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City Boy
Michael, Jan; City Boy. Boston: Clarion Books, 2009. $16.00, ISBN 9780547223100 / 0547223102.

Note: "Samuel Sangala has grown up in urban areas in Malawi. His parents wanted nothing to do with those ignorant people in the bush, and they never returned to the rural valley where their families live. But after both his father and his beloved mother die of the The Disease (AIDS), Sam has to move to his aunt's small, dark house in a country village, where there is no electricity and no computer, and he is expected to share his stuff with his cousins. Even as Sam longs for the technology he learned to rely on, he also recognizes that his parents lost a lot when they broke from their roots. Above all, he learns that the definition of family encompasses more than just relatives." Publisher's Description


Familial Ties: The Fiction of Orphan-hood in the Age of Celebrity Adoption

Malawi's orphan problem has in the last three years become the focus of worldwide media attention, following the pop star Madonna's highly publicized process to adopt David Banda and later Mercy James. What was not much discussed however was how recent the orphanage establishment in Malawi is, and how a considerable number of Malawian children who lose both parents may still find a member of their extended family to take them in and spare them the odds of a life in an orphanage. Perhaps not much discussed either are the works of fiction being written with orphans as the central characters. In this review I discuss one such work, a novel titled City Boy , by Jan Michael, who has published novels for adults and for young readers, and lives in England and in the Netherlands. City Boy takes readers into the inner life of a recently orphaned child and shows how family bonds still remain intact, despite neoliberal economic pressures faced by countries such as Malawi. The story's central theme doesn't come until the very of end the novel, but when it does, it opens a perspective on the lives of orphans and depicts how, as in the novel's central character, children can find ways of coping with loss, and in the process learn more about their world and the possibilities communal life facilitates. In the latter part of the discussion I also present the challenges a novelist writing about an unfamiliar culture and society, a peculiarity Africa always seems to attract, may run into.

The novel City Boy starts at the cemetery, on the day that the late Innocence Sangala is being laid to rest. She is leaving behind a pre-adolescent son, Sam. We soon learn that Sam's father is also dead. This renders Sam an orphan, in the technical sense of the word. Aunt Mercy, a sister to Sam's late mother, suggests that she take Sam with her back to the village, where Sam's mom came from and grew up. Mr. Gunya, a cousin to Sam's late father, is against the idea, saying a village school will not be a good idea for Sam, who has grown up in the city.

Eventually Aunt Mercy's suggestion prevails, and Sam embarks on a journey with her to the village. It is an abrupt, drastic change for Sam. He is leaving behind a good city school, a nice suburban home, the family computer on which he played numerous games, a television, and everything associated with urban niceties and comforts. The village has none of these. The house is crowded, and he has to share a bedroom with several other children. There is no electricity in the village. He has never lived in the village before, and he does not know any of the children, nor do they know him. He is very worried and scared, and feels almost hopeless.

Sam's worst fears come true. He is not happy in his new home, which he does not even consider a home at all. He suspects that nobody wants him there. He feels very lonely, and keeps hoping that somehow he will connect to his dead mother, and hear her voice talking to him again. This frustrating, empty search for a connection to his mother runs throughout the entire book, and illuminates the eventual moment in which the book's turning point occurs.

Blue sneakers that light up are one of the last gifts Sam's beloved mother bought for him before she passed away. They hold a special place in his heart, the way the memory of his mother does. They are stolen, only to be found again. In the same way, his mother is dead, but ends up coming back to him through his discovery that she lives on in him and other extended family members who share her blood and memories. But the inexplicable advice from an adult friend to give the precious shoes away as a sacrifice hints at some of the problematic areas of the novel.

Having the story told largely through the eyes of a pre-adolescent city boy sets up a bitter binary between city and village, which in several parts feels forced and artificial. The uncle, Mr. Gunya, is a wealthy lawyer who refuses to take Sam in, even when he has no child himself. Aunt Mercy comes from the village, and barely makes ends meet with several other orphaned children in her house, yet she is the one who quickly volunteers to take Sam in. When both parents were alive, they severed their ties to the village, the reason they are both buried in the city, rather than in their home villages. Sam's mother once swore she would never sleep in a mud hut again. His dad once called villagers bush people and ignorant (p. 11).

Even before they take off for the village, Aunt Mercy makes undisguised overtures of envy on Sam's possessions, telling Sam how his cousins in the village do not have as many clothes, and how he will have to share with them. On his first dinner at the village, Sam is unable to use his hands to eat nsima, the staple food for many Malawians served for both lunch and dinner. He hates having to live in the village, and plots to run away.

Such differences between urban and rural life in Malawi do exist, and elite Malawians, like their counterparts in any part of the world, do exude snobbish attitudes towards village people. However the effort to accentuate the differences comes off as needlessly exaggerated and forced. We are given minimal glimpses of how the village people view Sam, and as such the story comes off as too narrowly focused on distinctions that are seen from the eyes of a child, and yet are given such undue prominence.

The author makes a good effort to incorporate words from Malawian languages and contexts from Malawian social and cultural norms. The effort however comes at the cost of misinterpretation and inaccuracy. The Malawian greeting which can be translated as I am fine, how are you is rendered I am well if you are well (pp. 45, 107), a rather strange sounding salutation. The Chichewa words for the greeting Muli bwanji? are misspelled throughout the entire story as Muli bwanje? (how are you), as is the response Tili bwino kaya inu (fine, and you?), with the kaya spelt as kaia. Rather than use the words mother or father, the author opts to use the Chichewa words amai and atate throughout. As a story written largely in English, this creates an awkward-sounding pattern, which fails to capture the actual way Chichewa speakers use those words.

One of the aunts participating in the discussion on what to do with the orphaned Sam speaks with a lisp. Chichewa differs from English in both vocabulary and morpheme formation, and the lisped English words, such as expenthive for expensive, or Thchool for School, create a jarring sequence that sounds as misplaced as it is difficult to decipher (p. 6). Translated into a Chichewa context, those words do not carry sounds that would exactly cause a lisp. Angry at being forced to leave the city and go to the village, Sam shouts I hate you to Aunt Mercy. A Chichewa speaker would be hard placed to find a direct translation of that expression in Chichewa, which has a different register for shouting or swearing. Any of these problems could have easily been identified and corrected by a Chichewa speaker had the manuscript undergone a context verification process.

It becomes obvious as the story progresses that Sam's mother knew she was dying, yet as loving and caring of her only child as she was, she appears to have made no arrangements whatsoever for her son's well-being after her death. Taken collectively, some of these issues maybe an effect of the choice by the author to present the story through the eyes of the orphaned child, but it may also point to a general challenge faced by a European author writing a novel based in Malawi without much of a background on Malawian or African ways of life. These are problems faced by other writers in similar contexts, such as Deborah Ellis's The Heaven Shop (2004), a story also featuring an AIDS orphan as the central character, also set in Malawi. It is not unusual for Westerners to spend a few weeks in an African country, and begin to consider themselves experts on aspects of African society.

What makes City Boy worth reading and worth recommending to teachers and students is the epiphany that occurs to Sam at the end. With many children being orphaned around the world, and particularly in Southern Africa, the ending for this story presents a different way of looking at orphan-hood. It also affirms the lasting bond of family, a fabric that has faced major tensions on the African cultural landscape, where the ideals of uMunthu once provided a safety net and banished the concept of an orphan to the confines of extreme cases where not even extended family were available to take in a helpless child.

Copyright 2010 Africa Access

Rating: R Grade: M / H Type: Book

Reviewed by: Steve Sharra , Michigan State University)

Subject: Southern Africa / Fiction / Africa / Malawi / AIDS