Book review - So Distant From My Life

Migration is once again headline news, after the home secretary, Suella Braverman, controversially referred to asylum seekers crossing the Channel as an “invasion” as the UK’s handling of them descended into apparent chaos. Halfway through Monique Ilboudo’s astute novella (deftly translated by Yarri Kamara) her male protagonist meditates on how human mobility is defined by perspective and nationality: “Why are some people  expatriates, while others migrateemigrate or immigrate… In French, one expatriates oneself - s'expatrier...  This is a choice: an act of will, not of fire under your bottom. When I migrate, I do not have a choice. It is the winds of poverty or of war that push me out of my home.”

Set in the fictional west African town of Ouabany, So Distant From My Life follows the fortunes of Jeanphi who, determined not to be “a collateral victim of International Monetary Fund structural adjustment programmes”, seeks salvation abroad: “Our common quest is to try to live a better life. I sought to live better… Just a small corner on this vast Earth where I, too, could blossom.”

Jeanphi attempts and fails three times to reach Europe, before meeting Elgep, an elderly Frenchman and “a humanitarian of the luxury sort”. Elgep is in Africa to build vocational training centres for young adults, but his endeavours are being thwarted by warring government ministers. He offers Jeanphi a fast track to Europe if he is prepared to “sacrifice” his sexual freedom. So the young man becomes Elgep’s lover and, later, his civil partner. He is able to enjoy a comfortable life in France but, keen to contribute something to his country, returns home to set up a youth shelter aimed at dissuading Africans from emigrating to Europe. Elgep is cynically aware that such an initiative will easily attract funding from European quarters.

A Burkinabe activist and academic who has served as a minister and ambassador, Ilboudo offers an illuminating take on the many reasons why people leave their home lands. Jeanphi’s frequent digressions and non-sequential narrative add to the sense of an oral testimony. This powerful account is a timely reminder of how wealth can open doors.

Originally published by The Observer