WM: Who is Mike Wood? What sums you up?
Mike Wood: ‘O wad some power the giftie gie us, To see oursels as ithers see us!’ I tend to agree with the sentiments of Robert Burns. Others may judge me for what they think I am.
WM: You obviously have a passion for Africa. What do you love most about it?
Mike Wood: In romantic mode I might answer ‘the big clear skies, the wide open wilderness spaces, the magnificent wildlife.’ But then I might sound more like Karen Blixen, and in any case at least two of these were missing in Ghana (a place which I hold in particular affection). It is African people that so fascinate me; their different cultures and modes of behaviour; their resilience and optimism in the face of sometimes depressing adversity.
WM: Is any part of Somali Kiss derived from real life experience?
Mike Wood: I met someone very like ‘Amina’ in Mogadishu. She helped manage a UK forestry project, guided me through the old quarter of town, and steered me clear of a public hanging. It has long played on my mind what became of her when Siad Barre’s regime collapsed and the war lords reigned supreme. I hope she got out.
WM: How did you settle on the names Stewart Munro, Amina Addullahi, Jamila and Nimrod, the main characters?
Mike Wood: The first three are respectively Scottish, Somali and Kenyan in origin and therefore fully in context. The historical meaning of ‘Nimrod’ is ‘mighty hunter.’ I didn’t choose the name with this association in mind, however. Africans often bear what appears to Westerners, rather odd names: Patience, Beauty, Magnificent etc. I thought ‘Nimrod’ rolled off the tongue quite well, and somehow fitted his personality.
WM: How does your wife feel about your manly observations and main character’s experiences with women?
Mike Wood: She knows that there is no autobiography in Somali Kiss.
WM: You were involved at entry level with regards aid and development? Who did you work for and what were your roles?
Mike Wood: By ‘Entry Level’ I’m assuming you mean ‘at the sharp end of aid delivery.’ Before retiring to Knysna, on behalf of the British Government’s Department for International Development, I led a team of more than 70 aid experts and managed an £80 million (R960 million) per annum aid programme in Malawi. I had similar though more junior roles in Ghana, Kenya and Barbados. I also spent two years with the World Bank in Washington DC as well as managing some aid programmes from my London base (eg China, parts of Latin America, and UK’s remaining Overseas Territories including volcano-struck Montserrat).
WM: Which was your favourite country and why?
Mike Wood: I could not pinpoint a favourite. Each had its own attractions. But my most heartwarming experience was in northern Ghana. I’d been working with Actionaid to help reconcile the warring Dagomba and Konkomba tribes (see Warm Heart for fictionalised detail of this conflict). After more than 7000 recorded deaths, I witnessed women and warrior representatives of the two tribes celebrating peace together in the twilight of Sunson village. They paraded around a large fire and threw weapons into it (mainly spears and bows and arrows), while each tried to outdo one another with the vigour of their singing and dancing. Wonderful.
WM: Do you believe that cultural differences can be, or should be, overcome?
Mike Wood: Why? Cultural differences should be celebrated.
WM: What worth are the UN, aid agencies etc. when comparing effort versus effect?
Mike Wood: It is easy to critique the UN as an overblown, overpaid homogenous group. Some of its specialised agencies are still seen as helpful, however. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) leads international efforts to defeat global hunger. Their wider mandate includes improving agricultural productivity, and raising nutrition levels in rural populations. But we might still ask if, for example, bombarding rural farmers with (expensive) high yielding varieties of seed and fertiliser, is the right approach if this merely creates farmer indebtedness and forces them to sell their land to someone who farms by remote control on a massive holding. Many aid agencies, whether UN or bilateral, can be pretty good at consulting with aid recipients, and adopting appropriate practices and policies. But for every success, there is a white elephant waiting to be uncovered, and unfortunately it is the latter which tends to absorb a disproportionate amount of available aid money.
WM: Are they simply, in some way or another, part of the problem e.g. “You open your poor country up to free trade and we’ll give you money and food in return for us making more money and indebting your children and grandchildren to our banks?”
