Ifeoma Chinwuba

BOOK REVIEW: THE WHITE MASAI, Corinne Hofmann, Amistad, © 1998

by Ifeoma Chinwuba

The White Masai, TWM, is a memoir. It begins, in medias res, when Corinne and her boyfriend, Marco, both Swiss nationals, travel to Mombasa, Kenya, for Christmas. Corinne is struck by a thunderbolt in a chance encounter with a Masai warrior, during a brief ferry-crossing; My God, he is beautiful, more beautiful than any person I have ever seen. (p.2). He looks like a young god. (p.2).

Against all pleas by her partner, she embarks on a feverish quest to locate him. On return to Switzerland, Corinne breaks up with Marco, sells her business and relocates to Africa to set up home with her love interest, Lketinga, home being a kraal, a dome-shaped hut made with bits and pieces and held together with cow pies. Is this reminiscent of the biblical parable where one discovers a pearl of great price, goes and sells all one has, in order to acquire that? I think it is.

The author is an enigma not only to her Samburu in-laws, but also to the reader. Who is this privileged Karen who gives up running water, electricity, air conditioning, in short, civilization, for the overcrowded matatu, as public buses are called? Who leaves a Kevin, a WASP, for an unschooled Negro, a creature very proximate to savage Nature? They are the last uncivilized people in Kenya, (p.5), the tourist guide says of Lketinga’s tribe. First time in his life, Lketinga is wearing trousers, a shirt and sneakers. (p. 32).

Corinne is determined to make the best of the relationship. By dint of hard work and entrepreneurship, she starts first a grocery business in the interior of Masai land, and later a bush bar/disco. She buys a vehicle and in the middle of all this upheaval, manages to be impregnated by her husband, whose slap-dash love-making is devoid of technique and tenderness. Masai don’t kiss. The mouth is for eating, and kissing – … – is contemptible. (p. 21).

The book is complemented by photos of the groom in all his Masai glory, of the couple on their wedding day and of Napirai, the love-child born of this union.

At this period, when race relations (read: white supremacy issues) are on the front burner, TWM has a striking message for humanity. This is why I am reviewing it, decades after its publication. Here is a meeting of white and Black, a meeting of civilization and Nature, that is not based on exploitation of one by the other. Here is a narrative that expands the oneness of all races, that discards white superiority complex. Here is a narrative where the white protagonist, the author, does not consider the Black as lower on the food chain. This is contrary to Marco and Eric’s positions that are clearly racist.

In discarding their warnings and race-tainted postulations, Corinne reiterates the equality of races. Our cultures may not be homogenous or monolithic, but they are cultures all the same. Each has its ways and means. Lketinga, throughout the book, fights to assert his own warrior mores on his white wife. For instance, when a passport is to be made for their daughter, he insists that she bear his surname, Leparmorijo and not Hofmann.

Lketinga, in another time and place, would have been hanged or eviscerated for being the object of this love interest. Indeed, many Lketingas in history, have been martyred for no fault of theirs, save that they ‘looked like young gods,’ and ipso facto, irked the ire of the supposed Aryan male. Many Negroes have paid the supreme price for being preferred by white girls over the WASPs. How dare he!

The language is simple. It throbs with the enthusiasm and effusions of this nascent love. The genre could well pass for adventure. The author is not interested in literary gymnastics. Her desire is to capture the expression and denouement of this abnormal love. I think she succeeded. As Mahatma Gandhi asks: What barrier is there that love cannot break?

Ms. Ifeoma Akabogu Chinwuba is the author of several novels including Merchants of Flesh, Fearless, Waiting for Maria and African Romance. She writes from Ottawa.