S is for Samora, By Sarah LeFanu

Free Mozambique's first leader inspires this warm, original blend of memoir and biography

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The Independent Culture

A is for aircraft, we discover at the opening of Sarah LeFanu's biography of Samora Machel. And so we begin at the end, with the plane travelling from Zambia to Maputo that crashed into the hillside at Mbuzini, killing the first president of independent Mozambique.

Machel died on South African soil, close to the border with his country of birth. Mozambicans believe his plane was lured off course by a decoy navigation beacon. The date was 19 October 1986. South Africa's apartheid regime was clinging onto power. Nelson Mandela, still in prison, requested permission to attend Samora's funeral – the only time he asked to leave South Africa during his incarceration. He was, of course, refused.

Mandela later referred to Samora as "a true African revolutionary" and this is the appreciative tone LeFanu's A-Z of his life adopts. We travel through admiring letters of the alphabet: Baobab (marking the spot where where Samora's mother gave birth), the names of his policies (reeducaçao/re-education), comrades (Eduardo Mondlane) and important places (Nachingwea). But there is no G for Graça – Graça Machel, Samora's second wife, who went on to marry Nelson Mandela. Nor is there a Z for Zimbabwe – the country whose independence Machel helped to broker with Margaret Thatcher. Instead those stories are woven throughout the text under less obvious titles. This is not a "lexical biography" in any standard sense. LeFanu, who has written a well-received biography of Bloomsbury Group author Rose Macaulay, offers us a personal memoir in the guise of a work of reference.

LeFanu swiftly becomes one of the main characters in her account of Samora. We learn that she travelled to Mozambique in 1978, three years after independence. She remained for two years, her experiences intersecting with the history of the country. Albie Sachs, exiled anti-apartheid lawyer, lived in the flat below her in Maputo. But for most of her stay she worked as a cooperante in the northern province of Niassa. Here, in a rural setting, she lived her Marxist-Leninist ideals and struggled to learn the "ABC of the revolution". LeFanu met Samora in 1979. His warm embrace is the source of her impression that "Samora was always good at making people feel good about themselves". She sees him as an inspiring leader and visionary, uniting Mozambicans across linguistic and geographical boundaries, fighting for freedom throughout the interlinking countries of southern Africa.

The personal stories add a lively immediacy. Josina Muthemba, Samora's first legal wife, is introduced through a poster on 21-year old LeFanu's North London bedroom wall. Her travels verge happily on the edge of disaster. Her road trip with artist Malangatana is hilarious; her literary references compelling. She does produce a rather idealised picture of Samora. The author's criticism for his later policies is always gentle, and the civil war is passed over sensitively but swiftly.

Overall, this is a cracking biography of the "Mozambican dream", highlighting the political importance of the first president alongside personal insights into his idealism. LeFanu carries us through an alphabet of exhilarating anecdote, giving the reader a fragmented yet always engaging account of a life curtailed too soon.

Zoe Norridge lectures in English at King's College London; Sarah LeFanu will appear at the 'Independent' Bath Literature Festival on 5 March

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