Review by Edward Marks
Africa, Africa!: Fifteen Stories
By Frederic Hunter. (Seattle: Cune Press, 2000. $23.95 cloth; $14.95 paper.)
Frederic Hunter is a former USIA officer who left the Foreign Service after an assignment in Congo-Kinshasa and then spent more time in Africa as the correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. Now a professional screenwriter, Hunter has collected fifteen short stories obviously based on his own experiences in Africa. In his foreword, the author describes the stories as being “by and large, about Westerners encountering Africa.” This is refreshingly candid of him, as so many contemporary authors pretend to write about Africa, but instead focus on themselves in Africa. Paradoxically, of course, this means that he often describes Africa and its people–always as individuals–more effectively than do the more pretentious writers. Hunter’s stories range across the African continent, from west to east down the coast to South Africa and Madagascar. They begin during the dramatic and violent days of post-independence Congo and run well into the 1970s, as far as one can tell. The atmosphere is authentic and deadly serious, yet specific dates are absent and not missed.
The long first story, “Waiting for the Mwami” would have been an irresistible opportunity for many authors to employ humor and satire. But Hunter has instead written a more complex piece where the cultural differences between the Americans and the Congolese is matched by a subtle presentation of the contrast between the journalist and his USIS escort. Even the very short story about a newly-arrived NGO representative’s dealings with his West African neighbor’s barking dog is presented so straight-faced that it is difficult to know (probably unfairly) if the author appreciates the humor in the situation.
This volume is also—in a sense—Hunter’s “Foreign Service book” as his non-African characters are mostly a mixture of Foreign Service people and journalists. The environment and atmosphere he describes is mostly that of American expatriates living and working in Africa in the post-colonial period, although a few old “colons” and missionaries appear in several of the stories. While not unsympathetic to his American journalists and Foreign Service officers—obvious versions of himself—Hunter does not go out of his way to present them as admirable. Fair enough, he is writing fiction and his characters are complex if seen through a glass, somewhat darkly. (Except, of course, for the one Foreign Service couple that he implies committed murder. It is hoped that this particular story is not a histoire à clef.)
The mood throughout these stories does not quite approach Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but it is palpably dark and sober. The author did not appear to have had much fun during his time in Africa. Missing from his stories is any sense of the excitement and adventure—both personal and political—which marked post-colonial Africa for so many of us that served there in those days. Perhaps Hunter’s memories reflect the usual sepia tone of nostalgia, or merely his own personality. After all, as he himself explains it, he left the Foreign Service for the best of reasons: it was not the life he wished to lead.
Despite his almost sad tone, Hunter most movingly and lovingly remembers Africa. He ends his introduction to the stories by proclaiming “even now a longing for the continent overwhelms me. For me Africa will always be a place whose perplexities baffle and charms delight even while its lessons continue to teach me.” Some of the lessons he learned or still pondering are in his stories. Africa, Africa! is a mosaic of impressions about Africa in a certain period, but they are more than thinly disguised memoirs or a travelogue. They are well-written stories, charming and touching. Hunter’s Africa was the Africa of many of us, as Foreign Service readers who served there will quickly and happily notice. And while that makes these tales especially interesting for those who remember the terrain of those days, this work stands by itself as good fiction writing.