Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Eating Bitter by Michael Stanley

Shots are delighted to welcome back to the blog the two writers Michael Sears and Stan Trollip who write the Detective Kubu Mysteries collaboratively under the name Michael Stanley. The latest novel is A Death in the Family

One of the reasons we set our novels in Botswana is that it gives us the freedom to explore issues in southern Africa that are not driven by the aftermath of apartheid in South Africa.  Each of the books is set against a background that is significant to the people of the region and hopefully provides the impetus for an intriguing mystery.  For example, our previous book, Deadly Harvest, focussed on the use of human body parts for black magic and the witch doctors who murder to get them.  It was the Director of the Botswana CID who encouraged us to write about these so-called muti murders because, we believe, he was frustrated by the police’s lack of success in solving them.

Our new book, A Death in the Family, revolves around the growing Chinese presence in southern Africa and its impact on the region.  The idea for this mystery came in a different way.

Stanley was on a trip through northern Namibia and Botswana.  In Namibia, he noticed that even the smallest towns had a Chinese-owned shop.  He also saw several instances of local Namibians joking with the Chinese and receiving the cold shoulder in return.

When he crossed to north-west Botswana and drove between Katchikau and Goma Bridge—a road we’ve driven several times before—he found the road now paved, with no economic reason justifying the upgrade.  Then he saw a new, small village next to the road—a Chinese village—protected by a barbed-wire fence.

Aha,” he thought.  Here are all the ingredients for a murder mystery.  Chinese shops are competing with locally-owned ones; the Chinese are making no attempt to integrate with the locals and are isolating themselves behind barbed wire; and the natural friendliness of the locals is being rebuffed by the Chinese.”

This was a scenario ripe with possibilities for crime writers!

After that we spent a lot of time trying to understand what was actually going on.  It turns out that Botswana has had problems with the Chinese.  Big Chinese companies had won a variety of contracts for public works; some were successful and others not so much.  For example, the new airport terminal building contract was awarded to a Sinohydro, a Chinese, state-owned company specializing in hydro engineering.  The company ran out of money and asked for more.  The government refused, so the building wasn’t completed.  Eventually, in a bad storm, the nearly-completed terminal was flooded when parts of the roof blew off.  As the joke goes, at least most of the water didn’t leak out of the structure!  Eventually the government of Botswana cancelled the project, and shortly after Sinohydro pulled out of Botswana altogether.

There is a different aspect to the story that is interesting.  Chinese companies are certainly making a big play in Africa, often leveraging cheap government money and aid packages.  They use as little local labour as possible, preferring to bring in their own people.  Sometimes those people stay on, seeing Africa as a continent where they can prosper even if initially things don’t look encouraging and the locals are not overjoyed by their presence.

In his book China’s Second Continent: How a million migrants are building a new empire in Africa, Howard French describes a journey around sub-Saharan Africa speaking to Chinese people about their views and experiences.  He has the powerful advantage of speaking the languages from many years living in China reporting for the Washington Post.  He has also lived for many years in Africa.  The people he interviews range from a single man without much capital trying to farm in rural Mozambique to people working for big Chinese companies in Ghana.  What he finds is not the construction of a new empire in a political sense, but rather a wave of immigration to what the settlers see as a continent of opportunity in commerce and farming.  Like early European settlers to Africa, these are not people who expect instant wealth or luxury.  Quite the contrary: they have a long-term view.  In the meanwhile—as they tell French—Chinese people can ‘eat bitter’, that is they can make do with very little, seeing a better future for themselves and their families.  Surprisingly, some felt that the countries to which they’ve immigrated are much less corrupt than China.

What also comes through is that the new colonists want to preserve their culture and their
language with as few outside contacts as possible.  As Stanley observed in Namibia, this can’t make for good relations.  However hard the Chinese work and however bitter they eat, the locals can hardly avoid turning on them for their success, if nothing else.

In A Death in the Family, we place a Chinese-owned mine near the small, historic village of Shoshong.  The mine wants to expand, but the local people are suspicious.  They are also divided: the older ones wanting to maintain traditional ways; the younger wanting jobs. 

At the same time Detective Kubu is struggling with the death of his beloved father, who is fatally stabbed while walking one night.  The director of the CID warns Kubu to keep away from the investigation—anything he does may taint the case—but Kubu finds this impossible.  He tries to concentrate on another case involving the apparent suicide of a senior official at the Department of Mines.  The more he digs, the more he comes to believe there is corruption in the Department—with links to the mine in Shoshong.

The director thinks Kubu is meddling in his father’s case and sends him off to New York to deliver a paper at Interpol, but mainly to get him out of the way.  But even there the trail is not cold.

Eventually the trail involves the CIA, one of the local Shoshong leaders, and, of course, the Chinese.

You can find more information about the authors and their work on their website.  You can also follow them on Twitter @detectivekubu and you can also find them on Facebook.

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