BookBrowse Reviews A Man of Good Hope by Jonny Steinberg

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A Man of Good Hope

by Jonny Steinberg

A Man of Good Hope by Jonny Steinberg X
A Man of Good Hope by Jonny Steinberg
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2015, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    Dec 2015, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte
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A Man of Good Hope is the story of one man's life - and his need to make it something of worth.

Almost anybody with an ear to international events is aware of the humanitarian crisis in Somalia where civil war since the early '90s has lead to the displacement of upward of a million Somalis.

Asad Hirsi Abdullahi is one such refugee. By the time the author Jonny Steinberg is introduced to him in 2010, Asad is in Blikkiesdorp, the ghetto "described as Cape Town's asshole, the muscle through which the city shits out the parts it does not want." Recognizing that there might be more to this refugee's story, Steinberg gives Asad seven thousand rand (nearly $600), enough to start a small business, in exchange for his life story, which forms the crux of A Man Of Good Hope.

When Steinberg first meets Asad, it had been two years since xenophobia spread through Cape Town forcing many foreigners like Asad to flee. As violent as those incidents were, Asad is sadly no stranger to such misery. He was just eight when militia forces overran his Mogadishu home and shot his mother. The rest of the family was displaced as a result. This seminal event sparked a series of temporary arrangements for the young Asad, who was forced to make do with the barest minimum of food, shelter and clothing and to rely on an extended safety net of Somali clansmen that provided very little real help.

Asad travels from town to town, and from country to country (highlighted by maps in the book). He finds some amount of succor in Somali camps, whether it be Eastleigh in suburban Nairobi (a neighborhood Asad mistakenly pronounces as Islii) or Bole Mikhael (also spelled Bole Michael) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, but his heart-wrenching losses might jade even the hardiest souls. However, Steinberg's narration is a brilliant piece of sleuthing, one that doesn't stop merely at shining light on Asad's myriad problems, but further positions them in the right context, showcasing the man's incredible resilience and spirit. Case in point: Since Asad can only depend on his street smarts to survive, he develops a keen sense of business acumen — making do by delivering large barrels of water to cafes in Nairobi or ferrying passengers between Cape Town and Pretoria for a lower price than what the South Africans charge.

The real touching moments in A Man of Good Hope are not the readily obvious ones of large and spectacular losses. They come, instead, in the smaller personal memories that Asad holds dear. These observations underscore his refugee status better than any grander events can. For example, in South Africa, he gets to visit his uncle Abdicuur, whose house is in a suburb in the white town of Uitenhage. When asked what struck him most about that visit, Asad says he remembers that the house was full of things. What things? Steinberg asks. "Asad is at a loss when I ask him to recall precisely what, but they were the sort of things, he says, that gradually fill a house inhabited by people who have money," Steinberg writes. It's a point of view that speaks volumes, not just about Asad's lack of money, but also about the constant displacement that has prevented him from setting roots down in any one place for long enough to accumulate "things." There are many such moments of discovery for both Asad and the reader — the time when Asad learns he is classified as black ("I am not black, I have my own culture," he responds) or the many shades of belonging that define the class and color-based society in South Africa.

Since Steinberg doesn't gloss over Asad's failings (his stubbornness for example), the portrait that emerges is all the better for it. Throughout, true to the book's title, Asad maintains his indomitable spirit. "You are only on this earth for a few years, How long? Sixty years? Maybe eighty years? For many of those years you are an old person," Asad points out. "The years in between: it is a small time, really; it goes fast. If you do not make something then, you have lost your opportunity. You die without having lived." Asad's constant drive at self-improvement is truly inspirational. His story is a must-read; it's an incredibly moving ride — a look at Africa's many social issues laid bare through the eyes of one everyday global citizen.

Reviewed by Poornima Apte

This review was originally published in February 2015, and has been updated for the December 2015 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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