A new vogue for things African is on the rise. Books about Africa already published this year, both fiction and nonfiction (on every subject from colonial exploration to the political scene to the current emergence of a unique African pop music), would fill a lengthy shelf, and the trend will very likely come into focus with the release this winter of a film based on Isak Dinesen's "Out of Africa" and "Shadows on the Grass," accounts of her life in Kenya.
The trend should be no surprise, and not merely because of constant headlines about South Africa or news of last year's coup in Nigeria or this year's coup in Uganda. Africa -- that is, sub-Saharan Africa -- has everything: staggering variety, fascinating peoples, gorgeous landscapes, rich histories of tribes, of exploration, of European settlement, the painful experience of independence, political complexity, music and dance, a Babel of languages, oppression both white and black, wealth and terrible poverty, a record of politeness and a predilection for violence. Such richness naturally attracts storytellers.
"The Great Thirst" is a first novel by William Duggan, who has lived and worked in Africa for several years. Although it is far too ambitious for the author's abilities, and displays a range of faults familiar in first novels, it has some great strengths and demonstrates two things very clearly. It exhibits the richness of African tribal history, which to date has been little explored. And it confirms the common humanity of people who, given only a glance, may seem different creatures from ourselves.
Duggan's story covers a century or so in the life of a fictional tribe, the BaNare, living in southern Africa on the eastern edge of the Kalahari Desert in what is today Botswana. There is richer land to the south and east, but tribal wars and tradition tie the BaNare to their own dry spot. Duggan wisely takes the view that the history of a people is the history of individuals, and has constructed his tale to follow the fates of several leading families and the heroes and villains who spring from them.
At the center of the tale is Mojamaje, a hero who, in his long life, becomes a legend among his people. His name means "Eater of Rocks," an epithet given him following a childhood incident when he clung to a stone wall all through a day and night and thus survived a battle between his people and marauding Boers. As predicted by the tribe, he grows to great strength and prominence, a hero in his youth, a brave leader in his middle years, seeing his people through drought and endless strife, and a wise counselor in his old age as the 20th century overcomes by sheer force the ways of the past.
Mojamaje's life is both public and private. In public, there are struggles for position in the tribe, contests with a variety of villains, the erosion of tribal life by the lure of work in the new cities of Johannesburg and Kimberley, and diplomacy, often practiced with considerable guile, with the Dutch and English. In private, there is a wife hard-won over a long period, who several times displays as much heroism as her husband, and a long-suffering but brave mother, equally heroic and often touching besides. There are children, marriages, domestic worries, all of which need dealing with as well as the drought and the attack of enemies. The story, like its central figure, is by turns brave and wise, varied and colorful, filled with adventure, romance, suspense and human drama.
Some of the book's strength, however, is undermined by the author's occasionally poor judgment. He has problems with point of view, particularly at the beginning, when he tries to get inside the untouched BaNare mind but can only do it in modern terms and with reference to historical facts. It hardly seems likely these primitive people would refer to their world as "South Africa." (But then throughout the book, Duggan seems unclear in his own mind about the difference between South Africa and southern Africa.)
References to "private parts," "prurience," distances in "miles," rhyming lyrics for ceremonial songs, all are jarring. And he has difficulties with proportion; domestic problems last for pages, while a plague of locusts is dismissed in a single paragraph.
Yet, though his subject is a bit unwieldy for his abilities, Duggan has unearthed a treasure trove of material and, with reasonable skill, made it into fiction. The major significance of "The Great Thirst" may be as a pioneering effort, but given the richness of African subjects, that alone makes it noteworthy and important.