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Boeke | Books > Rubrieke | Columns > English > African Library

Annie Gagiano reads Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa Mohamed (2010)

Annie Gagiano - 2010-05-03

Title: Black Mamba Boy
Author: Nadifa Mohamed
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd
Date of publication: 2010
Format: Softcover
Pages: 288
ISBN: 9780007315741

Click here to order Black Mamba Boy from Kalahari.net.

In this, Nadifa Mohamed’s first novel, she presents the text as a sort of autobiography by proxy of the narrator’s father’s wanderings, adventures and misadventures – as a Somali boy and later young man who is born in the vicinity of Hargeisa, but spends his early childhood in the city of Aden across the Gulf of Aden, where he is taken by his mother after his father left them to go look for work. Subsequent to his mother’s death the boy is taken back to an elderly female relative’s home in Somalia, but before too long he sets off on foot on a dangerous quest, determined to try and find his father, reportedly in Egypt.

This bare outline can give little sense of the charm of this narrative, which works almost like an African version of Voltaire’s Candide – the famous, brief Bildungsroman (or rather picaresque novel?) that uses the candour of a boy to comment on war-torn Europe of the eighteenth century and its morally bankrupt philosophies. Here, attitudes towards Africans of European colonists (particularly, those of the soldiers in the Abyssinian campaign of fascist-era Italy) as well as clan/class distinctions among Somalis are depicted by the author, among many other fascinating features shown in this portrait of an insufficiently known area and era.

The novel begins in London, where the narrator’s father recalls how little appreciation she had as a child when, on afternoons in the parks of the great city, her father told her anecdotes and related snippets from his many adventures and encounters in earlier life. Now, as an adult, she wishes to be his griot and to

[m]ake him a hero, not the fighting or romantic kind but the real deal, the starved child that survives every sling and arrow that shameless fortune throws at them, and who can now sit back and tell the stories of all the ones that didn’t make it. I tell you this story [she adds] because no-one else will. (1)

The other figure who is movingly evoked in the first part of the text is the father’s mother, Ambaro, who struggles to survive in Aden as a single, unsupported parent and a grudgingly tolerated live-in relative staying with a snobbish family. She slaves in a coffee factory besides doing housework for the large host family and only in the early mornings or after work can something of her unmet yearnings be heard as she stands by the edge of the roof, singing softly in her “deep and melodious” voice – “not because she was happy but because the songs escaped from her mouth”. The narrator evokes this as “her young soul roaming outside her body to take the air before it was pulled back into drudgery” (5–6).

In contrast with his mother, Jama, the title character (believed by his mother to be destined for a prosperous future because of her peaceful encounter with a black mamba just before his birth) loves roaming the streets of the teeming city of Aden, making bits of money and generally scavenging and getting up to mischief in the company of his two best friends, both street children: Shidane, who is both older and more daring, and his uncle (younger and more timid by far), Abdi. These two become Jama’s real “family”, especially after he flees the home where he is made unwelcome and ostracised, mainly by his awful aunt. The narrator mentions that in Aden “Indian kids, Jewish kids, and Yemeni kids, all lived with their parents however poor they might be. It was only the Somali kids who ran around feral, sleeping everywhere and anywhere” (31).

Going back after a while to check on his mother after fleeing the abuse at his “home”, Jama finds her not merely ill, but dying; yet all that his heartless aunt says when he asks her in his panic to summon a doctor for his mother is “Jama , how did you get in? What kind of people do you think we are? There is absolutely no money for a doctor, there is nothing anyone can do for your mother now, she is in God’s hands” (43). Ambaro summons her strong spirit temporarily to surmount her bodily decrepitude and the squalor in which she has been left to give Jama all of her savings enfolded in (auspicious) Koranic verses, wrapped in an amulet he is enjoined to keep around his neck. The stars will keep watch over him, his mother says to comfort Jama, while she herself will forever live in his heart and his blood. The boy keeps vigil all night by his dying mother, but by the next morning, when he slides into exhausted sleep, she dies in his arms.

