Ten Weeks in Africa by JM Shaw
|Ten Weeks in Africa by JM Shaw|
|Reviewer: Ani Johnson|
|Summary: A fictionalised representation of what NGOs and charities have to fight and contend with in some countries, this is no holds barred, misapprehension destruction bringing a density of emotion in its wake. A well-written 'should read'.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 384||Date: August 2012|
Stephen and Martha Odinga live with their younger siblings and ailing mother in the Makera slums, near Kisuru in Batanga, Africa. Their father was killed by the Army of Celestial Peace so they try to make a living on the streets. Corruption flows through Batanga like sewage through Makera though, and the protection payments they need to pay the police to continue trading are becoming prohibitive so Stephen searches for better paid employment in questionable career areas.
Meanwhile Ed and Sarah Caine fly to Kisuru from the UK with their child, their hopes and their good intentions. Ed is the director of an NGO supervising a multi-million dollar project to bring a better life to the inhabitants of Makera. Unfortunately neither Ed nor Sarah realise the frustrations born of cultural differences or the potential mortal danger; at least not until they become embroiled and by then it may be a little too late.
In his acclaimed debut The Illumination of Merton Browne JM Shaw examined the gritty underbelly of British street gangs and their victims. This, his second novel, also looks at innocence in the midst of organised crime and violence but this time it the country is further afield and includes government that's more directly involved.
Stephen and Martha have the premature maturity needed by their lifestyle and situation. As with all JM Shaw's characters, they're grittily real. For them the idea of slum improvement isn't given a moment's headroom as all their energy is funnelled into daily survival.
Ed and Sarah are effectively gullible lambs. Beguiled by the beautiful countryside and the charismatic local politician who assists them, they believe their dreams for the slum dwellers are within reach. However there's a subtle web enticing them and imperceptibly dragging them in. We become aware of it before they do, so heightening the anticipation of the frustration (and worse) on the horizon.
They aren't the only naïves though: local intern Beatrice is also unaware of the duplicity which ensures that the power and wealth remains with the 'haves'. She has to choose between her father's technique for survival or a dangerous honesty. However, if you're looking for a cleverly placed (and streetwise) character, may I offer Solomon Ouko as a suggestion? My perception of him changed as the novel progressed, not due to any change in his ideas or ethos (though love did seem to mellow him slightly) but because his actions were put into perspective by those of others.
One slight criticism: Ed perhaps seems a little too blinkered and ignorant of the local culture and areas in which things could go awry. If NGOs are sending representatives without any advice or historic context (recent civil wars would have given him a slight clue as to potential unrest) then this is an area that needs to be investigated as it breaches the NGOs' duty of care. However, it's a literary device as it puts Ed on a level knowledge playing field with the rest of us.
Why fictionalise a country for a story like this? Two answers spring to mind: firstly the scenarios described occur globally so it would be misleading to concentrate on a single country or city and, secondly, fiction protects sources and (ironically enough) enables greater honesty in the portrayals. The dedication at the front of the novel and the author's notes at the end certainly attest to the honesty and the fact that this isn't going to be a comfortable read.
In a way, Ten Weeks in Africa is a punch in the stomach. There were times when I felt battered by events, but this is my weakness rather than the story's. We realise that corruption exists, but this is more than a 2 minute TV news package. It becomes a vehicle in which JM Shaw shows us the extent and consequences and, by personalising them, animates the issues. As readers (and therefore bystanders) it's difficult for us to shut the book and forget but what do we do with the information? We can't stop caring and, not being able to distinguish between the good donations and the misguided, we mustn't stop giving. So where do we go from here? In that respect we finish the novel as unresolved as its characters. For in the real world, as in that of Ten Weeks in Africa there are no Hollywood endings.
I would like to thank Sceptre for providing Bookbag with a copy of this book for review.
If this has piqued your interest in Africa and the origins and complexities of another of its conflicts, we recommend Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron.
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