In this debut novel, a team of drought-relief workers faces challenges in early 1990s sub-Saharan Africa.
The plot intertwines the stories of Tsabo Mashedi, a young man from the village of Katama in an imagined African nation, and Harry Burke, a retired management consultant who is drafted to aid the drought-relief efforts in that country. Tsabo is born into poverty but is able to attend a mission school, eventually earning a scholarship to study law at Oxford. There, he is tutored by Harry’s cousin Dermot, befriending the retired consultant in the process. After Tsabo graduates, he returns home to assist his family. Harry is soon coincidentally assigned by the United Nations to help organize relief work in Tsabo’s country. Harry arrives in Kolokuana, the southern province’s major city, and discovers that he’ll be working with Tsabo, who has taken on a role with the U.N. The third main member of their team is Jack, a retired civil servant and a less-than-eager worker. Jack’s reticence is just one of the hurdles they must face in crafting a bottom-up aid plan; they must also deal with a corrupt and often unhelpful local government, the increasing prevalence of HIV, and the difficulty of reaching and providing help to remote villages. As they slowly make headway in the project, the group’s progress is threatened by the nation’s increasing civil unrest. Skinner adeptly balances lighter and darker moments throughout the story; although the problems the characters encounter are monumental, there is still space for humor and compassion within the plot. The main characters have some depth to them, although some side players lapse into caricatures. But the author’s narrative frame is needlessly complicated; Dermot narrates the book, but he constantly interrupts the tale to say that he is recording these impressions from diaries he has received from the other two main characters. He only becomes centrally involved later in the volume. But Dermot’s own story does not match the tone of the rest of the novel, turning a mostly realistic portrait of relief efforts into an international thriller of sorts.
An engrossing look at the realities of aid work that veers somewhat off-course.