Whiteman: The Heart of Our Darkness

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa (Nnamdi)

I just read a fascinating book, Whiteman by Tony D’Souza. The book is really a loose collection of D’Souza’s short stories based on his experience as a Peace Corp volunteer in West Africa. Most of these stories are freely available in online magazines. As books go it is an unusual production. The main character Jack Diaz or Adama Diomandé as his African hosts called him, does not even attempt to stitch a story together. This is not necessarily a failing; life itself is a mess and the worst books on earth are tidy affairs. Jack is sent to Ivory Coast (Cote D’Ivoire) by Potable Waters Inc., an NGO – mission to provide clean potable water to a certain village. Jack fails miserably in that regard but in the process Africa teaches him unforgettable lessons. About taboos, sex, sexuality, extended family systems, poverty, disease, the mutually parasitic relationship between NGOs and Africa, etcetera.But more on that later.

So, the other day my Blackberry buzzed the arrival of time. Time for Chicago, America’s Windy City. Time to attend a conference as an excuse for solitude. There are things one must do alone in the company of one’s self and it was time to do some of those things. I traveled with my other laptop Stella. My laptop Cecelia hates the indignity of air travel – take off your shoes, turn on your laptop, run around naked while all your belongings pass through America’s tomb of security and the prying eyes of the Homeland Security lady who really has no idea what she is doing. So, instead of Cecelia, Stella went with me to Chicago. Where Cecelia is an aging desktop replacement on steroids who likes everything brought to her, Stella is a lithe tablet pc, full of the fearlessness of youth and packed with just as much punch in her sinewy gorgeous body. Stella loves to travel and probably enjoys being frisked, who knows. So I took Stella with me.

D’Souza’s “Whiteman”

I don’t remember much of Chicago; I was too distracted to take in all that Chicago had to offer. Africa was on my mind. The black race was on my mind. And on the minds of a lot of other people, it turns out. Colin Powell was in town to speak to us. I didn’t go to listen to him. I’d heard him speak before and I was sure that he would tell his charming jokes again. My friends came back, breathless, just like the last time, gushing over every joke of his (they were the same from the last time) and they fought over themselves trying to assure me that this black man was so great, so nice, so articulate he should have been President! It takes the likes of George Bush to make a black man half acceptable as president. I smiled wryly at dinner as folks took turns expressing to me the wonder that General Powell was. It was as if we had just discovered that chimpanzees can use twigs as instruments.

Oh yes, talking about chimpanzees, that reminds me, the anthropologist Jane Goodall stopped by to speak to us. Africa was on her mind, mostly the chimpanzees that were trapped in that God awful continent. Chimpanzees are becoming extinct you know, because the Africans love them – as bush meat (yeah, she said bush meat!)!And oh by the way, the plight of Africans in that disease-ridden continent is a source of concern. Jane raised a lot of money for herself and her chimpanzees. Not to be outdone, Pulitzer Prize winning historian David McCullough wailed on and on about the demise of American History in America’s schools. He snorted with derision as he recounted anecdote after anecdote of ordinarily smart and accomplished Americans who did not know diddly about a lot of dead white men who had done a lot of really marvelous things for America. I did not know any of these names and I was not ashamed to be that ignorant. Because what is history to Mr. McCullough may be HIS Story to other folks, myself included. Immigration must be on a lot of people’s minds. America is changing just like before when the white man came to America without visas. Only this time it is a lot more colorful. The movement of huge swathes of color across the lily-white landscape of America’s prejudices shocks and frightens all of us. And we don’t like it. We are reminded everyday in America that America has changed. And we are reminded everyday in America that the more things change, the more things stay the same.

Chicago. Nights and days in Chicago. It wasn’t such a bad many days and many nights. I slept a lot in my hotel room. I couldn’t bring myself to get out of bed and visit lovely Chicago. Chicago is gorgeous, really, it is. But I’d been there, done that! At my age, and with all my responsibilities, sleep is a premium privilege and I loaded up on sleep. I read a lot of magazines that I’d subscribed to and not had time to read. I downloaded a bunch of poems, short stories, essays and assorted madness from the Internet and I read them all. I processed a lot of thoughts in my head and I left them there because there were no ready answers. I thought of Jackie Kay’s new book The Sins of Our Fathers and I thought of many sins. Of our fathers. And our mothers. And I thought of Africa in all of its colors and dramas. And I wondered.

And I wondered: How do stereotypes come about? Who does the stereotyping, the observed, or the observer? Under what circumstances would I abandon my daughter behind like a maxed out credit card and go start life over somewhere as if I never had that obligation, as if I never lived? And what would I do, if my daughter came back to look for me? Would I be on my knees praying to alien, indifferent gods or would I be on my knees, arms wrapped around my little girl’s legs, praying for redemption? What kind of God is this that would demand my attention under such intimate circumstances?And I thought of the poet Victor Ehikhamenor’s stories and the wonder of life, of how children can fashion joy out of the absurd. And I went to sleep again to churn nightmares into Victor’s dreams of joy on simple playgrounds.

