DJIBOUTI (*)

Abdourahman Waberi — The United States of Africa (2005)

Setting: An alternative reality where “The United States of Africa” is a wealthy powerful bloc of nations turning its back on European refugees fleeing failed states are hunted and abused when they arrive on the shores of Libya and Ghana. A world where the World Bank is based in Asmara, with a McDioprestaurant chain, with streets named after Patrice Lumumba and Toussaint-Louverture.

And where the rich states show a familiar hyocritical amnesia to their past sins, especially in the ports of North-East Africa made rich by a different slave trade:

“Once bathed in the blood and sweat of hardened workers from the West like the Batavian vegetable seller, the Icelandic fisherman, the Basque fishmonger…”

What it’s about: The story revolves around a girl from impoverished Normandy adopted and raised by wealthy African parents and her quest for identity. She becomes an artist and helps other European refugees.

It is an original and throught-provoking concept that turns the way the West treats refugees on its head, but the idea loses steam as the book progresses, as the central plot doesn’t really go anywhere, apart from a brief stint at the end where the girl finds her birth mother in war-torn Paris. Too few interesting characters flit by without development, from the Swiss refugee in Banjul to the photographer who abandons the warzones of the Balkans for the fashion scene in Tipaza. Also, does the reverse of continental fortunes have to imply a reverse of cruelty, do European refugees have to have hassled and hunted on African shores? It would have been interesting to explore whether a role-reversal could have seen more humanity.

There is a powerful message at the end, a plea for the World Bank from its headquarters in Asmara to add a tiny sliver to its aid budget to provide developing nations with translations not just of the Bible, but great works of world literature:

“If people learn to identity with personas from beyond their borders, it will certainly be a first step towards peace.”

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