Shannon (Giraffe Days)'s Reviews > Alexandria of Africa

Alexandria of Africa by Eric Walters
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's review
Oct 08, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: 2008, fiction, ya
Read in October, 2008

**Some Spoilers**

Alexandria Hyatt is a fifteen-year-old rich white girl from LA. An only child of divorced parents, she’s always got everything she’s ever wanted, and expects nothing less. She’s manipulative, selfish, narrow-minded, sheltered and ignorant. Two months before, she was up before a judge after taking a golf club to a schoolgirl’s car – while the girl was in it. Now she’s been caught shoplifting while on probation and the judge – the same judge, who has his neck in a brace due to whiplash after being rear-ended by a girl just like Alexandria – is not inclined to believe her yet again. Six months in a juvenile detention centre is her sentence.

Naturally, the idea of living in a prison with a roommate and a toilet in the room is the worst thing Alexandria can think of, so when an alternate proposal is made by the DA that she join a diversion program that would see her working with an international charity for three weeks, she jumps at it instantly.

From the moment she arrives in Nairobi, Alexandria is confronted with the worst thing she can imagine: her contact with Child Save, Renée, wears socks with sandals. The rest of the people at the centre – staff and volunteers who are building a new school for Maasai children – include a group of eager church youth and a uni student, Christine, who is just as pretentious and superior as Alexandria. And they all dress bad.

What with the lack of electricity, the toilets that are holes in the floor, the hard work needed to build the school, the bad food and contaminated water, Alexandria uses her manipulative wiles to get her own way as much as possible, but finds it’s not as easy as it usually is. A Maasai girl, Ruth, befriends her and introduces her to village life – mud huts and families of 12, the girls walking miles to collect dirty water while their brothers patrol with spears to keep the lions at bay. When Ruth’s mother goes into labour and the baby is a breach, the family comes to Alexandria for help in getting to the nearest clinic – 25 miles away on a deeply rutted, pitted road. She takes the centre’s old jeep and when the clinic refuses to take the dying woman, throws her enormous amount of spending money in order to get the surgery happening.

It's written simply - narrated by Alexandria, so we get to hear all the charming things she thinks (and see how sluggishly her mind sometimes works) - and can be read in just a few hours. Walters has carefully focused on just a few of the things troubling countries like Kenya, and introduces a whole new culture: the Maasai, who believe they own all the cattle in the world, so taking yours isn't actually stealing. This book doesn't come across as propaganda or a "do-gooder" story, though I often wondered, while reading it, how much different it would have been had it been longer, more involved and fleshed out, and with a different kind of protagonist - an adult book, I guess.

For all her flaws, Alexandria is a surprisingly engaging main character. She is alone because she cuts herself off from people she deems unworthy or simply too daggy. She very gradually confronts some of her assumptions, prejudices and stereotypes, and is not really a bad or mean girl: she just has always valued possessions and impressions over anything else. Only in Kenya where no one is impressed by her clothes or jewellery or connections, can she throw off some of the pressure she’s put on herself to match expectations, and begin to appreciate things.

One of the things I liked about this story was that Alexandria doesn’t change, she doesn’t become a completely different person. When she returns, her father gives her the keys to her 16th-birthday-present-Mercedes, and she asks him to instead get her a cheaper car so she can spend $20,000 on a medical clinic for the people she knew, like Ruth. It’s not that she doesn’t want a car at all, just that she’s recognised her exorbitant extravagances and how needless they are. She gains perspective. While the character is based off the Paris Hilton-types, it’s not a satire, and even if you can’t relate to her wealth, priorities or sheer superficiality, she becomes a (surprisingly) good role model and her experience brings Africa just that bit closer to home.

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