No good deed gets for­given

Fat­boy and the Danc­ing Ladies

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Anne Susskind

MICHAEL Hol­man’s sec­ond in­stal­ment of a tragi­comic tril­ogy set in a fic­tional African coun­try called Kuwisha ir­ri­tates like his first, with lots of school­boy- variety jokes and hokey cliches about African su­per­sti­tions and pa­tro­n­is­ing English­men. Per­haps he in­tends it to be so. Hol­man, who for al­most 25 years was Africa correspondent and Africa ed­i­tor of Bri­tain’s Fi­nan­cial Times, is clearly in­tel­li­gent, and un­der­stands and feels strongly about Africa, where he grew up.

Per­haps this is the voice he cul­ti­vates, of a knowl­edge­able out­sider try­ing to im­press with in- jokes. Per­haps it is the only voice an ex­pat white per­son liv­ing in Lon­don for so long can adopt. Or per­haps it is the one his read­ers want to hear, the palat­able way to write about Africa — light, funny and plummy — so it is not too tragic a turn- off.

The novel cen­tres on big- hearted Char­ity, who runs Har­rods In­ter­na­tional Bar, a nightspot and home to a col­lec­tion of en­dear­ing but heart­break­ing, street- wise boys who run around with glue bot­tles dan­gling from their necks. They are mis­chievous but clever and loyal to each other, and they have big dreams in Kireba, which has re­placed Jo­han­nes­burg’s Soweto as the slum it is de rigueur for politi­cians and aid agency work­ers to have seen.

The main theme is in­ter­na­tional aid, the in­dus­try around it and the com­mu­ni­ca­tion gap be­tween Africa and its donors, both of whom seem to be tak­ing each other for a ride: the aid in­dus­try with its high- end con­fer­ences and four- wheel- drives, and the re­cip­i­ents who have de­vised a thou­sand ways to fool the for­eign­ers.

Over­all, Hol­man’s anal­y­sis is sharp and suc­cinct. Be­fore a con­fer­ence, a gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial holds court with aid agency del­e­gates, who lis­ten re­spect­fully and nod ap­prov­ingly as he be­rates them: First, your peo­ple came with the Bi­ble. A very, very good book. But when our fore­fa­thers looked up from read­ing, the set­tlers had oc­cu­pied their land. Then we fought for our in­de­pen­dence. But you peo­ple had not forgotten your magic. You gave us in­de­pen­dence. And when we looked up from our cel­e­bra­tions, we found that we had debt to your banks. Forty years af­ter in­de­pen­dence you gave us what you call debt re­lief. Too late! You call it com­merce, I call it ex­ploita­tion. In fact, it is what the Good Book calls usury. Hol­man’s cyn­i­cism can be amus­ing. Ge­of­frey Japer, a Bri­tish news­reader and colum­nist new to Africa, who views two other hacks squab­bling over whose turn it is to pay for char­ter air­line tick­ets, writes in a col­umn that his col­leagues are ‘‘ scrupu­lous to a fault’’, un­aware that they are pay­ing in lo­cal cur­rency pur­chased on the black mar­ket and will be re­im­bursed in pounds at a rate far out­weigh­ing the ini­tial cost. The more you spend on ex­penses, the more you make.

Japer, who is also an am­bas­sador for NoseAid, is in Kuwisha to pro­mote the ‘‘ debt­for- rhino pro­posal’’, in which the coun­try’s $ 6 bil­lion ex­ter­nal debt will be di­vided by its num­ber of rhi­nos, say 100, mak­ing each worth $ 6 mil­lion. Should the stock of rhi­nos de­crease, the coun­try will owe an­other rhino, or $ 6 mil­lion, but for each in­crease the donors will de­crease ex­ter­nal debt by a rhino or two and there will be more tourists, thus more for­eign ex­change and less poverty. A win- win sit­u­a­tion. If only real life could find such neat so­lu­tions. Anne Susskind is a Syd­ney lit­er­ary jour­nal­ist and reviewer.

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