Jonny Steinberg

A Man of Good Hope

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A Man of Good Hope Summary

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Jonny Steinberg’s 2015 book A Man of Good Hope tells the story of Asad Abdullahi, who fled Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, when civil war came to the city in January 1991. He was just eight years old when two-thirds of the population fled the city and were scattered throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Jostled from one catastrophic situation to another, Asad travels over countries and continents, from Nairobi to Ethiopia and Johannesburg, to his final destination in America. A complex portrait of a man’s search to fulfill his dreams, A Man of Good Hope presents a rich and affecting narrative.

Eight-year-old Asad wakes one day to find his mother nervously peering through the cracks of the door. When he joins her, he sees five armed militiamen, who begin breaking down the door. They cut a hole into the wood and shoot his mother in the chest as he hugs her leg. With his father in hiding, Asad is taken by his uncle to seek sanctuary. Thus begins the civil war in Mogadishu, Somalia, and Asad’s chaotic journey to survive.

Asad and other family members set out toward the Kenyan border. A quarter of the way there, they attempt to get onto a lorry that is heading for safety, when a mortar shell explodes, causing the driver to speed off. As he sleeps that night, Asad’s cousin, who is fifteen years old, is press-ganged into a militia. Another relative of Asad’s, Yindy, takes him in, but she is shot in the leg a month later, and her wound turns septic, meaning Asad must care for her. One night, a group of men break in and deliberate over whether Yindy is “too crippled to rape.” They end up stealing the food that has been left by a charity and then rape a neighbor.

When Asad arrives at a hotel in Kenya, he moves from family to family each night before the clan elders there send him to Ethiopia, where Yindy’s family lives, expecting him to accompany her to the United States. However, when Asad joins them, they are cold toward him and keep him from speaking to Yindy on the phone. They hide their plans to join Yindy, eventually abandoning Asad in a desert town. By this time, he is twelve or thirteen years old.

He begins working to survive, delivering large barrels of water to cafes. He meets a kind truck driver, traveling and working with the man as he comes into adulthood. Asad decides to set out to find his father and leaves suddenly, falling in with a group of students. He ends up funding their food and flat and eventually marries an attractive and admired woman.

When the ruling regime intensifies its hunt for supposed enemies of the state, Asad abandons his life there and begins the long and dangerous journey to South Africa. He makes it through Kenya to Tanzania, then Zambia and Zimbabwe, before finally arriving in Johannesburg.

We learn that the story Asad is relaying to the author, Jonny Steinburg, takes place in Blikkiesdorp, an area outside of Cape Town that is otherwise known as Tin Can Town due to its 1,600 identical one-room structures. Far from the haven he imagined, South Africa holds xenophobia and more violence for Asad. There, he opens a shop and becomes a fairly prosperous merchant. When he opened the shop, he was earning about one-third of the minimum wage in the country, but he decides this is a decent means of making a living. However, Somalis become the targets of a black majority that, free from the oppression of white rule, has become determined to harass any foreigners in the city. The police all too often let these killers go free.

Asad’s shop is attacked, his business partner is stabbed, and he is beaten and must lie prostrate on the ground as his goods are looted. His wife leaves him when she gives him an ultimatum of staying there or returning to Somalia with her and the children. He decides to stay in Blikkiesdorp, remarries, and has more children. At the end of A Man of Good Hope, Asad eventually makes it to America, where he lives in Kansas City, Missouri.

Steinberg details the experience of Asad relating his tale. The author describes how he probes Asad with questions when they meet in his shop in South Africa, and Asad glances around the streets nervously, answering reluctantly, stating that he cannot remember much of his young life in Mogadishu. The book provides a glimpse into the repression of life in Ethiopia, the Somali clan system, and the rampant racism of the townships. It also chronicles central modern issues, such as migration, poverty, human trafficking, and crime.