Far from worthless
An amazing novel that pulls at the heartstrings.
"When the man is born, the child dies.” This African proverb opens Skeeter Wilson’s debut novel,Worthless People.
The start of the novel sees the protagonist, Dave, move from being a child to a man. His friend, Asan, is also poised to become a man but must first undergo a circumcision ceremony. Following this ceremony, Asan and other boys his age will be sent to live in the desert for two years to learn to become warriors. Only then will they be acknowledged as fully-fledged men.
But though Dave is also about to enter manhood, he is treated differently from Asan.
In a clever twist, Wilson reveals that while his protagonist is African, he is also Caucasian. Dave is the son of white Americans who had come to work in Africa.
Dave’s parents may have had good intentions in wanting to help the African continent but in doing do they have become estranged from their son, who feels more at home with the natives of the land than he does with his own parents.
In fact, so uninvolved are Dave’s parents that they don’t even bother to accompany the lad on his first day at boarding school, leaving it to Dave’s friend and fellow boarder Scott and Scott’s father to handle enrolment. Further emphasising Dave’s disconnect with the white world, he speaks Swahili to the woman at the registration desk.
There is another thing that sets Dave apart from the other children at school: he is not 100% healthy. The bones in his foot are not fully formed, and he has heart problems, and both issues do not allow him to participate in sporting events. Thus he is left out of the team-building and bonding games that his fellow classmates and borders engage in.
To pass the lonely minutes during recess every day, Dave looks out of the school compound into the vastness of Africa.
In a poignant moment, Dave tells the African family that he has befriended about how the whites fence themselves in to keep the rest of Africa out. On the surface, it seems as though Dave is referring to the school, where the white children are kept behind the fence for most of the day; but Wilson is also showing the chasm between foreigners and the natives, with the foreigners fearing the Africans to the point that they maintain a physical separation.
There are other ways in which Wilson sketches out the differences between whites and blacks, such as with Dave’s relationship with Gracie, a girl from the Malusi tribe. The divide between traditional Africa and modern America is apparent during the conversation between the two teens: Gracie believes a husband shows affection by beating his wife while Dave maintains love is gentler. While the exchange is humorous, it also shows the vast differences between the two peoples.
Of course, as with most children of expatriates, Dave is aware that his time in Africa is temporary, that his parents will eventually leave Africa and that he will have to follow them back to the United States – which he refers to as “my parents’ homeland”.
In what is perhaps the saddest conversation in the novel, Dave asks Mama, the matriarch of the African family he befriended, if he belongs in Africa. Mama’s response: “My son, you belong to everybody and nobody.” Like most children who grew up learning the cultures of one society while belonging to another, Dave is lost, belonging to neither Africa nor America.
Though it is largely poignant and heart-breaking, Worthless People
is also triumphant in the sense that despite his limitations, Dave has carved a path for himself. His biological parents may be complete strangers to him, but Dave has found a whole tribe that accepts him as one of their own despite the colour of his skin.
Dave cannot explain why his parents ever conceived him and they never tell their side of the story. Perhaps Wilson, who was born to American missionaries and grew up as a Caucasian in British Colonial East Africa, did not know either. The lack of their voice shows the abyss between Dave (and perhaps Wilson) and his parents.
A pet peeve: Wilson keeps referring to the country where Dave grew up and went to school as “Africa” when he should have narrowed it down to one of the 52 countries the African continent holds.
That aside, Worthless People
is an amazing novel that pulls at the heartstrings. It not only shows the different ideologies between two nations, it also shows how the privileged sometimes take things for granted. In Dave’s parents’ case, their privilege was in having him but, for reasons only known to them (and perhaps to Wilson), saving a continent that does not want saving by foreigners becomes their priority.
The underlying message throughout the novel is that Dave wants to belong. Regardless of the colour his skin, his nationality and his passport, Dave wants to be with people who love him enough to want him around. It just so happens that those people are from an African family whose traditions clash with those of modern America.
The title, by the way, does not refer to Dave’s parents but to the Waduni, a people who are so irresponsible they have lost their cattle and are forced to hunt wild animals to survive; they are considered worthless yet are also known to be mighty hunters. In a poignant way, Dave also considers himself a worthless person, as he will not need to hunt to survive in America.
Pick up Worthless People
, you won’t be disappointed.