In the meantime, Italy (in execution of the imperial ambitions of Benito Mussolini) has declared war on Abyssinia (as Ethiopia was then known). The Somalis in Aden who read the newspaper reports on this matter and discuss the (vain, as we know) appeal to the League of Nations by Emperor Haile Selassie, feel no African solidarity with the victims of the Italian expansionist aggression: the memory of how the world “turned their gaze too when the Abyssinians stole our Ogaden” (34) (an area on the border between Somalia and Ethiopia) is still far too raw. They say, viciously, that if the Abyssinians could steal Somalis’ “ancestral land”, then it serves them right at present to be given a taste of their own medicine as the Ferengis (the local name for [European] foreigners) invade Abyssinian territory. This explains what might seem the odd pattern of Somalis seeking employment with the Italians, as both Jama’s father Guure and later Jama himself end up doing, despite the cruel behaviour and the racist contempt of most Italian military personnel towards them.

The war (officially, the Second Italo-Abyssinian War) would last from October 1935 until May 1936 and dominate Jama’s experiences during the middle section of the portion of his life depicted in the novel. (Later on, the British would enter the fray and fight against Italy in North Africa, but initially they did nothing for fear of antagonising Mussolini, who had then not yet thrown in his weight with Hitler and Germany.)

After his mother’s death Jama is taken back to his country of birth. This is how the narrator evokes his first conscious impression of his motherland:

Jama looked around him; Somaliland was yellow, intensely yellow, a dirty yellow, with streaks of brown and green. A group of men stood next to their herd of camels while the lorry overheated, its metal grill grimacing under an acacia tree. There was no smell of food, or incense or money as there was in Aden, there were no farms, no gardens, but there was a sharp sweetness to the air he breathed in, something invigorating, intoxicating. This was his country, this was the same air as his father and grandfathers had breathed, the same landscape that they had known. Heat shimmered above the ground, making the sparse vegetation look like a mirage that would fade away if you reached out for it. The emptiness of the desert felt purifying and yet disturbing after the tumultuous humanity of Aden, deserts were the birthplaces of prophets but also the playgrounds of jinns and shape-shifters. (48)

In contrast with this mainly favourable impression concentrating on the serene atmosphere of the appearance of the land, Jama soon discovers the harsh realities of a literally dirt poor society. Desperate young “children and young men mobbed each other for the leftovers from the eating houses, pushing the smaller ones out of their way”, while older males “chewed qat [a mildly narcotic North African plant] constantly to stave away the nagging hunger in their stomachs, so they wouldn’t succumb mentally to it, wouldn’t humiliate themselves” (56). Even though the men spend the late afternoons together laughing, making up epigrams and conversing, they grow “morose” as the qat leaves their systems, “reclining like statues as the town darkened around them” (56).

For a while Jama is content to earn a pittance carrying hugely heavy camel carcases from the butchers to the town’s restaurants, but in his mid-teens he decides to up and leave this comparatively safe and stable but unrewarding sphere – determined to find and join his only living parent. He has no address for Guure, and no map, but he heads north and later north-east, walking, cadging lifts or riding on lorries, buses or trains when he can.  

In Djibouti Town, Djibouti, the underfed and exhausted boy passes out from the heat where he is sitting under a palm tree taking stock of the teeming city in which he has just arrived. He wakes up in a home to which a kindly local man (whom we later discover to be a teacher who had lost his own only child, a boy much the same age as Jama) has brought him. This wonderful man has become a house-husband to his warm and vital wife because he was too disgusted to remain an indoctrinator teaching mere rote learning in a local school. Still an incorrigible and free-spirited educator, he takes Jama around the city and shows him the well-heeled foreign quarter where the French live, declaiming in disgust against them as “gormless, mindless, empty people”, saying: “[T]he French have us in their palms, feeding us, curing us, beating us, fucking us as they please” (88). Idea (as Jama’s temporary host is appropriately called) warns the boy concerning his intended further travels:

“Sudan is here,” Idea plunged a fingernail into a pink country [the colour denoting British domination]. “We are here,” another nail pierced a purple spot. “Everywhere in between is controlled by Italians.” Idea smoothed over an expanse of yellow. “All this is an abattoir, the Italians are devils, they might imprison you or put you into their army. I read in the papers every day that ten or fifteen Eritreans have been executed. There isn’t a town or village without a set of gallows. They kill fortune tellers for predicting their defeat and the troubadours for mocking them. A frail Somali boy will be like a little bite before the midday meal to them.” (91)

Soon after this, Jama takes sad leave of Idea, who once again warns him: “Above all, Jama, stay away from the fascists”, explaining (when the boy asks) that fascists are “disturbed Ferengis … in Eritrea they have tried to wipe us out, in Somalia they work people to death on their farms, [and] in Abyssinia they drop poison from their planes onto children like you” (96).

