I groaned when Mike Ormsby sent me a copy of his first novel — Child Witch Kinshasa — as I felt obliged to read it and do a review. What a chore. I’m not a reviewer, I know nothing about Congo and I’ve got piles of other books to read.
I opened Mike’s book with the intention of reading a few pages, getting bored, and then giving it up with a clean conscience. Problem was I couldn’t put the damn thing down and, with a growing sense of wonder, I realised I had stumbled across a gem.
Child Witch Kinshasa is the story of Frank Kean who goes to Congo to train radio journalists. Two other characters are developed in parallel: Frank’s wife, a dental nurse who is heavily pregnant and struggling to bring up two kids in London. The third character is a young village boy called Dudu who is accused of being a sorcerer and flees in order to escape torture. Dudu wanders across the Congo and ends up in the capital city, Kinshasa, where he runs into Frank.
Each of these characters gives profound insights into three very different ways of life: the incomprehensible bureaucracy of international charity work; the difficulty of bringing up kids in the UK; and the life of a street kid in one of Africa’s most screwed up nations. The novel is peppered with Mike Ormsby’s cynical scouse humour and never gets boring.
The most useful thing about the novel is that it gives a potted history of the Congo, a nation covering an area of 1.5 million square miles with a river that is 3,000 miles long and 15 miles wide in places. One of the few things I knew about Congo was that it was a Belgian colony. I didn’t know that ‘when the Belgians pulled out of this place in the 1960s they left 30 Congolese graduates to fill 4,000 senior administrative posts, in a country as big as Western Europe.’
The real villain of the piece, in terms of Congo’s economic development was the USA: ‘When the Congo tried democracy in the early 60s, the CIA eventually bumped off the first elected prime minister — because he was cozy with the Soviets — and installed Mobuto, a cocky soldier. Cue decades of financial rape and pillage.’
The Congo is the world’s biggest failed state and sits at the bottom of the UN’s Human Development Ranking. In Congo the rule of law is just a theory and local government is rapacious, corrupt and dangerous. It’s easy for us comfortable westerners to assume that it has always been like that, but Frank finds out that ‘Congo had local government and justice, once. Tribal chiefs were accountable, through debates and decree. Until we arrived and put a spanner in the works.’
Frank then takes him to his city apartment for a few days. But he can’t get him a place in an orphanage and realises the only way he can help the boy is to take him back to London. At that point the book ends and the next installment — Child Witch London — is announced.
The last scene reminded me of what I observed in Romania in the 1990s when well-meaning western couples would adopt Romanian children from grim orphanages. The western couples assumed they were bringing a solution to the traumatised lives of these children. But in most cases the institutionalised child caused havoc in the adoptive family as they came with survival tactics from the orphanages that were wholly inappropriate in nice middle class families. This tricky issue is handled deftly by Ormsby and he left me with a feeling that I have to get his next book to just see how much damage the African boy really does cause in Frank’s English family.