Jane Labous talks a lot about the forks in life’s road. One of the biggest in her life came in 1997 when she was studying English and French at Oxford University. Her mum saw an advert recruiting English teachers for the British Council in Dakar, and suggested she apply to spend her year abroad working in Senegal. Having enjoyed many childhood holidays with her French grandparents in Normandy, Jane was immediately attracted by the idea of going somewhere completely different that was also French speaking.

‘I was a very young 20-year-old, with absolutely no preconceptions. Until an aid worker in the airport told me, and the two girls I was travelling with, that the harvest there had been poor, and the people would be hungry, which made me suddenly question how it would be when we landed,’ she recalls. ‘Yes, it was a huge culture shock, but I also formed a deep-rooted relationship with the country – specifically a coastal village on the outskirts of Dakar called Ngor. When I returned to Oxford a year later, I was an entirely different person.’

After graduating Jane spent the next few years following her childhood dream of becoming a writer. ‘Words were something I could always feel in my bones. Shifting them around, almost like sculpting, aiming for that perfect clean sentence.’ She began writing for trade magazines (first at Cosmetics International) and within a few years, ‘hard graft’ saw her working full-time as a freelance travel writer for publications like the Daily Express, The Independent and OK! ‘I made some wonderful friends, all over the world. I’d get on a long-haul flight, come back and get on another one. I was brave, I did a bit of G. I. Jane stuff, and I was well respected as a journalist.’

Great British Life: Jane Labous on the beach in Poole, holding a copy of her latest novel Past Participle. (Photo: Jane Labous)Jane Labous on the beach in Poole, holding a copy of her latest novel Past Participle. (Photo: Jane Labous)

However, Jane wanted to write about more than holiday destinations. After spending time seeking out human-interest stories from across West Africa, Senegal eventually drew her back. ‘It was like I was searching for something in myself that I’d found, then lost again.’ Based full-time in Dakar, she began working as a freelance reporter for outfits like Voice of America and the BBC, including BBC Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent, until - another fork in the road - she met a Senegalese man when she was doing a story on the lifeguards working on Dakar’s beaches. ‘Idi was a military rescue diver and fire fighter. When he rocked up, well that was it,’ she smiles.

Soon after, she got a job working as a feature writer for Plan International (an aid agency focusing on children’s rights). Idi and Jane married and returned to England.

It was their shared love of the sea that drew them to Poole in Dorset, where they’ve remained for the last nine years. ‘At one point we were living in a house with a brothel at the bottom and a girl on the top floor who kept snakes. Then there was us, in a single room, but the location was pretty much the closest thing to Ngor we could replicate.’ Still working for Plan, Jane continued travelling internationally until their daughter, Bella, was born in 2015. ‘At which point I began commissioning local journalists, which brings me so much joy and makes me feel I’ve developed with the times: hiring talented people in-country.’

Great British Life: Jane reporting from West Africa for the BBC. (Photo: Amadou Thiam)Jane reporting from West Africa for the BBC. (Photo: Amadou Thiam)

It was partly Jane’s desire to see a fully rounded West Africa represented that prompted her to write her latest novel, Past Participle, which is set in Senegal and Dorset. With an African woman as one of the central characters, Jane worried about whether it was her story to write. ‘Despite the fact that I’ve made several documentaries as well as interviewed and worked with so many African women.’ But it was a risk she was prepared to take. ‘There are still such harmful stereotypes in the West: that Africans are poor and uneducated, that the continent is just a place of poverty and hunger. Yet this couldn’t be further from the truth. For one thing, African women are creating real change. They’re strong, dynamic, educated.’ Showing this became a real thrust of her journalism.

‘With my character, Lily, I wanted to show her as a woman who’s many things: on the brink of divorce with a husband (who’s a bit of a rogue), a mother, a superb lawyer, a fashionable woman who sends her daughter to private school. And yes, also Senegalese.’

Many of these negative perceptions she attributes to the legacy of colonialism. ‘France retains a shadowy presence in Senegal, like a parent who can’t let go of its grown-up child. There are subtle, lingering threads of Western manipulation – like Orange dominating the mobile phone market, giving it immense power. Senegalese women are still highly influenced by European ideals of beauty, and Western tobacco and fast-food brands are ubiquitous, meaning smoking and diabetes have become real social health problems - particularly amongst younger people. The fact that imports and foreign aid remain a huge part of the economy creates the sense of a double standard – aid agencies and embassies being in Africa to ‘support’, yet at the same time still taking, in some way.’

