An exceptional account of West African village life, written with enormous affection and you-are-there immediacy.
Jack Diaz is a white Chicagoan in his mid-20s, working in Ivory Coast for an aid organization. After training in Abidjan in the Christian South, he is sent to a village in the exploited Muslim North. Religious tensions will eventually erupt into civil war. In the village, he is assigned a mentor, Mamadou, who will be invaluable in teaching Jack tribal customs (he already has a smattering of their language, Worodougou). Underneath their Muslim veneer, the villagers believe in genies, witchcraft and, above all, the ancestors. Jack earns their respect by farming with them and shooting francolins, crop-destroying wild chickens. D’Souza’s work reads like a memoir rather than a novel, but his story needs the freedom of the novel, especially when it comes to sex. “If you don’t have sex, you’ll get sick,” warns Mamadou. The chief offers him a girl but she’s in her mid-teens—too young. There’s the beautiful Mazatou, but she’s a tease. There’s the equally beautiful Djamilla, a Peul (nomadic cattle herders). He’s granted permission to marry her, but loses his nerve. It’s all very tricky. He finds relief with a hooker in Abidjan and is fatalistic about getting AIDS, though later he launches an AIDS education project. The most troubling episode involves another village beauty whose husband lives in Abidjan. They sleep together; the mother-in-law, furious, sets genies on Jack, who practices his own, more powerful magic; the mother-in-law dies. In immersing himself in witchcraft, has Jack become truly African, or is he still a long-stay tourist? The war begins. Jack and his fellow aid workers experience a dangerous trip to the relative safety of Abidjan.
Africa may be ultimately unknowable for the author, but this nonfiction novel, his debut, represents a thrilling partial discovery.