Servants of the Underground by David Ssembajjo

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Servants of the Underground by David Ssembajjo

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Fascinating, punchy novel about revolutionary politics. A pacy read with some added love interest.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 106 Date: May 2011
Publisher: Troubadour
ISBN: 978-1848765801

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Having experienced a terrible famine in his own country, Kalamchi leaves to travel and learn. He returns with a burning desire to feed his people - but not only to feed their stomachs but to feed their minds, too. Kalamchi wants to raise his people's consciousness so that they can fight against the dictator Bamutu - chillingly known as president for life and after death.

But Kalamchi's path is not an easy one. The population of his country is deeply in thrall to the authoritarian regime and the people look with contempt upon his humanitarian efforts. And Bamutu tolerates no dissent. The narrative sees Kalamchi forced to work on the railways, in the president's garden and as a shipbuilder. After many obstacles and yet another drought, our hero is finally able to get himself heard and sets up the Cafe Royale - a place that not only feeds the needy but also establishes an arena for fierce discussion about revolutionary thought. Of course, Bamutu responds with ever greater violence and repression and even competes with Kalamchi for the love of the beautiful Malita.

Maligned, attacked and even imprisoned, can Kalamchi guide his people to their liberation? And will he ever win, and keep, Malita as his one true love?

Servants of the Underground is a fascinating, pacy novel with lots to recommend it. It covers a lot of ground - the motivations of good people to create better worlds; the travails of living under an authoritarian regime; the clash between revolutionary politics and cultural mores; the ability of love to survive in even the most hostile circumstances. But it never loses sight of its central character Kalamchi and his indefatigable efforts to achieve his noble goals. It's written in a clear and accessible style and moves along at a smart pace, which is nice. But Ssembajjo also has a nice turn of phrase and uses some warm and evocative imagery, some of which is genuinely striking. It really is an enjoyable read.

It's not perfect. Servants of the Underground has both too much detail - this happened, then this happened, then this happened - and not enough. It suffers from a lack of development with some good ideas being introduced and then dropped without them really going anywhere. It packs a great deal into its hundred pages but sometimes it's a slightly frustrating read because these ideas are left hanging. But these are nit picks really...

... and nit picks aside, Servants of the Underground is a punchy novel combining revolutionary politics with a love story. It holds attention well and has a central character with a good heart. You'll root for Kalamchi and his drive to improve his country. I'm glad that I read it.

Readers interested in African liberation struggles would enjoy the fabulous Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - the story of the years leading up to and the course of the Nigeria-Biafra war of the late 1960s.

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Buy Servants of the Underground by David Ssembajjo at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Servants of the Underground by David Ssembajjo at


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