Book Review: Black Mamba Boy

HARGEISA, 28 December 2009 (Somalilandpress) — Aden,1935; a city vibrant, alive, and full of hidden dangers. And home to Jama, a ten year-old boy. But then his mother dies unexpectedly and he finds himself alone in the world.

Jama is forced home to his native Somalia, the land of his nomadic ancestors. War is on the horizon and the fascist Italian forces who control parts of east Africa are preparing for battle. Yet Jama cannot rest until he discovers whether his father, who has been absent from his life since he was a baby, is alive somewhere.

And so begins an epic journey which will take Jama north through Djibouti, war-torn Eritrea and Sudan, to Egypt. And from there, aboard a ship transporting Jewish refugees just released from German concentration camp, across the seas to Britain and freedom.

This story of one boy′s long walk to freedom is also the story of how the Second World War affected Africa and its people; a story of displacement and family.

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The powerful narrative of `Black Mamba Boy’ is based on tales told to author Nadifa Mohamed by her father, with events taking place mainly in north-east Africa in the period 1935-47. At the start, in what was then Aden, Jama is a 10 year-old Somali boy, and in enthralling and engrossing fashion `Black Mamba Boy’ plots both his physical journey searching for his own father, together with his mental journey striving for something better than his own childhood. Jama makes his way to Britain through Eritrea, Sudan etc. where today these are little known apart from a steady drip of disjointed and incomplete media reports on wars and other atrocities underlining the seemingly impotence of the United Nations or anyone else to resolve problems. `Black Mamba Boy’ confirms this has been the case for decades with insights to the Italian campaign in Abyssinia, the Second World War and the build up to a Jewish state in Palestine.

As well as recording a unique view of history Nadifa Mohamed captures the essence of family ties and lifestyles in parallel with personal portrayals of Jama’s innocence, fears and desires. It is illuminating to compare the compassionate support he receives from his Somali kinsmen with the indifferent and ruthless ways of Europeans. Nadifa Mohamed’s writing is emotional and evocative and as well as lyrical landscape descriptions or relationship revelations she does not flinch from the harrowing reality of a cruelly chaotic part of the world.

My only criticisms of the book are about what is not included as it finishes frustratingly with Jama returning optimistically to his country but without indicating future detail. Also it avoids explanations on the wrongful execution of Mahmood Mattan in 1952 as introduced with the preamble. Even so `Black Mamba Boy’ is a deeply moving intimate account, and Nadifa Mohamed has faithfully fulfilled her father’s wish to have people know what he endured and survived. This is a 5-star book deserving similar acclaim and success to `The Kite Runner’.

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