Archive for February, 2011

Review of Tribal Gathering “To Understand Sub-Saharan Africa Read This”

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on 25/02/2011 by Kenneth C. Ryeland

The world of “Dash” or be dashed.

These eight stories perfectly recreate a lost world: the early post-colonial era in West Africa. They present both a faithful portrait of expatriate society and a brave attempt to get under the skin of local West African cultures.

The stories from a European perspective amply illustrate the fascination/aversion, and above all, frustration that the European managers felt towards local traditions; while the stories from a native perspective attempt to get inside a civilization that appears to both repel and captivate the author.

Many of the stories draw on the incomprehensibility of both parts of the equation. The Europeans cannot understand why the local culture is as it is and the locals find it difficult to come to terms with European demands which are totally alien to their society. However, the worldview presented in “Tribal Gathering” is not (and excuse the pun) just black-and-white. In the story “The Visit” we clearly see how the visiting director from Europe neither knows, nor desires to know anything about the country in which his company has invested; contrasting greatly with the superior knowledge of the local British manager, who has lived in the country long enough to know how things work there. The story “Tief Man” attempts to give us an insight into how the grinding poverty of much of West Africa leads otherwise honest citizens into a life of crime that their better off counterparts find incomprehensible.

There are stories dealing with the strange and powerful world of local “juju” beliefs, or the pantheon of local gods; and a story which explains how sudden death can be met at almost any crossroads on the continent.

In many of the stories, the motor that drives the story is self-deception, deliberate lies or incomprehension, most notably in the moving final story in the collection “Smoke Screens”.

Most of the stories work perfectly well within the vignette style of the best short stories. There is one exception however, and that is the centrepiece of the work: “Boom Town”. The canvas of this longer story is vast, perhaps too huge for all of the themes it covers. Through the story of its protagonist, the author attempts to give us an insight into the corrupting influence of the bribery and semi-legal theft that is behind almost every transaction, at every level, of West African society. In such a climate, nobody is immune from, and nobody is free of, the shadow of “dash”. Without actually stating it, the author implies an agreement with those who would dissolve the artificially created countries that the imperialists created and redraw the map along tribal lines. That would appear to be the only possible answer to what the Europeans living there described as “the tribal problem”.

Anyone wishing to understand why Sub-Saharan Africa is in the sorry mess it is today would be advised to read this latter story above all others. Indeed, if I have one criticism of the book it is that this story reads like a truncated novel. I felt there were enough themes in this one tale to have expanded the story to novel length.

However, this criticism aside, I can think of no other book I have read, with the possible exception of David Pownall’s more comic “African Horse” that so accurately recreates the postcolonial scene in Africa. In many ways, these stories have helped me to understand the world which, as a child living in West Africa in this period, I did not have the maturity to fully understand.

***** (5 stars)
Berni Armstrong