“While [Sylvan] was in the dining room fixing the table, he heard people screaming outside the front door. He quickly realised they were young girls but he could not understand what they were saying. He almost collapsed when he went out of the house and saw Dada, in front of a small group of small girls, bleeding. He lost control of himself. He went inside the house and rushed back. With both hands on top of his head, Sylvan didn’t know what to do or where to start! He finally stood in front of Dada with his mouth wide open but saying nothing. At that instant Dada could see Sylvan experiencing his end of the world. Sylvan did not know what to say and knew for sure he would be blamed for the incident. He also believed there was no way Mr. Masa would keep him on. For Sylvan, losing his job was also losing his status. Within a short time there were a lot of people in the compound. Sylvan recovered quickly and took the boy inside the house. Once inside, he did everything to make Dada comfortable. After a short while people dispersed and Dada was left with Sylvan.”
This slim novel follows the culture shock of city boy Dada sent into a country village in the Congo (formerly Zaire, as it is still called in this book), to become ‘socialised’ and put back in touch with his own culture, while his parents go to the US on a diplomatic posting. He is from a privileged background, has travelled around Europe and has become europeanised. The Western-educated boy has to learn to understand and deal with a society permeated by animism and magic overlain with a patina of Christianity. At first the small town of Bulungu seems tranquil enough, but unexpected perils await him (and those he comes into contact with), like the crocodiles lurking under the murky rivers. From this work, Yamusange seems like a promising writer but this one could have done with more fleshing-out. Sometimes he could have shown, rather than said – many sentences read like something from an anthropological tract rather than a novel, and it seems quite obviously written for a Western rather than a Congolese audience – of course it is no less enlightening for that, rather more so. I learnt a lot about local life and beliefs from this little book.
Just occasionally the work comes across as a little naive and contrary to at least the more recent history, and at least in the militia-ridden east of the country: “…there is no way a child could kill. I have been in Bulungu for a long time and I know children don’t kill.”
As you would expect with a self-published work, there are some typos (the “British” explorer and journalist “Henry Motor Stanley” would no doubt have had more comfortable travels than the American Henry Morton Stanley!) and you can’t help wondering how much better it would have been with editorial help.
All-in-all, a slightly disappointing, but still enlightening read.
If you want a Congolese book that can be unreservedly recommended, albeit by an outsider, you shouldn’t miss The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, or of course Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.
Frederick Kambemba Yamusangie, Full Circle, NY, iUniverse, 2003, ISBN 0-595-28294-6