Coke mules and reality checks

A woman died in agony recently near London’s Heathrow airport, after stepping off a plane from Ghana with a stomach full of cocaine packages. I read about the fate of the anonymous “drug mule’’ in the news, but it was a piece of fiction that transformed my understanding of those sparse lines.

In The Last Trip, a short story by the Nigerian author Sefi Atta, a Lagos woman swallows 127 balloons of heroin before boarding a flight to London with a son whose mental age is younger than his years. In a few suspense-filled pages that wring comedy from strangers’ misplaced efforts to patronise the boy, the story reveals a complex chain of habit and dependence.
Who would smoke a substance, the woman wonders, “knowing that it has come out of a stranger’s bowels’‘.

Fiction reaches truths that news reports often barely grasp, and may even obscure. As Ezra Pound wrote: “Literature is news that stays news.’’ Atta’s story was one of five shortlisted out of 110, from two dozen countries, that I read as a judge of this year’s Caine prize for African writing—awarded last month to Mary Watson of South Africa.

How to Write About Africa, a mordantly satirical essay by the 2002 winner Binyavanga Wainaina, tackled the perceived obligation to address a foreign readership. It advised: “Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘darkness’ or ‘safari’ in your title.’’ But literature’s imaginative focus on individual lives, and through them on what binds us all, makes it one of the most powerful means of shifting perceptions.

In Watson’s Jungfrau, a girl’s envy of her mother’s 43 “other children’’ (her pupils), and her discovery of adultery between her father and her self-centred aunt, hint at rifts in Cape Town’s coloured community.

The African novel in English was born in the 1950s, when Nigerian Chinua Achebe “wrote back’’ to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, correcting what he saw as its distortions of his homeland in Things Fall Apart. Though their concerns are different, the new voices from Africa can also offer salutary correctives to those who care to listen.—Â

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