Literature can take us on journeys to distant lands and bridge the gap of cultural differences. We can sink into the pages of a book and live other lives, walk through vastly changed landscapes, and experience other cultures. Literature can help us understand our world. I have enjoyed reading about this fascinating continent. Books allow us to live for a brief while in other cultures and other lands. Reading literature set in far off places expands our world view.
Jade left her New Mexico home to drive an ambulance in WWI. A promise to a dying pilot takes her to Kenya after the war, where she tries to find his brother. Growing up on a ranch Jade learned to ride and shoot with the best of them. A keen ear for language and her wide open American attitude lets her relate to the natives in a different way from the formal Brits. Harry, a local landowner and guide, charms the ladies; he is used to having his way. Jade is easy on the eyes, but this fiery young woman may be too hot to handle. A promise to the dying is sacred, as Jade attempts to fulfill her duty dark forces gather. This is the first in an entertaining series featuring Jade.
Kenya’s people live in far flung villages just like their ancestors have for many generations. They herd the cattle, pray for rain, and listen to the elders. Big city lights, internet, even electricity are not part of their daily life. American exuberance is a force to be reckoned with, rife with enthusiasm and a belief we can succeed, we are apt to be found just about anywhere trying just about anything. Fi Sweeny is afire with American spirit. She volunteered to bring books to remote villages of Kenya via a camel bookmobile. No one asked the camels if they wanted to volunteer and they can be a bit testy about their part in the scheme. Mr. Abasi, her Kenyan partner in the project, shares the camel’s reluctance. He feels resources should be used in the city rather than traipsing around the bush. Fi finds an ally in Matani, a village school teacher who wants to help his people reap the benefits of the modern world. Sometimes with the best of intentions, things can go awry.
Karen Blixen lived on her coffee plantation in Kenya from 1914 to 1931. She writes of an Africa still under the yoke of European colonialism. It is a place of great beauty and great peril. Her Africa has a sky that goes on forever, lions lounging in the tall grass, snakes using that same grass for their purposes, and the natives who served their colonial masters. This book celebrates the grandeur and beauty of Africa.
Rev. Kumalo lived content in his small village until he received a letter calling him to Johannesburg to rescue his sister. Gertrude went to the big city in search of her husband, Kumalo’s son followed her. Rev. Kumalo and his wife received no news until this letter. His discoveries in Johannesburg will not give him comfort. This is a complex ultimately uplifting story of forgiveness and the pain of South Africa.
Flashman on the March by George MacDonald Fraser is historical fiction at its funniest. Handsome Sir Harry Flashman V.C. is marching into Africa, across Abyssinia to rescue a small band of English hostages from a mad Abyssinian King. Of course Flashman is out to seduce the ladies and keep his hide out of danger. Events have other things in mind for him, from going over a waterfall, to avoiding brigands, danger is everywhere. Flashman books are rollicking, outrageous fun. George MacDonald Fraser’s series about handsome Harry Flashman blends real and fictional characters as he brings history to life with some hilarious twists. Flashman books take him all over the globe into major world events; the America West, the 1857 Uprising in India, the Civil War, the Charge of the Light Brigade. I have read them all. They are not politically correct, using the language of the times for indigenous people, but they give an interesting perspective on history.
What is the What by Dave Eggers is fiction based on the very real life of Valentine Achak Deng. One of the Lost Boys of the Sudan, he walked across war torn Sudan to reach a refugee camp in Ethiopia only to have violence follow. Refuge is found in Kenya, and then an opportunity to emigrate to the US. This is a remarkable story about a young man determined to get an education and do good. He has formed a foundation and is building schools in villages in the Sudan.
Thirteen Hours by Deon Meyer opens with a frantic young girl running through the South African night. You do not know if she will live or die. Her pursuers are hot on her trail. Vacationing in Cape Town has turned into a nightmare. Detective Benny Griessel is her only hope, provided he can stay sober and foil the men intent on killing. Benny also has to solve the murder of a record company executive found lying quite dead next to his drunk wife. Did she kill him? Benny doesn’t think so. The pace is blistering!
