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A review of the new book by Tony D'Souza

New Statesman , 17th July 2006

A young, idealistic American aid worker is sent to Africa to establish clean water supplies in a remote village. There follow any number of cross-cultural misunderstandings, encounters with beautiful women, and observations on the Otherness of rural African culture. The writer is a 30-year old American who has based this, his first novel, on his own experiences of working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cote d'Ivoire .

Sounds terrible, doesn't it? Sounds just the sort of sub-Alex Garland student holiday reading that our bookshops could really do without any more of. Fortunately, Whiteman manages to transcend the marketing box that I fear it may end up being consigned to. Tony D'Souza has transmuted his experiences in the remote rural communities of Cote D'Ivoire into a serious novel that will stay with you, written by someone who knows what a novel is for.

Jack Diaz is a young aid worker, dispatched to a forest village in the Muslim north of war-torn Cote d'Ivoire to install a clean water system. Unfortunately, his time there coincides with the aftermath of 9/11, and US aid money dries up, diverted into the War on Terror. Diaz – renamed Diomande Adama by his Worodougou community – is left in the village, twiddling his thumbs, and coming to terms with who and where he is.

How to write of a Whiteman's immersion in a traditional rural culture without dragging up familiar cliches and treading on long-worn ground? Plenty of writers would not be able to surmount this hurdle, but D'Souza manages it, sometimes with distinction. As Adama learns to till the fields, negotiate local customs, make friends and avoid enemies, we are carried along with him. The book rings with the genuine speech patterns of a West African village: nature-based allusions that would sound corny if the author had invented them, but ring true because he clearly hasn't.

Crucially, the characters come to life: Mamadou, his young, close friend. Chauffeur, the village witch doctor. Djamilla, his almost-accidental wife, who he first seduces and then abandons. And when war, as it was always bound to, forces Adama to leave his new home and become Jack again as he flees back to the USA, the reader feels the loss almost as sharply as he does.

And all through the book runs one story: the Otherness of the Whiteman. Several times Adama seems to settle in to his new life, believing he understands it, is part of it – only for some event or person to shake him back to reality. Every well-meaning, liberal Whiteman who has ever worked in the 'Third World' will shift uncomfortably as D'Souza reminds them of the untouchable, unrecognisable, envied, resented elite that, however hard they try, they will always be a part of.

As the book gathers pace, so does the rush to war. Adama sees the old generation of village chiefs, forced to fight for the Europeans in the Second World War, dying off, their well-learned reluctance to fight replaced by the bloodlust of young men, brought up with a Christian/Muslim divide fomented by cynical politicians.

As his time in the village comes to an end Adama, on a whim, buys dozens of pots of paint from the nearest town and sets about painting the doors of the villagers in brilliant hues. For days they help him out, formulating their own designs. Then the village chief dies. His replacement is the champion of those in the village who are eager for war between the Christian government and Muslim rebels. As they celebrate the election they pull out AK47s and bring them to the party.

'Long into the night, the young men handled the weapons,' writes D'Souza, 'laughing, passing them around, the firelight colouring their eager faces. All around them in the night, the doors of the village were painted in many and beautiful hues. They didn't notice this anymore, though they had been the ones who'd painted them.'

As a metaphor, and not just for the state of Cote D'Ivoire , it is powerful enough to need no elaboration. As Adama's friend Mamadou says, as they sit smoking one night in the moonlit village: 'All that was bad has risen up to take the place of the good. Now is not a time of sense. Now is not a time of men like we are.'