In 2021 I’m trying to read more African writers. I formed the idea last year, and am actively on the lookout for African writers. Please note: this does not necessarily mean black writers. African is home to writers of the light skinned variants too. Our continent stretches over vast geographical and cultural distances, from the Arab world in the far North, moving South to the racial hodgepodge world of South Africa.
We all know our neighbourhood Congolese car guard. Apparently the Congolese have the car guarding sector all sewn up, in Cape Town. Much the same way that the Zimbabweans have cornered the waitron sector, and the Malawians the Petrol Jockey jobs.
Way back in 2019 in the happy days when we attended large public events, I listened to Remy Ngamije speak on a panel at the annual Open Book Festival, at the Fugard Theatre. He was introduced as a Namibian, but his heritage goes back to Rwanda. His family fled the country during the civil war.
He made an impression on me, and mentioned his novel in progress. I recall him being somewhat dismissive of life in Windhoek. I made a note to buy his novel, and here it is.
His novel is heavily autobiographical, as first novels so often are. Serafin is the narrator, oldest boy in a Rwandan refugee family of three boys, transplanted to Namibia and a different way of life in every regard. It’s a coming of age novel, that covers boyhood, then student life at varsity in Cape Town where Sera makes friends, composes interminable playlists, goes clubbing with diligence, and samples women with even more diligence.
Ngamije’s writing style offers a wry turn of phrase, often barbed and critical , but handled deftly. He has plenty to say about life in South Africa, racism, and the endemic corruption, plus the hardships of refugee status in both Namibia and RSA. Most of the opinion is very familiar, but its refreshing to read the familiar criticisms about South African life from an African writer.
The highlight of the book for me was his character, Maxime, the Congolese hairdresser in his Mowbray barbershop – an area I know well. Maxime’s outrageous stories are laugh-out-loud funny. We also meet other characters from the continent: Idriss, the taxi driver from Benin, the students from Zimbabwe and others, notably the rich, white chicks from Camps Bay, in Cape Town. Plus the Coloured Lesbian, Bianca, the only girl in Serafin’s High Lords posse. If you live in SA, you’ll understand why a Coloured Lesbian is a contentious character.
On the downside, the book is a tad under 500 pages; a pacey, action-driven novel it ain’t. And then, after all the leisurely story-telling, suddenly the ending is abrupt.
Did I enjoy it? Yes. Did I gain insight into the life of refugees? This is Refugees 101 on steroids. Yes. Can I recommend it? Yes.
The Eternal Audience of One – Remy Ngamije . Life, love, refugees, student life in Cape Town, from a Namibian writer’s viewpoint. Some laughs, surprises , heartbreak, hard times, confessions, life lessons. A contemporary novel. Try it.