Murder in the Casava Patch (Liberia)

the author photo
Bai T. Moore, born in Liberia in 1916

by Bai T. Moore

Caveat Emptor: After a year of trying, I was excited to see this novel available online. Amazon wanted $77 for it (ridiculous) but this Other Site was charging $17. I was excited because Murder in the Cassava Patch is required reading for all Liberian high school students and my chosen book for Liberia.

It is Out of Print in the US, or at least unavailable.

  • The novel is a mystery about a young man called Gortokai who’s accused of killing his wife Tene. He’s imprisoned, but a mystery shrouds the circumstances of her death. It’s set in a village in post-war Liberia.

Liberian garden with bananas, taro, cassava and beans
Liberian garden planted with bananas, taro, cassava and beans

Imagine my dismay when I kept reading “about” the novel, and not starting the novel. What was going on?

Then I saw a notation on the cover: High Quality Content by Wikipedia Articles. WHAT?!

What I had purchased was not the novel Murder in the Casava Patch. It was a collection of Wikipedia articles about  the novel, which I could have read for free.

Furthermore, a bunch of the “book” consisted of articles on topics that would be highlighted on Wiki when reading about this novel, such as Incest, Cassava, and Paperback Books. What a rip-off!

So I still haven’t gotten to read the seminal work of Liberian literature. American publishing companies, you suck.

Liberian History

Map of LiberiaYou may have heard that the Republic of Liberia is a country of former American slaves, sent back to Africa by do-gooders. It did declare its independence in 1847, but the U.S. did not recognize that until the end of our Civil War in 1862. Between 1822 and the 1862, more than 15,000 freed and free-born Black Americans from United States and 3,198 Afro-Caribbeans relocated to the settlement. Liberia maintained and kept its independence during the European colonial era.

There are 16 different indigenous groups in Liberia, and 31 separate ethnics languages, along with “Liberian English”. Indians from India, Lebanese, and other West Africans are also present.

Before the story of Murder in the Cassava Patch, the formerly peaceful Liberia was ripped apart by an asshole called Charles Taylor, who set tribe against tribe. Liberia has a new President, the first female President in all of Africa.

A Taste of the Novel

Monrovia, the capitol of Liberia

“Like dry-time thunder, Tene’s murder shocked every one in the area. The news spread throughout the countryside like wildfire. A few hours following the discovery, hundreds of horrified persons had arrived on the scene to get a glimpse of the corpse. Mothers made it a point to bring along adolescent daughters, cautioning them in these terms, “You see eh, when we old people tell you children to listen to your parents, you say this is a new age.”

One of the mansions of Charles Taylor, a Liberian warlord
One of the mansions of Charles Taylor, the hideous Liberian warlord

“The person, who killed this child is a madman…A blood thirsty fiend seeking her vital organs to make sacrificial medicine, perhaps,” stricken onlookers remarked, as hundreds of them passed by the body of Tene lying under a palm tree in the center of the cassava patch.

“The twelve man jury appointed by the local
clan chief to examine the body reported that Tene was murdered with a sharp instrument, a razor or a cutlass. Her throat had been slashed, both wrists cut to the bone, and there was a gash above the eyes. From the appearance of the spot, Tene and her murderer must have fought for a good while before she was finally overpowered.

Liberia's new President - the first female in Africa
Liberia’s new President – the first female in Africa

“After much palavering on the scene, the elders all agreed that because of the advanced state of decomposition of the body, it should be immediately interred. “According to tradition,” remarked one elder, “Tene cannot be buried in the town.” The chief ordered a grave hastily dug and Tene was thrown into it.

“My name is Gortokai. Kai, the last part of it is the Vai apellation for man. Gorto refers to the brown jugs in which Dutch gin was sold long ago. It is probable that on the day I was born, the village elders were feasting on a case of this delectable spirit, so that they were spared the trouble of inventing a name for me.

a lake in Liberia
Bomi Lake in Liberia

“I grew up as the son of old man Joma and his wife Sombo Karn, and with Tene and Kema, her older sister. One day, I was left alone with Tene. We were playing Mama and Papa, when suddenly Tene came up to me and asked me to hold her tight in the waist. I shivered and recoiled. “Gortokai, can’t you see that we are not brother and sister? It’s a secret Mama told me.”

“I didn’t know then, why this information had been withheld from me. Much later, I learned that my real father was once a slave. He had been one of the men recruited for the Island of Fernando Po as a contract laborer on Spanish coco plantations, and came back home disillusioned but still full of the spirit of adventure, as result of which he associated himself with an itinerant Mandingo cola trader.

