Listen To The Drums| An African Odyssey| By Barbara Olive Smith
Aspect Design (Amazon.co.uk, £8.99)
Reviewed by Sarah Proctor
Step into a vivid, unpredictable world and time far removed from most people’s experience in Barbara Olive Smith’s story set in West Africa in 1949.
Newlywed Heather is arriving in Facriwa to join her Colonial Service Officer husband Edward. She has to deal first with the heat, noise and confusion, then with the severe lack of modern conveniences. Then there’s the wildlife – and soon, too, the various expectations of the local people.
Naïve though she may be at the outset, Heather is a feisty heroine from a large family. She adapts quickly to mosquito nets, weevils in the flour and the fact that her every action is broadcast across the district by the night-time village drums.
There is an undercurrent of strange unease, though, as she senses the power of Kovina. He’s the son of a chief now working for the government and she is immediately aware of his compelling, hypnotic gaze.
Juju signs left as threats
Heather gains initial popularity for easing villagers’ ailments with her knowledge of first aid and hygiene. But she soon finds she has made a powerful enemy as she has set up in unwitting competition to the local witch doctor, Komfo.
While she is not as spooked as Sammy, their houseboy, by the juju signs left as threats around their home, she concedes reluctantly that it would not be wise to continue with her unofficial clinic. However Komfo is not appeased.
Then one night there is a road accident outside their house. The injured man disappears mysteriously before help can be summoned…
Events are of their time, but people are portrayed with affection and respect
Barbara Olive Smith spent a number of years living in West Africa, which undoubtedly adds warmth and the ring of authenticity to her descriptions. The tensions as the colony moves towards independence, and the threat of violence, are very real throughout.
Heather and her young family endure some terrifying situations, but eventually Heather’s jaunty confidence always reasserts itself. She is not averse to playfully throwing things at her husband!
There is much local colour to savour and luxuriate in, too, from the eclectic merchandise of Paradise Stores to the lush greenery after the rains and the brightly coloured “mammy cloths” worn by the women.
There is also great affection for the people. For Musah, the quiet, wise gardener who is more than he seems, for troubled young wife Comfort, for cheery, superstitious, corner-cutting and accident-prone houseboy Sammy – and for the increasingly mysterious Kovina.
The book revolves around the Colonial set-up of white incomers having imposed their own system of government – along with building schools and hospitals – and local people being employed as servants.
However burgeoning political opposition and traditional ways are explained with understanding, and the people are portrayed with affection and respect. The events are of their time, but the perspective has a greater degree of maturity and sensitivity.
A wonderfully unpredictable adventure
Listen To The Drums is the kind of book whose world continues to exist in the reader’s head long after the last page has been turned. In some measure it apparently continues to exist in reality, too – just witness a rapid-fire conversation in pidgin between Leonardo di Caprio’s character and a crime lord in the 2006 film “Blood Diamond”. That threw up an unexpected, vivid echo of the language and sometimes-dangerous situations described in the book.
In fewer than 200 pages are crammed a travelogue, a wonderfully unpredictable adventure, a time-capsule of declining Colonial rule and a love story, enriched with moments of humour, horror and the supernatural.
Barbara is one of the many writers whose short stories have featured in My Weekly. See more reviews and stories here