Great British Life: Jane interviewing women at Nsadzu Community School in Chipita, Zambia in 2012. (Photo: Petterik Wiggers/Panos Pictures UK)Jane interviewing women at Nsadzu Community School in Chipita, Zambia in 2012. (Photo: Petterik Wiggers/Panos Pictures UK)

Past Participle is split between present day and the 1980s, and another of its themes examines why one life should matter more than another, looking back to a time when there was little or no accountability. In the story, when a European pharmaceutical company uses local children for drug testing the consequences are dire, with the children experiencing blindness, stutters, even dying. Shockingly, this storyline is based on real life cases, for instance, experimental antibiotics given to Nigerian children in response to a meningitis outbreak in 1996 which had fatal results.

‘Then there’s HIV Aids testing in Zimbabwe; forced sexual reassignment in South Africa; sterilisation experiments in 1900s German South West Africa…’ Examples roll off her tongue all too quickly. ‘When you see the all-too stark facts of history it does come down to, what price a life?

‘I’d always thought about this, but when I started writing Past Participle, I suddenly knew how to present it as a story. How to make these points without dwelling on the pain the children suffered.’

Great British Life: Jane Labous with her daughter Bella at their home in Poole. (Photo: Jane Labous)Jane Labous with her daughter Bella at their home in Poole. (Photo: Jane Labous)

What Jane has created is a novel full of psychological suspense that keeps you gripped from start to finish, featuring two very strong but different women. One of my favourite elements is Lily’s beautiful relationship with her daughters. When I ask if any of the scenes come from Jane’s own experience of motherhood, her face lights up. ‘I’ve always written down snippets of what Bella says, so some scenes do contain direct quotes. As an author it’s a wonderful way to record them.’

The novel also provides a fabulous insight into Senegal’s capital, Dakar. Much of the 1980s description is based on Jane’s own time there. ‘Ten years later, there were still very few Westerners, you pretty much knew all of them: the American Peace Corp, the diplomats, the US military, and us! Now Dakar is this incredibly modern fashionable African city, and the corniche (sea front) is full of luxury flats and people jogging. Back then, there was just a single apartment building, stuck in the middle of the beach! Ngor has also merged with the city, although it’s retained its distinct ‘village’ identity.’

Still, without colonialism, Jane thinks Dakar would be even more developed by now, much like London. ‘Interestingly in some ways things move even faster,’ she reflects. ‘For instance, the Senegalese went straight to mobiles, while we got computers first. Everyone has 4G, social media is huge.’

Great British Life: Jane's new book set in Dorset and Senegal. (Photo: Jane Labous)Jane's new book set in Dorset and Senegal. (Photo: Jane Labous)

It’s clear how much she misses the city. ‘There’s live music everywhere, as well as great art and photography, a real sort of jubilance, and humour. Like any African city, things can be chaotic and exhausting, but also so exciting, with many entrepreneurs and lots of activism. Hip-hop, for example, which thumps from massive ghetto blasters, is an important tool for political change. How cool is that!’

Listening to her passion for this country and her knowledge of its people, I say I have little doubt that Past Participle is indeed her story to write. She half-smiles, nodding as she produces pages of notes she’s collated on the issue, then reads from one of them. ‘Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has said that our culture of self-censorship, policing each other’s language, cordoning off whole subjects as unsayable, is “almost the death knell of literary and other cultural production”.’

For Jane, however, it’s much simpler. ‘In the future I don’t want my daughter asking me why I didn’t include characters like her in my novels. Senegal for me is love, now embodied in Bella, so it’s not a question I ever want to have to answer.’

Past Participle is published by Afsana Press at £10.99. Find out more at janelabous.com

Great British Life: Jane Labous. (Photo: Doriana Re)Jane Labous. (Photo: Doriana Re)

Five of Jane’s recommended African authors

Chinua Achebe

Things Fall Apart – a pivotal work of African fiction, looking at life in tribal society before and after colonialism, published two years before Nigerian independence.

Mariama Ba

So Long A Letter – a 1980s Senegalese classic, this is a semi-autobiographical cry for women’s liberation in a male-dominated society.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah and Half of A Yellow Sun – one of Nigeria’s best-known living writers, with humanity at the heart of her wide-ranging novels.

JM Coetze

Disgrace – a brutal, often troubling study of racial politics in South Africa, written from the point of view of a disgraced white university lecturer.

Ayobami Adebayo

Stay With Me – a big-hearted novel about the trauma of infertility, reflecting a real-life predicament for many West African women.

Yewande Omotoso

The Woman Next Door – set in Cape Town, about the blossoming of an unlikely friendship between two widows: one black, one white.