One refugee’s tale of hope from misery

Published by The Observer (4th January, 2014)

A Man of Good Hope by Jonny Steinberg (Jonathan Cape)

Asad Abdullahi was eight years old when he awoke one day to find his mother pressed up against the door, peering nervously through the cracks. He joined her and saw five armed militiamen in their front yard, who started pushing, kicking and breaking down the door. They made a hole in the wood – and then one shot his mother in the chest as he clung to her leg.

This shocking killing ended with savage speed Asad’s contented childhood in Mogadishu. With his father in hiding as the Somali capital descended into chaotic meltdown, the young boy was swept aside on the tide of mayhem, migration and misery that swamped so many of his fellow countrymen. And thus begins an incredible story that starts with an innocent child drifting though dusty desert towns and concludes with a married man struggling for salvation in South Africa amid sometimes fatal hostility to foreigners.

Asad’s odyssey, the story of one refugee among too many, is chronicled in this superb book by South African writer Jonny Steinberg. On the surface, it is simply the biography of a lonely young migrant who dreams of a decent life, hardening his shell and hustling to survive in hostile human environments. Yet it is really an epic African saga that chronicles some fundamental modern issues such as crime, human trafficking, migration, poverty and xenophobia, while giving glimpses into the Somali clan system, repression in Ethiopia and lethal racism in townships.

After the murder of his mother, the small boy is taken away to seek sanctuary by his uncle. A quarter of the way to the Kenyan border, a mortar shell explodes as he is being lifted on to a lorry, causing the driver to speed off for safety. He is with his 15-year-old cousin, but while he sleeps that night the older boy is press-ganged into a militia. A relative called Yindy takes him in, but a month later she is shot in the leg, the wound tuning septic. Asad ends up caring for her, even assisting with the most basic bodily functions. One night, a gang of men break in and stand over the pair as they debate whether Yindy is ‘too crippled to rape’. Eventually they take the food left by a charity and rape a neighbour instead.

Little wonder he is a troubled child. In a Kenyan hotel, he sleeps with a different family each night, never learning the real name of the Nairobi district filled with Somalis. Then the clan elders send him to Ethiopia to stay with Yindy’s family, expecting he will follow her to the United States, but these people are cold to him, stop him from speaking on the phone to Yindy, hide plans to join her and eventually dump him in a desert town. ‘They just left me,’ he says. ‘I had nowhere to stay, no one to look after me. I was 12 or 13 years old.’

He survives on the scorching streets, living off his wits by delivering huge barrels of water to cafes. Eventually, he falls in with a kindly truck driver, travelling and working with this man as he grows into adulthood. But he has a self-destructive streak, so avoids asking help to find his father and then leaves suddenly to join some students. A good hustler, he ends up funding their food, their flat and their khat, then marries a stunning and much-admired older woman. But as the ruling regime clamps down on supposed enemies of the state, he abandons a thriving life and embarks on the long, risky journey to South Africa.

All this is told to the author, now an academic at Oxford University, as they sit for many hours in a car in Blikkiesdorp. This place is otherwise known as Tin Can Town – 1,600 identical one-room structures “described as Cape Town’s asshole, the muscle through which the city shits out the parts it does not want”. They are beside Asad’s latest shop, but he is scared of being shot like so many other Somali storekeepers for the cash kept inside his cage so he scans the streets warily as he recalls his tumultuous life. Yet he did not join his wife and children when they returned in fear to Somaliland, despite his wife’s ultimatum.

When he began running such a shop he earned about one-third of the country’s minimum wage, but saw it as a chance to get rich. But by the end of this illuminating book he is living in fear after waves of racist violence, haunted by predictions the child from his second marriage will crawl through his blood, as happened to a partner stabbed to death. The police, all too typically, let the killers go free; one was soon swaggering back into the shop.

A Man of Good Hope is an adventure story that ends on a positive note after so much loss and trauma. This is far from a misery memoir, as Steinberg unfurls an extraordinary story in simple style, his uncluttered prose punctuated only by the odd detour into Somali clan culture or Ethiopian politics. Perhaps he never comprehends the full complexities of Asad’s troubled mind and restless nature. But he has delivered a strong insight into the lives of those buffeted by conflict and violence in this tale of a refugee driven by ambition, pride and dreams. Ultimately, it is a powerful testament to the resilience of humanity.

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