Thursday, February 18, 2010
Black Mamba Boy Nadifa Mohamed
Downtown Mogadishu today is beat-up and bone-white from the sun and a coating of dust. It is overlaid with a deceptive grid of empty streets. Most buildings are ransacked shells frozen in time or have simply vanished. Today, when we think of Somalia we think civil war, Somali pirates, Islamic fundamentalism, so how very refreshing to chance upon "Black Mamba Boy" which takes us back to a thriving Somalia of yesteryear, and not just Somalia, but Djibouti, Sudan, Eritrea, Egypt...a veritable tour of North-East Africa in the mid-30's.
Let me explain: "Black Mamba Boy"by Somali-British author Nadifa Mohamed is based on the true story of the author’s father’s life. Opening in 1930's Aden we are introduced to Jama, a ten year-old Somali boy, a street kid, whose mother dies unexpectedly thus leaving him alone in this world.
" Jama is forced home to his native Somalia, the land of his nomadic ancestors. War is on the horizon and the fascist Italian forces who control parts of east Africa are preparing for battle. Yet Jama cannot rest until he discovers whether his father, who has been absent from his life since he was a baby, is alive somewhere. And so begins an epic journey which will take Jama north through Djibouti, war-torn Eritrea and Sudan, to Egypt. And from there, aboard a ship transporting Jewish refugees just released from German concentration camp, across the seas to Britain and freedom."
OK, my challenge here as a "reviewer" is how to give you my impressions without gushing or using a great many superlatives, so I'll just say this: if you choose to read the book, you're in for an amazing ride through the dusty, noisy but bustling streets of the some of the most important cities of North East Africa in the '30's. From the vast sandy deserts of Sudan to narrow busy alleys in Somalia, from the tree-lined manicured boulevards of Djibouti to the emerald-green landscape with juicy mango trees of Abyssinia, you will see it all!
Mohamed's prose zings with the vibrancy of North African life, an unfamiliar landscape of strange tribes and tongues, bizarre rituals, superstitions and tribal kinship. The sensitive way in which she handles Jama's relationships with his family and kinsmen, tugs at one's heartstrings. In a historical context I cannot vouch for Mohamed's accuracy because I know so little about that area and in that time period, but it is told so well, you get completely swept up by the events and happenings.
But central to the story is suffering...the suffering of the African people at the hands of their colonizers. Mohamed's acute and unsparing descriptive powers render vivid everything from Aden street chaos to traditional Palestinian wedding in Khan Younis, but her clipped depiction of the death by torture of a young Somalian man at the hands of two drunk Italians made me gasp out loud and pushed me way out of my comfort zone into a place I wasn't sure I wanted to be. And that's not a bad thing because when I read I want to be astonished, I want to be moved, I want to be shaken to the core and Mohamed succeeds in doing this.
Having said all this though, for me, the most moving part of the account is when Jama finds employment as a deck hand on board the "Runnymede Park" at Haifa, Palestine. "Runnymede Park" was a British prison ship carrying thousands of Jewish refugees originally from Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Treblinka who were denied permission to disembark in Palestine (their Promised Land) but instead taken back to Europe to be made an example out of (thereby deterring other would-be Jewish immigrants from making the trip to Palestine). Her descriptions of the agony (physical and mental) that the poor refugees suffered are so vivid, I could literally hear the crash of broken dreams and feel the dejection in my own chest.
If you enjoy Africa, history, travel (the story weaves its way through a labyrinth of countries), stories of exile and survival...this one is definitely for you!