“Life is just this, Jama thought, a long journey, with lightness and darkness falling over you, companions all around on their own journeys. Each person sitting passively or impatiently, wondering whether the tracks of their fate would take them on a clattering iron horse to their destination or would sweep them away on an invisible path to another world.”
Nadifa Mohamed’s “Black Mamba Boy” is a sprawling, nomadic tale of Jama, a young Somali boy who goes on a quest to find his father and, ultimately, to find manhood. Our story begins when Jama is a preteen, living with his mother on the begrudged scraps of extended family.
“Jama was tired of always turning up a beggar at people’s doors, begging for someone’s leftover food, leftover attention, leftover love.”
Jama lives on the margins of society, alternately embraced and cursed by his mother, spending days running errands and perpetrating petty thefts among the microcosm of market boys.
“Market boys of all different hues, creeds, and languages gathered at the beach to play, bathe, and fight. They were a roll call of infectious diseases, mangled limbs, and deformities.”
Jama is accustomed to having to fend for himself; he is impossibly tough and yet surprisingly tender-hearted.
“Living on the streets intermittently from the age of six had furnished him with a wolfish instinct for self-preservation; he could sense danger through the small hairs on his lower back and taste it in the thick, dusty air.”
His is a story of constant heartache and loss. When his mother dies, Jama flees Aden in search of his estranged father; he is a boy on an epic and daunting journey, crossing unknown lands with little knowledge and less help. Nadifa Mohamed employs all of the heroic quest devices of ancient lore; there are famines and floods, conquerors and colonials, and daunting, expansive geography. Covering more than a decade (1930s-1940s), “Black Mamba Boy” stretches from Aden, Yemen through Hargeisa, Somaliland to Eritrea to Egypt to Palestine and beyond. The reader can’t help but struggle alongside Jama as he fights his way through one untenable situation after another. His will and his tenacity are all that stand between him and utter destruction.
Mohamed handles the base, dehumanizing white racism of colonials in Africa with unapologetic venom and explicit brutality. She also deals with both the communal loyalty and fidelity which come with tribalism, as well as the seemingly inevitable conflicts and oppression which stem from intertribal friction. In Mohamed’s capable hands, the reader sees clearly that while Jama sometimes benefits from his membership to clan, friends and compatriots are just as often subjugated because of their clan or familial affiliation.
Though the tropes of the hero’s journey are, at their barest form, familiar, Mohamed’s narrative is a refreshing perspective. “Black Mamba Boy” is a story of tribalism, of belonging, and of perseverance beyond all human understanding. It is expansive and enchanting.