Books Magazine

Writers on Location – Melanie Finn on Tanzania

By Isabel Costello @isabelcostello

Melanie Finn-detailThe list of places which have featured in Writers on Location is varied – Cuba, Arctic Norway, Mallorca, Las Vegas, to name but a few – but it is also pleasingly random.  There’s no plan: each post starts with me reading a novel with a brilliantly handled setting and I enjoy fiction set all over the world.  But even so, I’m delighted that Africa is making its first appearance in the series.  Today’s guest Melanie Finn was born in Kenya and her deep knowledge and understanding of this extraordinary continent is evident in her new novel SHAME, set in Tanzania.  She joins me to talk about a subject which is new to the Literary Sofa – witchcraft! (My mini-review follows):

There’s a strong dose of witchcraft in my novel, SHAME; the characters experience it as authentic magic or as the consequence of powerful belief.  I’m 99% sure witchcraft is chicanery.  But that remaining one percent? It was the sliver of doubt I wanted to explore.

Once, I had a broken heart.  My stomach churned, I could barely eat. At night all my dreams were of him – The Bastard, replaying his perfidy.  He was inescapable, haunting me day and night, across continents, from America to Africa. His last words had been:  “I don’t love you anymore, I don’t love you anymore.”

Maasai cows and lengai
The bastard, the liar, the bastard, and oh, couldn’t I just see him, be in his arms, the way he nuzzled my hair, couldn’t I? The bastard, the liar, was he with someone else now?  Someone of course prettier, smarter, funnier?  The bastard, the liar, please please phone me, say, “Come home.”

I traipsed across Tanzania, Kenya and into Uganda, working as a freelance journalist.  I met interesting people, listened to their interesting stories. I appeared to be a normal person, but inside I was liquefying, soft and deboned.

Then, in a market, in eastern Uganda, I found Mr. Farahan, a traditional healer – a mganga, a witchdoctor.  I had come to the market to buy fruit, but an errant turn had led me to his wooden table bearing armadillo skin, bundles of red bark, scraps of fur, shells, dried frogs, glass jars containing powders.

Hosea and Keneto
“Madame, how may I assist you?”

Growing up in Kenya, I had the impression of waganga as clever charlatans who preyed on the superstitious and the desperate.  They evoked shetani – mischievous spirits who walked among the living, casting spells and uttering curses that on occasion had startling effect. Our gardener, for instance, slowly turned grey, convinced his brother had cursed him in over an inheritance squabble.  He disappeared for several weeks, then returned, colour-corrected, satisfied.  He’d traveled to Mombasa to consult a mganga more powerful than his brother’s mganga, and the curse had been reversed.  Now his brother was gray.

So I challenged Mr. Farahan.  “Have you got anything for a broken heart?’  His long, finely tapered fingers skimmed the items on the table.  “A broken heart is a very serious sickness,” he nodded, astutely bestowing my malady with gravity, the way a psycho-therapist might.

But it was a kind of sickness – a madness, to have The Bastard’s voice in my head, and the merciless dreams and the ache lodged deep under my rib cage.  And it was serious, though not cancer, not death, not drought nor pestilence.

The House at Makat
A broken heart is shameful. I’d been left because I was faulty.  Look at you, who would want you?  In SHAME, Pilgrim Jones, abandoned by her husband, concludes: “Life, like a wire, requires tension on both ends.  You care to live and someone else cares that you live.  What’s the point of holding the slack end?”

In that market in Uganda, I was in existential despair, holding the slack end. Mr Farahan picked up a bunch of grass wrapped in twine.  “If you burn this and repeat your lover’s name, he will return to you.”  He then offered me a twig.  “If you smoke this, you will forget him forever.”  He lifted his gaze to mine, he did not smile. “Which do you choose?”

It was easy to discount the grass; The Bastard had made things very clear.  I could burn a savannah and he wouldn’t bat an eye.  So I bought the forgetting stick as a dare to myself, a promise.  I never smoked it, but I did forget. Two years later I met my future husband.

A few weeks before my wedding, the phone rang.  It was The Bastard.  Just in from Patagonia, he needed to see me.  We met.  He showed me photographs of his life on the Futelefu River, rafting, fly-fishing.

Farewell party
“Come with me.”

I laughed gently.  “It’s too late for that.”

“But I tried to find you,” he said.  “You were in Africa, I couldn’t find you.  I knew I’d made a mistake.”

I thought back to Mr. Farahan, his insight that what I had needed was an affirmation of selfhood – the idea of free will, choice.

But trembling somewhere lower in my brain, down in the root of the cortex where we join our ancestors, stirred a notion of real magic:  not tricks or curses, nothing so banal; but the feeling like a closed door at the end of a dark hallway, of mystery.  The choices we make appear formal and definite, but where do they begin?  What led me to Mr. Farahan’s table – a mere error in direction, left instead of right? Or was it some shetani, slipping between the linear, dusty world of human experience, and other plains, other dimensions?  In those unimagined recesses, it crouched, tinkering.

Thank you to Melanie for this guest post, a stunning piece in its own right, and for the wonderful photos.

IN BRIEF: My View of Shame

This is one of those novels that can make others feel uniform, of a kind.  That’s a doubly impressive achievement given that the overarching themes of guilt and redemption are amongst the most frequently trodden paths in fiction.  But as Shame proves, in the right hands any subject has the potential to feel new and different.  The exceptionally vivid physical setting and sense of Africa’s deprivation and abundance is echoed in Pilgrim Jones’s psychological journey.  At times I was caught between feeling I could hardly bear to read on whilst at the same time being unable to put the book down.  Uniquely raw and wrenching, as traumatic as it is beautiful, this is a novel of emotional depth and wisdom in which the quality of the prose lights up even the darkest moments.

Evening from the veranhda


Next week I can promise you another amazing virtual trip, to Cyprus, in a Writers on Location post from Eve Makis, author of The Spice Box Letters, which is set both there and in Armenia at the time of the genocide which took place a hundred years ago.


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