Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


Whiteman by Tony D’Souza




(Mildly Recommended)




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In his debut novel, Whiteman, Tony D’Souza presents protagonist Jack Diaz, a relief worker for Potable Water International living in the Ivory Coast village of Tégéso, in the Muslim north. Known to the villagers by his Islamic name, Diomondé Adama, or as “Whiteman,” Jack struggles to find his place in village life throughout his three years there. Jack putters from one aimless activity to another, stuck in place without the resources to do his original job, so he pings from one relationship to another, always learning a little more about the villagers, and a little more about himself. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of the chapter titled, “L’ETUDIANT,” pp. 46-50:


A boy in a school uniform came and sat in the dust out­side my hut one evening. Six months had gone by, and I felt settled in the village. I was in my field clothes, a rough T-shirt and jeans, which had dried around me like cardboard. The day had been long and I’d worked hard putting up corn to dry on racks I’d built. Despite my fatigue, the boy didn’t bother me. I’d gotten used to people staring at me, understood why they did. I didn’t mind someone like this who simply watched, was otherwise respectful.

The boy’s name was Abou, one of the witch doctor’s many sons, the one he had sent to school. Most families chose to educate at least one son—sometimes even a daughter—to help them make certain they weren’t getting cheated when time came to sell the cotton harvest, and the government men would arrive in the village with their badges and thick ledgers to buy it. No one expected these children to go on to be doc­tors or lawyers. It was enough if they could add and subtract, and follow the buyers’ quick French.

Adama,” Abou said, his thin wrists lank over his knees, “you’ve labored well in your fields today. You cleared many weeds with your machete, isn’t it? You’ve cleared back brush and told the forest that you are a man.”

I didn’t like his tone, guessed he was mocking me as the children often did. Beyond us in the witch doctor’s courtyard, women were pounding dried cassava to powder in their wide mortars for the evening toh. I said, “How do you know what sort of work I did today, or if I did it well? Did you skip school again, Abou? Were you in the bushes watching me like a genie?”

‘A genie, Adama? No. You are sharpening your machete. Why would you sharpen your machete if it wasn’t dull? Adama, why do you work so often in the fields? What is it that you’ve come here to do?”

It was a question they’d all begun to ask. No matter how often I’d explain 9/11, that money wasn’t available to do my job the way it had been in years past, this never seemed to get through to them. “I’m here to help the village have clean drinking water,” I told him, my patent response. Lately, it had begun to sound lame even to me.

‘Ah, Adama, that is good. So you are growing clean water in your fields. That is why you go to them every day.”

“Of course I’m not growing water in my fields, Abou.”

“Eh? So why do you work in the fields if it is not to grow clean water? Clean water is a thing we need very badly. The water my mother brings from the swamp has bugs in it.”

“Times are tough, tough all over the world,” I said, and looked down at my hands, humbled again at my inability to accomplish there what I’d promised when I’d arrived. “Once there was money to do many things. But now my country is at war, and there isn’t. Without money, I can’t do anything. Now I wait.”

“You mean you don’t have a money machine in your hut?”

‘A money machine, Abou?”

‘A money machine, Adama. All Africans know that whites have machines to make money. That is why whites are rich while blacks are poor. You have machines to fly in the air, ma­chines to fly to the moon, machines to grow food. Therefore, you must also have machines to make money.”

I smiled to myself, raked the file quickly over the blade pinned upright between my bare feet. “We have machines to do almost everything. But we don’t have machines to make money. Believe me, if I had a machine to make money, that’s what I’d spend my days doing. I’d work that machine so hard, we’d all be rich.”

‘Also, white babies are born with gold teeth. When the teeth fall out, you collect and sell them, and that is also why you whites are rich.”

“Who told you that?”

Abou shrugged, looked at me with a serious face. “White babies can walk just after they are born.”

“Anything else?”

“White eyes can see into a black man’s soul.”

I shook my head, looked across the village as the drape of evening settled onto it. Women and girls stood upright, lifting and dropping their long pestles like derricks, men and boys in their field rags sat at the fires and looked at nothing. Why argue? I’d once tried to explain what a microwave oven was to Mamadou, came away from that discussion wondering myself if the guiding science behind microwaves wasn’t magic. “It’s a box. You put the food into it. You press a button, it makes a sound, and then the food comes out hot.”

“No fire, Adama?”

“No fire, Mamadou.”

“Then how? Like magic?”

“Not like magic. Like science.”

“Like science how, Adama? How can a simple box make food hot without some magic involved?”

“It’s not just a simple box,” I’d said, shook my head. I didn’t for the life of me know how microwaves worked. A satellite had arced above us in the heavens that time, a steady red dot in the stars. I’d decided against pointing it out to him as well.

Here now, Abou appraised my work on the machete with the same sort of cocked eyebrow that Mamadou had lifted at my mumbled excuses about the microwave, shook his head. They all did that. Nothing I did seemed to conform to the proper way. I handed the machete over to Abou, tossed him the file, and he braced the long blade between his knees and went to work on it. In his hands, the file rasped thin curls of metal from the blade like ribbons. “See, Adama? Anyone can sharpen a machete. Anyone can grow a field. But it is school­work that is hard. Why don’t you come to the school? There are already plenty of people who can do these things you do. Come and teach us about America. Teach us how a money machine is made so that we can make our own.”

Abou’s mother called him to dinner from their hearth, and I tested the blade on a corner of the callus on my thumb. The blade ran through it as if it were a cheese rind. Yes, the ma­chete was sharp, much sharper than I had a knack for making it yet. I lit a cigarette as the last of the stars came out, and Abou and his brothers sat on their haunches and ate with their hands from the bowl of toh their mother had set down for them. The youngest waved to me when he saw me looking. Above them hung the tilt of the Southern Cross and as I settled into my cigarette, I asked myself again, ‘What are you here to do?’


Most of the book wanders about as Jack tries to answer that question from the excerpt. I found that by the end of Whiteman, I neither cared more nor less about Jack. As a former Peace Corps volunteer, D’Soouza writes about what he knows. Much of the realism in Whiteman comes from D’Souza’s experience, especially a dramatic evacuation from the country during a war. Jack’s immersion in the village culture is one of the high points of Whiteman, especially what he learns about correct behavior from his friend, Mamadou. For a debut novel, Whiteman is entertaining and very readable.


Steve Hopkins, May 25, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the June 2006 issue of Executive Times


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