Jama travels on a beat-up old boat to Assab in Eritrea, where he is directed to the home of a distant “connection” of Idea’s – an unpleasant man nicknamed Talyani because he both vaguely resembles and worships the Italian military men he works for as an askari [an enlisted African man of lower military rank than an Italian private] – “a smiling colonial mascot in costume” (103).

His next stop is the capital city of Eritrea, Asmara: “the tidiest, most fertile place Jama had ever seen”, full of “large Italian villas … painted in mouth-watering reds, corals, pinks, yellows”. Predictably, “the only Africans he could see were the street cleaners” (109).

From Asmara Jama rides a bus to the small settlement of Omhajer, still in Eritrea, but close to the Sudanese border. It is a military encampment, “swamped with military tents and food stalls run by former askaris” (119). Here he finds one working askari who is a clansman of his and who, to his immense relief, knows his father. But Guure is in Gedaref, well over the border, in Sudan. Getting to him would be difficult, so his father’s friend explains to a hugely disappointed Jama that they will soon get word to Guure (who resigned as an askari in disgust at the Italians’ treatment of Africans and now works as a driver for a Sudanese merchant) to come and fetch his son. He also comforts Jama by describing the boy’s father as delightful company and a brave man who often spoke fondly and proudly of his son.

After an agonising delay the news comes that Guure is on his way to pick up his son, but along the way, heartbreakingly, they run into a military roadblock that opens fire, killing everyone on board the truck. “Guure’s time on earth has passed. It was not his fate to see you, here are his belongings. May Allah have mercy on you” (126), the devastated boy is told.

The man’s words swam around Jama without meaning. They sounded like the crashing of waves or the gurgle of blood to him, their substance broken up and diluted. Jama crouched down on the floor, covered his ears, he needed to vomit, he couldn’t breathe, grief had stolen the air from his lungs, drained the blood from his veins, he clawed at the earth to bury himself. (126)

In his grief, Jama feels as if he has been “cut off from life”, as if cotton wool has been stuffed “in his ears, in his mouth, [...] around his heart”, and his “surroundings [seem] muted and distant” (130).

In the meantime the war is intensifying, since the “Ethiopian patriots with their powerful afros” are fighting back against the Italian incursion; they overrun forts, ambush checkpoints and invade garrisons. Eerily, “the trees hid them, the leopards warned them, the wind swept away their footprints” (133). To the Africans it seems that the Italians are trying to dull their panic in their increasingly brutal treatment of their “own” askaris.

When Jama slowly revives, he is spotted working in a local restaurant by one of the more sympathetic Italian officers, who persuades him to come and clean his office and do odd jobs for him.

Not too long after that, this man is killed by the Ethiopians while away on a military expedition. His successor is a truly brutal person. Jama soon runs foul of this man’s abominable temper and becomes victim to his sadistic nature. “Even a child’s imagination shrinks in the presence of terror” (149), says the narrator. More disturbingly still, young Jama “began to unconsciously emulate Silvio” (150), for cruel power becomes enviable and hence seductive, even to its victims.

The locals are at this time informed that “by decree of Emperor Vittorio Emanuele, all possessions held by natives of Italian East Africa are deemed to be held only in trust and their true ownership will be adjudicated by colonial legislators” (147). As a local old man tells Jama, there is absolutely nothing the Eritreans and other East Africans of the area can do to resist. He cites the wry proverb: “When a jackal is shitting, the ants give it space” (148).

Mussolini declares war on Britain and France, and in East Africa the Italians enlist all local comers, many “illiterate boys”, mere twelve-year-olds among them, to help fight its war. Such boys and other indigents are easy prey to the occupying army, since their enlistment equips them with “more possessions than [they have] ever owned” (157). Jama becomes a signaller and because of his quick-wittedness earns the approving nickname “Al Furbo” (the clever one). To his complete surprise, two new Somali youngsters who join his company after some time turn out to be his old friends Shidane and his little uncle, the timid Abdi, both deported from Aden to Somalia since being caught for the umpteenth time in acts of petty crime.

