This is the second review of the Caine Prize 2013 shortlist. This week we’re covering “Foreign Aid” by Pede Hollist of Sierra Leone. You can read the story yourself here [pdf] and scroll to the bottom of this post to see the other posts discussing the same story.
Pede Hollist’s short story “Foreign Aid” chronicles the return trip of its protagonist, a Sierra Leonean who has spent twenty years in the States, to his family and home. The return doesn’t exactly go the way that our protagonist, Logan (formerly Balogun), expects. He loses his suit cases, quickly spends most of the money he brought with him, and encounters trouble in connecting with his family over their needs. As Aaron has pointed out, this last part is precisely because the journey “is just a visit, just a brief interlude, a long awaited vacation. This, it seems to me, is where his problems begin.” Logan is no longer of Sierra Leone, he is only returning briefly. While I agree with Aaron that this is where Logan’s problems begin, Aaron calls the return a vacation, and I would push to describe Logan’s trip back more as a debt payment or a journey of obligation. After all, when he’s preparing for the trip, Logan is not ecstatic to see his sister again or eager to catch up with his parents, he brings gifts because he is “motivated by guilt and a desire to make up for neglecting his parents and sister for almost twenty years.” If the immigration officer asked him if the travel was for business or pleasure, it’d be hard to discern by looking at the events that follow.
Once in the company of his parents, Logan offers to pay for things or hands money to his family no less than nine times. But it is clear throughout that Logan has twenty years of debt to pay back, and he never seems to get close. His gifts are lost, his cash depletes, and his sister isn’t interested in his offer to take her to America. Finally, in his effort to confront Ali Sayyar, the father of his sister’s child, Logan encounters the hard truth. Logan tries to put Sayyar in his place, accusing him of being a foreigner and demanding that he support the unborn child, when Sayyar reveals that he is not just the father of the child but he is also supporting the entire family through a host of loans, and that he is a native Sierra Leonean, something that Logan can hardly say for himself after spending half of his life in America.
When Logan explains the situation to his family, arguments break out left and right over the rapidly growing number of debts the family owes this one man. Logan shrinks into solitude for the remainder of his trip, realizing that his absence had left his family in debt, and that his trip to repay his own debts to his family had done close to nothing. His last bit of respite is to go on a date with his sister’s friend Tima, and even this ends terribly. After walking into the hotel “with high expectations, like an indebted gambler into a Vegas casino,” and then he is stood up. His attempt at a last hurrah before returning home to his wife (to whom he might also be indebted, since she refuses to send him more cash as he requests) is dashed, and later explained by a note from Tima explaining her inability to date a married man. Is the house always wins in Vegas, perhaps Sierra Leone always wins when those who leave try to return with only money and intentions.
Besides the frequent presence of debt and obligation, the other major theme here is couched in the title, “foreign aid.” Logan engages in two types of giving, he hands out cash to all of the distant relatives at the party his parents throw for him, and he also gives specific amounts to his parents for specific purposes, such as his mother’s doctor’s visit and his father’s car parts. He also works to change his family for the better, offering his sister a ticket to America and to help his parents understand the benefits of going. As several other bloggers have discussed, this attempt fails miserably. In his effort to set things right with Ali Sayyar, things fall apart even more.
In the confrontation between Logan and Sayyar, it is revealed that Logan’s nativist sentiments collapse under the realization that he is the foreigner in the situation. While it is important to acknowledge that Sayyar is in some ways more native that Logan, it is also important to look at Logan’s prejudice against Sayyar as it relates to the theme of foreign aid. Logan’s attempts at assisting his family, both through handouts and direct (shall we say conditional) aid, fail to meet his community’s needs. Meanwhile, Sayyar is able to pay every member of his family regularly, to the extent that he virtually owns the family and literally owns their home.
Despite his Sierra Leonean citizenship, Sayyar is still a stand-in for the West’s growing competitors in African development: China, India, and the Middle East. As Kola notes, the boy at the end of the story talks of an “opposite migratory pattern eastwards,” moving to Nigeria to learn to become a pilot rather than travel to America as Logan did. I saw these as fairly explicit nods to the growing presence of the greater “East” in confrontation with America and the rest of the West.
Lastly, I feel the need to note how much this story reminded me of last year’s shortlisted story, “La Salle de Depart,” by Melissa Tandiwe Myambo (pdf of the story, my review). It doesn’t remind me of the story because of the similarities, but for the differences. In Myambo’s story, also of a man going back home to visit family, his sister begs him to take her son to America and he refuses because he does not believe it is a good decision and he is wary of its effect on his life back in America. In Hollist’s story, another man goes home and tries to bring his sister to America, but she refuses, saying that “America has problems too” and that she has heard stories of friends who are “worse off in America than here.” I thought it was interesting to see just how directly opposite the two stories were in their depiction of the return trip and of life both leaving your home country and of life being left behind. While much of this story is long and ugly, I think putting it in context of other depictions of the divide between diaspora and home softens it up a bit.
Other bloggers’ thoughts: