Yellowbone, Ekow Duker | A Review by Beverley Jane Cornelius

Two strangers from Mthatha (South Africa) cross paths in London when they become embroiled in a well-to-do family’s argument about an antique violin (a 300-year old family heirloom). Consequently, when the violin is stolen, both South Africans travel to Nsawam (Ghana) – one returning to an ancestral home, the other hoping for a sublime musical experience – where each is compelled to confront personal crises; while the fate of the violin affects the fate of all concerned.

Yellowbone (2019) is the story of those two strangers, Karabo Bentil and André Potgieter, as they endeavour to find a sense of belonging in the world. It is a novel in three parts: each part named after the city in which the action takes place as the narrative follows its protagonists from Mthatha in South Africa, to London in England, and then on to Nsawam in Ghana.

Neither Karabo nor André have ever experienced a sense of being ‘at home’ either in a body, in a family circle or community, or in their country of birth. Through these two characters – a light-skinned girl with questionable parentage, and an eccentric, gay musician who ‘sees things’ – and within the multiple contexts of South Africa, England, and Ghana in the 21st century, the novel explores what it means to be different, or to be ‘in-between’. André Potgieter is estranged from his English father and must escape his Afrikaner mother’s cloying protectiveness so that he can confront that which makes him special and unique: not only his musical talent, but his synaesthesia, too. (The psychological term ‘synaesthesia’ refers to the phenomenon of a secondary sensory experience that occurs in addition to the sense being stimulated. For example, the experience of words and letters having colours. In this fictional character’s case, hearing exquisite music enables him to ‘see’ angels.) Karabo Bentil, brought up in South Africa by her fiercely protective mother, feels a longing to go ‘home’ to Ghana, her father’s place of origin. Ultimately, although their juxtaposed (and increasingly entangled) journeys become ever-more chaotic, they each arrive at a moment of clarity, which provides a point of departure to their respective futures.

These are weighty issues. However, the novel does not take a heavy-handed approach, nor does it become bogged down in its subject matter. With its quick pacing and use of satire, the novel entertains first, and enlightens second. Ekow Duker’s Yellowbone has a delicate balance: a book with profound and timely themes presented in the entertaining form of a rollicking crime-thriller, adventure-story, and quest narrative. The plot constantly prompts the reader to ask ‘what next?’, while simultaneously initiating serious thought about identity, gender roles, education, and im/migration. Identity is explored in terms of physical appearance, family lineage, cultural heritage, and nationality. Women characters challenge restricting gender roles, and the ever-present threat of sexual abuse. The role of education and the effects that knowledge have on an individual’s self-esteem and prospects is questioned; while the African migrant experience, within the continent and in Europe, is foregrounded.

The three parts of the book – Mthatha, London, Nsawam – are presented as instalments, each with a distinct tone that reflects the gradual emancipation of the protagonists:

We first encounter Karabo and André in Mthatha, although the two characters do not know each other at this stage (they meet for the first time in London much later in the narrative). In this section, in chapters that focus alternately on Karabo and then on André in turn, the atmosphere for each of them is claustrophobic.

Karabo Bentil adores her father, Kojo, a mathematics teacher. She is the ‘yellowbone’ of the novel’s title, a term used to refer to her light complexion. Her appearance earns her either favour or disdain, but seldom indifference from local society. And Karabo’s skin-tone is all the more noteworthy because it is not only lighter than that of her mother, Precious, but is in sharp contrast to that of Kojo, her father.

For Karabo, herself, this contrast in skin colour is a curiosity only, especially when her Ghanaian grandparents come to visit and she marvels at her grandfather’s dark skin; but for others her appearance is a matter for suspicion. Although Karabo has a light-skinned mother, some suspect that a local white farmer is, in fact, her biological father, and not the dark-skinned Kojo. Kojo’s own mother exclaims, “ ‘Karabo is lighter than a mulatto. In fact she is practically white!’ ” (12); she doubts her son’s paternity: “ ‘There are tests, Kojo! You can settle this thing once and for all’ ” (14). The first time that Karabo hears the term ‘yellowbone’ directed at her is when she encounters a group of teenaged boys as she accompanies her mother on a visit to a shaman/mystic. When she rebuffs one boy’s advances, he verbally attacks Karabo, spitting the word at her face. She notices the ambiguity in his reaction to her appearance, however: “[he] was no different to most black men she met. They grovelled at her light complexion, marked her down for a plaything, an exotic prize. […] But now [his] fascination had curdled and turned to revulsion. Or perhaps he was just as afraid of her as she was of him” (53).

