Jumatoa Botango is the only female left in her family and she is intent on claiming the role her late mother gave up when she followed her husband out to the Endless Wells: Chieftess of the tribe. But claiming the role as the chieftess' apprentice is a near impossible task. Her cousin Kandra, daughter of the current Chieftess, is her direct competitor. The tribe is facing the worst drought in history, and no matter what they do, the witch has been unable to wake Vanamate, Mother of the Tribes and Keeper of the Water, from her slumber. Netinu, Kandra's brother, is insistent on trying to court her - mostly to annoy his mother and sister - adding an additional layer of distraction to her complicated life. Worst of all, Juma keeps seeing a red-haired man no one else sees - one she gradually realises is the heat daemon, Mubuntu.
In Juma's Rain, German author Katharina Gerlach weaves an enchanting tale set in Africa. It isn't an African folk tale though - it's a retelling of The Rain Maiden by Theodor Storm, a German writer from the 1800's. In her retelling, Gerlach constructs a very believable matriarchal society and belief system, giving you enough details to make it seem authentic, and yet not enough to fix it to any one tribe or location. The gods referenced (The Nameless, Vanamate, Monnatoba, Mubuntu) do not seem to come from any popular African mythology that I can find online; either Gerlach created them, or they are quite obscure (not that I looked very hard, other than random Wikipedia searches). While I was reading though, it felt authentic, charming and romantic and I was excited to learn something about African myths and beliefs, which says something about Gerlach's growing prowess as a story teller.
It feels odd to say this, but I am proud - and glad - to witness Gerlach's growth over the years. The first time I met her online was through the Writers Platform Building Campaign back in 2011, where she spurred quite a few participants and compiled our flash fiction into an anthology, Campaigner Challenges 2011, for charity.
Since then, I have been on her mailing list and have been invited to review a few of her books. One of the earliest was Urchin King, a retelling of The Prince and the Pauper, which hinted at her prowess, but was not quite there yet. The next was The Adventure of Creation, an anthology in which Katharina's short story appears. This was followed by another short story, The Day Music Died, in 2014 and The King's Mechanic early this year.
What makes this doubly impressive is the fact that not only does she write increasingly well in English, she also writes in German. Or rather, she writes in German (which I am not qualified to comment on) and then translates them into English.
Katharina Gerlach is definitely a writer to watch.
*Note: I received a copy of Juma's Rain from the author in exchange for an honest review.