It’s 1974. Nixon has just resigned. Before the American in this book has even left the plane to embark in the Central African Republic, he falls victim to a scam. Having traveled extensively throughout Europe and Asia, *I* saw it coming a kilometer away. It’s the old “oh dear, I’ve left my purse on the plane, if only some nice, naïve American would carry it through customs for me” ploy. Never, never, never, pick up someone’s frog bag. Remember Bridget Jones in Thailand!
When our hero is promptly detained for diamond smuggling, I was not surprised.
I must rant for a moment, my apologizes. Diamonds are bad. Diamonds are shamefully bad. I highly recommend that you, dear reader, watch the documentary Blood Diamonds. You will learn how diamonds, one of the most common minerals ever, had their value artificially inflated by the de Beers company in South Africa. How diamond mines have a history of Colonialism and abuse. But most of all, how diamonds are used as currency in human trafficking and drugs and arms deals. They enable warlords to do terrible things. Every bad guy ever loves to deal in uncut diamonds because they’re virtually untraceable, unlike money. I got so upset after watching this that I had my engagement ring created from purple Montana sapphires. No diamonds, no, no, no! Not ever. Read more about conflict diamonds here.
But, Back to the Book
Finally realizing that he is in real trouble in a central African republic, facing grumpy immigration officials with assault rifles, our hero asks for the American Embassy. The army officer who has been interrogating him tells him, “It’s closed. Why don’t you know that? You must be lying to us about who you are.”
Our hero, who has just graduated from college and landed a job as a fisheries biologist with USAID, an arm of the U.S. State Department, is floored. Why didn’t anyone tell him? He’s been on a plane for two days.
Horrified and scared, he asks for the French Embassy. (A good bet that it is open, since the French colonized the CAR and support Bokassa, the President for Life.) OK, our American is told, but the Embassy is closed now. So we’re going to have to hold you overnight. In jail.
In a squalid cell, with no mosquito net, he huddles under a stifling hot Army blanket all night. In the morning, he is horrified to see that one of his arms has flopped outside the makeshift barrier and his hand and wrist are covered in hundreds of tiny bites. Hello, malaria.
With a surprising amount of moxie, at dawn he breaks out of his cell and hikes five miles through the jungle back to the city he arrived in. There, in a cafe, he finds a friendly Belgian expat who treats him to breakfast. He waits for the embassy to open. The expat tells him that he’s been scammed AGAIN. That the men who held him were not the legitimate officials, but a gang that operates out of the city. They got his suitcases, his wallet, and his Breitling watch which was a graduation gift from his parents.
Our hero gets terribly upset, and the Belgian laughs at him, explaining that most Africans are lucky to make $200 a year and that the privileged American has no idea what it is like to go hungry or see his children go hungry. That there are no jobs. That the President takes all the wealth for himself. The Belgian makes our hero feel ashamed. The only thing that is really irreplaceable is his watch, and it is for sentimental reasons. (In addition to his $4,000 per month living allowance, Nick is making $45,000 per year in 1974.)
It’s a Novel
It was at this point, when he introduces himself as Nick D’Amato, that I finally realized I was reading a work of fiction! Yes, up until now, I was thoroughly engrossed in the tale as I would be in a memoir. I bought this book used, you see, and there was an inscription in it: “To Ron and Margot, Tales from my misspent youth. Enjoy! Love, the author.” And so I thought…especially as our hero is not named for chapters and chapters except one time in which he is called Nick and I thought it was strange but possibly a nickname…Well, I guess it just shows how engagingly well-written this book is.
Don’t be put off by its self-published appearance–it’s a page turner.
Nick is a great hero–the opposite of the ugly American abroad. He wants to help people. He falls in love with Africa, and the gentle, generous Africans, and ends up “going native”–moving in with his girlfriend Veronique, adopting her two little sisters, eating African food and drinking the local Mocaf beer that the other expats scorn as “panther piss”. The others huddle together in white residences, drinking imported Bud Light, refusing to learn the local languages, and playing tennis and swimming all day. Nick becomes more and more estranged from them. Five years go by.