André Potgieter, too, has ambiguous pangs regarding his cultural identity. His mother is an Afrikaner, his father an Englishman; but he is estranged from his father, who cannot accept a gay man as his son, nor entertain André’s gift of synaesthesia and his sensory ability to see more than the average man. Furthermore, André’s mother denounces his English heritage: she “had a factory-set resentment towards the English. It was like she forgot her son was half-English” (37). André, despite (or, perhaps, because of) this double-rejection of his English-ness, feels compelled to go to England.

In London, both Karabo and André experience a surprising sense of longing for the place they each felt compelled to leave – Mthatha – and, with the double perspective of the im/migrant, they see their former home through fresh eyes and acquire a heightened sense of their own identity.

Karabo, who is in London to study architecture on a scholarship, falls in love with a well-to-do young, Englishman, Nigel Summerscales (who, it later transpires, is one of André Potgieter’s music students). When Nigel initially takes her home to meet his mother, Karabo senses that Mrs Summerscales “merely tolerate[s] her” (167). Here, the novel satirically depicts a bigoted and privileged ‘old-money’ family (the Summerscales) falling on hard times but desperate to keep up ‘appearances’. Later, Karabo is shocked by the woman’s “red-toothed hostility”, realising that the “snide remarks Mrs Summerscales had made the first day they’d met were signposts to much deeper wells of loathing” (167). Even worse, it becomes apparent, during an argument, that Nigel shares his mother’s ingrained prejudice, leaving Karabo “bewildered and exhausted, like a fish twitching feebly on the cold floor of his prejudice. Now all she wanted was to go home” (195). She subsequently flees to Ghana, a place she has always imagined as her true home.

André Potgieter is similarly demeaned by Mrs Summerscales. Approached to find a buyer for her valuable violin, André had seized the chance to play the precious Guadagnini. The ecstasy of the musical experience triggered his synaesthesia and a visitation by angels. Thus, when the violin is stolen and all the clues indicate that it has been taken to Ghana, André, in his desperation to once again experience such bliss, follows Mrs Summerscales’s imperious demands that he travels to Ghana to retrieve it: “Mr Potgieter [André] is an African. He’ll find his way around […]” (205).

And, in Nsawam, he does indeed ‘find his way around’. But not only does André find his way around the Ghanaian city, he additionally finds a sense of self previously elusive. His courage has been bolstered by his urgent need to retrieve and play the violin again, which aids his ability to navigate a corrupt and chaotic prison system. This success, in turn, brings fresh confidence to André. Furthermore, with his earlier dream denuded (the dream that England would be his ‘true home’), now having returned to the African continent, albeit to a different country, a new optimism gains traction for him and a pan-African sense of identity emerges.

Karabo’s earlier visions of home dissipate, too, when she arrives in Ghana. The reality of her father’s home in Ghana contrasts starkly with what she had anticipated so that she is forced to contemplate her identity without utopian flights of fancy. Despite the profound shifts of consciousness depicted in this section of the novel, though, the narrative tone here borders on the farcical: both André and Karabo, following a bizarre turn of events, clash with police and prison officials as they trail the violin, a catalyst in both their lives. The novel, having followed a chain of events started in Mthatha, culminates gloriously at a Ghanaian prison where the country’s president, together with the entire prison population, witness André’s rapturous recital on the Guadagnini violin.

The violin provides the narrative link in Yellowbone: between André and Karabo and, later, between them and the prison chief and the entire audience at the prison recital. Initially, it is the violin as a physical object, a valuable cultural artefact, that is of common interest to the people in this story. Ultimately, though, it is the music that is created with the violin that provides a meaningful emotional and spiritual connection.

