A resident of my home town, Knysna, Mike Wood recently released his second African adventure novel, Somali Kiss. I read it in a day and caught up to him for a great chat over good coffee.
WM: Although both of your novels are fiction, you purposely address many contentious issues? Should storytellers remind of reality rather than offer escape from it?
Mike Wood: The way I see it, writers focusing on Africa can either do a McCall-Smith and write upbeat, happy, everything is rosy stuff. Or they can deal with the impacts of big issues like corruption, human trafficking, prostitution, AIDS and tribal conflict. However, I recognise that people won’t be entertained by a dissertation on the woes of our continent. I add plenty of light and comical touches as well.
WM: Casting aside the politically correct “new South Africa” we are fed, it’s actually quite rare for a white man to openly admire black women as you’ve done with the beautiful photo on the cover and your written appreciation. What does black beauty have to offer?
Mike Wood: That sounds like a loaded question. I’ve spent more than twenty years living and working in African countries, or the West Indies, so it should not be surprising that I have admired many beautiful black women, just as I appreciate beauty where it is evident in any other race or creed. The gorgeousness of the woman on the cover of Somali Kiss is indisputable. It took me a long time to find the photograph. She perfectly fits the image I wanted to create of Amina.
WM: You dug into the joy of prostitutes and the scaryness of AIDS. Was that a purposeful pro and con, yin and yang?
Mike Wood: The point I was putting across is that sex workers (that is the politically correct term, I believe) should not be judged as untouchables (if I may borrow a term from India) or gutter people. They are human like you and me, with feelings and emotions. Not things to be used and discarded. They are almost universally victims of poverty. In parts of Africa they may also suffer police oppression, rape, robbery and battery. They live with the daily threat of HIV and AIDS (if clients refuse to condomise). Stewart Munro’s interaction with Kenyan working girls was atypical (but not completely out of the ordinary) because he treated them with kindness, almost as friends. But he was also forced to confront a terror in all of us: diagnosis with HIV.
WM: Which was your favourite country and why?
Mike Wood: I could not pinpoint a favourite. Each had its own attractions. But my most heartwarming experience was in northern Ghana. I’d been working with Actionaid to help reconcile the warring Dagomba and Konkomba tribes (see Warm Heart for fictionalised detail of this conflict). After more than 7000 recorded deaths, I witnessed women and warrior representatives of the two tribes celebrating peace together in the twilight of Sunson village. They paraded around a large fire and threw weapons into it (mainly spears and bows and arrows), while each tried to outdo one another with the vigour of their singing and dancing. Wonderful.
WM: How can the corrupt aspect of Africa overcome the seemingly symbiotic relationship with abusive, richer countries?
Mike Wood: The academic work of dependency theorist Andre Gunder Frank is worth scanning, even if his main focus was Latin America. He argued (if this is not too simple an interpretation) that the more aid a country received, the more dependent it became, the less likely its productive forces were to emerge, and the more vulnerable it was to policy pressure from powerful donors. A quarter of a century on, I see no reason to quibble with these assertions, in general. Donors like the Japanese and the French have always tied aid to trade in goods and services from their own countries. So Japanese donations of Toyota 4x4s please corrupt African elites, but not the poor who can only gape in awe as Big Men drive by. The Americans mis-label their military assistance to Egypt and Israel as ‘aid’ and it is counted as such in their already depressingly low (per capita) development aid budgets. While emergency aid in the event of a national disaster still has a place if speedily delivered, and well designed, locally owned projects also can have a positive impact, less developed countries would do well to examine rich country motives when offers are on the table.
China in particular needs careful watching. Many African governments look upon them as new found friends. But, in general, the Chinese are too smart for African (or European) politicians. We will only discover they are the pillagers of Africa, when it is too late.
WM: What’s next for you?
Mike Wood: I’m sure another African theme will spring to mind before long. Right now I have to focus on marketing Somali Kiss. But as you know, I also have a hilarious volume of letters to UK politicians, sports organisations, Ministers (and their replies) submitted to me by the indomitable Beauty Malibongwe. We are working out how best to collaborate. I have in mind acting as her editor so that the letters can be submitted for publication.