But contrary to the saying “Happiness is in your own backyard,” so popular and so untrue, it wasn’t—not over there, anyway. Pg.57
The United States of Africa is a deeply satiric that imagines an alternative history in which African states occupy the role of Western nations today and Western nations find themselves in the so-called ‘third world’ space, strained by its constant problems; immigration, diseases, foreign aid tinged with ulterior motives, and more.
In the world imagined between the short chapters that present themselves as news reports from different areas of the world, AIDS first appeared in Greece and ravishes the Caucasian ethnic groups: Norwegian, Belgian, Hungarian, British, Swedish, etc. A refugee fleeing ethnic violence in Zurich is treated by Gambian nurses in Banjul with the same aura of fascination, exoticism one would approach a wild animal, reminiscent of the way North African refuges arriving on Western shores are approached today.
Waberi uses actual text sources, real people and real ideologies to weave a masterful narrative. Wole Soyinka, Achebe and Wa Thiongo become globally revered heroes. And ‘birdbrained’ kids demonstrate outside of McDiops and Sarr Mbock, chanting “End African domination” and decrying the restaurants genetically modified foods which the rag pickers of Vancouver and Convicts of Melbourne are grateful to gulp down.
Despite this world being one that could have very well, in different circumstances, occurred, what emerges out of Waberi’s re-imagination is a world exactly like the one we currently occupy. Full of politics and chasms of inequality, where the rich run over the poor and create laws that protect themselves. It’s still a world dictated by skin color and origin, one where labels and stereotypes attach themselves to people with a vise-like grip determined to strip them of their humanity. And governing African bodies meet frequently to determine what to do about the world resources when they, like western nations today, have implicit roles in depleting those resources and cheating the people who directly need them out of it. Waberi seems to suggest that even if the world were different, even if African nations collectively won a series of attacks that forever altered the course of their histories, the world would possibly remain the same.
Yet amidst this furor emerges Malaika, a young girl adopted by an African doctor on a humanitarian mission to France. Now grown up as an artist, Malaika travels to the land of her birth in hopes of finding her mother—and herself. And through her journey and her art, Waberi gives us glimpses into ways of bridging the divides that trouble our worlds.
Deeply hilarious yet biting and derisive, The United States of Africa is a glimpse both into an alternate past and an alternate future. Brilliant and short yet written with an elegant simplicity that belies great depth, it’s a novel aimed for the critical thiner in all of us.
The United States of Africa by Abdourahman A. Waberi. Translated by David and Nicole Ball