Click here to read reviewer Amanda Cuda's take on Whiteman.
Jack Diaz is one of those altruistic souls who feels compelled to make the world a better place, to alleviate the suffering of others. He joins a humanitarian organization - PWI, or Potable Water International - working selflessly long past the point where it is safe to stay in a country in the throes of civil war.
West Africa is a complex society in flux: poverty endemic, people enduring military coups, guinea worms, female genital mutilation, HIV, mass graves and the Muslim north’s organizing political youth. Yet the natives maintain simple lives, the survival of their families dependant upon growing and harvesting seasonal crops.
The chaos waxes and wanes, an unsettling mix of violence and apathy where opposing factions fill the streets, formerly friendly faces suddenly hostile and bent on destruction. Then greetings once more take on the easy amiability of neighbors, friend and foe indistinguishable.
Called by his African name, Diamonde Adama, Jack is determined to be part of the village, to work beside his neighbors, planting crops and following local customs. The local women offer a variety of charms, Jack nonplussed to realize that he often mistakes the obvious in a culture where honor is central to village life. But Jack cannot deny his nature, indulging in some remarkable contretemps with these ladies.
Wave after wave of rebellion fosters military coups, people buffeted by inconstancy and random chaos: “This was a tense, new way of living, and soon enough… we got used to it.” Escalating violence forces Jack to leave the village for safer quarters, but he is even more committed to those who have become family by extension.
Returning to the village, Jack is faced with the endless bureaucracy and incipient brutality that accompanies revolution, checkpoints, document searches, nervous young soldiers juggling weapons and bottles of beer, edgy with their new authority, the detritus of burned buildings, refugees streaming everywhere to avoid danger, whole families carrying everything they own in bundles on their heads: “I was face to face with what I wanted to know but couldn’t, Africa, Africa unchained…”
The chaos increases, only seven of the volunteer workers remaining, with orders to evacuate immediately, Jack literally torn from the place he loves, the people left behind now family, West Africa fundamentally changing Jack’s life, taking up residence in his heart: “The world would be what it was, no matter what I wanted.” This is a West Africa as seen through the eyes of a foreigner, but the spirit of these people is their gift, their mark on Jack indelible as they embrace him as one of their own.