Now yet again a member of this small band of “brothers”, Jama recovers his good cheer in the company of the soft-hearted Abdi and the flamboyant, boisterous Shidane. The war strategy of the Italians is something of a joke, even in these boys’ eyes; they actually root for “the valiant British forces [as] they waited impatiently for the next humiliation to be meted out against the Italians” (166). Thousands of askaris start deserting; if caught, they are brutally executed. Not being in the thick of war yet, the boys stay on; happy in their own way.

Then things change suddenly and awfully. Shidane and Abdi are sent off to get supplies at a depot while Jama is relocated to a different position. He is in a cave with adult soldiers, defending a position that comes under devastating attack. Jama escapes by some luck, or perhaps his dead parents’ protective influence, for everyone else in the cave is blown to pieces. But what happens to the other two is much more awful: planning and beginning to execute one of his quick snatches on the tempting abundance of food in the depot, Shidane is caught in the act and made the cruel plaything of three evilly drunken, secretly panic-stricken men who attempt to exorcise their own wartime fears by slowly, systematically dismembering the African youth. He “stole”, after all! Many days later Jama finds Abdi, now far beyond sanity at having discovered the corpse of his beloved mentor and nephew, Shidane, and he can do nothing to help him. Nor can he persuade Abdi to flee the Italian forces with him. Jama leaves, and on his way finds another much younger boy, an Eritrean war orphan whose village was bombed while he was playing in the woods. The boy, Awate, “had been alone for days and he clung now like a leech to Jama’s skin” (184). Perhaps it is his having this boy to take care of that sustains Jama emotionally as he enters the next phase of his life.

Having waited in vain for Abdi to catch up with him, Jama sets up home for himself and Awate, whom he enrols in school, in an isolated Eritrean village, Gerset. He works as a shop assistant and in this quiet and dull period slowly begins to recover from the war horrors he has witnessed. He has lost so much that he needs to take leave of that it takes him two years to gather some further initiative. He chooses another, nearby, fertile village to set up a shop of his own and is generously welcomed by the villagers, who are delighted by the presence of someone they consider a glamorous “foreigner”. The village prospers and the locals ascribe the flourishing of their agriculture to Jama’s presence.

In the village he meets a free-spirited beauty named Bethlehem (nicknamed Bighead because of her wild crop of hair), the daughter of a Tigra father and a Kunama mother (the latter representing the main local culture). Like the fortunes of Jama and the other villagers, the love relationship between Jama and Bethlehem waxes and wanes, and later, things have come to such a pass that Jama has to go away again to try and earn money (among other things, to afford the dowry for his intended). At this stage, there have been some serious quarrels between them, but on the eve of Jama’s next journey there is a knock on his door. Outside the door he finds Bethlehem, her mother and her many sisters; she is dressed up in bright clothes, but her face is “angry and red-eyed”. Her mother bursts out:

“Little Somali, you have made Bethlehem even crazier than she was. She won’t stop crying, she tells me you promised to marry her but are now going back to your own country because a ghost has told you to! She will not eat, work, talk, what can I do with a child like this?” Bethlehem’s mother shouted, wagging a finger in his face.

“I’m not going back to my own country, I am going to Egypt so that I can return with enough money to pay for her dowry. I’m leaving tomorrow morning,” said Jama, humiliated and unable to look at Bethlehem.

“Forget the dowry, a sane child will be enough. Marry her now, before you leave, it’s the only thing that will bring my child back to her senses.”

Bethlehem wiped her nose and eyes, looked pleadingly at Jama.

“I’ll marry you, Bethlehem, you are all I have in this world,” Jama said, his heart racing. (208)

Travelling through Sudan, Jama makes it to Alexandria on the coast of Egypt; his dream is to join the British Navy, but he has no passport and hence little chance of succeeding. Nevertheless, the now newly married and inspired Jama has no intention of giving up. He is taken under the wing of a fellow Somali wanderer, a youth of similar age, though from a lower caste (which does not matter to Jama, but will affect his new friend’s chances of success, as he can in the end not get the clan sponsorship he will need to ratify British employment). These two end up walking much of the way (along the coast) to Gaza and back to Port Said, where the British ships are. After the arduous journey they are told on arrival that their passports have arrived – back in Alexandria! With these, employment becomes a real prospect, at least for Jama, who has clan support, and he is soon enrolled (in Port Said) as a fireman on the ship Runnymede Park. From here on the author shows Jama’s life taking even more unexpected loops, as this ship is one of those used to take “unruly Jews” from off the Exodus as their ship broke down near the Palestine coast, where they had intended to defy the limitations on Jewish immigration. The passengers are kept under strict control; most are traumatised, sorrowful, embittered, fierce “refugees from Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Treblinka” – among them the “children with lost eyes [who] stifled their tears” (242). After a series of ugly stand-offs the refugees are perforce taken back to Germany. Jama, mostly a bewildered looker-on, had befriended one matronly woman and her little children, but he will never see them again. She had reminded him (in her spirit rather than her appearance) of his own indomitable mother and of her hatred of any kind of bullying people.

