Papa Jeng, Ultrasoft Printers, 2007,
To Babylon by Boat, leaking boat
THE BOAT BOYS: Barcelona or Barrsaxa
Oh Barcelona, Oh Barcelona here we come,
Either we arrive on your shores
Or perish in Barrsaxa,
As our gold and silver,
Have all been looted from our coffers
By the white man, cheats,
Multinationals and our leaders,
And deposited in your banks,
Now it's redemption time,
Barcelona, Barcelona or Barrsaxa,
Oh Barcelona, Oh Barcelona here we come...'
This is the poem with which this book opens. And it aptly summarises the storyline of the novel by prolific writer Papa Jeng. The story is straightforward, because as we read these lines, more and younger Africans are being washed up dead on the Mediterranean coast off Malta, Spain, Lampedusa (Italy) and now Turkey. Young Africans dying to reach Europe by sea, as the land borders are now steel gated by stringent visa regimes and prohibitive cost of air tickets. They are running away from poverty mostly, hoping, and a faint hope it is, that reaching the EU will take them out of the trap of want and unrest. The characters in the story show that this is not always true; sometimes it is the proverbial from the fire into the flying pan issue.
There cannot be a more timely and topical book than this one by Papa Jeng, a prolific author and polyglot. TV footage of the posses of African
youth eager to reach Europe through the 'back way,' across the choppy Atlantic or over the electrified fences of Ceuta and Meilila, has transfixed the world in the past two years; it has also put Africa on the spot. The exodus speaks volumes about the unfulfilled promises of the continent's leaders for a better future for the youth. As the youth realise that there is not much hope left for them at home, they have decided to vote with their feet; to flee the political, economic and social tsunamis that have passed through certain countries in Africa, to try and set foot on drier land'Barcelona', which is a metonym for Europe, good life and prosperity; away from 'Barxsasa', which is the metonym for Africa, dry as dust in hope.
Thousand of striplings are risking the waves and sharks of the Atlantic parked like sardines in leaking tubs to reach Europe; it reminds us historians of the infamous Middle Passage of the Transatlantic Slave trade. This exodus is a clarion call for African leaders to fulfil their promises to the youth; the promises of good education, jobs, housing, and security. Policing alone is not enough to stop the deadly tide; giving hope to the youth will make them stay at home for they too know that there is no place like home.
This story is one of desperation and hope. The desperation makes the protagonists flee their cosy home by the 'back way'; yet, as the journey turns out to be nicer than is usual in real life, we see that they have brought hope to their families. The book is therefore part tragic, part hopeful, in its end.
Papa Jeng has done a beautiful fiction on a serious issue, an issue which has come to symbolise the lot of many African youth, and issue which has led to the untimely dead of hundred of Africans.
African writers must be responsive to the burning issues of their times; our writers should not crave for the time to be able to afford to pen odes to flowers or rivers while our continent burns! Writers must write about the issues affecting the people, immediately. Papa Jeng has fulfilled this challenge.
I highly recommend this book to the youth and leaders of Africa for within its covers lie salutary lessons.
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