Mrs Summerscales’s impulse to hoard the valuable artefact as a commercial commodity is at odds with André Potgieter’s instinct to enjoy the beauty and pleasure that it enables. The return of André’s angels, as he plays at the prison concert, together with the embrace each audience member receives from their respective guardian angels (as Karabo witnesses in her moment of ecstasy), is a powerful – albeit whimsical – image of pure pleasure shared.

While the title of this novel, Yellowbone, hints at a focus on one character and at a core concern with an individual, inward-looking, and isolated gaze, that is a starting point only. Rather, Yellowbone is a fine example of South/African literature that opens its reach to look further afield for truth and meaning, before returning to a broadened African context for a sense of satisfaction and of renewed hope in the future.

Yellowbone (2019) is Ekow Duker’s fourth novel. Earlier titles are White Wahala (2014), Dying in New York (2014), and The God who Made Mistakes (2016).

Duker, Ekow (2019), Yellowbone. Cape Town: KWELA Books. 320pp., ISBN: 978-0-7957-0885-5
See his web page:

Beverley Jane Cornelius (PhD, English Studies, University of KwaZulu-Natal). Research focus: postcolonial literature, particularly South/African.

This book review was published in: Africa Book Link, Spring 2020

Of Paper Wives and Cowardly Existence: A Review of Chika Unigwe’s Better Never than Late | Elizabeth Olubukola Olaoye

A good writer can always imagine stories about a place she has never been to. However, for certain stories to get to the heart of the matter, the writer must know her setting and characters enough to understand their motives, to sympathetically portray their impulses, and to accurately capture their “raison d’être”. When such writers explore characters, they do so with an uncommon depth of insight that reveals desires buried beneath the surface of day to day existence. In this connection, Chika Unigwe is a writer who is no stranger to the plights of Nigerians in Europe. In her much-acclaimed novel, On Black Sisters Street, she reveals the complex and pathetic tales of Nigerian women in Belgium as they struggle to make ends meet by commodifying their bodies as prostitutes. As if extending the scope of her narrative beyond the ordeal of women of pleasure, Better Never than Late presents Nigerians of different backgrounds in Europe and how many of them remain trapped in condescending situations that ridicule their initial dreams of finding a greener pasture in Europe. She also features some stories set in Nigeria, showing some of the conditions and mindsets that plague women in Africa. Fragile masculinity, unfulfilled feminine desires, and nostalgia for home are some of the motifs explored in the stories that make up this collection.

Better Never than Late tells stories of Nigerians in Belgium.
The collection of stories – some of which are not entirely related – appears blunt, unpretentious but equally compassionate in its treatment of the Nigerian immigrant conditions in Belgium. It tears the veil of the utopic conception of Europe by many aspiring Nigerians as a place of extreme wealth and prosperity; a kind of “sugar Candy Mountain” where dreams come true. By describing several instances of dashed illusions, unexpected nostalgia, and almost suffocating loneliness, Unigwe shows that life in Europe is not always a bed of roses. It also reveals that life is complex, refusing dualities like black and white, good and bad, wise and stupid, rich and poor. Rather, the stories in this collection show an unexpected mix of competences, virtues and negative traits. Like the reversed common saying that is the title of this collection, the stories invite us to re-examine our definition of good, bad and ugly. The strength of many stories is in the drawing of virtues from historically forbidden places, in their positions that seem to echo the thought that to never have done something sometimes – in practice- holds more virtue than to have attempted them late.

