Category Archives: books

Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit, by J.

Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, MisfitJ. is on a mission: to prove to the world that there’s a market for “humanitarian aid fiction”. As a highly experienced aid worker and prolific blogger (latterly at AidSpeak, formerly at Tales from the hood and one half of the team behind popular satirical aid blog, Stuff Expat Aid Workers’ Like (SEAWL), if anyone has the credentials to make this work, it should be J. But with his latest effort to bring the genre to life, Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit, he doesn’t quite hit the mark.

The story centres on a refugee camp just inside Ethiopia’s border with Somalia – Dolo Ado. Or to be more precise, it centres on two American inhabitants of Dolo Ado – Jon and Mary-Anne, employees of Oxfam America and the fictional World Aid Corps respectively. Each lives apart from their partner, leaving space for a will-they-won’t-they relationship to emerge between them.  Continue reading

The centre cannot hold

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

from The Second Coming (1919), by William Butler Yeats.

A personal crisis, a nervous breakdown?

Inspiration for a ground-breaking literary masterpiece?

A view of early 20th century European politics that seems to bear ominous relevance to present day Tanzania?

Proof that poets can describe the second law of thermodynamics?

Or all of the above?

A mighty tree has fallen: Chinua Achebe 1930-2013

Chinua Achebe 1930-2013

Chinua Achebe 1930-2013

Chinua Achebe has died, at the age of 82. He leaves a legacy that will live on for generations.

He told a different story of Africa, perhaps best summed up by a Igbo proverb he liked to quote:

“Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

Achebe was a historian of the lions, telling the story of colonialism in Africa from an African perspective. And by doing so, he changed not just African literature, but African politics as well, forever. Continue reading



Revolution, by Jakob Ejersbo

Raw and real, Revolution is by some distance the best fictional depiction of life in contemporary Tanzania I’ve come across. Unlike Ejersbo’s previous book, Exile, this was about the real Tanzania, of the daily struggles to get by and to get on in the world of young Tanzanians living in or close to poverty. Gone, for the most part, were Exile’s unlovable and self-absorbed expat brats; I was glad to see the back of them. In their place, Revolution was built around a series of portraits of African, Indian and Arab Tanzanians, with just the odd westerner thrown in.

There was Rachel, a young girl from the village, new to town life, dreaming of love and trying to make something of her life, but finding it ever harder to make progress without being drawn into prostitution. There was an artisanal Tanzanite miner, Moses, dreaming of striking rich but finding his humanity sucked out of him by the conditions of the mines and the uncaring brutality of his bosses.

Their lives intersected only peripherally, and Ejersbo resisted what must have been a strong temptation to pull the various threads together into a single overarching plot. But this was more, much more, than a series of unconnected short stories. The themes of youth, ambition and poverty gave coherence to the whole, with all the main characters sharing a common determination to break free from the social and economic constraints that bind them and to carve out a different path.

Continue reading

Obama the Mamba – delightfully surprising

I treated myself to a trip to the theatre this week, to see Obama the Mamba, at the Lowry Theatre in Salford Quays. And a treat it was, sensitive, thought-provoking and surprisingly gripping for a show with only the bare bones of a plot.

For those who don’t speak Swahili, the title needs explaining – what is a “mamba”? – and is likely to lack punch as a result. But to the Swahili speaker the title hits home immediately, throwing up a very different question in the process: why is Obama being called a crocodile? The answer is that this not about the Obama you know, the US President, but rather about his half brother, George, and his life in Nairobi. George was given the street name “Mamba”, because of his quick aggressiveness as a member of a criminal gang in the Huruma neighbourhood of Nairobi. He has written a book that tells his story, the inspiration for this play.
Continue reading

A political economy analysis of WASH that ignores donors?

ODI have published a new political economy analysis of WASH, based on case studies of Sierra Leone and Vietnam. Great, I thought, the sector has long been dominated by engineers and administrators whose ideas of how planning should work tend to be limited to top-down blueprint planning, an injection of political economy thinking could be very useful.

But I’m very disappointed with the paper. For one thing, it comes across as having been put together by folks with little or no prior understanding of the water sector. For example:

The research project results suggest that there are two key distinctions that are relevant when carrying out PEA in the water supply and sanitation sector. First, the distinction between water supply and sanitation: Continue reading

The Lower River: Heart of Darkness revisited

The Lower RiverPaul Theroux’s new novel, The Lower River, takes us on a journey to the very south of Malawi. Ellis Hock is our guide – our eyes and our ears – on his return to the village where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer, 40 years earlier, a time and a place where he had been happy. But the place has changed and his return visit quickly spirals out of control.

It’s a riveting read, fast paced and tense. As a thriller, it thrills. Reviews have generally been very positive.

But I wasn’t able to just accept it as a gripping tale of a journey that went horribly wrong. Too much of the context was misleading or simply wrong. It did not ring true. Continue reading