21 Sep 2011

Corruption in literature - some great reads

The great MG Vassanji, author of many of the best East African novels, was in Tanzania recently, and has shared his thoughts on Tanzania in a fascinating piece published in the Canadian magazine Macleans - "Tanzania: land of constant complaints."

I'm not sure he has it quite right with the headline, since apathy, low expectations and just getting on with things are more my experience. An SNV study, for example, elicited a very different thought from a respondent: "What do we expect from our government? It is like the rain: if it does not rain we try to survive, when it rains we are grateful."

Otherwise, as Pernille argues, Vassanji has captured a changing Tanzania very well. And I can't argue with his litany of challenges facing Tanzania or his simply stated analysis "the problem is governance and corruption."

But this post is not supposed to be about Vassanji's article. It's supposed to be about great fiction on the theme of corruption, inspired in part by Transparency International's recent blogpost on the best movies featuring corruption.

It is, of course, also inspired in part, by Vassanji's article reminding me of his classic novel, The In-between World of Vikram Lall, which is No.1 on my list. No book has come closer to justifying corruption from the point of view of the practitioner, certainly earning the reader's sympathy. An entirely innocent (initially) young civil servant in Kenya finds himself powerless to resist orders from superiors, falling deeper and deeper into a web of corruption, until he finds himself labelled as "one of Africa's most corrupt men" on a list that could have served as a model for Dr Slaa's "list of shame". If you want to understand corruption properly, read this book.

Second comes Nicholas Drayson's A Guide to the Birds of East Africa. Also set in Kenya, this novel has very different tone - it's a gentle, light-hearted book. It's a joy to read, but carries a strong message of creativity and resistance to corrupt politics that was part of the inspiration behind Daraja's Kwanza Jamii newspaper. And I'm delighted to see that a sequel, A Guide to the Beasts of East Africa, will be coming out soon.

Third up, I have The Screaming of the Innocent, by the inspirational Unity Dow. Botswana's first female High Court judge, she famously took her own government to court over women's rights issues and won. She's also a novelist, most well known for Far an' Beyond, a story of child sex abuse in rural Botswana. But it's one of her less famous books I've chosen here, an uncharacteristically gruesome tale of corruption, witchcraft and ritual child sacrifice. Not for the faint-hearted, but a grippingly authentic tale nevertheless.

Fourth, the Last Orders at Harrods trilogy, by Michael Holden, essential (but uncomfortable) reading for anyone working in the aid business. By turns cuttingly sarcastic and gently inspiring, I know of no better portrait of urban East African life. (And I can't hold back from mentioning the other book that I consider to be required reading for those in the aid business, James Ferguson's cutting anthropological analysis of the development industry's failures in Lesotho, The Anti-Politics Machine.)

And finally, thought it's not strictly fiction, It's Our Turn to Eat, Michela Wrong's account of John Githongo's time as Kenya's Permanent Secretary for Governance and Ethics. It makes for gripping reading. I'm told it is available under the counter in many Nairobi bookshops, but not on the shelves.

Anyway, that's my selection. I'm very aware that it's a very East (and slightly Southern) African list, while surely East Africa doesn't have a monopoly on corruption fiction.

Feel free to tell me where I'm wrong and what I've missed.