Within a five-minute walk from my house in a quiet Nairobi suburb there are half a dozen new apartment blocks that were not there a year ago. Before they had even been completed, each flat had been sold. On the main road there are billboards advertising iPhones and BlackBerries. Around the corner there is a smart coffee shop full of young Kenyans tapping away on laptops, drinking lattes. Across Africa, economies are growing, creating a new middle class, or the "Africa 2s" as the University of Texas business professor Vijay Mahajan described them. (The Africa 3s being the desperately poor and the Africa 1s the sickeningly rich.)
There are nowhere near enough places at the top tables, though, and for countless millions across sub-Saharan Africa, the dream is to move not from the village to the city, nor from the slum to the suburb – it is to move to that mythical place where everyone has cars and money: Europe. Getting there, as Paul Kenyon describes in harrowing detail, can be deadly. Living there, as Brian Chikwava's dynamic debut novel reveals, would make one wonder whether the journey was worth it.
In I Am Justice, Kenyon retraces the astonishing and dramatic journey of Justice Amin, a teenager from a Ghanaian village, who travels by bus, truck and on foot, north from Ghana, through the unforgiving Sahara desert and into Libya. From there, people smugglers organise boats to the Italian island of Lampedusa, some 170 miles north of Tripoli.
Justice's boat, like so many others, didn't make it. They were saved – if saved is the right word – by a Maltese fishing vessel. The ship's captain refused to let them on to the boat, insisting instead that they clung to the tuna net. An Italian warship eventually came to their rescue.
The picture of dozens of migrants holding on to a net in the middle of the Mediterranean went around the world – including to the front page of The Independent. If ever there was an image which summed up the sheer desperation of those who want to come here, and the utter disdain with which so many of us treat them, this was it.
Kenyon recounts Justice's story – a fantastical, miraculous story – with tenderness. I Am Justice is a book which could soften the heart of even the most rabid Daily Mail reader. Parts of Harare North, however, may leave him frothing at the mouth: a teenage mother rents her baby out to women who try to claim council houses as single parents; false passports and identities are easily bought; and the unnamed Zimbabwean narrator is a Mugabe-supporting, propaganda-spouting member of Zanu-PF's violent youth militia, who claims to be one of the opposition activists he once beat up, in order to claim asylum in the UK. But this is no paean to the right. Chikwava's description of immigrant life is a shocking indictment of the way we treat those who come here searching for a better life.
"Harare North" is London, now home to hundreds of thousands of Zimbabwean immigrants who have fled Robert Mugabe's brutal regime. It is the underbelly of London, the part we don't normally see – or rather, the parts we don't normally want to see. The narrator and his fellow Zimbabwean immigrants live in a run-down Brixton squat with mould growing on the walls and an ever-growing rat scuttling under the floorboards. They do the jobs we don't want to: sweeping the floors in a fish-and-chip shop, packing salads for less than the minimum wage, and – worst of the lot in the narrator's eyes – working in care homes. Or as he puts it, becoming a BBC: British Buttocks Cleaner. Throughout it all, Chikwava weaves in nuggets of life from a rapidly deteriorating Zimbabwe: the astonishing and crippling inflation, the destruction of homes in opposition strongholds, the gross corruption of Mugabe's allies.
Life in Harare North is a daily struggle. The fear of arrest and deportation is ever present. Work is hard to come by and even harder to keep. Employers take advantage, reducing already pitiful wages by subtracting an "emergency tax" or even refusing to pay altogether. Letters from home, imploring cash, are frequent. They may be paupers in Harare North, but to their relatives at home, they are the ones who have made it. The narrator's childhood friend, Shingi, receives requests for sound systems and Land Rover Defenders. There is always a grandmother who is sick or a child who needs school fees paid. Money is dutifully wired home. In Zimbabwe, like many developing countries, the amount of money sent home from the diaspora far outstrips the formal aid distributed by western governments.
Chikwava casts an outsider's eye on the rest of London. His narrator wonders why people don't look at each other as they go to work on the Tube and mocks the "teenagers that loiter in they hoodies, bling-bling and wanting respect". He has a distinctive voice that takes some getting used to. He speaks in a simple Zimbabwean English, using "he" and "she" instead of "his" and "her". He is no hero, but nor he is a cardboard cut-out Mugabe thug, and wires money to help Shingi's relative, an opposition supporter, buy his way out of jail.
There are moments of levity, but this is a dark, unhappy novel. There are no good guys and few uplifting moments. Chikwava does not sugar-coat the immigrant's life. It is, for many, a depressing struggle with little possibility of improvement. But at least they got there safely.
Steve Bloomfield's book about football in Africa will be published by Canongate next yearReuse content