In the first story, “The Transfiguration of Rapu”, Unigwe presents the existential drama of Nigerian men in psychological torment over paper-wives and real wives while trying desperately to become permanent residents in Europe. “Paper wives” are usually Belgian or other European citizens that these men marry to secure European citizenship. These are usually meant to be temporary arrangements, with the real wives always in the pipeline. The paper wives are however often ignorant of their true positions until it becomes too late to change the situation. In this particular story, Unigwe shows how the complexity of bringing in a Nigerian wife while trying to find the best moment to break the heart of the Belgian wife often backfires. Rapu, who is the real wife, in this case, cannot live freely with her husband until he has divorced his Belgian paper- wife and paid off Shylock, who helped in bringing Rapu from Nigeria. Rapu must live with Shylock and wait patiently for her husband to find a perfect timing to divorce his paper wife. But what Unigwe does in this story is to show the complexity of these arrangements: paper wives do not easily let go and staying married to a woman strictly for papers is almost impossible. Staying under the same roof, having a baby together, going on trips together can breed unexpected emotions which Nigerian men do not always want to own up to. In this particular story we see Hilde, the paper wife, becoming more than an arrangement in Gwachi’s life. While Gwachi, Rapu’s husband criticizes Hilde’s European lifestyle among his Nigerian friends, he secretly enjoys doing things with Hilde. When he finally announces his impending divorce to Hilde, Rapu, his Nigerian wife also finds love in someone else and seems to have moved on. In this story Unigwe shows how the idea that some women are paper-wives does not always work. And a woman like Rapu cannot always be counted on to wait patiently until her husband pays off the debt of her travel or for him to divorce his paper wife. Rapu gets transfigured from being the shy, jealous, and confused woman who arrives in Belgium to wait for her husband to divorce his paper wife to an independent, fun-loving wife of another man.

The second story in the collection also explores the tension between the Belgian and the Nigerian conception of life. This tension is revealed by interracial marriage. Oge is married to Gunter and their relationship, though seemingly hitch-free at first, reveals the complexity of interracial relationships. While Oge, who is Nigerian, believes that a child needs to be born before he is given a name, Gunter names their son, Jordi, while he is yet to be born. When Jordi dies, Oge is shocked to learn that her son will be cremated. Comparing this to the Nigerian custom of burying the dead, she sees the funeral as cruelty to her dead son. Instead of crying, Gunter’s Belgian relatives smile, eat and exchange pleasantries. This infuriates Oge who cannot fully accept this aspect of the Belgian culture. Despite the love that Gunter and Oge share, their cultural difference stands between them like a gulf. Unable to recover from the grief of her son’s death, Oge becomes nostalgic for her home in Africa. She can face her reality, her husband and her future only after she has made a trip back to her hometown in Nigeria. This story emphasizes how home- represented by Nigeria – with all its attendant contradictions, remains a place of healing for characters who got psychologically wounded in Europe.

In some of the stories in this collection, certain characters are featured in two or more stories simultaneously. One such character is Prosperous. The apartment that she shares with her husband is a meeting point for Nigerians who come there to eat Nigerian food, share Nigerian jokes and generally remember home. It is here that we first encounter Gwachi and Rapu of the first story. In the third story, titled “Becoming Prosperous”, Unigwe plays with the implication of this character’s name and what it means to be prosperous in Belgium. This particular story illustrates the degree of condescending that Africans have to subject themselves to, to survive in Belgium. Not only does their new position as a Black in Europe alter their possibilities, but it also alters their ideas of love and relationship. Comparing her relationship with her husband back in Nigeria to their present relationship, Prosperous discovers that survival instinct has pushed their love life to the lowest point. Not only are they unable to use their Nigerian–earned qualifications in Belgium, but the language barrier also forces them to take jobs that are beneath them:

Prosperous laughs when she recounts—as she often does to her friends—the heady expectations of their early days. I thought they’d take one look at our degrees and offer us jobs on the spot. Company cars, a company house with a massive lawn, a butler and a chef. Agu never talks of those days. It is as if the weight of remembering is too much for him to bear, but Prosperous doesn’t want to forget. Remembering keeps her on her toes. (32)

Europe, in this story and many other stories in the collection, is thus seen as a place of disillusionment. However, Unigwe also shows that characters often have a choice. Prosperous realizes that she can reject the menial job she has as a cleaner by taking Flemish lessons. That paves the way for her to become a teacher. Rather than waiting helplessly for her situation to change, she rises to the occasion and begins to take Flemish lessons, on her way to becoming prosperous.

