A Casualty of Power - Reviewed by William R. Schreck, Jr.

If a talented story-teller encapsulates an entire culture and country, then this brave novel depicts nothing short of the new reality that is Africa, and it has the temerity to name the co-conspirators, whether they are African, Chinese or Western. In this sense this classic story is also a very modern one. Although Africans may appreciate this novel more, this perceptive analysis of modern-day Africa opens a path of exploration, especially for us non-Africans.

This classic story begins with a promising young man, a poor boy from a small town, our son, brother, cousin, friend, who moves to the capital to attend college and is caught up in a web woven by those who use power, some with almost staggering impunity. He suffers dearly for it. But, whether they represent the government, such as the voracious Minister of Mines, or are operatives in the drug trade, or strive to run a small business, or provide a home as a single mother, or whether they are a Chinese foreman brought in to manage a copper mine--the life-blood of the economy—in all of their stories, including their back stories and in China, they are all fully realized characters, sympathetically wrought by expert and judicious characterization—and all are too universally human.

A Casualty of Power is a stand-out: It is impressively, devastatingly, honest. It is a realistic depiction of Zambia, and, by extension, of so much of Africa. Through these brought-to-life characters, Chipanta deals with major issues, from residual colonialism to neo-colonialism, from government malfeasance by Zambians in power, to the Chinese who are permitted, not only tacitly, to wield power and control, to the wants and needs of the rising middle class, as well as the role of journalists. Most of all, there is scramble for money by practically everyone. ‘Was there no end to their greed?’ one asks. And, on top of that there are those who wield power, up and down the social spectrum, from sellers in the local market to the Big Men—and they are almost but not always men. There are also smart, assertive women, not always good, behind them.

Chipanta also presents the personal power struggles between and among these men and women in a modern, fast-changing African society, discussing the influence of the Internet, or, for example, American TV shows, like ‘The Cosby Show.’ In passing he mentions that Zambians have been sending money via their mobile phones, a service available in East Africa for years, but not yet available in the US. He writes of the customs of these gracious cultures, a hostess who knew not to ask her guest if he needed food or drink, but to offer what was available without asking. But, alas, all, again, high and low, most prove to be victims, both of those who use power and especially those who suffer under the ‘gross incompetence, mismanagement, corruption and greed of the government.’

Besides his notable in-depth analysis and realistic depiction of characters and scenes, Chipanta also astutely presents a broad canvas encompassing all points of view in the society he is describing with the telling detail, such as the ‘black 500-Series Mercedes in immaculate condition gleaming in the sunlight.’ There are accurate descriptions of African culture--and culture clashes, not only with the Chinese, but also within the cultural groups within Zambia, interwoven with Christians and Muslims, with those high in society, in Government, within the elites, as well as the workers, in this case the men working in the copper mines being managed and run by the Chinese. And then there are the poor, who are always with us. Chipanta’s humanity shines through as he encapsulates present-day Zambia, and, by extension, much of Africa, accounting for the day-to-day lives, especially the cares, loves and aspirations of the ‘little people’ who live and move and have their being there.

The Chinese incursion across Africa is not presented in the abstract. The novel moves to China to present the very real, individual back story of one of these Chinese men, brought to Africa by his employers, and about the wife and young son he has left behind in China. As with his other characters, the author presents him as a unique individual, and a casualty of power himself. If past is prologue, we in the West might want to know what dealing with the Chinese up close and personal might be like.

Rest assured: The reader is in good hands with Mukuka Chipanta, a capable, competent story teller, with his command and control of action, pacing, plotting and language, believable dialogue that captures the way people speak, and, most impressively, his insight into his own culture and country. He has also found his voice!

This is both an important and significant novel because Chipanta accounts in particular for those impacted by power. Sound familiar? This engaging story is accessible to many at all levels. The plot moves apace instilling in-depth insight into human nature, not only in an African context, but also with a decidedly universal application via characters the reader comes to care about. ‘How can such terrible things happen to good people, innocent people?’

In Zambia, it is customary to give two soft claps of the hands as ‘a sign of respect for elders and people in high office.’ In that spirit of respect, let us now give two soft claps for Mr. Mukuka Chipanta for his debut novel, A Casualty of Power. This up-to-date novel of Africa encapsulates engages and educates; it is a moving story well told.