Baturi by Matthew Stephen
|Baturi by Matthew Stephen
|Category: General Fiction
|Reviewer: Zoe Morris
|Summary: A wonderfully evocative story of life as a VSO in Nigeria, this combines neat observations of everyday life with some rather unconventional plot twists. Highly recommended.
|Date: October 2014
|External links: Author's website
It's Nigeria and it's the 80s. Matthew is a VSO, on a placement at a college teaching electronics. Or trying to at any rate. When language skills are limited and resources are scarce, you have to make the most of what you've got, even if that means teaching the odd class on American culture rather than rewiring. If I tell you that the Prime Directive applies a lot when you're a VSO, you'll appreciate the difficulties Matthew has when his students want to stray further into the modern world and learn about how things work in Britain, concepts of inventions such as ATMs that are decades off reaching Nigeria (Those days may still be some way off. I actually had a handwritten bank card a few years ago while a VSO in a country not too far away).
Cultural integration, as Matthew tells us, is the key. If you don't assimilate you will not survive, and part of this is adapting to local ways of life. Matthew is a man of simple pleasures – some food that won't confine him to the toilet for days afterwards, a chilled mineral on a sweltering day. His habits and patterns are ingrained, borne out of his environment, and the repetition throughout the story is soothing. When the heat gets too much he wanders down to a stall for a cold drink because that's the way things work over there, you buy then and there what you need for then and there. Some things never change. Even in 2010, you could get an ice-cold Diet Coke if you went to the supermarket in Sierra Leone, but your VSO home would have no electricity, and no fridge, to keep a stockpile to hand. The story starts slowly, with mundane observations such as these, but the town is so foreign, and so vividly described I devoured every word and would have been quite happy had it ended there.
It didn't. Just as we're beginning to appreciate the struggles of everyday life for this Baturi (white man) the story picks up pace. Through a series of unfortunate and ill-thought-out events, Matthew finds himself on the wrong side of the law, unsure who we can trust and uncertain how he's going to get out in one piece. You can imagine the state of law enforcement in Nigeria at that time, and it's a scary position to be in. The plot unfolds quickly and I noted the way things seemed to go round in circles because that epitomises life in countries such as this, nothing is straight forward, everything is convoluted, and sometimes you have to wave cash in someone's face to get them to do what you want. Of course, as a VSO you have very little cash, which only adds to the fun (for the reader) and frustration (for the volunteer). Anything goes in these situations, and it was refreshing to have little clue how the story would end because if there's one thing you learn as a white (wo)man in Africa, it's that for you at least, nothing is predictable.
The descriptive passages in the book are excellent and easily paint a picture of a place few readers will have experienced. For those who have been there, done that though, it's a real blast from the past. When Matthew talks about his furniture I remembered the foam sofa and chairs that were made new for me, all covered in a matching garish fabric. When he mentions the bundle of twigs that serve as a broom, I recalled trying (and failing) to do much sweeping with my own version. The observations on local life are equally telling. Nigeria in the 80s was a corrupt place by all accounts, and he neatly observes that only the corrupt would get ahead, for it would be unsafe to grant opportunities to anyone who had not demonstrated their penchant for unethical ways, lest they rat out those at the top when they joined them up there. This is of course not unique to Africa – in Mexico a few years before my VSO experience I remember happily bribing a policeman because his fee was less than the fine he would otherwise be levying on me. C'est la vie.
These are some of the things you learn as a VSO. You've not drunk water until you've drunk it from a square plastic bag, biting off the corner and draining it dry. You've not settled in properly until you've been rather ill and hidden it from the folks back home, failing to mention extreme stomach sickness (in his case) or Malaria (in mine) until you're on the mend and ok to write 1980s letters or 21st-century blogs about it. And you've not really understood karma until you've been let down by the police but then had things righted by the community. VSO appeals to people for different reasons, but to give up your life (and girlfriend) back home to take on a 2-year placement in the most foreign of environments takes some guts. Not everyone will get it, but this story goes a long way towards explaining not only the why but also the how and what it's like to be that person in that place. There are some initials that, simply put, define you. I'm heading to a meeting next week with someone I've never met before, I looked her up on Twitter and it said MTS 99. Which may not mean much to many, but I knew exactly what it represented as I'm MTS 04. VSO is a bit like that. My placement was maybe 25 years after this Baturi's but immediately on starting to read this I felt a connection. It's a cliché, but you don't understand unless you've done it. Of the dozen countries I've lived and worked in, my VSO experience stands out as unlike anything else, for good and bad reasons, and as Matthew regales his tale I got the distinct impression that this was the same for him.
I'd like to thank the author for sending us a copy to review. I enjoyed it immensely and will recommend it to my VSO friends who will identify immediately but also to others who could learn a lot from it. It may not encourage you to sign up as a volunteer, but it will give you a new understanding for those who do and the true implications of it all.
If you're itching for more on Nigeria after reading this (I am!) then Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is well worth a look. You might also get a lot out of Eat With Pleasure by Akon Margaret Kalu.
You can read more book reviews or buy Baturi by Matthew Stephen at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
You can read more book reviews or buy Baturi by Matthew Stephen at Amazon.com.
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