William Boyd

A Good Man in Africa

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A Good Man in Africa Summary

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Scottish author William Boyd’s novel A Good Man in Africa (1981) chronicles the life and work of Morgan Leafy, the First Secretary of the British High Commission, who accepts a post in the town of Nkongsamba in the state capital of the fictional Kinjanja region of West Africa. Set during the British colonial era, this darkly comic and irreverent novel offers a satirical look at the influences of colonization and cultural understandings of morality and ethics.

The story opens in Morgan’s office at the British High Commission. His employee, the Second Secretary of the Commission, Richard Dalmire, informs Morgan of his upcoming marriage to Priscilla Fanshawe, daughter of their boss, the High Commissioner Arthur Fanshawe. Though he puts on a brave face, this news devastates Morgan. He once pursued Priscilla but did not commit fully to the relationship, sending her into Richard’s all-too-eager arms.

Seeking solace, Morgan goes to the home he rents for Hazel, his African mistress. When he walks in, Morgan finds a young black man patiently waiting for Hazel as she showers. When she comes out, Hazel tells Morgan that the young man—Sonny—is her brother, but Morgan knows this is not true and that she has been cheating on him.

Meanwhile, Sam Adekunle blackmails Morgan. Sam is a native African, aspiring politician, college professor, and business owner who is in the middle of a campaign for public office in Kinjanja. At some point in the past, Morgan had an affair with Sam’s wife, Celia. If this information got out, it could be the end of Morgan’s career and reputation. However, it isn’t a spurned husband’s jealousy that motivates Sam. He secretly owns a large parcel of land he wants to sell to the university where he teaches; he owns the land under a different name. Dr. Alex Murray is the head of the school committee that makes decisions about where to build new constructions for the university. Sam blackmails Morgan with the aim of getting Morgan to bribe Dr. Murray into not filing a report in which Murray will issue his decision that the land is unsuitable for the university. By not filing the negative report, Sam can move forward with selling the land to the college—and raking in a substantial profit in the process. In exchange for keeping quiet about Morgan’s affair with Celia, Sam forces Morgan to bribe Dr. Murray.

As this convoluted scheme plays out, Arthur wants Morgan to get into Sam’s good graces; obviously, Arthur has no idea about the affair with Celia. If Sam wins the election, he will be a man of some esteem in Kinjanja, exactly the kind of person Arthur feels the High Commission needs to have a relationship with in order to stabilize the colonial presence. Also, the region has significant oil reserves, which will mean big revenue for Britain if they can win over the hearts and minds of Kinjanjans. With Sam in public office, he could sway public opinion and help Britain get her hands on the area’s oil.

Morgan, then, is in the middle of his boss and his blackmailer. He must try to curry favor with the very man who is blackmailing him, while simultaneously trying to curry favor with Dr. Murray in order to keep the Celia affair under wraps.

Things in Morgan’s personal life only get more complicated, too. Hazel gives him gonorrhea. He is still sleeping with Celia. And he’s in love with Priscilla, to whom the sniveling Richard is now engaged.

As is this isn’t enough to juggle, Arthur charges Morgan with the responsibility of disposing of the body of an African servant named Innocence. Innocence died from a lightning strike, and her body has remained on the property of the Commission. The other native servants do not want her body removed, seeing it as a tribal offering to the god Shango.

While Morgan wades through the minefields of his personal and professional lives, the election in which Sam is running gets ever closer. In his attempts to bribe Dr. Murray, Morgan discovers that Murray is a moral and honorable man—a good man in Africa. When Dr. Murray refuses the bribe, all the disparate plans that hinge on Morgan begin to fall apart. Dr. Murray suggests that Morgan resign before word of all his associated scandals and failures result in his firing. Morgan agrees and quits his post, finally realizing how the chaos he has created in an effort to fuel his own self-interest, both at home and at work, has ultimately led to his downfall.

In 1994, Boyd adapted A Good Man in Africa for the big screen. Directed by Bruce Bereford, the film stars Colin Firth as Morgan, Sean Connery as Dr. Murray, John Lithgow as Arthur, Joanne Whalley as Celia, and Louis Gossett, Jr., as Sam.