Mandingo women
Mandingo women

It seems that at one time this gentleman was unlucky in one of his deals, and found it convenient to bargain my father off as part of the deal to a prosperous farmer in one of the St. Paul River settlements. Shifting from one village to another in later years, he ended up in the Dewoin country were he met my mother and married her. If there is anything I inherited from my father, it was his urge to roam about.

“The third harvest following the outbreak of the Hitler War was a momentous year for me. Something every young man in the Dewoin country looks forward to, happened to me. I was initiated into the Zowolo, the highest Poro degree offered by the Dewoin tribe…”


TLC Africa

All Africa


The Translator (Sudan and South Sudan)

book cover

by Daoud Hari

courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

I must like to read books that make me angry and sad, because so many of them have appeared on this blog.

This memoir tells the story of a Zaghwa boy who is unique from his brothers because his father sends him to school in a city, where he learns English and Arabic (and unlearns animal husbandry).

It’s how he ends up as a translator for U.N. specialists trying to determine if Sudan is having a genocide or a civil war, and later, for the foreign journalists covering the genocide. It is why he is still alive when so many of his family are dead.

What I Learned

Waterhole for camelsDafur in the Sudan is split between Sudan and Chad.

Sudan’s government was hijacked by Arab strongman Omar al-Bashir in 1989 when he ousted the democratically-elected president. He’s got 2 wives. In this book, his goal seems to be to move the indigenous people off their land, so he can take the resources there–water and oil beneath the ground. To do this, he arms minority Arab villages, telling them that the African villages are preparing to attack and kill them, and giving them money to do it first. He also encourages the Janjaweed, an armed militia of rapists and murderers who go around committing horrible atrocities.

Sudan mapMummar al-Khaddafi, the bogeyman of my youth in the 1980s, is partially responsible for promoting a doctrine of Arab superiority throughout the region. And for using Sudan as a launching base for his attacks on Chad.

In 2011, after The Translator was written, South Sudan formed its own country.

The Beauty of the Sahara

traditional village
Traditional village

While man in this narrative is vile, the Sahara is beautiful, in a way. Creepy. Fascinating. Powerful. I didn’t realize that there are no roads in the Sahara. Douad’s father and brothers have taught him to navigate the traditional way, because even if you have a GPS and a compass, the desert will eat them. So you wait for the stars at night, you find true north, and you lay out sticks touching the tend so you can find your way in the morning.

SaharaThose who try to navigate by using a distant mountain as a guide are doomed to wander in circles until they die in the desert, because those mountains are actually sand dunes. And mountains move.

In the desert, a small bird on a distant dune can look as big as a camel. Sand can take on the appearance of water.

Once, the newly-elected president of Chad was driving to Libya through the Sahara and became hopelessly lost. His cavalcade had to be rescued by Libyan helicopters who flew overhead and spotted him.

The Things I Carry

refugee campAs I write this the day after a terrorist bombing at the Brussels airport, I have realized the global impact of these atrocities is becoming lost on me. Since the 1980s and my first trip to Germany at the age of 14 (we flew through the Frankfurt airport two days after it had been bombed) I’ve grown increasingly numb. Oh, humanity–there you go again, being so stupidly angry, hateful, intolerant, and power-mad.

But a few details of the people in these refugee camps will stick with me for a long time:

  • Women and young girls being raped every time they leave the camp to fetch firewood, because they can’t prepare the food donated by NGOs without fire. If they send the men, the men are killed.
  • “Shelters” donated by NGOs that are made of plastic–hot and sweltering under a desert sun.
  • Young Sudanese kids who love their camels and their donkeys like I love my dogs and cats.
  • An author who is beaten unmercifully in a prison cell for guiding journalists and accused of being a spy–a man who loves Jane Austen and the Wind in the Willows.

Rating: A necessary, though stomach-turning read.


The Pirate’s Daughter (Jamaica)

book coverby Margaret Cezair-Thompson

this book appears on the blog courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

Four generations of single Jamaican mothers: One small polyglot family.

  • Oni, the great-grandmother–a Maroon, descended from African slaves, practices traditional  healing called obeah and lives way up in the mountains.
  • Esme, the grandmother–her father was Chinese but has run away. She has accepted Western Christianity and is irritated by her old-fashioned mother’s spiritual practices.
  • Ida, the mother–her father is Lebanese. Mr. Joseph is still around, but Esme can’t marry him because his first wife, who lives in Kingston with their 2 daughters, refuses to give him a divorce.
  • May, the daughter–her father is the American movie star Errol Flynn, who gets her mother pregnant at 17 and leaves her to deal with it. He is too mean to send money.
Errol Flynn
You can see why almost every woman in the world fell for him…hence the expression “In like Flynn”…

Which is funny, because Tasmanian-born Errol Flynn is sitting on millions. Of course, he has two–or three?–ex-wives, assorted kids, legal and not, and statutory rape charges to defend himself against in courts of law.

