ABOUT THE STORY The international conference is one of the most representative spaces of intercultural exchange in the 21st century: a small spatial and temporal cocoon where both ideas and clichés are circulated, and idealism and cynicism are both prominently on view. Can the world become a better place through such meetings, or are they themselves a symptom of the inertia they seek to beat down? In the Ugandan writer Doreen Baingana’s expertly observed story of a pan-African conference in the Nigerian capital Lagos, a conference becomes a site not just of professional and social rituals but of sexual tension.
The unnamed female narrator works in the development world and is a veteran of such occasions. She loves the luxury and the release from quotidian routines that they represent, and we learn late in the story that she has also packed some fancy underwear for the trip. When she meets an attractive Nigerian man at the proceedings, there develops between them a kind of private dance, with other people around them drawn in as shields or foils. Baingana seems critical of and yet sympathetic to her protagonist’s dilemmas in just the right proportions, recording her thoughts over the span of the conference in confident and unrushed prose. As the last night of the trip approaches, the protagonist knows—and we know—that something must give.
HIS FACE IS ALL ANGLES. Cheekbones she can slide down. Eyebrows arrogant bushy lines. Eyes slanting, heavy-lidded. After all these peaks and corners, the reward: lips defiantly full. Lips even darker than his face, covering buckteeth that peep just a little. Flashes of white as he talks.