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Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Monk of Mokha: Yemen and Coffee and Inspiration

Dave Eggers is one of those rare writers who can make me care intensely about something I knew nothing about before. He did it most notably with his novel What Is The What, about the Lost Boys of the Sudanese Civil War. And here, in his latest narrative non-fiction The Monk of Mokha, he pulls off the trick again with Yemen, coffee, and an inspirational, enterprising young man named Mokhtar who wants to bring Yemeni coffee back to its former glory.

You may not be aware — I sure wasn't, and neither was Mokhtar, until his moment of inspiration — that coffee was "invented" in Yemen, by a dude who was dubbed the Monk of Mokha (Mokha is a port city on the Red Sea in Yemen). Even though people used coffee beans in Ethiopia as stimulants prior, this fella was the first person to brew coffee.

But so, our real-life hero Mokhtar, an American of Yemeni descent living in San Francisco, casts about for what to do with his life — he's sold cars, he's worked as a doorman at an expensive apartment building, he's been a teenage hooligan. One day, he notices a statue of a guy drinking coffee outside the apartment building, and has his flash of inspiration. He begins studying the history of coffee, learns how to be a Q-grader (assigning coffee a score based on taste), and travels to his ancestral homeland to try to import specialty Yemeni coffee back to the US.

But to build a viable coffee business, Mokhtar has an uphill battle on a number of fronts. Most Yemeni farmers have switched to growing qat (or khat), the stimulant leaf popular in Arab culture. The farmers that do grow coffee sell it in bulk as a commodity instead of as a specialty product. And these farmers use poor and antiquated methods for harvesting. And finally, oh yeah, there's a civil war happening!

Mokhtar persists. When some samples he brings back score very highly, he knows he has a business. He just has to convince the farmers to sell to him (though he doesn't yet have the capital), harvest, process, and store the beans, and then ship several tons of coffee out of a war torn country. No problem!

Eventually, the war becomes literally life threatening. So Mokhtar's last challenge is simply to escape Yemen with his life by any means necessary. If you'd sort of been just trudging through the book before, this is where the narrative really gains some speed. It's as fast-paced and pulse-pounding as an adventure novel. But again, it's real!

So even if you don't care a whit about Yemen or coffee, this is still a great read. (All most Americans seem to know about Yemen is what they learned from Friends.) You do have to keep reminding yourself at times that this is a true story — inasmuch as any narrative non-fiction this detailed can be true. But it's an inspiring story, to be sure. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Welcome To Lagos: Clobbered By Life, How To Be Good?

Chibundu Onuzo is a 27-year-old Nigerian writer who has already published two extremely well-received novels — her first titled The Spider King's Daughter when she was 21, and her second novel, Welcome to Lagos, which just came out in early May. Yes, she's a bit of a wunderkind, and so I've been excited to read her for that reason along. But also, because I've read every word another  famous Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, has written (Americanah is still one of my favorite novels of the last decade), I've become more and more fascinated by Nigeria and its notorious megacity, Lagos (population: 21 million!).

Welcome To Lagos absolutely fed that fascination. Onuzo's terrific, fast-paced story examines the good and the bad of Nigerian society through the eyes of several people who just get clobbered by life, and must swim back upstream to make their way in the world.

The story starts with a soldier named Chike, who is patrolling the Niger Delta, where oil companies have ravaged the area to drill, and insurgents constantly siphon off oil and sell it for their own gain. When Chike is ordered to set fire to a seemingly innocent village (that may or may not be "harboring" insurgents) he and another guy named Yemi desert the army. They make their way to Lagos, on the way picking up a band of refugees who are also on the lam from various other problems — a young woman named Isoken who was nearly raped by insurgents, but escaped and now wants to start over in Lagos; a young man named Fineboy who was part of the troop that tried to rape Isoken, but wasn't present at the time, and decided to desert after that incident; and another woman named Oma who is running from an abusive husband. These five people rely on and protect each other, like a family unit. Thrown together by circumstance, they trust each other almost immediately, and almost unconsciously begin functioning just like a family — splitting the chores, cleaning and cooking, and helping each other look for work. Chike even reads them Bible stories each night before bedtime.

Meanwhile, a newspaper owner from a background of privilege named Ahmed gets in hot water by publishing scathing reports of the corruption at the highest levels of Nigerian government. And a high-level education minister named Chief Sandayo absconds with $10 million that had been earmarked for Nigeria's desperate schools.

The stories of all these characters converge when Fineboy finds an abandoned apartment that used to belong to Chief Sandayo. When Sandayo arrives there with his ill-gotten money, they sort of kidnap him, call Ahmed to write the story, and then must decide what to do with this apparent windfall. Will they use it for good, or for their own gain? Welcome To Lagos is about what it means to be a good person amidst the easiest temptations to do bad; about what it means to be moral when everyone else seems to be immoral.

I loved this book — it's completely different than what I thought it'd be when I picked it up. It's fast-paced and high drama, while still pausing here and there to flesh out each of these characters enough to make them real and three-dimensional. Of course, Lagos is a character as well — Onuzo seems to really love her homeland, lumps and all, and that shines through clearly.

This is highly recommended for fans of Adichie, yes, but also fans of any well-written, morally complex, fast-paced story. Bravo, Onuzo!