Soon, my Blackberry buzzed again and it was time to head back home to my issues. And I am at the airport at O’Hare waiting for time to deliver the tube that would take me back home. And wandering around these beautiful shops with pretty little overpriced things, I see this book Whiteman by Tony D’Souza and on a lark I buy it because I collect weird books with weird titles. I think it will be a fitting counterweight to this other book that I have, Randall Kennedy’s Nigger. Whiteman bills itself as a book about Africa and I am thinking, what will a white boy tell me about black Africa?

Turns out D’Souza has a lot to tell me about Africa through the eyes of a twenty-something year old Peace Corps kid from Chicago. I won’t lie; I did not put that book down until the very end. It is a brilliantly written book and D’Souza’s gift of story-telling comes across beautifully. The book was hard to put down for a variety of reasons. The book was funny, lyrical and brilliant in many parts. At the end of the book, I was laughing really hard because I really thought the book was funny. Then suddenly something hit me really hard on my head, a pounding knock on the head, an earth-shaking “konk” on the head delivered by one of Ehikhamenor’s demented characters.And as I awoke from the daze of Africa’s rage, Africa asked me, her words dripping with contempt: “Why are you laughing, FOOL? This is not funny.” And when my eyes cleared from the force of Africa’s concrete knuckles, I realized that this book was not funny. Not at all.

First of all, I was well into the book when

I realized that D’Souza was describing Africa of post 9/11. Whiteman could have been a white man’s retort to Chinua Achebe’s epic novel Things Fall Apart. Or better yet, it could have been Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, dusted off and updated for the year 2002. Except that, according to the book, not much had changed in Africa, except today’s date of course. In fact, in many respects, in D’Souza’s eyes, Africa had plunged into even more darkness. In Things Fall Apart, the white man comes to Africa and things fall apart. In D’Souza’s Whiteman, the white man comes to Africa and things fall apart in his head. Africa confounds the white man and he is left pondering the enduring mystery that is black Africa. Things have really fallen apart. In the white man’s head.

I must give it to D’Souza; he does not pull any punches. This is one frank book. D’Souza is wittingly or unwittingly unsparing in his analysis of the enduring enigma that is Africa. According to the book, there is enough blame to go around. The main character, Jack seems at a loss as to why he is in Africa but he makes the best of it zipping through the place on foot and in his mobylette with his phallus in hand (his red stick he calls it) gleefully providing much needed service to African prostitutes and bored housewives. This book should help the Peace Corps greatly to recruit a new army of horny American kids.

In any case, there is enough to love about the book and there is enough in the book to trouble you. The bottom line is that the book is a very revealing window into how the Western world sees black Africa, and black Africans. The main character Jack does not pull any punches. You can tell what he thinks about Africa in his images. Africa is taboos, disease, broken old men, frightened children, a veritable house of horrors. The women of Africa fare slightly better in the dignity department, perhaps because Jack’s red stick finds safe harbor in their warm loins.

Whiteman is an improbable tale told beautifully. It is possible but highly improbable that the main character could zip through a wide swathe of Africa and not meet an intellectual of stature that he can have an adult conversation with. It is possible but highly improbable that there are villages in West Africa that have not suffered the exodus of young men and women to the West and enjoy the proceeds of the exodus via Western Union. It is possible but highly improbable that there are villages in Africa where the only evidence of a connection to the outside world are broken artifacts of capitalism. It is possible but highly improbable that in today’s Africa there are no cyber cafes for hundreds of miles and everything is simply analog. It is possible but highly improbable. Observing these things is obviously not the author’s mission; instead he focuses like a laser beam on the squalor that is his Africa. People will see what they wish to see.

People will see what they want to see. In the late seventies, after graduation from the university, along with several others, I did my National Youth Service Corp (NYSC) stint in a place called Kagoro in Northern Nigeria. It was a beautiful place with beautiful roads (at the time) leading to cities like Kafanchan (an important railway hub), Jos, and Kaduna. We worked with Peace Corp volunteers from America and their counterparts from CUSO (formerly Canadian University Services Overseas). They were mostly young like us, in our very early twenties. These youths were treated like royalty in every village and city they served. My experience was that only a Peace Corp volunteer on the lunatic fringe would opt for a derelict hut when flats and houses (yes, houses made of cement!) were freely available. And in any case, who really believes that in the year 2000, 2001, or 2002, acquiring something as basic as a comfortable mattress in West Africa required such high drama and danger that it was safer to sleep on the wretched floor of a mud hut? It is an improbable story told brilliantly. But an improbable tale, nonetheless.

