Meddling Again: Writing Poor Mercy

fallaj01pic1.jpg In 1982 I had a play produced at the Bush Theatre in London. It was called Topokana Martyrs’ Day and concerned the misadventures of a quartet of field staff at a remote African outpost of a British aid agency. The play did quite well – it has had five productions now – and in one respect it is, I think, unique: I know of no other successful comedy about famine relief in Africa.

The comedy derived directly from my own experience. In 1981 I had worked for Oxfam as a junior field officer in Karamoja, eastern Uganda. The famine was real enough but, when I came home, I re-read my diaries and realised that they were pure farce. So I dramatised them. The satire was broad: one character, for instance, was a Mrs McAllister, the Commissioner for Disaster Coordination.

Ibis: Is she any good at that?

Apoo: Mrs McAllister, my sweet, has coordinated so many disasters so successfully that we are now blessed with the spectacle of uninterrupted catastrophe across three continents.

In 1991, ten years later almost to the day, I was in Darfur, Sudan, as ‘Medical Programme Coordinator’ for an aid agency striving to prevent a threatened famine. This time, much of the comedy seemed to have gone out of the job; indeed, it was one of the most humiliating experiences of my working life. With a handful of nurses, two doctors and a few Land Rovers, we attempted to shore up local health systems, while the major international donors were signally failing to supply meaningful quantities of food to the villages. The vastly expensive operation was, on the whole, a miserable failure.

It became clear that the government of Sudan was being wilfully obstructive, and that all the bluster of Washington, Brussels and Rome could do little about this. Meanwhile, the tribes were in violent ferment, rebellion was in the air and the Army was cheerfully making matters worse. This, remember, was in 1991. If you think you recognise the situation as in 2004-5, you’re not far wrong.

I felt that I must write about this, as I had about Uganda a decade before. This time, however, I felt no urge to broad satire. I wondered, what format should my writing now take? I attempted non-fiction, a collection of short stories, a film treatment… none seemed to answer the magnitude of the subject. After much hesitation I settled on a novel, deciding that only panoramic fiction would do.

There was no shortage of vivid material to work with, and many of the episodes in the book are factual: the assault on the township of Wadaa, destroyed with incendiary rockets; the distribution of date-expired drugs and poisonous seed-corn; the ten-wheel truck found abandoned in the desert with blood splashed down its side – these are taken straight from my Darfur diaries, and were not very funny.

On the other hand, grim humour has a way of resurfacing everywhere; I think this was Shakespeare’s view: that there is no human situation so dire that it is does not contain elements of comedy. There was a ceilidh, for instance, organised by aid staff, at which Sudanese male-only couples danced the Gay Gordons dressed in long white robes (they thought it hilarious). And there was the following sequence of radio messages, received over the course of one morning by our office in Darfur:

09.40 HRS: expect delivery 10,000 tons high energy biscuits for children’s supplementary feeding.

10.20 HRS: correction: expect delivery 10,000 tins of high energy biscuits.

11.25 HRS: correction: expect 10,000 biscuits.

As any writer soon learns, however, an abundance of good material does not of itself make for good fiction. For that, one also requires a clear narrative, an organising principle and, above all, a calm that can see the universal behind the particular. For several years I struggled with the project, trying to achieve objective distance on the experience. Finally it was matter of time, and of removing myself from the story; so there is no J Falla character in the novel.

fallaj01pic2.jpg The ‘male lead’ of Poor Mercy is an African, specifically a southern Sudanese, washed up by violence in the south and arriving in Darfur. His name is Mr Mogga; he’s cherubic but ludicrous, shrewd but innocent, highly efficient but finally helpless. Like the hero of Conrad’s Nostromo, he is the essential factotum without whom things fall apart. The foreigners come to rely on him entirely, while not noticing his growing doubts and fears. They take him for granted – and fail to fully appreciate the extent of the peril that he is in, until very late in the day.

Mogga exemplifies a character type met frequently in aid work: the effective local staff-member, very intelligent, adept at coping with a crisis, semi-educated by inadequate schools and semi-westernised in a sometimes destructive way, such that they are readily seduced and confused by foreign glamour and by foreigners’ seeming freedom to roam the world ad lib. Over the years I realised that such people are terribly vulnerable. Employed by an aid agency as factotum and interpreter, such a person is made responsible for conveying to their compatriots all the hope and grand promises that the agencies embody. When the promises fall flat and the schemes fail – as is so often the case – then the foreigners depart, and people like Mr Mogga are left to bear the brunt of the lingering resentment.

‘Where’s Mogga?’ asked Rose ‘What of him? What’ll he do?’

‘Well, that’s up to Mogga. He’s a fre…’

‘No,’ exclaimed Rose Price, ‘Mogga’s not free at all, he’s trapped here. With us gone they’ll be gunning for him.’

Xavier looked more and more uncomfortable.

‘He’s not responsible for anything.’

‘But they’ll hold him responsible! They’ll go for him; God knows what they’ll do. If we run off, he’ll be all that’s left.’

Mogga is the intermediary, the go-between who intercedes for the inept foreigners, the saviour of many situations – and the potential victim. He is, however, very astute. He is also the focus both of humour and of love, and his tender relationship with the sophisticated Arab scientist Leila forms the emotional heart of the story.