Nick occasionally runs afoul of the local juju men–sorcerers who increasingly enforce the President’s will. President for Life Bokassa is utterly corrupt, and a member of a minority tribe called the M’Baka.(Most of them are just as much his victims as the rest of the tribes.) This is the same tribe that Nick’s girlfriend Veronique belongs to. In the village where they live, people are afraid that if the President falls, they will be attacked by other tribes. Nick, who has eaten around the cooking fires of many area tribes, and has learned the Songa and M’Baka languages, just can’t believe his gentle and courteous friends would turn on each other.
Tribes of the CAR:
There are more than 80 ethnic groups in the CAR, each with its own language. According to Wiki, about 50% are Baya-Mandija, 40% are Banda, and only 7% are M’Baka. In the book we also run into one “Arab, who works at the slaughterhouse”, and two Portuguese trader families who have been in Africa for 3 generations.
Of course, as modern-day readers, we are screaming in our heads, “You’re an idiot. Get out! Get out while you can!” Everybody is warning Nick, from the CIA agent in the Embassy to the Belgian in the café to the French priest who has fathered a half-African son. With my own knowledge of the genocides in Rwanda and Burundi, happening in my own lifetime, I was just waiting for something terrible to happen and stewing over Nick’s willful ignorance. (Something else he is willfully ignorant of is his chances of getting an STD or worse from his girlfriend. One night she tells him her husband gave her “a disease” that he picked up from a prostitute, and it caused her to become sterile, and then he left her because she couldn’t have children. Nick then starts having sex with her and never uses a condom! Is it too early for AIDS?)
Eventually the State Department decides the political situation is too dangerous–Bokassa is accused of locking up school children from a rival tribe for refusing to wear uniforms with his picture on them–and then clubbing them to death. At the same time, he’s preparing to crown himself Emperor.
To avoid a forcible evacuation, Nick ends up quitting USAID. He’s now a private citizen running amuck in Africa, with civil war likely to break out at any minute.
The question becomes: Will the U.S. Embassy still send the Marines to extract Nick when the worst happens? Or is he on his own? What about his family? What about their extended family? And will the juju men take this opportunity to pounce?
I couldn’t put this book down. Through Nick’s eyes I fell in love with Central Africa too. The way the people love children. Really, really love them. The way that everyone has brothers and mothers everywhere. The delicious indigenous food. (Peanuts and bananas feature heavily.) The palm wine enjoyed by all. The way that old women run things, but let the old men think that they do. Ha ha! The animism that is practiced along with Christianity–the M’Baka in the village go out one night to pray to a tree spirit around a bonfire. The complete lack of materialism.
Oh, there are bad things too. It’s true of every culture. Nick hires a lame man to help him in the fish ponds, and is saddened to find that most of the rest of the people shun him. Many people see having a physical or mental disability as a punishment for something your ancestors did. (It is the same in some Chinese areas, only there lots of folks fear that your bad luck might be catching.)
Another bad thing is that when men go to jail for stealing, the prison does not feed them. Their families have to, and if the prisoner has no family, he depends on the other prisoners to share their meager food. Or he will starve. Most of the men are there for stealing food in the first place.
Nick is horrified by this (just one of the reasons we like him) and begins hiring a dozen prisoners to help him in the fish ponds and giving them meals twice daily. This was very satisfying.
I could go on and on, but I will stop now. Suffice it to say that the CAR has undergone even more trauma and turmoil since this book was written in 2009. It will make your heart ache for the people.
Rating: Five shy green mambas, in a tree far, far away.
PS–The juju men who have cursed the fish station claim to be able to sicken people they don’t like. They attack Nick’s houseboy Armande. Nick thinks the man has gotten hepatitis from parasites in the river. Armande’s wife washes Nicks clothes in that water, and then Armande has to use a hot iron on them to kill the parasite larvae. UGH, UGH, UGH. You see a pretty river and think oh boy, I’d like to go for a swim. Only, don’t.