Mike Wood: That’s cynical. It’s not that they are trying to exploit via a cabal of ruthless policy makers. Most aid is well intentioned. It’s not always well directed. As I’ve suggested, more ought to be untied so that it is not linked directly to goods and services from the donor fraternity. As for bankers, well, we are all their victims, are we not?
WM: You provide an alternative, somewhat moral reason for becoming a Somali pirate. Do you believe that violence can be justified?
Mike Wood: Actually, there was no violence in Nimrod’s act of piracy. I subscribe to the view that some real life Somali piracy had its origins in local people feeling helpless about foreign fishing fleets depleting stocks, or larger vessels dumping toxic waste in Somali waters. There is much empirical evidence to suggest that unscrupulous foreign powers and/or commercial companies exploited the chaos that was, and still is evident in Somalia. I do not believe in violence per se. But sometimes activists can be forgiven for propagating the view that there is no other course. Ask Mandela (now revered) if he still believes ANC bombs were justified in the days of the Nationalists. Surely he would answer yes.
WM: What made you finally give it all up and choose Knysna as your new home?
Mike Wood: I’d devoted more than 30 years to the aid business (last word not a careless slip) and I’d had enough. Working on project activity in the field was stimulating and even fun at times. Sitting in Lilongwe offices, discussing financial aid with Ministers was far less rewarding. Warm Heart, a thinly disguised account of corruption, aid and treachery in Malawi, allowed me to get a lot off my chest. I’ve now lived in Knysna longer than anywhere else in my life. It bodes well. As a beautiful and largely peaceful location, there are few places that compare (unless you happen to enjoy hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis etc).
WM: How long have you been living there and in which area do you stay?
Mike Wood: Nine years in Belvidere, give or take a few months a year which we take out to travel.
WM: Knysna is a town of contrasts. What are its best and worst aspects?
Mike Wood: It’s easy to make friends here, and unlike in the diplomatic world, I’m hoping these aren’t transitory. I like the buzz around town but I feel uncannily uncomfortable about the plight of so many people living on the hill above us. As a local and national taxpayer I’d like to see more evidence that the lives of folk in White Location or Nekkies or Dam se Bos are getting better. But where is the public pressure on our Municipality in response to its propaganda-like Newsletter.
WM: Are you semi-retired or do you forsee a role of any kind in your new community?
Mike Wood: I’m fully retired. I’m drawing a pension for goodness sake!
WM: What is the future for authors in the context of a world that reads less as education levels devolve?
Mike Wood: I write to keep brain cells alive. But I’m glad I don’t have to do it for a living. ‘It’s hell in the tropics: the heat, the flies, the dust ……’ I think you are suggesting that contemporary products of education systems, be these from developed or developing countries, are somewhat dumbed down from days of old. Certainly there appears to be less curiosity about things nowadays, more apathy. Some of that reflects back when I tell people I’ve written another novel.
Quick change of subject. Writing in Knysna, like locally produced art or music, should be celebrated, and authors made to feel proud of their achievement in getting published. The Americans are very good at this. We are not. That is why I applaud those who are organising and putting their weight behind the forthcoming Knysna Literary Festival (27-29 April) in which I’m taking part not only as an author, but also on the panel of judges for Knysna’s young writers.
WM: I enjoyed Somali Kiss, and applaud you for writing it, my reason for interviewing you, so let’s end off with it. Give those reading this one good reason why they should read it.
Mike Wood: I can do little better than quote Peter Hinchcliffe, Editor of the UK’s Open Writing Web Magazine. He describes the book ‘contrasting two lives in Kenya and war-torn Somalia (as) utterly absorbing.’
WM: And once they have, what do you hope that they will have experienced?
Mike Wood: The book casts a different light on Somalis and Somalia. You will have experienced this corner of the Horn of Africa from a position of comfort, absorbed some of its horrors, yet risen to applaud the exploits of its heroes, Amina and Nimrod.
Visit www.michaelconradwood.com to learn more about the author or to buy his books. You can read more serious questions and answers about black beauty, AIDS and Ghana on my personal blog (beware, my diary’s not for the faint-hearted).