Bukavu is a town in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a community where the author of this eponymous book lived and worked.
In exploring Bukavu, Rukhshar Sharif is exploring her own inner landscape, perhaps her own personal encounters with racism and inequality as a foreigner born in London. As the barely disguised heroine of her narrative, Paka, she identifies with the struggles of the Congolese people whom she befriends. Paka makes a genuine effort to fit in and to help redress some of the wrongs that she sees. She feels kinship with the poor and involves herself in helping refugees.
The book offers a lot of pertinent local detail and for that reason can be useful to those who want to travel and work in the Congo or in other parts of Africa where corruption and political strife prevent ordinary people from succeeding. However, Bukavu also suffers from an excess of detail. It reads more like a diary than a book, and one longs to tell the writer to sift the relevant facts of her story from the daily litanies of errands and minor characters whose names
are impossible to keep straight, along with the many anagrammatic organization titles – MONUC, USAID, IDP, FDLR, etc.
In addition, Sharif brings to her book and her narrative many of her own prejudices. She carries with her a strict sense of right and wrong: “She didn’t like the modern buildings. They looked artificial and seemed out of place in the natural beauty around them.” She prefers nature to civilization, yet she recounts shopping avidly for such items as dental floss and camera film, commodities that are dependent on a high degree of civilization. This unexamined viewpoint weakens her championship of the oppressed. Ultimately, would she want the Congolese to relinquish their right to dental floss and camera film in order to live natural lives? These are important issues that all expatriates have to grapple with when faced by the realities of the so-called
Third World. Perhaps due to youth and naiveté, Sharif is not yet ready to reach practical conclusions. Her story ends like a love affair gone wrong, with the author lamenting her inability to have done more. But a more salient question would be, was the kind of help I offered the kind of help that was needed?