F "How Beautiful We Were" (Cameroon) *Audible - Beyond Achebe: Reading the Continent

"How Beautiful We Were" (Cameroon) *Audible

 The problem with America is that it makes you dream. 


This may well have been the last unspoken dying sigh of Thula–the protagonist in Pen/Faulkner Award-winning author Mbolo Mbue’s second novel How Beautiful We Were (see my review of her terrific debut novel Behold the Dreamers here). The novel brings the macro story of America’s violent clash with the African continent down to the micro, local level as the reader witnesses the village of Kosawa’s multi-generational struggle with the fictional American oil company Pexton. As the story unfolds, however, it’s clear that the outcome is a foregone conclusion.  If only Ta-Nehisi Coates were present at Kosawa to echo the same warning he gave to his own son in Between the World and Me (see my review here):


“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”


Unfortunately for Kosawa, there is no governmental escape valve to protect it from the unquenchable hunger for natural resources. They have a government which neither represents nor protects them. In its place there is only a brutal self-interested dictatorship focused on wealth and power consolidation.  Thus what begins as a violent assault on their land–the violent splitting of ground, the ebullient soiling of rivers becomes a harbinger for the inevitable destruction that is coming for the village and its people. 


Kosawa holds out hope they can resist though, and with the help of a well-meaning NGO are able to send one of their own–Thula–to be educated in the United States.  As Thula’s years in the U.S. pass by, the village tries to resist successive encroachments from Pexton, pinning all of their hope on Thula’s eventual return believing she will return with the knowledge and connections to defeat the hated oil company.  Having studied America’s civil rights movement, Thula eventually returns as a fiery activist who believes she can replicate the same success in her own country.  


But in the end, there is no amount of western education, peaceful protesting, or violent revolution that can stop the hunger for more (it’s notable that only violent attacks provoked any level of progress against Pexton and the corrupt government). The 400 years following Africa’s “discovery” already illustrated the destructive effects of this development (i.e., hunger for more) at the local level, of things falling apart for the Kosawa’s and Thula’s of the continent.How Beautiful We Weres power comes in its naked sadness–Mbue is restrained as she refuses to offer a hopeful note about the plight of this fictional country–instead she offers a cold and despairing eulogy: 


“Someday, when you're old, you'll see the the ones who came to kill us and the ones who'll run to save us are the same. No matter their pretenses, they all arrive here believing they have the power to take from us or give to us whatever will satisfy their endless wants.”

Looking for book ideas? Check out our 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015 and 2014 reading lists!


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1 Comments:

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