Disgrace by Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee is a dark and disturbing story set in South Africa after the fall of apartheid. David Lurie, a college professor, has always had a way with the ladies, but at 52 his charms are starting to wane and he is developing a taste for his young students. His seduction of a student leads to the ruin of his career, in disgrace he heads out into the country to stay with his daughter, a small time farmer, seeking a place to lick his wounds in peace. Lucy convinces her Dad to volunteer at the local animal shelter, where far too many unwanted animals end their days. The sanctuary David sought in coming to stay with Lucy is shattered when they are attacked and his daughter is violently raped. This is a slim, but complicated volume. An excellent discussion book.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver is a powerfully written story of the hubris of a missionary bent on bringing the villagers in a remote part of the Belgian Congo to see the light. The story is told from the shifting perspectives of the missionary’s wife and four daughters. Arriving in Africa from a small town in Georgia, they are woefully unprepared, in every sense of the word. Timing is not auspicious either, they arrive as the Africans are seeking independence from Belgium. It is a tumultuous time. Kingsolver’s writing is so sublime she is able to convey the feeling of life in this small African village. This is my favorite of Barbara Kingsolver’s rich body of work.
A Beautiful Place to Die by Malla Nunn is set in South Africa in the early days of apartheid, it was not a place where justice dwelled. Detective Emmanuel Cooper is called to the tiny town of Jacob’s Rest to investigate the murder of a white police captain. Cooper wants to find the truth, wherever that may take him, not a popular attitude. It is an attitude that just might get him killed. His superiors and the family are certain some black man did the deed. Cooper is not so sure, he is troubled by the attitudes of the captain’s friends and family. The Security Branch roll into town, ready to take over the investigation, teach Cooper not to look in unpopular places, and if necessary beat a confession out of any convenient black man. Malla Nunn was born in South Africa, she brings a real tension to apartheid.
The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith begins the series featuring Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s only lady detective. The stories are entertaining and the characters likeable. A witch doctor is preying on children, a woman fears her husband is cheating, they all need help. Mma Ramotswe is on the case.
Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is set in the 1960’s during Biafra’s doomed attempt to establish independence from Nigeria. Twin sisters from a wealthy family chose different paths. Beautiful Olanna is drawn to fiery professor Odenigbo, an ardent supporter of independence. Kainene is being groomed to follow in their father’s footsteps, to run the family businesses. At a party she meets Richard, a Brit interested in African art. Another strong voice in the story is Ugwu, Odenigbo’s houseboy. Adichie is a talented author, she makes you care about these characters.
How To Read The Air by Dinaw Mengestu has achingly beautiful prose and conflicted, complex characters. Jonas’s father escaped from Africa, landing in the USA as a refugee never able to shake his past. Quick to use fists to salve his hurts, Jonas’s mother’s body bears the marks of his father’s pain. Jonas grows up trying not to take up space, to avoid notice. He meets his wife while working at an immigration agency, hearing the sad stories of those lost souls who seek refuge in the USA where the streets should surely be paved with gold. The agency is ran on a shoestring and inevitably the day comes when Jonas is no longer necessary. His next gig is as a teacher at an expensive private school One day he starts telling his students the story of his father’s escape from Ethiopia, helping them imagine a world so far beyond their ken, it could be another planet. Jonas’s predilection to pay fast and loose with the truth costs him his marriage. As his world spins out of control, Jonas retraces a road trip his parents took before his birth, at a time when their life still held possibilities.. Stepping into their past just might let him find his future.
Sweetness in the Belly by Camilla Gibb is a fascinating book. In the free spirited 60’s & 70’s young people from western cultures went to places like Morocco where the culture was much more rigid. Gibb’s book uses this premise well. Lily is an 8 year old child when her parents die in a drug deal gone sour. Alone, with no papers, she is taken in and raised by a Muslim cleric. As a young woman she settles in Ethiopia, until the fall of Hailie Selassie sends her to London as a refugee. I found this story intriguing and Gibb’s excellent writing added to the pleasure.
Strength in What Remains by Pulitzer Prize winning author Tracy Kidder is set in Burundi, Rwanda and the USA. Deo is a young medical student when genocide erupts in Burundi. As the killers explode onto the hospital grounds the only thing that saves Deo is that he was too tired to shut his door, so he only has time to roll quickly under the bed as they burst down the hallways. The rooms with shut doors are searched, but his room is only looked into quickly because the door was open. Shaken and alone, after huddling under his bed while violence ran amok, he emerges with the conviction that he needs to get away fast. He heads for safety in Rwanda. That doesn’t work out too well, but he survives and makes his way to the USA where with the help of strangers he rises from delivering groceries to attending Columbia Medical School. Deo is involved in setting up clinics in Burundi and trying to heal the scars of genocide.
