Nadifa Mohamed grew up listening to her father’s stories of growing up in East Africa in the 1940s, but it was not until she was older that she realized how truly remarkable his life was. Those stories became the basis of her first novelBlack Mamba Boy, an engrossing debut that tells the harrowing story of a resilient Somali boy mired in the politics of war-torn Africa and caught between the attachment to his heritage and the lure of European opportunity.
Jama’s mother nicknamed her son Black Mamba Boy because during her pregnancy, a snake crawled across her belly, which she thought endowed him with luck. When the novel opens, Jama is a street kid living in Yemen who needs all the luck he can get. After his mother dies, Jama travels back to Somalia, the first step of a journey—by foot, camel, bus, train, and ship—that will ultimately take him as far as Britain. Bereft and hungry, Jama travels through Djibouti, Eritrea and the Sudan, following rumors about his missing father, picking up whatever work he can and relying on a loose network of Somali clansman to take him in or offer him a meal. Mussolini’s occupation of East Africa, famines, and the sheer length of the journey threaten to overwhelm the young wanderer at every turn. Jama temporarily settles in Eritrea, where he falls in love with a local girl and marries. But in an uneasy repeat of his father’s story, he leaves his wife to find work in Egypt.
The themes of displacement and emigration finds their most emotional parallel when Jama takes a job on the Runnymeade Park, one of the British ships that carried the European Jews back to Hamburg after they were refused entry into Palestine on the Exodus 1947. Like Jama, these travelers hoped for a better life, convinced that they could leave the hell of war behind them. Their return to holding camps in Germany is one of the book’s most painful moments, and one in which Mohamed makes a strong statement about the instability of the refugee experience.
Black Mamba Boy is filled with petty cruelties and hardship, but it also overflows with life. Jama is sustained by the star-filled night sky, the camaraderie of his fellow travelers, and the varied street life of each small town he passes through. On the other hand, Mohamed makes sure that the reader understands that for every one who survived, like Jama, there were many more who did not. Black Mamba Boy tells an important story in an engaging fashion—one with much relevance to today’s world.
Lauren Bufferd writes from Nashville, Tennessee.