*This is one of five posts on the Caine Prize for African Writing 2013 Shortlist. A group as organised by Aaron Bady will be blogging about the entries (one per week) for five weeks until the prize is announced on the 8th of July. Please see the links below for details and a schedule.
My Thoughts on ‘Foreign Aid’ by Pede Hollist
By Veronica Nkwocha
The story ‘Foreign Aid’ is about fissures caused by the uprooting of the principal character Balogun from Sierra Leone to America. The chasm widens with his long sojourn in his new home away from his roots where he had lived up until his mid-twenties.
The man we meet in America is one of many people, one of a crowd. We learn about his stay in a few paragraphs; he was generic, unobtrusive and inconsequential. The twenty years passed in a blur of the many things people like him did; coloured phone cards to call home, failed promises to his loved ones at home and furtive marriages for the all-important green card.
He “..submerged himself in inner-city America. He ﬂipped burgers, cleaned ofﬁce buildings, and worked security for cantankerous residents in a variety of elder-care facilities—pursuing the American dream, unskilled, undocumented, and with an accent…”
Even though life got in the way of his dreams, he still found his level like waters after escaping their hold. He didn’t get the Economics degree but he became documented, had a job and was driven in his goal to survive the ever changing urban jungle he had found himself in.
Balogun spoke clipped and fustian; adapting his language to a degree, to that of his inner city surroundings. A marriage proposal went thus;
““Am a citizen. Single. Make three child-support payments. Don’t want more kids and need a wife.”
They married and lived contentedly. He removed the albatross of being undocumented from around her neck and she fed his manhood
“unlike dem gad dam Afro bitches,””
He wore America like a cloak on a magician’s shoulder,
“I’m from the States, bro?” he said hoping it would make a difference in the immigration station in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
For all intents and purposes, the transformation from Balogun to Logan, shiny and new was complete.
I found the humour in ‘Foreign Aid’ very lively. The character ‘Logan’ who arrived home was quite ‘stupendous’ being unaware of his near ‘buffoonery’, but I don’t mean it in a bad way. While reading the scenes where he handled his money in Freetown, I kept feeling like disappearing into the text and secretly whispering to him, ‘put your money into separate envelops if you have to, and label them’ while surreptitiously handing them to him. His cluelessness was astounding; the desire to maintain a certain image trumped the need to be fastidious.
He had his head in a dense cloud of over inflated importance and one can’t blame him alone. He was surrounded by people who saw him through the glitter of the great America and they enabled the demi-god in him with their constant adulation. Some of it was of course based on genuine affection, having missed him in the 20 years he was apart from them. I can imagine the author stepping back from his writing and having a laugh at the character, he was well described and real, one could almost see him.
He tried to use his ‘American’ survival skills in the confusion that ensued when he and his father tried to get to the ferry rushing along headlong as he lost his cases in the chaos. America had taught him his intrinsic self-worth and he carried himself attempting an audience with the siren blaring Minister of Mines. He skulked away surprised at the lack of audience and joined the silent group who couldn’t do anything about the Minister taking liberties.
The desperation to survive in societies without a social safety net was apparent in the lengths his family went through, in trying to survive. He went like a bull dog in a china shop wielding a superior sense of self and realised at the end of the day that he was partly responsible for the choices they had made. He was consumed by life in America, his child support payments, mortgage and couldn’t be the financial back bone for his family. He paid for his mother’s surgery for Fibroids and one wonders what would have happened to her without his $300.
The tide he would have to confront to change things was enormous; it would require change on a colossal level from the country’s leadership for it to trickle to his family. Setting up the institutions that would otherwise provide some social security and opportunity for those in poverty was outside of his league and the lethargy of the people stared him in the face and he couldn’t understand their apathy. In a way, it is a metaphor for the break down in society and the lengths in which humans go to find an alternate benefactor where one with integrity fails. His family feared that nothing should happen to ‘Ali Sayyar’ even though he had been fingered as being corrupt.
He was not much different, in some ways hypocritical even for he tried to ‘buy’ the affections of ‘Tima’ his sister’s friend. The scene where he realised he had given her a bit too much money was comical. The idea that she had to pay for it smacked of him using his power over someone who was ‘vulnerable’. How different was that to what ’Ali Sayyar’ did with his sister and the countless others who got favours for sleeping with a rich man? It was on a smaller scale but the same sad premise.
The gentleman we saw at the end tail between his legs was that of a giant cut down to size by that tide. He was half blind at the start, but could see with clarity at the end and it was not a pretty sight. The failures he saw at the start that bothered him paled into insignificance at the deeper rot that existed, the shame was that he was running away from it, very different from the pugnaciousness with which he had tried to tackle his earlier perception of the problem.
I would call this the re-education of Logan. He learnt a lesson ICU had forgotten to teach him. He literally had to swallow his brash words;
“Bro, I graduated from ICU, Inner-City University. Ain’t nothing I can’t handle.”
A well written story, the nuances and emotions were handled perceptively and were believable.
*’Foreign Aid’ is on the shortlist for the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing.
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