Review

Black Papyrus
A Year in the Life of an African Village
by Bret Galloway (Botswana 1989–91)
Unlimited Publishing
220 pages
July 2003
$13.99

    Reviewed by Karl Luntta (Botswana 1977–80)

    BRET GALLOWAY’S Black Papyrus, A Year in the Life of an African Village is an elegy of sorts, a love song to a way of life that is rapidly disappearing. The people and tribal groups of Botswana’s Okavango Delta region are a mishmash of languages and cultures, groups originating from Angola to the north and Namibia to the west, mingling with Batswana and South Africans from the southeast in the wary way that African tribes mix on the post-colonial continent — sometimes to disastrous effect.
         These groups are wary to be sure, but they tread around each other with guarded admiration, and the lives they lead are not unimaginable. They’re petty, sometimes noble, sometimes proud, vain, jealous, slothful, deeply industrious and, at their core, people not a whole lot different from characters who inhabit some of the world’s most compelling volumes of fiction. The stories in Black Papyrus are showcases for character development, and indeed, the tales, which are connected by references to seasons and meant to be read in sequence, are finely wrought snapshots, with vigorous dialogue, set against one of the most exotic backdrops in Africa. Anyone whose travels have brought them to developing world enclaves knows the stock characters — the young people possibly tragically in love, the weary witch-doctor, the feisty, wronged woman who owns an illegal bar. In the case of the story “Queen of Kgadi” — one of my favorites, the woman who runs one of the shebeens (serving kgadi, a sorghum beer) that populate southern Africa manages to be both a gossip and a sage, and it is through her gossip that we get a glimpse of the world around her. It is a story of a vain man whose pain she somehow shared when his expensive suit was ruined by rain, the difference between those who drink at day and those who imbibe at night, her philandering husband who now has a “sickness,” the history of the area, and the lack of that integral commodity in southern Africa — rain. It is small moments like these when Galloway’s language shines. Kotlo, the “queen” says, “It has not rained for two weeks, and yet I could feel that it was trying very hard today. Did you not feel the wetness in the air? The longing?”
         Other stories outline the quotidian lives of the Batswana who inhabit them, through deaths and distraction, and, in the collection’s title story, through the life of a fire as it sweeps through the delta. This is perhaps the most stark and estimable of Galloway’s stories here. The fire moves, first as seen by a Namibian game warden, and then the story works backwards in time, on its way killing animals — notably an elephant and a crocodile trying to save her eggs, and driving people from their homes, until it ends with a man wielding a match. Galloway’s tone here is as of a fire — moving quickly from scene to scene, relentless, and without sentiment.
         I will raise a quibble. Galloway loads his paragraphs with what is ultimately distracting amounts of the local language. He frequently laces the dialogue with Setswana and other local languages, and bits of Afrikaans, and tosses in so many words and phrases that I came away reeling from a few pages — and I speak, or once spoke, Setswana. He even includes a glossary in the book that vaguely hints at a quiz at the end of class. And to what end does he employ this language lesson? The answer is found in the preface to Black Papyrus — he tells us that learning the words will lead to a fuller experience and a closer link to the characters in the stories, and that the foreign language will drive home the point that “the way of life and manner of thinking of the characters in this book are profoundly different from those found in the technologically advanced countries . . . ..” This, of course, is not under dispute. But his tactic is dodgy. A writer emphasizing foreign language to remind us that the characters in the book are different from us serves literature less than pedantry. Because we were Volunteers and because we learned a host country language to the degree that we did — which is to say, some much more that others — many of us tend to like to show off what we know. Mingle with any group of returned Volunteers and you’ll know what I mean. The trouble is, what we know about the language of our host countries is, I would wager, inadequate for depicting true and deep thoughts and feelings in that language. Galloway might be a whiz at Setswana, but we shouldn’t have to be the same to understand that within his extraordinary depiction of these people and their lives we are indeed in a different place, yet at once in familiar territory.

    Karl Luntta is the director of Media Relations at the State University of New York at Albany. He is a former newspaper and magazine columnist and the author of seven travel books and numerous articles in such publications as National Geographic Traveler, Caribbean Travel and Life, and The Boston Globe. He has published fiction in International Quarterly, Baltimore Review, North Atlantic Review, Toronto Review, and others. Know it by Heart, his first novel, won this year’s Maria Thomas Fiction Award.