Black Mamba Boy is the debut novel from Nadifa Mohamed, a Somalian born writer who resides in London. If there is one book you should seek out this year, then this is it.
Black Mamba Boy tells the story of Nama Mohamed, a young Muslim boy who in 1935 Yemen tries to scratch out a meager existence on the streets while his mother, Ambaro, works in the local factory. Nama dreams of the day when his father, Guure, a musician who left home to make money for his family, will return. After his mother dies, Nama decides to go to Somaliland where Guure is supposedly a driver working for the Italians. Nama’s trip sets him off on a journey that expands not only northern Africa, but the high seas and Britain too.
Black Mamba Boy is essentially a road novel, but unlike the more popular road novels in America, this journey deals with a road that is fraught with war, corruption, brutality, and death. It is a coming-of-age tale in which Jama is forced to grow up in an environment that pulls him in all directions emotionally and psychologically. Though the story is told from a boy’s perspective, it is essentially a novel that feminizes that experience. The female characters in Black Mamba Boy provide a stable backdrop in which Jama can truly find the keys to his growing manhood. His relationship with his mother is loving, but strained, offering him an emotional if not physical bulwark against the poverty and exploitation they experience. After Nama learns his father is dead and joins the Fascists Italian Red Army during WWII, he sees the brutality of war and the viciousness of the fascists toward black Africans. He deserts the army, becomes a shopkeeper for a short time, then leaves that position to run his own vegetable cart in a remote area. Here he is coddled and protected by the women there who teach him how to grow vegetables and become a part of his enterprise. He meets his future wife, Bethlehem, a local shepherdess who prods Nama to find work after his vegetable cart business is destroyed by an invasion of locusts. Jama finds work as a merchant marine sailing with the British on the Red Sea, where he is drawn by an older Jewish woman, one of many of a cargo of Jewish refugees after the war seeking asylum in Palestine, or what is now modern day Israel. The older woman reminds Jama of his mother and through her and the other refugees he sees yet another face of brutality committed against humanity.
Jama’s emotional journey steers him away from hypermasculinized ideas of manhood and toward one that is life-affirming and hopeful. Black Mamba Boy is a novel that is brimming with humanity and Mohamed’s writing style is filled with simple, but beautiful observations. She creates a world that is at once insular and universal in its scope. Based primarily on her father’s experiences, Black Mamba Boy is an impressive debut and I look forward to reading more of her work.