I wasn’t planning on counting Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa Mohamed as my Somalia book. After all, most of the book is set in other countries- Yemen, Eritrea, Egypt, the UK, and more. I just happened to come across a copy in a used book store after reading and admiring an excerpt by Mohamed in Granta magazine. As I read, I decided to count it after all.
I’d already read Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali and not counted it for the same reason of mostly being set outside of Somalia. So for one thing, my project of reading a book from every country is enough of a challenge, I don’t need to make it harder on myself than necessary! The other thing is that it actually says something about Somalia that many Somali books involve travel outside of the country. There’s been huge amounts of emigration thanks to the civil wars there. Plus the Somalis are traditionally nomadic and seafaring people.
Black Mamba Boy takes place in the WWII era, well before the strife that most of us in the U.S. associate with Somalia. It tells the story of Jama, Black Mamba Boy, as he struggles to find a place to thrive and to find his absent father. First he’s living on the streets of Aden in Yemen, then with his grandmother in Somalia. Then he sets out to find his father and has a series of unlikely adventures in Eritrea and Egypt. And Sudan. And Ethiopia. And Egypt some more. And Israel/Palestine. And England.
I felt like the book was just one crazy, unlikely event after another, without ever really getting to understand the main character. It made a bit more sense when I learned after finishing the book that it is a fictionalized version of the life of the author’s father. I could easily picture the exaggerated tales of a father remembering his eventful youth coming together to turn into this book. Maybe if I had known that to start with, I would have appreciated the book more. Since I liked Mohamed’s writing in Granta, I’m also guessing I would like her second novel, which isn’t trying to to be semi-biographical, better.