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December 17, 2018

Book Review: The misadventures of an African orphan


From Congo-Brazzaville is a story of orphans and street children in the book Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou. Moses is a 13-year-old boy with an impossibly long Lingala name that means “Thanks be to God, the black Moses is born on the earth of our ancestors”. He was abandoned in an orphanage as a baby and named by a priest, Papa Moupelo, who entertains the youngsters with stories and dances.

Contrary to national ideals of social equality and development, the poorhouse is rife with deceitfulness under the reign of a corrupt director. When Marxist-Leninist socialism sweeps across the country, the political upheavals start affecting the orphanage. Papa Moupelo vanishes, as does Sabine Niangui, the school nurse who was a mother-like figure. 

As orphanage life becomes unbearable, Moses decides to run away, leaving behind his best friend, Bonaventure. In the seaside town of Pointe Noire, he joins a gang of street urchins and encounters an even tougher life of violence, drugs and petty theft.

Yet Moses can never shake off the desire to have a family. For a time, he finds a home in a local brothel run by a Zairean woman, who gets him a job at the seaport.

Moses tries to be brave like his hero, Robin Hood, by defending his friends, standing up to bullies and finding the good in others. But his life seems to be a series of unfortunate events. The death of the brothel-keeper sends him into severe depression and years of wandering the streets like a madman. He ends up in an asylum for mentally unstable criminals situated, ironically, where the orphanage used to stand. It is here that he proceeds to pen his life story. 

Taking place from the 1970s to the 1990s, Black Moses is translated from French and was originally called Little Pepper. It came about when French citizen Mabanckou had the opportunity to interact with street children in his home country of Congo and learn their stories.

The never-ending calamities makes the story sometimes frustrating as you are constantly hoping that life will favour Moses. It is a reminder that not all situations have a happy ending. At times the dialogue is too drawn-out, which slows down the storyline. Yet Mabanckou balances tragedy with a unique style of storytelling, plenty of comic scenes and an assembly of quirky characters with curious names such as Crumbly Biscuit and Instant Decapsulation.

This is an unflinching narrative of coming-of-age, loneliness, friendship and the effect of tribal affiliations as told by a marginalised boy. The first half of the book recalls Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. As historical review, we get an understanding of central Africa’s dictatorship and political turmoil as experienced by the most powerless in the society.

Black Moses was long-listed for the 2017 Man Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Albertine Prize 2018 for Francophone fiction translated into English.


Rating: 4/5

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