Black Mamba Boy, By Nadifa Mohamed

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

In this debut novel, Nadifa Mohamed takes as her source material her father's childhood journey across Africa, which begins in the Yemeni port city of Aden where ten-year-old Jama loses his mother, his only emotional mooring in the world, and embarks on a great Odyssean voyage northwards, to find his absent father.

Mohamed, who is herself a child of Africa's fractured history - she lived in Hargeisa, Somalia, until war drove her family to London - says that she felt compelled to record her father's survival spirit in fictive form, and partly composed the book from taped interviews with him.

Ironically for a daughter's homage to her father, Black Mamba Boy is really a story about fathers and sons, and the bonds of love and duty between them. After his mother dies, Jama, bereft, hungry and alone in the great, troubled African continent of the 1930s, seething with its twin terrors of poverty and war, sets out to find his father - an inveterate dreamer - who abandoned him in early childhood. The journey, which sees Jama buffeted by the terrifying demographics of famine, internecine conflict, and Mussolini's army - a cruel, occupying master - drives him into the heart of Eritrea where his father is rumoured to be.

This country becomes the locus of all the love he has lost and may find, and only a child's boundless hope keeps him from losing heart. The endeavour appears unending, Herculean, at times, yet Jama persists. "How far is it from here to this Kano?" he asks a fellow traveller in the midst of the trek. "Three years walk" is the sobering reply.

The journey ends in disappointment, yet Jama is undefeated. His rite-of-passage is the lesson he learns in how to be a father in a way his own failed to be. On a grander scale, his lone walk through African comes to represent what Mohamed calls the "hunger for a homeland".

His incredible story - along with brief snapshots of the homeless young strays he befriends along the way - bears resonances of a far more universal immigration narrative for those who, as the displaced and dispossessed, venture out and seek a new home to replace the wreckage of the old.

The infamous "Exodus 1947" ship crosses Jama's path, somewhat emblematically, at the end of the story, as do the Haganah Jews of post-Holocaust Europe who are intent on returning to their "spiritual homeland" in Palestine. Just as their endeavour is stymied, and they are left to float in their watery no-man's land of the ocean, denied entry to Palestine, Jama wanders too, looking for, quite literally, his own elusive "fatherland".

Neither parties reach their promised land and both are forced to reconfigure what it means to call a country a "home". As a kindly old woman tells Jama, a home is not always the place in which you were born. Mohamed, and Jama, appear to conclude that a home is, in the end, rooted in psychology, rather than geography.

In writing her father's life, Mohamed sought to document a moment in history, in these troubled corners of Africa. "I am my father's griot," writes Mohamed. "This is a hymn to him. I am telling you this story so that I can turn my father's blood and bones, and whatever magic his mother sewed under his skin, into history..."

Just as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun drew out the little documented dramas of the Biafran war, Mohamed describes an East Africa under Mussolini's rule, in which the continent's underclass who bore no political allegiance to Italy's fascist forces became willing conscripts purely to get clothes and a square meal.

The story does, once or twice, fall victim to too much documentation without enough emotion, but this is a minor imperfection in the face of such an accomplished first novel.

In its best, most moving moments, Mohamed portrays, from a child's eye view, both the loneliness and camaraderie of street children like Jama, whose friendships become almost as sustaining as food and water in this scorched and famished land.