Nadifa Mohamed describes herself as her father’s griot, as this, her debut novel, is a recounting of his epic journey across 1930s East Africa.
Jama is a ten-year-old running wild in Aden when his mother dies; he has no choice but to try to track down his errant father.
Making for his clansmen in Somaliland, he then sets out alone through Djibouti to the border of Eritrea and Sudan.
Amid all the usual dangers a boy would face on such an odyssey, Mussolini’s forces are gearing up for war and young men in Italianheld East Africa are being brutally co-opted.
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The plight of the African askaris and the tussle for their loyalties is a fascinating story in itself, and Mohamed offers insight into this little acknowledged chapter of World War II, and some unsparing accounts of Italian cruelty.
Jama’s story doesn’t end there, though: he carries on through Egypt and Palestine, ending up working on a British ship embroiled in the deportation of the Exodus 1947 Haganah Jews – a brief side story which seems almost too good to be true in its emphasis of the themes of migration and loss – and then lodged miserably in Port Talbot.
Although Mohamed’s style sometimes slips into historical study, this is a frequently fascinating read and a vividly imagined account of survival at all costs.
Black Mamba Boy. by Nadifa Mohamed (HarperCollins, £12.99)
Source: Metro, 11 February 2010