I read Michael Conrad Wood’s second novel, Somali Kiss, first. That was good enough reason for me to fork out R140 for his debut, Warm Heart- i’m so glad that i did! Not least to mention was that Mike was kind enough to drop it off and share some tea.
Warm Heart is a fantastic read that follows a British diplomat’s troubled journey into the fictitious African country of Zungula. Zungula’s run by a despot president seeking a third term that will allow his greed to continue pillaging his poor country. Poor is an understatement, well expressed through a trader’s fight for the survival of his family whilst living in the outer slums of a city. Add a temptress, a wife, a beautiful aid worker, a conscientious civil servant reluctantly embroiled in a crime, all manner of villains, plague, starvation and a prison from hell, and the plot is bound to thicken.
Warm Heart is turbulent with decisions and indecision. It’s spicy with sex and real with love.
Warm Heart is an adventurous page turner that demanded i interview Mike again. His words below will undoubtedly make you realize that he’s one of Knysna’s more interesting residents.
Wicked Mike: Firstly, I loved your debut novel, Warm Heart. Having read your first novel too, it’s obvious you have a passion for Africa. Is part of it that it’s everything your British upbringing wasn’t?
Mike Wood: It’s simpler than that. Malawi was the first country I ever visited. Imagine that. No exposure to nearer cultures in northern Europe. Sudden immersion in a hugely different environment. I could have chosen a cloistered life in a British High Commission compound (as many diplomats do). But I wanted to soak up Malawi. To absorb its profusion of unfamiliar scents, to trek its forests and mountains, explore the vastness of Lake Malawi and engage with its friendly people. Learn a few African words (I’m beginning to sound like Livingstone). The politics were fascinating too – President for Life, the Ngwazi Kamuzu Banda, exerted immense influence on Malawians. He easily and ruthlessly exploited their conservatism. You could feel the power of the man as his cavalcades swept through Blantyre, or when he emerged with his waving fly whisk to the apparently adoring ululations of a thousand women bearing his image on their chitenge dresses.
Wicked Mike: Both your books highlight corruption. In fact, you’re rather fatalistic about its pervasiveness. What experiences have you had that brought you to this conclusion?
Mike Wood: Varied. And it’s a disease. In Ghana for example, it was impossible to conduct even the simplest transaction without a ‘consideration’ or dash, as it is known in West Africa. If you wanted a form for a driving license application, dash was an essential means of avoiding weeks of official procrastination. Obviously the higher up the chain of command, the more dash was expected. In the new, democratic Malawi which I worked in, forty years after my first assignment there, the people suffered extreme poverty while Big Men in government pocketed scarce and substantial resources for themselves. It’s a common enough story in the developing world. But somehow it’s more sickening in a country where the vast majority of people earn less than a dollar a day.
Wicked Mike: How do you see that in a South African context?
Mike Wood: You mean apart from the corrupt practices of Knysna traffic police with their brief from the Municipality to hound motorists for trivial offenses? Unforgivably perhaps, I tend not to get too excited about upstream issues. I reckon it’s for South Africans to agitate for change, not me as a guest in your country. But I’m amazed at widespread tolerance of the obvious crookedness among so many of your elite. As if somehow, their ill-gotten gains were considered an entitlement by the masses. In fact I believe prevailing attitudes stem from the African custom that the Chief is in fact entitled to anything he wants. Okay, Swaziland is not in South Africa, but you ‘surround’ it. King Mswati III is a Chief of Chiefs, technically. His opulence and behaviour at the annual Reed Festival illustrates my point quite well.
Wicked Mike: Should foreign governments butt out of Africa’s affairs?
Mike Wood: The words ‘butt out’ suggest they are not invited in. And that patently isn’t so. I’m an opponent of neo-imperialism in whatever guise, but in favour of well intentioned support. With respect to the former, Africa is slowly being draped in the Red Flag. The Chinese are a nation hell bent on clutching minerals, oil, timber and everything else they can get their voracious hands on. They’re too damned smart for African politicians. Handing out cheap projects in exchange for long term financial gain for the second largest economy in the world, make perfect sense for the Chinese.
As a presenter of World Music on Knysna FM I’m always on the look out for artists who critique imperialism. Italian reggae star, Alborosie has a nice way with words:
“America marching from Iraq to Botswana
And searching for right (stuff) in ev’ry corna
America send you chopa in Angola
Collect diamond from Congo straight to Ghana
America why you turn yuh back (on) New Orleans
You need an humble president for no shotta thing
You need wash yo’ dutty clothes with your own water
And stop abusing every sources inna Africa
Through the Rasta dialect, you’ll catch the drift.”
Wicked Mike: Surely then, foreign aid is an obvious attempt to extract resources or exert leverage on less developed countries?
Mike Wood: Depends which donor country you’re talking about. Obviously I know Britain best. Its policies have ebbed and flowed over the years. But, in general, British aid is very well intentioned. In fact, it is nothing short of remarkable that the British Government continues to provide the equivalent of R150 billion in overseas aid, when it faces such severe financial pressures at home. Our taxpayers are starting to complain. But we have a moral obligation to assist the world’s poor with well directed poverty alleviating programmes, particularly in health and education. I am less enthusiastic about Japanese aid (for example) which continues to be tied to the provision of Japanese goods and services. And since I’ve already referred to the Americans, they are effective in some sectors (governance) but continue to cheat in declaring levels of aid, by counting military assistance to Egypt and Israel.
