Reviewed by Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva
Pede Hollist’s Foreign Aid is a story full of foreign skirmishes. Balogun, a twenty-something Sierra Leonean, arrives in America to become an economist and send his sister Ayo over to also partake of this new life. His physical appearance serves as a metaphor for his existence at the time: he arrives in America as “a wiry-thin young man in his mid-twenties, toting one small suitcase and brimful of hope of becoming an economist…” So certain is he that every physical and emotional need will be met in America, he comes with barely any luggage, travelling only with hope.
His name is also changed to Logan, for the convenience of the American and once again, foreign, tongue. After being (literally) thrown to inner-city America after having been found in bed with the teenage sister of his cousin’s wife, ‘Logan’ learns more than his Economics degree would have ever taught him. Working all kinds of odd jobs, he emerges having ‘graduated’ as a documented citizen in his forties. “Documented, pot-bellied, and with an American twang”, he now has a full-time job and a somber and reliable young lady, Yamide, also from Sierra Leone, or Sloan. She is more suited to serving his masculinity than his previous wife of a failed marriage. In addition, her work as a maid relieves him somewhat of his financial constraints from three child support payments.
Here, it is important to note that it is a fellow Sierra Leonean that is able to support him financially and not an American. After twenty years, he has garnered a semblance of success and, this time with three heavy Samsonite suitcases and a mind full of life experiences, he heads back home, determined to return with his sister Ayo. Logan is a little too eager to display his wealth and status to his disheveled-looking father, stating that he could have paid for the spare parts of his car. On boarding a ferry, Logan dicovers the loss two of his Samsonite suitcases which he had bought for his parents: two symbols of a wildly successful return home have disappeared. He is able to make up for it by offering to pay for a complete medical checkup for his parents and buying the next round of drinks on arrival at home. The mosquito-filled house is an obvious contrast to America.
A similarly stark contrast in accents is apparent here:
Logan: “Get us some drinks Bro.”
Tunde: “Soda Wata Sir?”
Logan’s drawl is supposed to reflect his comfortable state of accomplishment compared to the people of ‘Sloan’. It is rather ironical that when he finally meets Ayo, his now pregnant sister, she is reluctant to return to America with him. The young cab driver at the ferry in whose cab his Samsonite suitcases got lost is also reluctant, preferring to go to Nigeria to realise his dreams. In essence, Logan’s efforts at trying to impress are thwarted by other peoples’ realities and choices. The person who is looking after Ayo is the parent to one of the Syrian children she tutors: his name is Ali and he is the father of her unborn child. When Logan confronts him, he claims that he is actually Sierra Leonean and not foreign at all. In this instance, the man could actually be considered more Sierra Leonean than Logan, whose twenty-year separation has created a huge rift in the physical and emotional landscapes.
Foreign Aid, a story in which the Americanized Logan buys beer and food for relatives and neighbours and also gives out a lot of money, is of course a reflection on the Aid that so many developing countries receive: the money is intermittent, sparsely-distributed and frequently mismanaged.
Ayo’s rejection of her brother’s foreign assistance could be a note to us as readers to find more suitable and workable ways of supporting ourselves. There is a sense of defeat at the end. Firstly, huge disappointment from his parents’ deceit after he found out they too had been receiving money from Ali, disappointment at his empty Fanny pack that was full of foreign currency and also disillusionment that his last attempt at reviving his masculinity has been foiled — the young target of his desire, Tima, failed to make the appointment in the hotel. Emmeline Bisiikwa perceptively states that Tima did not allow her body to be “battered” for mere foreign aid.
The story turns a full circle. Logan’s second return to America is the return of a hapless man, just like the first time. The only difference is that his mind is not brimming with hope, but with knowledge of life’s darker episodes.
It would be interesting to explore other avenues of Foreign Aid in more extracts and Hollist brings to us a reality rarely shared.
However, Hollist tends to overuse similes. For example, on being kicked out of the house:
“With the eagerness of an only child on his first day of boarding school, Balogun disappeared into the gray, half-boarded apartment complex…”
When Logan interacts with his father, the significance of the episode is lost amid a clutter of similes:
“Logan returned the hug with the affection of a child instructed to greet an overweight uncle with bad breath.”
“Are those your bags?” Father rippled with the excitement of a refugee at the sight of a Red Cross vehicle.”
This is the kind of story I would like to read before a dinner of donors and people with skewed images of the West. From Hollist’s bio, we can tell he is deeply moved by the emotional and physical realities of immigration and it would be fascinating to know more about what he thinks of this subject.
Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva is a Ugandan writer. She is the coordinator of the Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation, which conducts annual poetry competitions for poets from the continent.