The Witch Doctor’s Wife by Tamar Myers is set in the Congo in 1958. Amanda, a young missionary, leaves her South Carolina home to run a guest house for missionaries in a small village. She inherits a surly servant who is not amused when she hires the witch doctor’s wife. The witch doctor gains possession of a huge diamond, but diamonds are the purview of the Belgian government, not Africans. This leads, of course, to murder. The Witch Doctors Wife has delightful characters, I hope it is the start of a series. Myer was born and raised in the Congo
A Change in Altitude by Anita Shreve illuminates how one foolish moment can change everything. Margaret and Patrick set off as newlyweds to spend a year in Kenya thinking it will be a fabulous adventure. Serendipitously they find housing on the graceful verdant estate of wealthy British ex-pats. They form a friendship with their landlords and plan a climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro together. Tragedy will strike changing everything.
The Syringa Tree by Pamela Gien is set in South Africa during apartheid. Lizzy’s Dad is a doctor with an office that serves whites in the front waiting room and blacks in the back, an arraignment distasteful to the kind man. Lizzy is nurtured by Salmina, a servant in the household, adored by her grandparents who live on a remote farm and held in the bosom of her family. Lizzy is delighted when Salmina has a baby, Moliseng, and she is put in charge of keeping the baby hidden. Salmina has a permit allowing her to stay at her employer’s home, but the baby is not allowed. Moliseng would be taken to the Soweto ghetto if discovered. Hide away, hide away, Moliseng must hide away good.
Acts of Faith by Philip Caputo is set in war torn Sudan, a sad sorry place, and Kenya where aid agencies launch what help they can across the border. Caputo is a Pulitzer Prize winner who earned his chops first as a soldier then a reporter in Vietnam. He knows a bit about the shifting vantage of good intentions. It is amazing what people will do, what means they will justify, to achieve their ends. Fitzhugh, a Kenyan, is booted out of one aid agency when he tips the press off to the massive amount of food going to waste, acutely being burned to cinders. He partners with a brash American pilot, Braithwaite, who intends to fly into off limit areas where supplies are desperately needed. Quinette is a born again Christian from America’s heartland working to buy back the slaves taken in raids on the Dinkas. Isn’t there a saying about the road to hell being paved with good intentions?
Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa Mohamed wanders all over Africa. Jama’s story begins in 1935 in Aden, Yemen where he subsists with his mother living in the house of a harsh relative. His father, a dreamer and a drifter, left his family behind heading off into Africa. When Jama’s unfortunate mother dies, he sets off in search of his father. Jama’s wanderings take him through Somalia, Eretria, Sudan, and Egypt. Jama is a very likeable character, you find yourself rooting for him as his journey intersects with world events. Nadifa Mohamed found the inspiration for her book in the life of her father.
The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin is set in Nigeria. Baba Segi’s life has been going quite well. The one cloud on his sunny horizon is his fourth wife’s inability to bear him a child. Or maybe he is unaware his sunny little paradise has a few snakes hiding in the apple tree. Could it be his first three wives have secrets to protect? Baba Segi has basked in the respect and devotion of his little family but adding a fourth wife may upset the balance in ways he cannot conceive.
Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese is best described as epic. Spanning the lives of twin brothers, born to a devout Nun from India who dies giving them life. The twins are adopted by doctors at the hospital and grow up in Haile Selaisse’s Ethiopia. The writing is luminous, the story compelling, and the characters well developed. The story travels from India to Ethiopia to New York. This one will keep you turning pages!
A Bend in the River by Nobel Prize winner V.S. Naipaul is set in a country unidentified in the book, but is most likely the Belgian Congo. Salim’s family had lived for generations on the east coast of Africa, but their Indian ancestry made them other, not truly African and not truly Indian. Salim sees their way of life being threatened by political upheaval, he heads in-land, far away to a place that has already suffered upheaval. If the young man was operating on the lightening not striking the same place twice theory, he went woefully awry.