Wicked Mike: Why make up the fictitious state of Zungula when it’s an obvious reference to Malawi?
Mike Wood: Because although the experience which gave rise to the book came directly from Malawi, it could have been anywhere in southern Africa, or further afield on the continent. For example the tribal conflict which I described was derived from my time in Northern Ghana where I helped mediate a peaceful resolution of a conflict between warring Dagomba and Konkomba tribesmen (5000 deaths in six months).
Wicked Mike: What was the worst or most frustrating moment for you during that mediation?
Mike Wood: Actually, it was all surprisingly simple once underway. The war started when a Konkomba man plunged a spear into a Dagomba over disputed ownership of a guinea fowl. It stood to reason that something material and mutually beneficial might end the fighting. Working with Actionaid (a respected British NGO) and village Chiefs, I authorised funding for a number of small development projects (schools, health clinics, bore holes etc). The only condition of each activity was that opposing tribesmen should participate together in the construction, by visiting one another’s villages. It worked like a charm.
Wicked Mike: How did you celebrate when it was over?
Mike Wood: My celebration is recorded in Warm Heart. In Sunson village (where I was later made an Honorary Chief) night time fires were lit. Village beer was produced by the women and we all had their fill. And most significantly, tribesmen threw their weapons (mainly cutlasses and bows and arrows) into the fire.
Wicked Mike: The bad side of Malawi is clear. What did you love most about it?
Mike Wood: Liquid. Lake Malawi and Carlsburg Green. I don’t mean that to be flippant. Both contributed greatly to my enjoyment of the country. And as the Head of the largest bilateral aid programme in Malawi, I was privileged to have access to many parts of the country which most people never get to. The population of Malawi had tripled in the forty years I had been absent from it. The lake provided much needed relief from work pressures, and precious tranquility.
Wicked Mike: The romantic in you is evident in both your books but there is more descriptive sex in Warm Heart. Sex is part of life and Africa certainly seems to be more honest about its desires so why did you tone down Somali Kiss?
Mike Wood: I’m glad to report that the vast majority of my readers do not obsess about the sex in my novels. I would have been happier if you’d asked in respect of Warm Heart how I came by the heroic character of Noah Godad, a poor trader whose kindness and inner strength shone through in the face of overwhelming odds. Warm Heart, also portrays the British High Commissioner tempted into an illadvised extra marital relationship (with the Vice President’s beautiful wife). This was one of many factors which led to his downfall. Sex, in its most explicit definition, was less central in Somali Kiss precisely because the story revolved around one man’s infatuation with a Somali beauty, and his quest to find her over a twenty year period. His compulsion was driven by a solitary kiss, making the journey all the more remarkable.
Wicked Mike: Married British men being tempted by the pleasures of exotic African women is a re-occurring theme. Your own experience?
Mike Wood: Behave yourself. You should know better than to ask such a leading question. You’re no better than the Knysna Plett Herald journalist who began her interview by asking how many African girlfriends I’d had. That was quite obviously tasteless.
Wicked Mike: So how many did you tell her? Got their numbers for me – ha ha:) Ok, i’ll take the rap on the knuckles and change the subject. So how did you come by Noah’s character?
Mike Wood: He was the trader who sold us most of the African artifacts which adorn our house (including one magnificent piece sold out of the Asantahene’s palace). The tragedies which befell Noah, are described accurately in Warm Heart. For example the storm which washed away his home and hard earned collection of African art, and his suffering in Dedza prison for his crime of stealing a steam engine name plate, on behalf of a British diplomat and collector of railway memorabilia.
Wicked Mike: Nothing like reality to add salt to your story!
Wicked Mike: You’ve taken well to blogging the past year. Does it simply satisfy a writer’s urge to write or is it more than that?
Mike Wood: I like to be mischievous and it can be fun. But it is also a way of letting off steam about things that grate. For example, in my most recent post, the killing of a rhino by a foreign ‘hunting party’ on a South African game farm. I just can’t shut out reports that the rhino cried as the ‘hunter’ delivered the coup de grace (it took the idiot five or seven shots to kill the animal). It seems to me that the SA government isn’t doing nearly enough to eradicate canned hunting of precious species (leaving aside its ineptitude on big business poaching). Perhaps tourists will start to think twice about coming here if government doesn’t buck up its ideas on the rhino issue.
Wicked Mike: Are you busy writing the next book?
Mike Wood: The balance between time spent crafting a novel, and reward in terms of its sales, always needs to be reflected upon. These are difficult times and I understand if the acquisition of the latest novel is not the highest priority. But please, if you do splash out, don’t reaffirm my jaundiced view about a certain addiction with a copy of 50 Shades of Grey.
Wicked Mike: Will you ever write a novel about South Africa…or even your home of Knysna?
Mike Wood: Watch this space.