Colourful lives in a dark land

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 November, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 November, 2001, 12:00am

Dancing With The Witchdoctor, by Kelly James

Morrow $250

THE COLOURFUL individuals who pepper this volume of short stories make it a riveting read.

Hitesh, the blind Indian guru with legions of devoted followers in the Kenyan city of Mombasa, has discovered he can dance with the help of an American anthem. His friend, American private investigator Kelly James who has a long history in Africa, has to break the news that Proud Mary is not an impoverished yet strong woman, but a riverboat.

There is no shortage of brave females in Dancing With The Witchdoctor: One Woman's Stories Of Mystery And Adventure In Africa. In fact, the stories which James calls her 'four odysseys' are odes to some inspired women on incredible missions, with a nod to the men who assist them along the way.

'The women in this book are real; their stories are true,' writes James. 'These heroic odysseys happened to me, but they are not about me.'

And the author is true to her word. Although unrelated, each story adds to the next, introducing characters destined to reappear in later tales and building a tension which climaxes in the last epic journey entitled Witchdoctor.

This is no classic 'conquering the African heart' memoir. Perhaps it is the more gripping for its modern setting with its contemporary problems, such as Aids, and ever-present tragedies - war, poaching and prostitution. Feeling at home in this melting pot of cultures and wildly diverse moral codes, James provides an egalitarian voice whose understanding of the continent and its people pervades each page.

In the opener, Detour, we meet the ghost of Freda Wagner, a coffee plantation owner whose suspicious suicide James is commissioned to investigate. Here the writer cuts through the exotic outer layers of African stereotypes and delves into the turmoil of many women's lives. She discovers a woman prepared not only to forgive her late husband's infidelity but also to help his lover and illegitimate child battle the Aids he infected them with.

Yet these stories are only a warm-up for the epic three-chapter Witchdoctor, the story of James and a female companion's survival in the desert. First rescued, then abandoned by a superstitious tribe who believe them to be witchdoctors, the women are subjected to a psychological as well as physical endurance test.

James' down-to-earth tone and ability to infuse humour in the darkest moments add to the gripping stories she tells so well.