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
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
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.'