Samson Kambalu's memoir of growing up in Malawi ends with the death of his beloved mother. She is the sixth in his family to die from Aids, including his father. But this is no misery memoir. On the contrary, it is often very funny, as well as original and earnest. That it took an hour to walk to primary school could be an opportunity for self-pity. But for Kambalu, his first walk to school, toddling along beside his mother, is "one of the happiest memories" of his life.
Born in Malawi in 1975, just over a decade after its independence from Britain, Kambalu is a conceptual artist living in London. This is his own portrait of the artist as a young man, with a crisis of faith, the discovery of sex, and a commitment to art. But the portrait is framed by a thoughtful intelligence that looks far beyond the concerns of adolescence.
Kambalu's father is a government clinical officer, but is posted from job to job, struggling to support his eight children. In remote districts, there is no running water or electricity. In the city, there is nothing to bring home but the scraps off the plates of medical students. Hungry, the children help themselves to dog food.
But they are individuals, not fodder for pity. "Don't let the tourist take your picture," warns his father – or "next thing you know, you are in an Oxfam appeal." The young Kambalu resists when a Scottish tourist orders him to remove his shoes for a photograph. He gives in, but poses with his hands on his hips, "figuring that she couldn't use that picture for an Oxfam appeal because a hungry person wouldn't look so full of himself". This spirit of defiance resonates throughout the book.
Kambalu's nuanced characters bring Malawi to life. The most compelling is his father, an avid reader and thinker, who gives the book its title. His ambition to become a doctor was shattered at school, when a Boer teacher called him a "native" as he worked in the gardens. He threw his hoe at the teacher and was expelled.
His son is driven by the will to succeed. He wins a place at Kamuzu Academy, founded by Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda, the President for Life until 1994. It was modelled on a British public school and took a third of the education budget, but pupils were selected on merit and given scholarships. It has remained "the most beautiful place I have ever been", with its irrigated green acres under the scorching African sun.
Coming of age as an art lecturer, Kambalu stages the first conceptual art exhibition in Malawi – a display of footballs wrapped in pages torn from the Bible. Nothing is sacred to him. For, as he shows in this riveting, brilliant book, there is always more than one way of understanding the world.
Susan Williams's 'Colour Bar' is published by Penguin
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