A Long Way From Douala by Max Lobe is an entertaining, edgy read about serious subjects, including violence, terrorism, homosexuality and migration.
Only yesterday, yet another story about small boats carrying migrants crossing the English Channel hit the headlines. Since the pandemic, the journey has become even more perilous. And it has recently become illegal for asylum seekers arriving in the UK via people smugglers to remain: they will be asked to leave the UK, either voluntarily or by force. What lies behind the desperation to seek safety and a better life in the UK and Europe?
“They say that Boko Haram is everywhere. That even little-little girls with the sheet over their heads can come here and Boko Haramise us.”
Jean, the narrator, is hopeless at playing football, whereas his older brother, Roger, is a natural, and dreams of becoming an international football champion. Their bedroom walls are plastered with photos of football stars – particularly of Roger Milla, the Cameroonian football legend of the 1990s.
When the two boys get their school certificate, their parents throw a party. The family home becomes like a bar – their father is deputy brewing manager at the Cameroon national brewery – and as temperatures rise, everyone dances the Makossa.
Just a few months later, the boys’ father dies suddenly. But their fearsome mother still refuses to allow Roger to go to a professional football academy. As she cuddles and idolises her youngest child, she rages at her eldest, for reasons which eventually come clear.
“Oh, mother’s beloved Choupi! Choupi this, Choupi that! That’s what you two have always been like in this house. That woman and you, it’s always about you, the world revolves around you! You are disgusting egoists! With your Church full of shit, hypocrites and beggars! You’re the demons! The vampires!”
With ever-rising unemployment rates, an uncertain economy, tension between north and south Cameroon, the constant threat of the attacks of Boko Haram, life-risking clandestine migration to reach Europe seems like a normal choice if you are young and facing a difficult or uncertain future.
“The white man himself says all roads lead to Rome, doesn’t he? So let people choose their road”
Mourning his father’s death, raging at his mother, Roger beats up his brother and then disappears. He is intent on getting to Europe to realise his dreams of footballing fame and fortune.
Jean decides to head north to Nigeria with Simon Moudjonguè, their “brother-from-another-mother”. He hopes to find Roger before he crosses the Sahara desert and on to the Mediterranean.
The pair hit the road using any and all means of available transport – cab, motorbike and bus, heading down “Death Highway . . . the road from the port of Douala to the landlocked neighbouring countries, especially Chad and the Central African Republic”. In Yaoundé, Jean’s aunt greets them and tries to help with their search.
But the female inspector in Yaounde’s filthy central police station insults and mocks them: “How could you have thought for a single second that our station – Yaounde’s central police station! – would be willing to mobilise so many resources to look for a little brat hankering for Europe? We aren’t paid to go after badly-brought-up little troublemakers dreaming of Europe.”
They don’t do much better at Passe Passe Bar where they find out that Roger was a gopher at one point, for sinister local Boss, the “great Omar . . . the great Guide of Benghazi”.
On they journey . . . and as they do so, Jean discovers his sexual difference. Will Jean and Simon find Roger?
Cameroon is a character in its own right: Max Lobe brings alive the sounds of the streets of Douala and the bars of Yaoundé. The laughter and voices of street kids, street vendors, hustlers and citizens getting by as best they can are backed by loud music and even louder jesting and teasing. Translator Ros Schwartz skilfully and rhythmically captures vibrant language and expressions of Cameroonian French.
Compelling novels in translation like Far From Douala offer a valuable, varied glimpse of the realities experienced by those fleeing their homes in search of new opportunities. Pushing migrants to the margins is cruel and flies in the face of the 1951 Refugee Convention. Are there solutions which do not breach international law? Is an open debate without xenophobia possible in the UK today?
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