its hard to describe what I love most about this book... the glimpse into a often-ignored slice of a misunderstood culture on a forgotten continent... the fierce strength of Hawa, the woman who tells the stories... her humor, her joy, her wisdom. In the end though, what kept me turning the pages was the sheer inventiveness and mastery of language. The transcription faithfully captures the amazing things that can happen when english escapes its shackles: this woman, who speaks 10 languages, mixing their vocabulary and construction together, is a masterful communicator and a mesmerizing storyteller. The book is extensively footnoted for explication, but I found Hawa's constructions simultaneously unique and obvious in the best way, and unfailingly charming.

One piece of advice: Read the stories first and the introduction last. Although it ultimately adds a lot of interesting and useful background, the first third of Chernoff's intro is so riddled with opaque anthropological jargon as to provide an unintentionally hilarious-- in a sort of Pale Fire-esque way-- counterweight to Hawa's graceful, lively and quicksilver stories of living "the life".

Buy this book-- read this book-- tell your friends about this book.

A Unique View from Inside
John M. Chernoff's Hustling is Not Stealing is a unique and highly enjoyable insight into a woman who too often would be viewed in stereotypes or lost in statistics about the hand-to-mouth existence of people in what used to be called the Third World. Chernoff focuses upon the life of one woman, Hawa, describing her as small, cute, and a gifted storyteller. She becomes vividly real as she tells her tales of life as a bar girl, doing what she needs to do to survive -- and with great humor and style! Chernoff begins with a comprehensive and fascinating introduction, which places Hawa's experience in the broad context of African realities, also explaining his own years in Africa as a student of ethnomusicology and of the social milieu in which Hawa's adventures take place. The reader is drawn in, sometimes laughing, sometimes appalled, often both at the same time. Hawa is often hassled by poverty or by those seeking to exploit her. But she laughs her irresistible laugh -- hee hee hee -- and gets her own back. She is no victim! As she travels through Ghana, Togo, and Burkina Faso, one gets a sense of excitement and fun, despite the hard times and dangers. Hawa comes off as a very admirable woman, and Chernoff's book is a real pleasure. His valuable scholarship is matched by his humanity. As you peek into Hawa's world, she comes vividly and unforgettably to life and becomes a friend. This book is priceless! I loved it!