No good deed gets forgiven
Fatboy and the Dancing Ladies
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.