Belonging in Africa Book Review by Jo Alkemade

downloadIn this autobiographical novel, Jo Alkemade has made an interesting recollection of her life in Kenya in the late 1978, and onwards, when she was a teenager, until the time she leaves the country for Holland to study for secretariat after an astonishing tragedy. The main character, Sara Janssen, falls in love with Sam, a young Ugandan man, after her failed relationship with a playboy, Leander, and both plan to go to study in London and start a new life side by side, but unfortunately this does not unfold. Sam dies out of food poisoning. His food is spiked with rat poison in Uganda, by his step mother, Matilda, after smacking her child with a slap in front of her for misbehaving.

Sara is devastated by her sweetheart’s death, and bent foot and mouth to attend the burial, she goes contrary to her parent’s advice and travels to Uganda in company of Dennis, Sam’s little brother, and other family members. It turns out to be nothing she had ever experienced in her short teenage years.

Events as they Unfold in Belonging in Africa Book Review by Jo Alkemade

Sara Janssen has just turned eighteen years old; she lives with her Dutch expatriates parents in a posh neighbour in Westlands, Nairobi. Her father works for a food processing company KIKS, while her mother is a housewife. Her friends are Chloe and Geeta, who they school together in Coldham Tutorial College. For her birthday present, her parents pay for her driving lessons at Westlands Driving School. She is ecstatic. She celebrates her birthday and waits for Leander to take her out to dinner. He does not turn up. She is infuriated. The next day, on a Saturday, she heads to Sam’s place, who is a friend of Lavender, and both school in Saint Mary Boys, to enquire why her boyfriend did not call on her. She eventually learns he already has another girlfriend. Her heart is broken. They start a platonic relationship with

Sara, in company of her parents, go for a short holiday in Mombasa shortly after the death of Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, while still keeping contact with Sam. Their relationship grows profoundly, and soon they are dating. They spend time with their friends including Rashid, a Pakistani, Dennis, Sam’s brother, among other friends.

Presently Sam nudges Sara to go visit his friend and schoolmate Daniel, who resides in Kapeguria, in his parents’ house, in a farm, and after along convincing, Sara’s parents agree, and the two set off to Eldoret. The couple have a great time, and consummate their love by having sex, and also have their first fight caused by Sam’s feats of jealousy. All goes well, until they have to leave abruptly after Sam slaps Dennis baby sister, in front of her mother, Mrs. Murgor, for throwing tantrums – evidently this same kind of act is the same thing that causes Sam’s death later on in Uganda – notwithstanding Sam open’s up to his sweetheart and tells her of his deep desire to go and study in London together with her, for he has already got a scholarship, after he comes back from Uganda, where he needs to go and settle his family affairs, since he is the man of the rather large house of three wives and dozens of children, as his father was arrested, two years ago, under Idi Amin regime. The duo happily plan for their promising future.

Sam heads to Uganda and often writes to his sweetheart. Everything goes on well until Sam is poisoned. Sara learns of this when she is at the airport escorting her friend Chloe, who is leaving the country for good. She goes to Dennis, and in company of other family members, head to Uganda. The country is under military rule, and as expected, there are countless stopovers characterised with bribery and insecurity. The whole experience is traumatising for Sara, she learns many things, but in the end, she returns back home in Nairobi after much hassle, then finally leaves for Holland to

Love as a Driving Force in Belonging in Africa by Jo Alkamade

It is evident that what could have possibly driven the author to write this rather tragic autobiography was the sudden loss of her teenage love, Sam. Though not his real name, it is crystal clear that indeed Sara did madly fall in love with Sam, as referenced from their love letters, and the duo foresaw a promising future where they would study in London, then later settle back in Kenya to raise a family, but seldom do things actualize as one plans in life.

This book has such beautiful dialogues, that are well articulated, serene and often times witty. The love portrayed in this novel, from the eyes of a young girl, sometimes makes the reader to shed tears, especially when Sara learns that her sweetheart has died and she has to call home to explain it all. What is even sadder is the last thing Sam ever wrote to her:

“Sara, my number one woman,

I picture you now reading these words the way you described. You sitting on the edge of your bed alone in your room with only my letter, and the door closed tight….

Listen closely to “I’m Sorry”. Do you hear what I’m trying to tell you? I’m sorry for the things I didn’t say.

Sara, I made a mistake. I got weak and distracted from what is truly important. It is you I love. I don’t want a life repeating the same useless behaviour of the men in my family. You know this is true about me. There is a better future ahead for us, one between you and me only.

Sam, though young and inexperienced, honestly loves and cares for Sara and envisions spending his life with her as his wife. Jo Alkemade has perfectly described their relationship in details, and though this is well plotted, it at times brings out the naivety of the characters. The main character comes off as very green and naive. Her reality is of a little spoilt girl, who knows very little or nothing of life. Her life is quiescent and dull.

There are something’s the author describes in the book that are not pragmatic and truthful. For instance there are certain remarks that put things in a bad light and mar an otherwise interesting book:

“Here in Africa, we do not have the luxury of living for love. Even when we have enough to eat, we have more urgent things to worry about, like educating ourselves, and staying out of prison.”

Whereas the author chose the title for the book as Belonging in Africa (an almost divergent title of the Danish author Karen Blixen, Out of Africa, who she seems to adore, who depicts Africa in a bad taste) the above statement contradicts everything about the book and subsequently its main theme, teenage love and loss. It is in my observation, though the book has painted Kenya and Uganda in a good way in the 70s, it still has some negative aspects that many foreign authors take when they describe Africa. All the same it is a good read.


Hi, Thank You for Reading. Please Leave a Reply