London-based visual artist Kambalu turns in a lively, funny memoir of growing up alternately poor and privileged in Africa.
Born in 1975 in Malawi, a time when the president-for-life’s government was turning ugly, Kambalu grew up under the tutelage of his father, a nattily dressed clinician who read Nietzsche on the toilet and dispensed philosophy along with pills. “We had called him the Jive Talker,” Kambalu writes, “not because he lied or talked jive, but because he liked to keep us awake on random nights and inflict his Nietzsche and personal affirmations on us in drunken performances, which he called jive, named after his favourite beer, Carlsberg Brown, which he also called jive.” The Jive Talker earned a good living, but the belt tightened when he was reassigned to a desk job away from the medicine cabinet. Meanwhile, young Kambalu, a superman in the making with an almost preternatural calmness about him—his birth name, after all, translates to “Don’t worry, be happy,” which disposed him to a liking for spiritual master Meher Baba—enjoyed a sentimental education with the Jive Talker before being carted off to prep school. There he added more whimsy to his arsenal, for, as he writes, “Most of [the] teachers were raving eccentrics but I guess you had to be out of your mind to teach in Malawi.” Convinced that he is owed a future as a rock star, Kambalu insinuated himself into a band, learned to play some guitar chords and crafted a fine sound, at least to his own satisfaction. Once old enough to do so, he crossed the border into a South Africa newly liberated from apartheid, where he attempted to convince record-company agents that he was the next big hit. As we leave him, returned to a finally democratic Malawi, we know that he won’t be his country’s answer to Michael Jackson, as he had hoped—but we also know that good things are going to happen to him.
A pleasure to read, and just the thing to give to a disaffected teenager of a creative bent.