Rapu, like several women in the narratives, is presented as someone who realizes her errors of judgment, and then uses the information available to her to rise from both patriarchal oppression and diasporic and racial specific conflicts. These women seem to arrive at their moments of epiphany when they realize they have to take their destinies into their hands. Similarly, Ego, in the story titled “Cleared for Takeoff” realizes that life in Belgium would always put her in disadvantaged employment and decides to move to London against her husband’s wish. In the same vein, after being raped in a bus by a bunch of Belgian youths in the story titled “How to Survive a Heat Wave”, Anuli finds the courage to narrate her ordeal to Prosperous and Oge, her Nigerian friends, realizing that she must be able to face this part of her reality to make peace with her future:

Añuli opens her mouth and the words that could not come out before begin to spill out, spreading out in the room, mingling with her pool of tears, releasing the clamp in her chest, relieving her of that unholy trifecta. (105)

Life in Europe is far from a bed of roses! This is Unigwe’s recurrent thematic preoccupation in many of these stories. Like On Black Sister’s Street, which shows the dilemma and the disillusionment of African ladies forced into prostitution in Belgium, this collection shows several levels of indignity that life in Europe forces Africans into. This is despite the promised glamour. Ego’s husband, who after a major injury can no longer play football and has to work in a factory, gets to his moment of epiphany after divorcing his wife. His four-year-old daughter tells him something that brings him to his senses:

’When I grow up, I’m going to be a teacher, Papa,’ Bola told me as I walked her to school. ‘But first, I have to be white, right?’ (89)

As he analyzes his daughter’s assertion, he realizes that there are no great black role models in the town he lives in for his daughter to look up to, as everyone who does respectable jobs is white. At that moment, he realizes that his life is not something his child can aspire to. Determined to correct this negative impression, he decides to give up the custody of his daughter, concluding that the mother would be a better role model. Other characters in these stories also come to these moments when they realize the missing link in their thinking on either their stay in Europe or their relationships with people in Antwerp. For instance, in “Heart is where the home is”, the protagonist’s mother laments her loneliness in Belgium where she feels isolated:

‘This is what it must feel like to be dumb. To hear and not understand. To speak and not be understood.’ (123)

It is not only the inability to communicate with people that isolates this woman, but it is also equally her daughter’s lack of friends and her inability to bond with other Nigerians. This creates a sense of hopelessness in the mother who has to be booked on a flight back to Nigeria. This happens after her daughter finds her on the floor, weeping for no particular reason. This story particularly shows the height of psychological alienation and loneliness that some Africans feel in Europe and other African diasporas. One is then plagued by the question: if life is like this in Europe, why do Africans keep trying? Some of the stories in the collection give a backdrop of life in Nigeria and portray the injustice and psychological dilemma that make people decide to leave. Many of the characters have parents who look up to them as family messiahs that will save them from the harsh reality in Nigeria where backward mindsets continue to keep people in oppressive situations. They also have the same setting in Belgium. The common element in all the stories in this collection is the candid presentation of the plight of Nigerians, both at home and abroad, who all build their hopes on countries or societies that turn out to be oppressive structures that reduce them to shadows of who they are.

Overall, these stories are beautifully crafted, showing aspects of diasporic experience that threaten not only the female character but also the masculine ego and make people take offers that are beneath their self. Like On Black Sister’s Street, this collection continues to question the logic of departing Nigeria without a clear plan on how to succeed in Europe. Unigwe’s present narrative is a great follow up on the effects of being severed from one’s roots and the psychological implication of such severance. The language is eloquent and pithy, giving short episodes of characters in their most epiphanic moments. Unigwe also adopts the conversational style where characters are revealed through dialogue as well as through internal monologues. Nigerian pidgin, which is also a marker of Nigerian communities both at home and in the Diaspora, features in this narrative giving it a unique Nigerian flavor. White people are consistently referred to as ‘Oyibo’ in this text. Characters also throw in Igbo words in between English to get to the heart of the matter in their conversations. For instance, Godwin and Agu discuss in “Cunny Man Die, Cunny Man Bury Am” about Godwin’s newly found paper wife:

‘Love nwanti nti,’ Agu teased. ‘No wound me with your
love ooo!’

