The picaresque or journey novel in which an ordinary person travels toward a destination using his wits to surmount obstacles is a centuries-old literary device. Agbor Emmanuel uses this framework to reveal the plight of migrants and expound on the socio-political problems plaguing African countries.
Beyond the Sahara focuses on Joe, a poor young Cameroonian whose abiding goal is to play professional football in Europe. Fueled by his determination and wits, he embarks on the arduous journey northward through Nigeria and Libya, hoping to reach transport across the Mediterranean. He eats if he can find food, takes temporary jobs when they are available, occasionally pays for transport on overcrowded buses, barters rides on delivery carts or walks through unfamiliar, often hostile, villages and finally across the Sahara desert.
Throughout Joe’s journey, he meets other wandering young males whom the author uses as spokespersons to complain about government corruption, political and social unrest and anti-American and British sentiments in African states. They warn Joe of military conflicts affecting civilians, droughts causing starvation and the dangerous Boko Haram.
As the narrative unwinds, Joe becomes an Everyman mirroring the plight of multitudes. His story of perseverance is alive with local color regarding even the smallest detail of food, clothing and overall culture. As death, jail, deportation and other circumstances decimate the little traveling group, readers support Joe’s optimistic perseverance against daunting odds. Unfortunately, though, the conclusion leaves Joe in migratory limbo and several questions remain unanswered.
Emmanuel successfully uses Joe and his companions to mirror the universal plight of migrating multitudes, and each segment of their journey vibrates with keen observations about food, family values, customs, superstitions and shifting corruptions of an unsettled Africa. If punctuation errors were corrected and a map included for the education of readers, this novel would be a wonderful book club choice. Its narrative is sure to generate much discussion and offer valuable insight into a 21st century crisis.
Also available in hardcover and ebook.