Africa Reading Challenge review: Challenge of the Barons, by Lekan Are

My thoughts on this angry battle cry of a Nigerian novella.  (I love a battle cry that takes place in the halls of academia… once in a while.)

searing critique of aid to Africa tied to services from the donor country, wrapped up in university faculty intrigue

I was at a tiny bookshop in Banjul, the Gambia, picking up novels by African writers when the bookseller showed me this slim volume and said, You wouldn’t like this one! Why not? Because it speaks out against you guys. (I work for an international aid agency.) How could I resist?In 158 pages, Nigerian writer Lekan Are tells a story exemplifying how aid can hurt the people it is intended to help and pad the pockets of the most incompetent from the donor countries. Dr. Onaola Jungu, our protagonist with a PhD in horticulture, accepts the offer to move from his native Nigeria to the fictional country of Kato,* where he will be chair of the Department of Horticulture at the University of Serti.

However, when he arrives he finds the university faculty largely populated by poorly qualified Americans and other ex-pats, hired only because of strings attached to American aid to Kato. Dr. Jungu is unjustly deprived of the promised chairmanship in favor of an American and is made a mere professor. The rest of the book details the intense battle between – on the one side – Jungu and his African colleagues, who seek to improve the education environment and perform research that will help the country, and – on the other side – the American “experts” (and a few African cronies) battling to protect their special interests.

The book is heavy handed, the right and wrong are too stark, and the prose is clumsy.

BUT the story engaged me throughout (except the long account of the dog dying), and many of the critiques ring true. An absurd amount of American foreign aid (much more than most other countries**) is still “tied,” meaning that we “give” to poor countries but only in the form of American goods and services. Lekan Are paints a picture of just how inefficient and counterproductive that can be.

* It’s always a bad idea to move to a fictional country, unless it’s Brigadoon and your true love lives there.

** The Center for Global Development’s Commitment to Development Index states that 57% of our aid is tied to American goods and services, which puts us at 20 of 22 in that category (just above Greece and Japan).




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