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Nadifa Mohamed: Black Mamba Boy

Somalia has not had a happy history in recent years, at least since the European colonisers started the Scramble for Africa. This novel deals with one of the many unpleasant previous periods, the late 1930s and 1940s, when Somalia (or British Somaliland as it then was) was occupied by the British and Italian Somaliland occupied by the Italians, who, for a while, also occupied British Somaliland. This is the a story of Jama, his story obviously based on the story of Nadifa Mohamed’s grandfather, who was also called Jama Mohamed and, as she tells us, had a series of adventures, some of which he exaggerated.

Jama’s parents were not meant to marry and eloped, to their parents’ disgust. While Guure was an attractive man, he was not a reliable husband and provider as Ambaro, his new wife, found out. She worked while he did not. He seemed to improve when his daughter was born but when the girl died, things got worse. He finally agreed with Ambaro that he would go off to Sudan where there was a possibility of work but he seemed to disappear. Ambaro then set off to Aden, with Jama, to find work. She found hard, badly paid work in a coffee factory but it meant working twelve hours a day. The Islaweynes, distant relatives, with whom they were staying did not make them welcome. Jama, still only six when they arrived, spent the day roaming the streets, getting up to mischief but also learning languages. He made friends with two other boys and they roamed the streets together, stole and misbehaved. When his mother had a row with the Islaweynes, he left and lived on the streets with the boys, Abdi and Shidane. When had a row with Abdi and Shidane, he returned to his mother, only to find her very ill. She died soon afterwards. There was nothing to keep him Aden. He returned to Hargeisa but there was nothing there for him either, though he was looked after by his relatives. One day, he decided that he was going to find his father in Sudan, having no idea how to get there nor how far it was, and so he set out for Sudan.

Much of the novel is about his journey to Sudan and then what happens afterwards. The Italians have occupied Eritrea and are fighting in Abyssinia. Some Somalis welcome this as do some Eritreans. Some do not. Jama’s journey is difficult – he is still a boy – as it is very hot and very dirty and food is hard to come by but Mohamed gives a wonderful account of his epic journey. Things do not turn as well as he had hoped and he is left to fend for himself in Eritrea, where fierce fighting is going on as the British try to drive the Italians out. Jama gets caught up in this and, while one Italian officer, Lorenzo, treats him well, another, who replaces Lorenzo when he is killed by resistance fighters, who is called Silvio (is it coincidence that he shares a name with Berlusconi?) is brutal and cruel towards Jama and all Africans. Jama eventually runs away. But he is eventually drafted into the Italian army, with Abdi and Shidane, who have reappeared. He is nearly killed but just manages to survive.

After the war his entrepreneurial skills, learned on the streets of Aden, come to the fore, and he manages to make a living selling food but that does not work, either. Once again, he is off on his travels – to Palestine, to Egypt and even to England. As it is based on the story of Nadifa Mohamed’s father, we know that he will end up back in Somalia and end up having a child. She does tell an excellent story, full of action, but also full of the many troubles Jama faces while, at the same time, showing that there are Somalis all over the world and all are prepared to look out for one another.

Publishing history

First published 2010 by HarperCollins