Whiteman is a novel about a young, idealistic American aid worker, Jack Diaz, who was assigned to the Ivory Coast in Africa and tried to find acceptance in an entirely different culture and environment than he was accustomed to. The first novel of Tony D’Souza explores the adventures and misadventures of Diaz in learning the life in the country, his miserable portrayal of his ‘Africanization’, his relationships with local women, and his failure to grasp the mystery of Africa after a series of attempts.
Jack Diaz was brought to Africa by the non-government organization, Potable Water, to supply clean water to the rural people across the country. However, the attacks on 9/11 happened during that time, affecting the funding of the organization in order to operate in the region. Stripped from his purpose, the foreigner and only white person in the village of Tegeso readily embraced the remote surroundings. Upon immersing with the villagers, Diaz immediately let go of his Western possessions, learns the customs and riddles of the town and liberated himself from any idealistic ambitions, as noted in the book, “As the days passed and the scales of the West fell from my eyes, I saw myself as they did… I turned off my tape player one evening soon after, carried it to the chief’s hut, set it at his feet. My clothes, I parceled out to his sons. My shampoo and deodorant I gave to his wives. In this way, I let the West blow from me leaf by leaf.” (D’Souza 32).
The process of Africanization and the pursuit to untangle the mystery of the country are the major themes of the novel. The efforts made by Diaz to learn the culture of his adopting village were highlighted by his learning of the local language, Worodougou, farming, hunting the native bird Francolin, and discovering a friend in Mamadou. In his desperate attempt to fit in and prove himself to the doubting Muslim locals, Diaz eventually found himself participating in illicit affairs with women including the prostitute, Sabina, and the married Mariam, even when AIDS is rampant in the area as expressed by the narrator in the novel, “My every thought was of Mazatou, of sating myself in her body, and in doing so, becoming a real man of that place.” (D’Souza 79).
Meanwhile, the inexperience of the author in this debut novel is apparent in some inconsistencies with the timeline of the story, particularly in stating that the protagonist arrives in Africa in 1999 and his organization lost funding brought about by the terrorist attack in 9/11, when the said crisis happened in reality only after a couple of years. In addition, the novel lacks cohesiveness as the chapters of the book looked like a series of short stories set in episodic structure (Tung). On the other hand, D’Souza effectively described and expounded on common situations that the readers can relate to throughout the book such as culture, war, friendship, isolation, and sex, adding depth to the novel.
As the reader grasp the heart of the story, the miserable struggle of Diaz in finding himself in a foreign country surface. Realizing that no matter how hard he tried to perfect the customs and traditions of Tegeso, Diaz resigns himself to the fact that he will never be accepted by the people, nor he will ever understand the enigma of Africa. The narrator noted about this desire of approval and pains of rejection as stated, “I dreamed of stars, of moving through them like swimming underwater. I saw a field of grass: calm quiet as the land itself, the first sunlight falling on it, wind rippling through it like fingers, beautiful: the world free of men. Then I was in it: breathing, not African at all.” (D’Souza 197).
Furthermore, Diaz has associated the country with a pet baboon, suddenly released from captivity. The animal was familiar with him in the past but it still tried to attack Diaz when the baboon saw him in an alleyway while trying to flee. Also, the protagonist has compared Africa to a secretive woman, teasing him when he showed interest in her, letting him touch her body, yet she would never reveal her personality. In the end, Diaz recognized the sense of otherness that will be forever labeled with his skin color. This awakening made him doubt himself as well, as the narrator expressed in the novel, “All the things I had been doing suddenly seemed as ridiculous as they really were. The forest, the people, they would never reveal themselves to me.” (D’Souza 263). Then he finally comes home, learning that he did not found out whatever it is that he was looking for in Africa.
Nevertheless, Whiteman is an engaging story of a young man’s journey of self-discovery, acceptance, and denunciation in a foreign land. The willingness of Jack Diaz to leave his idealism behind and submit himself to the local culture and expectations of Tegeso, his efforts of fitting in and failure to be treated as one of the villages own have made him to ultimately find himself in the long process. Hence, his Africanization was not about Africa, but about Diaz after all.
D’Souza, Tony. Whiteman. Harvest Books. 2007. Print.
Tung, Catherine. “Debuting on the Ivory Coast.” The Harvard Book Review. n.d. Web. 29 Sept.