On the further journey a lone Marxist among the British sailors teaches Jama to read in English. The ship docks in Wales and he is persuaded to leave it, with his shipmates, to await a berth on a more lucrative journey – even though he has earned more money than he had ever had in his life. Yet the loneliness and cold wear Jama down as he stays in the Welsh boarding house. He ends up quite foolishly wasting all his money. Then, momentously, the news is brought to Jama by a distant relative – he and Bethlehem  have a son! Now nothing will hold him back. He has little to take back, in contrast with the fortune with which he had intended overwhelming  Bethlehem and the other villagers, but he is impelled to return to the wife he loves and to the son whom he will never (as he swears to himself) abandon as his own father had abandoned him. Bethlehem had sent him a moving letter, reading which “Jama hid his tears from Jibreel”:

My Heart,

I have been trailing your vapours since you left, I don’t know whether you are alive or dead. I even went to a fortune teller in Tessenei and he saw you in the grains of his coffee, he told me that you’re safe, on a sea surrounded by Ferengis and Yahudis, but I don’t believe him. My stomach has been growing ever since you left and we now have a son, I came here to the scribe because your boy is a small, sickly thing and I don’t want him to pass away without ever seeing you. Life is silent without you, the birds don’t sing anymore, even the baby is quiet, we sit together in the evening wondering where you are. Sometimes I am angry but other times I feel nothing because I doubt whether you were ever real, whether our marriage was just a figment of my imagination, whether my child was put in my stomach by sorcery. Nothing grows here now that you have left, our fields and stomachs are empty. I am sending this letter out into the universe in the hope that you will remember me, come home one day and tell me that you are real.

                                                                        Bethlehem. (269-270)

He will name his son Shidane, Jama decides. He must get back to them because he “wanted to pick Bethlehem up and swing her around, to pepper his quiet baby’s face with kisses and make him laugh” (275). He wants to get back, not to stay put; he still wants to see the world, but he wants to do so with Bethlehem and their son. He has changed and grown up and he knows Bethlehem will have done so, too: “she would be like his mother now, flinty, brave, iron-eyed” (278), and he is ready for this.

One needs to recall, here at the end of this beautifully told tale of endurance and persistence and courage, that this is one among many texts that tell of Africa’s child soldiers, abused children and child refugees. The terrible tendency to embroil children in war and the way they are affected by social upheaval has not ended. Mohamed (the author) herself had this in mind, one may be sure, invoking as she does on the opening page of her novel “the spirits of the nine thousand boys who foolishly battled on the mountains of Eritrea for Mussolini, who looked like my father but had their lives cut off with blunt axes” (1-2). Especially, she, too, recalls Shidane Boqor, “Our fiery boy! … Our dead child!” (2). And she links the story of Jama, in the voice of her narrator, with “the other vagabonds” who “still pour in”, all headed towards the fortress states of Western Europe and the USA. She evokes them, coming

...[u]nderneath lorries, stowed away in boats, falling out of the sky from jumbo jets. Even old grandmothers pack up their bags and start the tahrib. Those fortune men like my father who set their footprints in the sand fifty, sixty, a hundred years ago, are the prophets who led the Israelites out of the wilderness. Whatever Pharaoh says, they will not be tied down, they will not be made slaves, they will make the whole world their promised land. (4)

One must look forward to Mohamed’s next novel, which, she says, will be for her mother Zahra Farax Kaaxin (279); for the present text she thanks many people who helped, informed and inspired her in various ways, but firstly her father – who is, indeed, named Jama (279)!

Mohamed’s narrative style is vivid and unobtrusively informative, but above all filled with profoundly compassionate respect for the African children, like her own father, who took on so much, so bravely – whether they survived or did not.