As a child, Susi Wyss spent three years in Africa living in the Ivory Coast with her parents. Years later, she returned to the continent as a health worker, visiting and working in more than a dozen African countries over a 16 year period. Now back in the US, Wyss has written a book which she says “is a culmination of my experiences from the time I lived in the Ivory Coast as a child through my career managing health programs in Africa.”
The Civilized World, published in April 2011 by Henry Holt, is divided into nine chapters (or more accurately short stories), each either introducing or making connections between the key characters involved. In Monday Born, we meet two Ghanaian siblings, Adjoa and her twin brother Kojo, living in the Ivory Coast, and struggling to save up enough money to return home and realize their dream of setting up a beauty salon. Adjoa is a masseuse and one of her clients is Janice, an American expatriate, who unlike Adjoa, is happy to be away from home.
“Recalling Janice’s words as she waited for her, Adjoa felt sad. Madame Janice had choices – she could live anywhere she wanted, yet she didn’t seem to belong anywhere. Adjoa, on the other hand, who knew exactly where her home was, couldn’t be there until she had the means to set up a business to provide for herself and her family. How unfair the world sometimes seemed…”
From the Ivory Coast, the second chapter, Names, takes us to Malawi, where we meet Ophelia and Philip, an American couple. While Philip works at the local embassy, Ophelia stays at home, preoccupying herself with mundane chores. For her, life as a foreign service spouse in Africa is nowhere near as exciting as she had imagined, and she must content herself with simple pleasures like discovering why the locals give their children names like Nobody, Why, Square and Address.
In a Modern African Woman, we are introduced to Comfort, an elderly Ghanaian woman who travels to the US to meet her son Ekow, his wife Linda and their newly born child Amanda. Comfort’s is determined to be a good mother-in-law but finds her resolve tested to the limit.
The fourth story, The Civilized World, is set in the Central African Republic, where Janice has travelled with her boyfriend Bruce. Janice, we learn, has since left the Ivory Coast following a traumatic house break-in and moved to Senegal. She and Bruce are considering settling down and starting a family. For Janice, the trip is an opportunity to test how the relationship might work.
The Precious Brother Salon, the book’s fifth chapter, takes us back to Ghana, where we reconnect with Adjoa now back home and well on the way to setting up her salon – unfortunately without her brother, who we learn passed away in Abidjan.
And so, with the key characters – Adjoa, Janice, Ophelia, Linda, and Comfort – all introduced, the rest of the novel sets out on a journey making connections and reconnections in their lives.
What comes across in The Civilized World, is a thoughtful portrayal of Africa, where the characters, African and non-African, each have a perspective on Africa to share and a story to tell about their world. In Adjoa and Janice’s case, we read stories about women showing strength, resilience and survival, in the face of life’s challenges. Janice and her boyfriend bring up interesting perspectives on African cultures and their place alongside western notions of development. Linda and Comfort, on the other hand, demonstrate the universality of certain life truths. Despite coming from different generations and continents, it is striking how their frosty relationship mirrors Comfort’s past tensions with her own mother-in-law.
The Civilized World offers interesting thoughts about Africa and, although Wyss wisely avoids pronouncing her own views, her book is in many respects a call to look beyond traditional portrayals of the continent.
Reviewers Note: The Civilized World was selected by the Oprah Book Club as one of 18 books to Watch for in April 2011.