Aside from the relative lushness of their accommodations (compared to those of Nigerian Youth corpers who had to make do with truly destitute digs), I was struck by how focused these young men and women were on hunting down affirmations of their own expectations of Africa. It was as if they had been taken through an orientation in America somewhere and told certain things about Africa. They seemed intent on ensuring that Africa met their expectations – of a primitive place where very little worked. They didn’t seem interested in having adult conversations with us, their peers (trust me, we were eager to have these conversations). Instead they zipped around the place in bicycles and motorcycles looking for the exotic – wild places and people of the sorts one would find in National Geographic. They carefully inventoried all the brooks, waterfalls (River Wonderful) primitive bridges made of rope (the hanging bridge of Kagoro) and assorted other exotic sights. And thanks to our leaders, Africa often obliged these young men and women. If we are buffoons, it is our fault and it is not funny. It is not funny.

This is Africa to Jack:

“A very old man in rags was lying on the steps with his eyes open. He looked like a scrap of trash, like someone had tossed him there. First I thought he was dead, but then he turned his head, hacked, and spit, something I understood he’d been doing for a while because of the running gob of spit dripping down the steps beside him like raw egg whites. When he noticed me looking, his bearded face brightened as though something funny had just happened. He said loudly in excitement, “Hey! A whiteman!””

V.S. Naipaul, meet Tony D’Souza. It is particularly telling that the book’s first chapter is titled Africa Unchained. In the opening chapter’s explosive salvo, Jack, the main character compares Africa to a baboon chained to a pole in the village. It is a dangerous beast that the villagers mistakenly call a monkey. Jack describes his attempt to befriend this pet monkey or a baboon chained to a pole and tormented daily by the children of the village who would pelt him with stones and verbal abuse. Jack tries to befriend the monkey by offering him bananas and goodwill. One day, the baboon breaks free from bondage and tears down the road chasing children his former tormentors. Hear Jack:

“Across from our house in Séguéla, where I would go on to spend the night under the bed with gunfire and the shouts of angry men around me in the city like the madness in a crazy man’s head, there lived a monkey on a chain. This was in the courtyard of our neighbor Méité Fanta… they kept a young monkey on a chain attached to a pole in the courtyard and the monkey was really a baboon, but if you were to ask anyone what sort of animal it was, they would simply say, “A monkey.”

He continues:

“I harbored untold sympathy for that tormented creature who somehow managed to keep her spirits up. I got it into my head that she could recognize me, that she could pick me out of the crowd as the one person who did not want to amuse myself at her expense, and she would break into a funny little half-step dance on seeing me, banging her fists against the sand and then leaping and turning as she howled. Of course this was because I brought her bananas and papaya and other things monkeys like to eat…”

The baboon breaks free one day and proceeds to pursue those children who had long tortured her. Then,

“[t]he monkey spotted me, and my happiness turned to white-knuckled fear as barreling toward my doorway was an openmouthed creature with fangs and shrieking and I don’t know what she planned on doing, on seeking asylum between my legs, or on sinking her teeth into them, for suddenly I was face-to-face with what I wanted to know but couldn’t, Africa, Africa unchained, and there was no other recourse at that moment but to guard hearth and home, and slam shut the door.”

A monkey. We see Africa. Jack sees a monkey. The book ends well with Jack. Jack and his fellow great white hopes are evacuated from Africa, presumably by lily white marines, his red stick still dripping semen, his African name (Adama Diomandé) and his boubou abandoned. Jack rejects Africa, the monkey and goes home to tell HIS story, history for the rest of us. Yes, in the end, as Adama Diomandé likes to say crickets sing with crickets and ants march with ants. We are not one people. But we are all human beings, I think. I hope.

Poetic license aside, how the world sees us is largely defined by how we conduct ourselves. I think that we are mostly to blame for the caricature that has become our continent.I have often wondered why Western writers like Tony D’Souza write about Africa with what is at best a clinical detachment or at worst patronizing pity for “a continent of gentle savages.” But think about it: What is playing out in Nigeria today in the name of democracy would be an abomination if the white man had simply seized power and proceeded to rape the land as Mr. Obasanjo is currently doing to Nigeria.

Take South Africa. If you go to Soweto, the people of Soweto are enjoying the physical structures that the white man built during the heinous days of apartheid. If things are falling apart over there, it is largely because of the African big men who “liberated” the people from the white man. It is a big shame. So, I think that the questions should be addressed to us and the answers are within us as Africans.What is our purpose as thinkers? How can we best use our gifts in the service of our people? As thinkers, what should be our role in promoting the best of Africa? Why should we? How can we best serve as a powerful voice, as a conscience for promoting justice and equity for all in Africa? Why is it that the only books of ours that the West will buy and sell are those that make caricatures of us? Why sell to the West?