It’s hard to imagine that a man like this was once as big a star as Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, or Brad Pitt. But he was–a swashbuckling action-adventure hero whose yacht washed up on the shores of Jamaica during a storm in 1946. When he befriends Eli Joseph and starts using him as a chauffer and drinking buddy, Flynn never, ever pays for drinks, meals, gas, nothing.

“It seemed to Flynn that back in America, people always wanted something from him. The kindness of Jamaicans made him feel almost humble…”

The Setting

Flynn loves the tropical island, and you will too. Port Antonio before the troubles is portrayed as heaven on earth–warm and sunny, lovely beaches, small and out-of-the-way-bars with the world’s finest rum and perhaps the lushest ganja…

Trident Castle in Port Antonio
Trident Castle in Port Antonio

Beautiful colonial architecture and beautiful tropical flowers.

“Oni’s wood-and-zinc-roof cottage had a fenced garden where she grew plants for bush medicine. People for miles around knew her as Madda Oni, a bush-doctor and obeah woman, she could cure sicknesses, catch shadows, and predict the future…”


Otaheite apples
The Otaheite apple came to Jamaica from Tahiti and is shaped like a pear.

This novel stands with a small handful of books I’ve read for this blog that were outstandingly good. The sense of place is strong, and it is a delightful place (until the unfortunate events toward the end). The characters are quirky and engaging, and very real. I loved how skillfully the author had blended history little known to Americans (like the effects of the Cuban revolution on Jamaica) with her adventure story and the elements of surprise concerning the character’s pasts.

Five Otaheiti apples!


She Plays With the Darkness (Lethoso)

Lethoso picture with lake and rondavelsby Zakes Mda 

Courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

*****Really good.*****

A sister (Dikosha) and a brother (Radisene) from a village in the mountains of Lethoso. (A country completely surrounded by South Africa.) As they grow, Dikosha becomes more and more seduced by the ways of the ancestors until in her early 20s, she is living in a spiritual cave and dancing with spirits wearing a red dress that never fades and living on honey and herbs. Meanwhile Radisene has migrated to the lowlands and become an ambulance-chasing 3rd party insurance man.

Dikosha refuses all suitors,  including the one-time soccer star Sorry My Darlie, (who is obsessed with her) because she doesn’t need any man. She goes her own way and the people of the village allow it, saying she is how she is “because she was conceived at a night dance.”

Radisene becomes a Black 40-Year-Old-Virgin due to his love for Misti, a woman who finally tells him that despite her Western education, she has been called to become a traditional healer and therefore must never marry. He is then seduced by the wife of Trooper Matsohi, a free spirit named Tampololo who isn’t afraid to use her fists when she is angry.

How Do We Know We’re In Lethoso

  • The names of the people: Mother of Twins, Father of the Daughters. One man is called Hlong, but only answers to Petros, his “church name” on Sundays.
  • Coups:  2 in Radisene’s lifetime. Scary changes in government with much loss of human rights.
  • Conflict: The conflict between tradition and modernity, the past and the future, village life in the highlands and city life in the lowlands, and between brother and sister.
  • People are mad about soccer (and they don’t call it football). Tampololo and Radisene fight about it regularly.
  • Rondavels–people in the village live in circular huts. Dikosha flat refuses to move out of hers when Radisene builds their mother, Mother of Twins, a mansion.

The Elements of Style

Mda’s writing is as smooth as a pickup truck driving over dirt roads. The occasional pothole, but most of the time you could be lulled to sleep, so sweetly and steadily does he drive. The only potholes for me were:

  1. The story has no conclusion. It simply ends. In fact I went back and read the last chapter twice, because I was sure that I must have missed something.
  2. One thing that isn’t explained is why, after her beloved brother Radisene gives her a red dress and leaves for the lowlands, Dikosha refuses to speak to him again and locks her door against him for the next 20 years. Why? We don’t know.

Rating: 5 graffiti-free ancestral spirits dancing. This was a wonderful read and I enjoyed the humor and the education very much. I liked the twist that the abuser in the domestic violence relationship was the female, and that Trooper Matsohi then bullied others. He was a character you longed to kick. In some way you wanted to kick them all, much as you want to kick yourself when you feel yourself being stupid for pure stubbornness. But there were heroic moments too.