Sub-Saharan Africa has historically been portrayed in Western fiction as a shadowy and threatening place populated by primitive and homogenous people; the ‘dark continent’ of the Victorian era, in which European and American heroes find their fortunes, or their deaths. This racist and reductionist portrayal has had a devastating effect on popular conceptions of Africa in the West and the legacy of such a portrayal still haunts any attempt to find a ‘truthful’ representation of the continent and its diverse peoples. More recently this paradigm has been updated from the rapacious colonizer replaced to the idealistic aid worker desperate to alleviate the strife of impoverished Africans; a portrayal that in many ways is no less patronizing.
Tony D’Souza’s Whiteman attempts to subvert this paradigm and by doing so to discover a more truthful representation of Africa and the place of the ‘whiteman’ within it. D’Souza’s novel is set in the Ivory Coast and follows the travails of Jack Diaz, an American aid worker who goes to Africa to follow his idealistic desire to help those less fortunate than himself. Not long after he arrives the Ivory Coast descends into civil war and Diaz, unlike his colleagues, decides to stay. His motivations are initially idealistic but they quickly become more dissolute as Diaz embraces the underbelly of life in the Ivory Coast. This is most evident in Diaz’s colourful relationships with women; D’Souza recounts relationships with prostitutes, extra marital affairs and various illicit encounters as Diaz’s idealism begins to dissipate. Seeking to nurture the loftier elements of his character in the Ivory Coast, Diaz is thrust back upon his lower instincts and finds himself alienated from who he thought himself to be.
In this way, Tony D’Souza’s Whiteman alters the paradigm of the NGO narrative, in which a naïve American finds both purpose and experience in Africa. Instead of finding purpose Diaz loses his, and whilst he gains experience, he loses any romanticism he may have had. D’Souza’s novel therefore subverts the conventional representation of the journey to Africa; but the true value of the novel lies more in D’Souza’s commitment to representing the culture and politics of the Ivory Coast and the Muslim village of Tigiso where Diaz stays. D’Souza draws upon his own experiences as an aid worker to tell the tale of the festivals, religious beliefs and moral conventions of the region; within which Jack Diaz finds himself cut astray from his simplistic Western conceptions of Africa.
by Thomas Storey