Strange Love

William Boyd

In an African country, an Englishman – a senior consultant engineer for an oil company – checks into the best hotel in the capital city. The next morning, eating his breakfast by candlelight (the electricity has failed), he is disturbed by a steady drip of water onto the table in front of him. An inquiry soon establishes that this is an overflow from malfunctioning lavatories on the floor above – quite a regular occurrence. At his request, the oil company moves him to the city’s second-best hotel, but this, he discovers, is full of prostitutes plying their trade among the businessmen and foreign officials who stay there. The Englishman finds the relentless soliciting uncongenial and wearing, and asks his employers to put him up in a house. This they duly do: he shares a pleasant house in a suburb with a colleague; the oil company lays on a car and driver to transport them the few miles to the city-centre office each day.

The one problem is that the city’s traffic is so chaotic that this brief journey can take them up to four hours, a fair proportion of this time being spent locked immobile in a boiling honking jam. One morning, as they sit in just such a halted stream of cars, a gun is thrust through the rear window and a thief demands their wallets and their watches, which the two startled Englishmen hastily deliver up. The thief saunters off through the loud cars entirely confident there will be no pursuit. A few days later, again while on their journey into the city, their car hits and runs over a pedestrian, killing him. An angry crowd gathers. The two Englishmen are hauled out of the back seat and are manhandled and abused. Curiously, the driver is unmolested. To the Englishmen’s relief, the police arrive with uncharacteristic promptness, but, instead of releasing them from the clutches of the mob and escorting them to safety, arrest them for manslaughter. Protests that they were in fact not driving the car are unavailing and they are put in gaol where they spend two uncomfortable nights. Bail is set and paid by the oil company. On their release pending trial, the two men are taken to an airfield where an oil company plane secretly flies them to a neighbouring country, and from there they journey back to Britain and safety.

This is the sort of morose traveller’s tale that increasingly comes out of contemporary Africa these days. Indeed, to the timid European much of the continent must seem as dark and threatening a place as it did in the middle of the 19th century. But your reaction to this (true) story – outrage, resignation, a smile, world-weary nostalgia, smugness? – is probably a fair indication of your attitude to the various states of affairs currently preoccupying and bedevilling the unhappy place. However, after reading David Lamb’s The Africans these responses should be leavened with another one – despair. For this comprehensive and valuable survey of the status quo in sub-Saharan Africa is such a depressing catalogue of human iniquity that the reader experiences the same sense of foreboding as that of, say, some prescient European at the outset of the Hundred Years War.

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