Godwin snorted and said in Igbo, ‘Nwoke ma-ife o naeme.’
A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. (76)

This mix of English, Pidgin and Igbo reflects the hybrid nature of the Nigerian community in Belgium. Living within several types of consciousness, their language reflects their reality. In addition to Nigerian food and worldview, this language use is one major marker of the Nigerian identity in this collection. One story in particular is using a Nigerian pidgin expression in its title: “Cunny Man Die, Cunny Man Bury Am.” This title is significant in revealing that being cunny is not a trait that is peculiar to Nigerians. We see this as the fat paper wife overturns the table and beats Godwin in his game of deception. Godwin assumes that Tine, the fat Belgian girl is unaware of her position as a “paper wife.” However, while conversing with Prosperous, Tine reveals her awareness of Godwin’s intention:

‘I wanted a wedding. Ever since I was little. And I got my dream. I got him to spend a lot of money! ‘All those euros on a wedding, and one day when I get tired, when I stop liking him even a little… because I will one day…‘I will because my heart can only take so much, no?… When that day comes, I’ll tell him it’s over.’ She cleared her throat, shut her eyes and when she opened them, stars were dancing in them again. ‘When the time comes, whether he has his papers or not, I’ll tell him it’s over….‘I have a feeling that that day is soon. Very, very soon. There won’t be time for him to have those papers!’ (87-88)

This story questions the wisdom of male swindlers and challenges the opinion that white women fall foolishly in love. Apart from rebuffing the claim of white women’s stupidity, the story equally draws attention to the cunny nature of some white persons, especially women who are often portrayed as gullible in Nigerian circles. Unlike some of the women in the earlier novel, the women here are given more agency to make changes by confronting their pasts and facing their future with boldness. The writer seems to be saying, the harm has been done but where characters, especially women, chose to go from their epiphanic moments is solely their responsibility. Whether it is the error of assuming Ijeoma is a witch in the story entitled “Better Never than Late” or the assumption that Belgian women can be used and dumped after securing Belgian citizenship in the story entitled “Cunny Man Die, Cunny Man Bury Am”, characters must realize the limitations of their earlier assumptions and forge ahead in complex situations. Humorous and thoughtful, this collection is a brilliant addition to the corpus of narratives of the Nigerian diaspora. Like Ngozi Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah, it raises issues of Africaness and survival in the West, and how these complicate the female experience both for black and white women.

Unigwe, Chika (2019), Better Never than Late. Abuja/London: Cassava Republic, 144pp., ISBN 9781911115540

This book review was published in: Africa Book Link, Spring 2020


Suspense in Southern Africa: Mukuka Chipanta’s Five Nights Before the Summit | A Review by Gilbert Braspenning

Although typified in some blurbs as crime fiction, Mukuka Chipanta’s second novel is so much more than that: it is also a well-crafted historical novel.

Detective Maxwell Chanda, head of the Special Crimes Investigation Unit, is tasked with the investigation of the brutal murders of Laura and Henry Hinckley, a white British couple living on a farm just outside Lusaka.

Maxwell, or Max, is under great pressure from his superiors to solve the case within five days, as at that moment the Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit is due to take place in Zambia. This summit is headed by Queen Elizabeth herself and British Intelligence is putting high pressure on the Zambian authorities to clear up the case before the queen arrives. The British authorities even threaten to cancel the queen’s visit if the murder case is not solved within five days. And this would not only be a shame for Zambia and president Kaunda, but would also thoroughly harm the relations between Great Britain and Zambia.

But, as it turns out, the reason for British Intelligence to urge for a quick roundup of the culprits is twofold: on the one hand they don’t want the murder case to loom around – in the press- during the impending Queen’s visit; but on the other hand they don’t want the real truth around the Hinckley murders to come out; as soon as detective Chanda discovers that there’s a white hand involved in the murders, he is forced – via his superior Chief Mbewe, but indirectly by M16 – to close the case. For British Intelligence, however, the case is closed as soon as some black culprits have been arrested.

