Review of Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa Mohamed
Black Mamba Boy
by Nadifa Mohamed
I'm so thankful that I can read. I'm thankful that I happened to be born and grow up in circumstances that allowed me the luxury of literacy and the free time required to exercise and hone my reading skills. Books are a tool for education, a refuge and a means of escape, and a powerful drug that entertains and empowers. I can only imagine what people who grow up in circumstances more abject than mine think when they first behold a book, first understand the words on a page--what a feeling that must be.
In Black Mamba Boy, Jama's path to literacy is a slow and rocky one. As a boy in Aden in 1935, he struggles to find a place. Eventually, his mother's death forces him to leave home in search of his father, who has never returned from his own quest for fortune. Jama spends the next ten years travelling from one part of East Africa to another. Along the way he tries a myriad of jobs, from the most physical and menial to the terrifyingly militaristic. Throughout his travels, Jama is anchored at one end by his faith in his mother, who is watching over him from the afterlife, and his imagined conversations with his father, urging him to continue on this journey without an end.
The story can seem a bit aimless, at times. Though Jama is primarily motivated by the quest to find his father, he takes a slow, meandering path towards that goal. Just when it seems like he has found a stable job that will help him earn enough money to find his father, a twist enters the story and shakes up his life. Death, racial abuse, poverty, and even locusts dog Jama's heels. As he travels from community to community, he is forever at the mercy of his identity as a Somali, as a black African, as a young boy. Each encounter, for better or for worse, changes Jama and influences his growth. By the end of the book, he is no longer the naive boy who left Aden to find his father. He is an accomplished young man with a child and wife of his own waiting for him; he has seen the world, seen what it offers and the problems it creates. He is not infallible, not invincible, but he is not defeated either.
The narration in Black Mamba Boy can seem very distant. Some events happen very quickly, with weeks or months passing in the span of a paragraph and very little characterization of Jama to show for it. Even events that receive a slower, more detailed treatment seem to happen at a remove. The tense here is one of a definite, fixed path rather than a pregnant, possible past. There is little in the way of suspense. Near the end of the story, Jama is delighted with how much he has earned from his first voyage aboard a British ship out of Port Said. Then he squanders the money on women in London. This kind of reversal could have happened slowly and intimately, with the reader cringing as it becomes apparent what is happening. Instead, it happens quite quickly, and I never really felt connected to Jama as he was wasting his money. The same kind of distance is present for most of the book. I'm not a fan of this kind of narration and the barrier it creates between reader and protagonist.
That being said, the narration also clearly presents a world view of a young boy. It provides an interesting perspective of East Africa just before and during World War II. There is no intrusive injection of political concerns, no exposition about the disposition of British or Italian or German forces in Africa. The information, and its interpretation, in this book all comes to us the way a young man from Somalia might learn and interpret it as he travels across East Africa. His opinions of Italians, Britons, and other Europeans are formed from his close--and, sadly, colonial--interactions with individuals from these nations. There are ironic observations or misunderstandings that we, as readers from a different background, might be tempted to find laughable--for Jama, though, they are real and credible points of view.
This perspective was what originally drew me to Black Mamba Boy, so I'm glad that my expectations were not misplaced. This isn't just a novel set in Somalia but told from the point of view of a wise, educated person. It isn't about the struggles of Somalis filtered through the lens of someone who shares my upbringing. It's not even filtered through the lens of someone like Mohamed herself, or her father as he is now (upon whose life the story is loosely based). It's a raw portrayal of what the life of a young boy in Somalia at that age might have been like. There are cultural and social forces, such as the clan structure, that somewhat escaped my understanding--but I could see their presence. There is nothing wrong with a more polished presentation, such as in The In-Between World of Vikram Lall. But I really appreciated this type of perspective.
I picked up Black Mamba Boy on a whim, knowing nothing about the book or its author. I was pleased with the result. Though it lacks a single, defining characteristic that makes it awesome or intriguing, there is enough to this book to make it a worthwhile read.