Following is my review of Waiting for the Mango Rains, by Jon C. White, publisher unknown, available from Amazon.com
First a disclaimer, I knew Jon when he was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Central African Republic in the 1970s and I was a junior officer at the U.S. embassy. Obviously, he drew from his experiences in promoting fish culture in writing this novel. Although like all good novels it is set realistically in, in this case, the turbulent history of the CAR during the epoch when megalomaniac president Jean Bedel Bokassa was elevating himself to become emperor, the plot and characters in the novel are, of course, fictional.
The author sets the scene when his protagonist Nick D’Amato accepts a position to go to the Central African Republic to take up responsibilities for USAID as a fisheries extension agent. Nick confronts Africa in all its wooliness. He is scammed at the airport upon arrival and briefly jailed. He is welcomed by a jaundiced American diplomatic community who are caught up in their sybaritic life style. (Even though this portrait adds to the story, as an aside, I cannot help but wondering if Jon really saw us in such a negative light.) While waiting in the capital and organizing his kit, Nick gets glimmers that all is not what it appears to be – with his assignment and within the nation more broadly. Anxious to maintain his power, in addition to the secret police, Bokassa has resorted to intimidation and control of the populace via the dark powers of juju men and mystical marabous. Of course, Nick will encounter such witchcraft.
But first, Nick does move to M’baiki, about 60 miles south of Bangui in the edge of the great Congo basin forest. There he begins the job he was assigned, the rehabilitation of a fish station. Ponds need to be re-built, stocked and extension work begun. (The reader will learn much about the technical aspects of such operations.) Nick gradually becomes involved with the local community – his foreman, a cook, the nearby French priest, market mamas – and along the way he meets a beautiful local lady and falls in love. As he becomes more enmeshed in the community, he becomes estranged and ignored by the few French residents and U.S. embassy personnel. (In short, Nick went “local”.) The plot continues to twist throughout with sinister machinations of the sorcerers. Nick and his family are targeted and risk becoming victimized as the political temperature of the nation heats up. The story builds up nice tension, before an acceptable denouement.
Author Jon White has done a commendable job in realistically describing what life is like in a small African town. He portrays encounters with Central Africans sympathetically, in accurate fashion and from both sides – their puzzlement and misperception of outsiders as well as Nick’s lack of understanding of the forces that motivate them and their lives. Over, time, of course, Nick gains greater insight along with the recognition that he is what he is and can never become what he is not. This is a lesson that most Peace Corps Volunteers learn and appreciate.