Bride Price by Ian Mathie

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Bride Price by Ian Mathie

Category: Autobiography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis
Reviewed by Trish Simpson-Davis
Summary: An absorbing true-life African story, perfectly pitched to inform and challenge readers from teenage onwards. Ian Mathie has to set a bride price high enough to deter a powerful thug rather than allowing his thirteen year old foster daughter to be married against her will. I loved it!
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: January 2011
Publisher: Mosaique
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1906852085

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'Bride Price' has proved an even more absorbing book than I anticipated from its Amazon write-up. I read it in a single sitting; the issues it raised overwhelming my thoughts for the next couple of days. In terms of its overall flavour, quality and impact value, I'd bracket it with the classic 'Walkabout' by James Vance Marshall.

Ian Mathie found himself living within a tribal village in the Congo (then called Zaire) in the 1970's. As a rural development officer for the British government, he was tasked with working with villagers to establish safe water supplies in Bandundu province, nearly five hundred kilometres from the relative civilisation of Kinshasa.

The issue around which the book is set is dramatically presented to us within the first few pages. Ian Mathie is fostering a thirteen year old girl when a brutish local official visits, having decided he wants to marry her now she has reached puberty. The dilemma is how Ian Mathie can act within local custom and still deny a powerful man his whim in a time and place where might always wins. The story is too exciting to spoil by giving away many more details!

There are several features of this book that really knocked me out. Firstly, it's an adult book but simply and directly written, and therefore accessible to most people, including pubescent teenagers. As well as a good dose of suspense, the author records some events which few white people have seen. I suspect that many young teenagers would find this book unputdownable and also that, read aloud, several episodes would nail an English class into silence. Ian Mathie understands exactly how to construct a drama from real events: not for him the recounting of tedious details that slow the pace or reduce the tension. Yet the writing remains seemingly natural, the effect spot-on authentic without any sense of bigging up the episode (or its narrator) to prop up a flagging story line. Sure, descriptive details set the drama in context, but they are full of life and every word has been clipped into place.

Ian Mathie as the unassuming narrator who 'goes native' is terrific. Unusually, he identifies respectfully with Inkwiti village customs. He doesn't seem to have any colonial British preconceptions, and certainly doesn't try to change anything except the water supply. With a simple lifestyle learned through an African childhood, an ear for the local dialect and an open, resourceful persona, he is quickly accepted as an asset to the community. Not long after his arrival he is initiated into full membership – which leads him into fostering Abele.

My favourite character is the fascinating witchdoctor, Akuamaba Kau. I loved the way he is never invited to the village, but always turns up when he divines he is needed, and at exactly the right moment. His powers are impressive and he is clearly a force for good, challenging my missionary-inspired misconceptions of evil.

Apart from the menacing Kuloni Nkese, I am struck by the gentle, collaborative lifestyle of these unsophisticated people. But just as I was sentimentalising the 'noble savages' of pre-genocide Africa, Ian Mathie brought me back down to earth with a story of savage retribution which really challenges this reader's assumptions about justice. That's another issue which marks out this book. Add to that the notion of a thirteen year old's readiness for marriage, and you have the basis for several stimulating classroom debates, which is why I'd recommend this book particularly to English teachers.

I hope there are more of Ian Mathie's memoirs in the pipeline. Many thanks to Mosaique Press for sending Bride Price to The Bookbag.

Suggestions for further reading

Top Ten Books About Africa on this website should keep you busy for a while. It includes favourite autobiography, Twenty Chickens for a Saddle by Robyn Scott. Ian Mathie's The Man of Passage is also up on this site. Recent fiction reviews by The Bookbag include Devil-Devil, a crime novel set in the Solomon Islands (OK, it's not Africa) by Graeme Kent, Bait by Nick Brownlee, set in Kenya and Nicholas Drayson's gentle comedy A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson|A Guide to the Birds of East Africa]].

Buy Bride Price by Ian Mathie at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Bride Price by Ian Mathie at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Bride Price by Ian Mathie at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Bride Price by Ian Mathie at Amazon.com.


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Linda Cash said:

This review is excellent and really gets under the skin of what is a very good book! It's a real page turner, and though it is a true story, it is crafted as well as the best fiction. There are other books by Ian Mathie too, including some more about his life in Africa. I particularly liked his short story collection The Man of Passage. Another one is due out later this year according to his website.

- Linda Cash