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Novelist Jamala Safari Gives a Voice to Congolese Refugees

In August former Congolese refugee Jamala Safari launched his first novel, The Great Agony and Pure Laughter of the Gods, published by Umuzi. Since the launch both the book and the author have continued to receive rave reviews from local critics and renowned authors such as Lauren Beukes (Zoo City) and Tim Butcher (Blood River).

Safari’s recent recognition and success have been the culmination of an incredible ‘against the odds’ story spanning more than six years and half the African continent. Safari was born in the war-torn east of the Democratic Republic of Congo and travelled overland all the way to Cape Town as a refugee fleeing the region’s violence, staying for some time in a refugee camp in Mozambique en route.

When he arrived in Cape Town, Safari spoke no English and, combined with his refugee status, it was hard for him to find work. He was eventually offered a position as a car guard in Franschoek, under the condition that he learnt English. After three months of self-teaching, he was almost fluent.

Three years later in 2009, having previously studied Science at tertiary level in Congo, Safari managed to get a place to study Biotechnology at the University of the Western Cape and published a book of poems in English called Tam Tam Stories. Meanwhile, he began to spend weekends and evenings working on his novel, which took him three years to write.

From the very beginning, he wrote it all in English, which is effectively his fourth language, saying that writing it in French and then translating it afterwards had simply “never occurred” to him.

The Great Agony and Pure Laughter of the Gods tells the story of a teenage boy named Risto who is forced to flee his home during the Congolese War and is then coerced into being a child soldier. After falling sick and ending up in hospital, he leaves that life behind him and travels across Africa towards Mozambique, haunted by the ghosts of his past.

Safari says that most of the novel is based on “real stories” and that his real-life cousin was amongst the first children to be recruited to Laurent Kabila’s rebel army in 1996. Safari adds that it is important for people to know what is happening in Congo and to give a voice to the increasing numbers of Congolese refugees in Cape Town and South Africa who share similar stories to the novel’s protagonists. Safari first met Lauren Beukes when she interviewed him about his own story whilst doing research on Congolese refugees for her novel Zoo City.

But for all the tragedy and hardship of both Safari’s own life and the lives of his novel’s protagonists, Safari is quick to remind us that his novel is also supposed to be a “celebration of Africa,” adding that there is a “celebratory energy in Africans; an energy that overpowers their pain and their daily suffering”. It would seem apparent that it is this kind of “energy” that has seen Safari come so miraculously far and achieve so much on the back of his own dogged self-determination.

Safari hopes that the book will soon be translated into French as well as various other languages, carrying both his own voice and that of his countrymen ever further across the world.




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