Theirs, too, is the wonder at an extraordinary, harshly beautiful landscape:

Mid-afternoon, they were scudding over naka, hard soil that glittered with silicates. Then came black shale and pockets of ironflake where the desert was rusted. They continued due north, climbing steadily into starker lands. Now the crust was replaced by countless pebbles rolled against their neighbours until smooth and oval. The pebbles were spaced and spread evenly as far as the eye could see, like a grainy photo. In all that empty space, you could not lie comfortably down to sleep; there would be no rest. Next there was lava detritus, and packed gravel. Furrows in the ground showed where once it had rained, but now the Land Rover was burning up, the dust that came in through the vents singed and scoured their skin and made it raw. On such a day, the tribes say that the sun is the liver of the sky, smoking with pain.

Away to the north, the sky was darker, almost purple.

‘You see?’ said Leila, ‘You see that? Someone is getting wet at last.’

Poor Mercy occupied me, off and on, over a period of some ten years. By the time its publication was being negotiated, Darfur had almost begun to seem like history – until it sprang into ghastly prominence once again in 2004. I was working on the final editing of the novel when The Scotsman began running front page headlines denouncing genocide in Darfur. Topicality is a mixed blessing; there have been times when I have considered sending the Government of Sudan a card thanking them for their publicity efforts on my behalf, but more often I felt wary: it can be frustrating watching a work that was so long in the making being viewed in the press purely in terms of relevance to current news.

Real events have a way of overtaking the slow-brewed book. This has happened to me before. Back in the 1980s, that stage comedy Topokana Martyrs Day appeared some time after the Uganda famine had ended; its satirical tone proved acceptable. But when it was produced in Los Angeles a couple of years later, the great Ethiopian famine of 1984-5 was getting under way, with Michael Buerk and his reports from the ‘Biblical’ death camps followed by the great outpouring of Band Aid. Nice Californians, who had just sent $50 to CARE, were not amused; the production flopped. For this reason, Poor Mercy comes with a preface making clear where it belongs in relation to recent Darfur history.

An aspect of the novel which I believe will not date in a hurry is the matter of aid agencies. These are extraordinary bodies. The NGOs, the ‘non-governmental organisations’, are precisely that: non-governmental, undemocratic, unelected, unanswerable to anyone but their own boards of trustees, and yet largely unquestioned. They are a bizarre feature of our society and, I think, far too little studied. They make, for example, a wonderfully convenient proxy for government – as the novel’s principle British character, field director Xavier, soon realises:

Xavier, on his grass-rope bed under the massy black night sky, found his head too heavy to lift, so full was it of worry. As this supposed crisis had developed, Xavier Hopkins had seen that he was a fall guy of peerless quality, Grand Master of the Most Illustrious Order of Patsies; it was, if nothing else, a steady position. For if the Government in Khartoum really had let its people slide into starvation, why then, an aid agency was the very thing to blame.

In my old university town there is a pub called The Volunteer. Hanging outside is the traditional painted pub sign showing the traditional recoat soldier with his musket. Walk past the pub and look back, however, and you see that the reverse of the sign is different; it shows a white medical student vaccinating an African villager. The received meaning of ‘volunteer’ has changed entirely; in our society, it is now the aid worker who is the institution.

Isn’t this a good thing? Better, surely, that we give our services to assist the poor, rather than shoot or enslave them. One fact should be established in passing. Although there are many agencies such as VSO, Peace Corps and others whose field force receive no more than local-equivalent salaries, the majority of aid professionals are quite well paid. In 1991, working for Save the Children in Nepal, I was paid considerably more than I earn today as an NHS nurse, fourteen years later. The sums that modern societies spend on charitable aid are remarkable; we expect it of our government and ourselves that we endlessly gather up cash and use it to despatch emissaries of our altruism abroad, whether or not the ‘help’ is actually helpful or wanted.

Or, indeed, whether it is needed. I have on my shelves a leather-bound volume of poems published in London to celebrate the abolition of the slave-trade (the so-called abolition, one should say; in reality, the trade is alive and well today). The poems are by several hands and are, in general, unreadable bombast, tedious pentameters depicting noble Albion casting the chains off groaning Africa. The interest of the book lies in its title-page dedication: to the Directors of the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Natives of Africa. This book appeared in 1809; at that time, almost no one in Britain had ever been to the interior of Africa; only three years earlier, Mungo Park had died in the attempt. Therefore, almost no one had the foggiest idea of the condition of the natives – but already there was a society for bettering it. We have not ceased meddling since, and the week before Poor Mercy was published (March 2005), the report of Mr Blair’s ‘Commission on Africa’ was published, once again telling the Dark Continent what is good for it.

In the novel, the preoccupation of field director Xavier Hopkins is whether there is actually a famine at all, such as might remotely justify the invasion of Darfur by aid agencies. He looks back at a previous intervention in the country – the disastrous military campaign of 1883 led by General William Hicks – and is forced to ask himself the crunch question:

On Xavier’s desk the reports clamoured, also the accounts, the interim this and provisional that, but the ink was furry where it had sunk into cheap foolscap and his eyes were drifting out of focus. This plethora of words helped nothing. The terms were too narrow, the questions too petty, compared with that devastatingly simple challenge put in his mind by Colonel Hassan al-Bedawi -

Should we be here at all?

Poor Mercy is not (I hope) a humourless tract, but a humane account of a human situation. Nor is it (I protest) only an ephemeral response to an immediate crisis. After all, the meddling will, I’m sadly sure, continue long after I am forgotten.


Poor Mercy by Jonathan Falla is available from Polygon (£9.99, ISBN 1904598285). His previous novel, Blue Poppies, is available from 11:9 Fiction (£6.99, ISBN 1903238552).

© Jonathan Falla 2005, Author Photo © Graham Clark