Yes, the book’s frankness was startling. I found Whiteman troubling, if not offensive on many levels. An important thesis in that novel was that white folks really see us as crickets wanting to be ants. It is yet another dagger at the heart of our smugness. The prejudices seep out of Jack, the main character, gently but persistently. Jack has no trouble with having sex with African women; indeed he expects and by his own account gets what he desires. He does have a little bit more trouble with seeing African men as desirable sex objects (humans) to white women. In one chapter memorable for its awkwardness (in more ways than one) Jack goes to visit a female Peace Corp volunteer at her station for some sex and relaxation. She is not home but the black cook is at home preparing a meal for the white Peace Corp volunteer. Jack soon finds to his embarrassment that the cook is actually his friend’s live-in lover. It took him a fairly long while to see this black man as a lover and a peer – of a white woman.

When I first came to America, I was warned by the International Students Admissions Office to stay away from certain neighborhoods. We were virtually barred from going into the housing projects – those camps of bottomless poverty, indignity and despair. Several times I disobeyed that rule and ventured into the projects. It was a side of America that was beyond the telling of it. It was dangerous but full of life sex, drugs and the primitive ways that Jack went to enjoy in far away Africa. In fact, Jack’s hometown Chicago was and still remains the mother of welfare projects. The Chicago Cabrini Green Housing Project was demolished in the mid nineties, thankfully but there are more like that in the cities of America. They need Jack’s services more than Africa’s women. And trust me, he would not have survived to tell the story of sleeping with another black man’s wife in the projects.

But D’Souza’s story is not our story, tufiakwa! Again, I say listen to the gentle roar of the prophet Chinua Achebe in his book of essays Home and Exile:Until the lions produce their own historian, the story of the hunt will glorify only the hunter. I think that all writers of African descent must stop writing for a moment and go read Chinua Achebe’s Home and Exile. It is particularly fortunate and unfortunate that Chinua Achebe’s book remains a timely lesson for the unwary. After all these years.

In Home and Exile, Achebe quotes this horrid passage in V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River

“I asked for a cup of coffee… It was a tiny old man who served me. And I thought, not for the first time, that in colonial days the hotel boys had been chosen for their small size, and the ease with which they could be manhandled. That was no doubt why the region had provided so many slaves in the old days: slave peoples are physically wretched, half men in everything except in their capacity to breed the next generation.”

Fast forward to Tony D’Souza’s Whiteman and read this hauntingly similar passage:

“A very old man in rags was lying on the steps with his eyes open. He looked like a scrap of trash, like someone had tossed him there. First I thought he was dead, but then he turned his head, hacked, and spit, something I understood he’d been doing for a while because of the running gob of spit dripping down the steps beside him like raw egg whites. When he noticed me looking, his bearded face brightened as though something funny had just happened. He said loudly in excitement, “Hey! A whiteman!””

Achebe’s angry words echo in my head and I quote him when I say that these two passages are not just merely troubling, they are downright outrageous. Where is the outrage?

This brings me to my pet peeve: the purpose of our being, the collective incoherence of the African writers of this generation. I hear voices, lots of voices chirruping with a creative and incoherent dissonance. But there is no purpose.I don’t see a purpose. Purpose should not be contrived, should not be by design; rather it should emerge from an aching necessity. We are living witnesses to the unintended consequence of individual affluence, of the shift from communities of many to communities of the self. The result is that the voices of most writers of this generation speak only for the writers themselves. In the meantime, Africa is dancing herself from irrelevance to extinction. We should be worried, very worried.

I must end this on a certain note. As I was reading Whiteman, I spoke with a Nigerian writer friend of mine about my thoughts. I could feel him bristling with controlled rage through the phone. And he asked me: “So, why should you encourage people to read these kinds of books?” I think that it is important to read these kinds of books. They are time-stamps of attitudes, little red dip-sticks of opinions that help inform us of what other people are thinking. Mr. D’Souza has written a book that is very interesting in several respects. I think that it is largely an indictment of us that decades after Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, poetic license or not, a book like Whiteman comes along and nothing much has changed in the heart of the white man and in the heart of Africa.


Here is an interview of Tony D’Souza:


And another write-up:


The novel seems to draw heavily on the writer’s experience as a Peace Corp volunteer in West Africa. You may view pictures of him in the village at: http://www3.shastacollege.edu/tdsouza/

A blurb on Whiteman may be found on his website


Quite a number of chapters in the book are reincarnations of previously published fiction of his. Simply google him and you will come across stories like these:

Club Des Amis:


Sogbo’s Wife


An account of what appears to be an incident towards the end of the book (the anticlimax) is described with less fanfare and poetic license here) by someone else who was with the group:


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