When I meet Gavin Weston in a small pub in London, he’s sitting comfortably with a smile on his face, nursing a pint of ale. He seems relieved, then tells me that just hours previously, he had had the daunting task of promoting his debut novel, Harmattan, to a room full of women. 'It went better than expected,' he says with a chuckle.
The organisation he addressed are Forward, an African Diaspora women's support charity, which campaigns against female genital mutilation and child marriage. Weston’s book deals with similar issues, a fictional representation of real world atrocities.
Harmattan begins by introducing the reader to Haoua, an eight-year-old-girl from a remote village in Niger. Weston tells his story through a lucid third-person voice, occasionally interrupting the narrative with a string of letters between Haoua and the Boyds.
The Boyds are a family from County Down who are involved in a child sponsorship scheme that provides Haoua with sufficient money to complete her education and fulfil her dream of becoming a teacher.
Over the course of six years, Haoua’s dream slowly descends into a nightmare. She ceases attending school so she can nurse her sick mother, and eventually is married off to an older man she does not love. Weston began writing the book when a child he had been sponsoring for a number of years suddenly stopped corresponding to him by mail.
'Some years back I sponsored a six-year old African girl through a British NGO who shall remain nameless,' says Weston. 'Then, just before her 12th birthday, my daughter and I discovered that the girl had been married off. I naively thought that the involvement of these sponsorship schemes meant that the child was protected somewhat. I now know that’s not the case.'
Since the release of Harmattan, Weston has been promoting the book in tandem with a social awareness campaign. Weston has worked as an ambassador for Forward for a number of years, and whilst such a two-pronged approach to press takes up a lot of his time and effort, he 'wouldn't have it any other way'.
His role as an ambassador for the charity mainly involves speaking at various public events. In return for his support, Forward will be promoting Harmattan at key awareness events, such as the UN's international Day of the Girl Child in October 2012.
Weston’s poignant tale gives a voice to the millions of girls and young women globally who every year are condemned – often by their families – to a life of misery and subservience.
The discourse around this subject is often cloaked in the language of the politically correct, which demands respecting religious and cultural traditions in the countries in question. But the global campaign to rid the world of forced marriages is gaining momentum, and Weston hopes that this continues in the years to come.
Weston’s fiery rhetoric becomes particularly pressing when he speaks about the irresponsibility of men who infect children with AIDs due to their ignorance in matters relating to sexual health and contraception.
'The attitudes these men have is bizarre. There's a line in my book where someone says "The only way to cure AIDs is to f**k a virgin". Entire communities believe this, and sometimes that is in spite of them being told, "This is how it works, this is how you need to protect yourself".
'The men are the worst,' he adds. 'That’s why I was the only man in that room today at Forward’s conference, because it’s women who are empowering women. They are going to bring about changes that will actually matter.'
Weston speaks about his own work with a striking honesty. He is already predicting an onslaught of post-colonial critics who will question the legitimacy an Irish writer has in commenting on a west African country. Many of the novel’s factual accuracies, however, were gleaned from Weston’s experiences living in Niger in the early 1980s, where he worked for an NGO called Africare.
'I’ve been half expecting when this novel comes out for someone to turn around and say, "What gives you right to speak for a west African girl?" The answer is, I don’t. However, I was thinking about the writer Alex Haley who certainly made mistakes, but who also achieved something through his work.'
Haley’s novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, was written in 1976 and later made into a hit television series. Despite its initial success (the book was published in 37 languages and the series had 130 millions viewers worldwide) Haley was eventually sued by Harold Courlander, who proved in court that passages from his book were plagiarised.
Weston argues that, in spite of the book’s controversy, it was an invaluable educational tool for him, a young man growing up in 1970s Northern Ireland. It taught him about issues surrounding racism and slavery. 'What the book did for me was teach me stuff about slavery that I didn’t know.'
At 50 years of age, assuming the role of the political writer is one that Weston perhaps might not have planned consciously, but it’s certainly one he is taking very seriously.
'I’m not really a political animal. I’m just a bloke who is putting down ideas. But I do think that, until these societies are at least encouraged to think in another way, the evil – and it may not be perceived as evil in their culture, but I believe it is – will go on.
'I believe that we have to help African nations help themselves. I’m very cynical about the involvement of outside parties. I think change has to come from inside. But Africa is not a poor continent, just a very badly managed one.'
Harmattan is available now on Kindle, published by Myrmidon Books. The hardcopy release date is June 2.