The Jive Talker, or How to get a British Passport, by Samson Kambalu
Originally published 2008 [hardcover], updated paperback published 2022
Setting: Malawi, UK
[CWs: death, illness/injury, sexual content]
I've read quite a few very heavy memoirs recently, and Kambalu's charming and more easy-going memoir of growing up in Malawi was just the break I needed. Not that he doesn't still tackle some difficult topics: poverty, frequent battles with childhood malaria, his parent's deaths from AIDS. But, by and large, the book is mostly light-hearted, and even difficult subject matter is viewed through a humorous lens, similar to Trevor Noah's Born a Crime but with an additional dash of the absurd at times.
Samson Kambalu is a visual artist, who recently created an anticolonial sculpture 'Antelope' that stands on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. The sculpture depicts Malawian preacher John Chilembwe, daring to wear a hat in a time when Africans were forbidden to wear hats in front of white people. Chilembwe was killed by police as he led an uprising against colonial rule.
The book focuses on Kambalu's formative years before he left Malawi (and came to the UK - hence the subtitle), and provides insight into the inspiration for his art through various periods of his childhood, and his development of a philosophy he calls 'Holyballism'. Some of these experiences were just downright incredible and are relayed in such an amusing way, my husband had to keep asking what I was laughing at from the other room; for example, the small children mistaking an adult female lion for a large dog, returning to the family home to find a nest of baby black mambas had hatched all over the house, and the insane hazing activities inflicted on the first years at the boarding school by students who dubbed themselves with monikers such as 'Caligula', 'Spatial Concept' and 'MC Hammer'.
Also interesting was learning about the Gule Wamkulu, a secret cult that sprung up to increase the solidarity of men in a matrilineal society. The initiation features a ritual dance, with participants wearing costumes and masks representing various spiritual characters. The way Kambalu recounts his initiation brings a touch of the surreal to events.
It is always hard to critique a memoir as you are analysing something deeply personal and the author likely has their reasons for deciding what to include or ignore, however from a purely subjective perspective there were aspects of Kambalu's life I would have liked to hear more about - for example, 'The Jive Talker' is his father, a flawed and troubled man but who has a charisma palpable through the page. The sections featuring his father felt more surface-level to me, however perhaps this was a conscious choice on keeping the memoir further from more emotive topics. All in all though, a thoroughly enjoyable read.