A Novel That Takes You to Africa

Niger River
Niger River, Photo By Ferdinand Reus

Destination: Niger

Book: Harmattan by Gavin Weston (NEW April 2012)

The title, Harmattan, refers to a dusty wind that blows in from the Sahara.  Gavin Weston defines the term in a frontispiece by saying “Probably from the Arabic haram, a forbidden or accursed thing.” The novel, a miraculous creation,  is dealing with a life that seems “accursed.”  I couldn’t get the taste of grit out of my mouth and nose when reading this book.

Niger, cattle herders in dust
Cattle are herded north in the crop growing season in Niger (photo credit: ILRI/Mann).

There are many things miraculous about Gavin Weston’s creation.  It is set in an African nation that only makes its way onto travel itineraries of the most adventurous foreigners, and yet Weston, a visual artist helps the reader clearly see Niger and its life. The hottest country in Africa, straddling the Sahara and spreading along the great Niger river, it is one of the poorest countries in the world.

Harmattan familiarizes you with Niger, but it does not make you comfortable with Niger.  In fact, the main character, a young girl called Haouna, takes the discomfort of her life for granted.  It’s the way life is.  While this attitude is partly due to the family’s devotion to Islamic religion, it also reflects an acceptance of reality.

Niger-getting water from the river
Getting water from the river

When we first meet the 8-year-old she lives with her mother, father, brother and younger sister in a village an hours’ walk from the river which is their only source of water. The women make that trek two or three times a day.  She goes to school only because she receives aid from a charity organization.  Her older brother, Abdel, is away in the army.  Her father squanders the money sent home by the brother on gambling and whores. AIDS is a prevalent problem, but many people believe as Haouna’s grandmother had,

…our people had lived and died in this way since the dawn of time. ‘Always working towards the next meal,’she would tut. ‘Working ourselves to death.’  AIDS, she believed, was nothing but a label that the anasaras [white foreigners] had given to illnesses that they themselves could neither understand nor cure.”  [It was caused by evil spirits from] “the Thin Places.’

Sushie, an American nurse working with an NGO, connects Haouna to a family in Ireland.  Twin girls her age send letters and gifts of pencils, a transistor radio, a wristwatch for her father (promptly pawned) and the most prized gift–the first pair of proper shoes she has ever owned. She marvels,

All my life, I had walked on my bare soles or in a pair of plastic sandals which had previously belonged to Adamou [her brother.]

The letters from the Irish family and her letters back reveal the impossible gap between people in developed cultures and village people in Niger. The writer handles the ignorance of the well-meaning outsiders admirably.  Everyone is treated with dignity and given the benefit of the doubt. Everyone, like Haouna, is just trying to do the best they can with what they know.

We see what Haouna admires, and begin to understand that things that would look downright strange to us can be treasures to someone with a different point of view.  Speaking of her dress-up pagne (wrapped dress), Haouna says proudly, “Mine, however, was a deep orange and cinnamon with a wonderfully drawn aeroplane design, repeated in rust red. “

Niger girl
Niger girl

The author presents a clue to the working of the intelligent Haouna’s mind, as she strives to understand things as foreign to her as dresses decorated with airplanes might be to us, and you might just resolve to adopt her flexibility of view. It may be a fantasy, but it is beautiful, anyway.

Richard had told me that the name of the aeroplane was Concorde and that such a machine carried rich westerners from one side of the world to the other in minutes.  I was sure he was teasing me, but still I loved the design.

Her mother lies ill in the hospital in the capital city of Niamey and Haouna’s father’s cousin Moussa, a slimy character, volunteers to take her to the city(where he lives) to see her army brother and her ill mother. The city assaults her senses, as it surely would ours if we traveled to Niger.

I trudged along behind Moussa, staying close to him and feeling a little frightened, for we were now surrounded by hordes of people, all making their way towards the market.  Hundreds of clay pots and dishes of all shapes and sizes lined the roadside.  A vendor wobbled by on a bicycle, a clutch of live chickens…dangling from his handlebars.  Another fellow ran alongside the bicycle, trying to keep up, on his head a tray with hunks of flayed meat laid out on brown paper.  

By contrast to the street scene, she visits an athletic club for ansaras:

On a shelf…sat a large silver basket of fat breads.  Behind the glass, displayed like one of the pictures in Mademoiselle Sushie’s fine magazines, an array of fruits and vegetables…some of which I had never seen before…Glass jars brimming with crystal clear water and little bricks of ice, stood on shelves in a chiller cabinet.

Not only is Weston showing us Niger as though he were Nigerien, he is writing from the view point of a young girl from a village.  In the four years of Haouna’s life, we see her lose her childhood and become wise far beyond her years. Weston presents the privileged reader with a world of want without making you want to cover your eyes and stuff your fingers in your ears. Because of the ever-present curiosity and acceptance of Haouna, we learn a lot about Niger and maybe even a little about how to live a good life.

Your turn. This book deserves reading AND discussion . I have mentioned before that I have never set foot on the continent of Africa, and am determined to learn more about the various regions and countries of that troubled continent.  Have you been to Africa? To Niger? I would like to hear from you. (And if you’d like to know more about the country and the process, take a look at this video. The Irish accent is very thick, but stick with it for some wonderful photos.)

Disclaimer: Links to Amazon provide you with a convenient way to shop. Although it costs you no more to shop through our links, you will be supporting A Traveler’s Library. Win-Win!

I feel so privileged to have found such wonderful photographs on Flickr.  These photographers allow their use through the Creative Commons license, and you can click on each photo to find out more.  The video is on the author’s website and on You Tube.  Myrmidon Books provided Harmattan for review.Another joy of this particular review came when I discovered the British publisher, who also provided the book by Tan Twan Eng that I will review on Friday.  

About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She writes frequently for Reel Life With Jane and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

5 thoughts on “A Novel That Takes You to Africa

      1. I’m so happy that it worked the way it is supposed to. Canadian and French based people are also supposed to be able to order at their respective Amazon sites. Yay!

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