Thursday, February 18, 2010

Black Mamba Boy Nadifa Mohamed

Harper Collins Canada

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!

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Luxurious Hearses in "Say You're One of Them" by Uwem Akpan

  • Hardcover: 368 pages

  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company; 1 edition (Jun 9 2008)

  • Language: English
"Luxurious Hearses" is this ( "Say You're One of Them") collection's fourth and longest story but perhaps its most important. I see it as important because more than any other story I have read here so far, it is this one that brings to life the political, economic and religious strife we read so much about in Africa.

The story, set in Nigeria, illuminates the political situation of Nigeria, the poverty of the people in the Nigerian Delta, the tension between the Muslims in the North and the Christians in the south and what happens when innocent people get caught in between.

After you read this longish nouvella you come away, seeing with new eyes why every now and again Nigeria plunges into Muslim-Christian riots and why, despite all the oil that Nigeria possesses, its people are so poor.

Our protagonist in this story is a 16-year old boy called
Jubril who is forced to head south (towards the Christian part of Nigeria) after riots broke out in his very-Muslim city of Khamfa which is in the north. Ordinarily Jubril may not have had to run away, but when his own Muslim friends turned against him for having a Christian father (whom he had never seen or known) he decided that if he was interested in saving his life it would be prudent for him to leave his town and Muslim mother (and her family) and head south to be reunited with his Christian dad.

The story of his journey from the North to South in the midst of some of the worst religious riots Nigeria has ever seen with a host of wonderfully- colourful characters that are his bus companions; his fears and insecurities about heading to a part of the country that is so alien to him and his perpetual fear of being found out as a Muslim in bus full of Christian refugees is riveting, suspenseful and unputdownable! The reader is as tense as Jubril who is forced to try and blend in with the other people on the bus, a task made much more difficult because his right hand was lopped off when he was arrested for stealing a goat months before.

As always, Akpan's writing holds you spellbound. Most of the story takes place on the bus with occasional flashbacks to Jubrail's life in Khamfa before he had to flee. As a reader you are privy to all the conversations that place on the bus...the fears, egos, anger and other emotions that the passengers bring with them; power dynamics between the well off and the not so well off,the sick and the healthy. Many a time, like Oprah, I got so claustrophobic from being on that bus I had this strong urge to jump off and yet, the writing and the thought of what might happen next kept me glued to the pages.

"An Ex-Mas Feast" was audacious, "The Fattening of Gabon" was downright sad, but "Luxurious Hearses" is gruesome. You're going to need a strong stomach to endure the second half of the novel. Gruesome it might be but at no point do you get the feeling the author is aiming for sensationalism, instead, you come away feeling deeply for the characters, the victims and the persecutors alike, for you come to understand that each man is simply doing all he can to survive.

Since each of the five stories in this book are set in different countries in Africa, you might want to use Howard French's "A Continent for the Taking" or even Richard Dowden's "Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles" as a companion read. I found both very helpful in explaining Africa to me.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The Fattening of Gabon from "Say You Are One of Them" by Uwem Akpan

"Fattening for Gabon" is Uwem Akpan's second story (nouvella length at 130 pages) in the collection, "Say You're One of Them".

It starts off innocently enough with a young (10-year old) boy narrating how his maternal uncle offers to take him and his 5-year old sister to live with him on the border of Benin and Gabon because the boy's parents are dying of AIDS and too poor and sick to look after the children, but the story very gradually starts to take on a sinister tone which gets completely brutal towards the end.

“Selling your child or nephew could be more difficult than selling other kids”: that is the blunt line with which “Fattening for Gabon” begins. I wish so much Akpan hadn't used that opening line because it really does give it all away. The story is so beautifully written that had Akpan waited to reveal this, say about halfway through the story, I think the reader would have been shaken to the core (and which reader doesn't mind being shaken?) Anyway, what's done is done and this other child-narrated story succeeds in provoking the whole gamut of emotions, from incredulity to disgust and from confusion to absolute fear in the reader. For me, the biggest issue here was child manipulation, I could have screamed at all of the adults in this story and cheerfully lined up against a wall to be shot. I know, I know some of you might think I am over reacting but you know, when Uwem Akpan was interviewed he stated that all these stories were drawn from real people he met and counselled in his years as a Jesuit Priest. Just to know that there are adults like this makes my blood boil.

Again, as in the previous story, one of Akpan's strengths is in how he slips into the skins of his characters no matter what gender or age they might be. He also has such a gift for description and narration. There are several scenes that stand out for me in this story, the main one being the Thanksgiving service at church that Fofo Kpee(the uncle) organizes in order to give thanks for his (ill-begotten) gain. Akpan describes the procession, the dancing, the characters, their clothes, the gifts, the priest's invocations, the offertory to god and the elation the family feels to be given so much importance on that day, so vividly it is literally like watching the service unfold on a cinematic screen. What a writer this man is!

Something I liked very much (and that's probably because I listened to this on audio as well as read it in print) is Akpan's frequent use of the local dialect in the dialogue. Four colloquial languages were used in this particular story...English, French
Idaatcha and Egun sometimes in the same paragraph. I have spoken to people who found that distracting...not me!!! I guess knowing a little French does help speed the read along.

Last, but not least...the title is very conversation-worthy...but that, I'm afraid, will be a whole different post!

If you would like to read an excerpt from "Fattening of Gabon"..please go

Or you might want to watch the Oprah Book Club interview and book discussion with the author