Nevertheless, for the reader – and detective Chanda alike – the case is not closed at all; at the end of the novel you are left with a huge feeling of injustice; injustice because, as with many cold cases where politics is involved, it is only the petty criminals that are convicted whereas the real perpetrators get off scot-free. Mukuka Chipanta leaves the reader regretting that the story has ended, but in the meantime with hope that justice will be done in his next book. As reader, you hope for a quick sequel to Five Nights Before the Summit. The suspense is actually suspended until Chipanta’s next novel.

Just as in a good crime novel, the suspense builds up very well. Apart from the rich narrative, this suspense is for a major part the result of the rather short consecutive chapters, each one embodying a perspective shift at the right moment. Also flash back is a proven means to, temporarily, ease the suspense at the right moment. In Chipanta’s new novel this technique is often used to describe the personal history of his characters. There are, for example, extensive flash backs on the cot death of Maxwell Chanda’s daughter, Lindiwe, and its consequences for Max’s relationship with his wife Mavis, on Laura and Henry Hinckley’s life, and on the years Paul Mutamina and Amos Mushili – two of the criminals that attacked the Hinckley Farm – spent together in prison.
Apart from the fact that these flash backs ensure a necessary ease of suspense, they provide an intense character portrayal of the protagonists. This intensity makes the novel, and its characters, roam around in your head, long after you’ve finished reading it.

Apart from being a mind-gripping and fast-paced crime novel, Five Nights Before the Summit is a thorough portrayal of an independent postcolonial nation in which the former colonizer still has a determining grip on politics, society and economy. It is the story of a proud independent Zambia, but machinated and infiltrated by the British in all sectors of economy, particularly in the mining industry.

Whereas the infiltration of the Chinese in the copper mine business provides a central theme in A Casualty of Power – Chipanta’s first novel – it is the interference of the British (and British Intelligence) with the gemstone business that plays a major role in his second novel; As with A Casualty of Power, Five Nights Before the Summit could be read as an ultimate cry for justice in Zambia.

Another similarity among the two novels is that the borderline between reality and fiction is blurred: the storyline in both novels follows historical developments in Zambia, shows events that really took place, and portrays historical figures. Regarding Five Nights Before the Summit for example, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit really took place in Lusaka in 1979, graced by Queen Elizabeth and chaired by Kenneth Kaunda, and some characters, like Rab Butler, a British politician and Henry Hinckley’s uncle, really did exist.

As the reader, you wonder all the time what’s real, and what’s fiction. And this in turn provides another kind of suspense: it triggers your curiosity about the past and present political and social situation in Zambia; did some farm murders really take place just before the 1979 summit? Was the political and judiciary Zambian system indeed so corrupt as described in Chipanta’s novel? And how did the situation develop afterwards in Zambia and in postcolonial Africa? Is the system, in one way or another, still infiltrated by British Intelligence? After finishing Five Nights Before the Summit I caught myself – like a true detective – looking for clues on the internet. For example, the end of the plot seems to be suspended to a next novel, real insight in the actual political situation is likewise suspended. Reading Five Nights Before the Summit is like having a good aperitif; it satisfies your hunger temporarily but leaves you longing for the main dish even more. If this is what a good historical novel has to induce, than Mukuka Chipanta has written one.

In a broader sense, as in many great African novels from the seventies and eighties, this work addresses the shortcomings of a young nation state: decay, a poor population, corruption, and a weak police and judicial system.

Apart from being a deftly crafted detective story Mukuka Chipanta’s second book is an historical novel at its best. There is no better typification of the novel than that of the publisher on the back cover: ‘Five Nights Before the Summit offers a rich tapestry of context and character in a story that engages the reader in the pursuit of justice.’.

Chipanta, Mukuka (2019), Five Nights Before the Summit. Harare: Weaver Press, 206p., ISBN 9781779223616

Gilbert Braspenning (Editor Africa Book Link)

This book review was published in: Africa Book link, Spring 2020