It seems a little strange to offer a handful of reviews of books written about surviving various wars in Africa: Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Rwanda. However, here we are. The African conflicts I know the most about are the Rwandan genocide in the 90’s and Apartheid in South Africa, with tidbits of info about Darfur and Boko Haram. However in my lifetime there have probably been hundreds of battles and wars fought throughout the continent, only a few of which made our headlines.I distinctly remember learning about the Rwandan genocide while I was in junior high school, I had heard something in class and went to the library after school to look it up. I remember reading the article about Rwanda in the brand new, super fancy Microsoft Encarta encyclopedia, and then reading recent news articles about the war, the killing, the unimaginable death tolls. I remember where I sat in the library, what I was wearing, even some of the images in the Encarta and news articles.
As I read these books I was fascinated by the difference between autobiographical accounts of a war and a more biographical or historical sketch; the one is personal and fractured, often without resolution or closure. Most individuals are not always where the most important decisions or action is happening for the duration of a war, nor do their lives have tidy little chapter endings at the armistice or cease fire. The broader historical context may be necessary to truly understand what is happening and be able to follow the plot line of the conflict, the politics, and the major players. However, the autobiographical stories have such heart-breaking details, they can capture the million tiny details that, when added together, will tear a country to pieces.
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah (5 stars). Oh, this book broke my heart, the simple story telling does not minimize the gravity of a young boy in war-torn Africa. In fact, it increases the horror of so young a child running from soldiers and then becoming one of them; he’s lost his family, his friends, his home, himself. The efforts from the U.N. and other organizations to rescue some of the child-soldiers in the African jungle, their struggles, the psychological damage and PTSD from their experiences were difficult to read about, to realize that thousands of children were in this position, conscripted, drugged, killing machines masquerading as children.
Say You’re One of Them, by Uwem Akpan (4 stars). This book is really hard to rate; it is a collection of short and long-ish stories (the two longest are about 130-150 pages each) told from the point of view of children growing up in war-torn African countries. For me, the short stories were far more impactful; the condensed pages mean the details really pop, the microcosm of time–usually just a few days–makes every little thing yank at your heart-strings. The longer stories did not affect me in the same way, particularly the one on the bus. In fact, I skimmed the last 40 pages of that, waiting for something to happen or catch my eye, and in reading a few other reviews, this seemed to be the least well received. Some of the text is difficult to understand, there are local language idioms and words from a smattering of other languages thrown in, the dialogue is written in dialect and it often was difficult for me to piece together, exactly, what was happening. I think dialect can be a very effective addition to writing, but I felt lost here most of the time; I wasn’t understanding the language or what direction it furthered the story, it felt kind of like reading Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. This all being said, the story about the Rwandan Hutu/Tutsi genocide hit me square in the feels in ways other accounts of that war haven’t. It is the final story, and where the book’s title comes from, and for me it was by far the best of the pieces. The shorter stories bumped this from 3-stars to 4, the longer stories, for me, were only marginal.
Half a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (4 stars). I knew very little about the Nigerian Civil War in the late 1960’s where the Biafran state attempted to break from Nigeria to form their own country (ultimately, they were unsuccessful, after years of fighting the Nigerian and Biafran governments called a truce and Biafra rejoined Nigeria). This book follows several characters through the conflict, two adult sisters, Olanna and Kianene and their families and friends, although the book is primarily told from Ugwu’s point of view, the thirteen-year-old houseboy (servant) of Olanna and Odenigbo, who both work at the University. I love Adichie’s writing, her descriptions are vivid and her characters bring to life a political scenario I know nothing about. I appreciated learning about the politics and war through Ugwu’s eyes and ears; everything was new for him too. This has many heart-wrenching scenes and situations and because we’re talking about civil war–neighbor’s fighting against neighbor’s and all the horrific conditions that go along with that–it is not light on gore and graphic scenes. It’s not full of gratuitous violence, but when a society descends into civil war and the fighting is in every town, the ravages of that war will touch everyone.
There Was A Country, by Chinua Achebe (3 stars) The subtitle, “A Personal History of Biafra” is really the best description of this book. Biafra was, for 30 months in the 1960’s, it’s own country in the corner of Nigeria, with a population consisting mostly of people of Igbo heritage. Biafrans fought Nigeria troops for their right to self-govern, and after millions died from war, disease, and starvation, a “peace accord” was signed and Biafra was consumed again by Nigeria. Achebe includes several of his own poems throughout the book, and they are, by far, the best parts, in some ways, the only parts that I connected to emotionally. Not that I expect to connect emotionally to a book about s revolutionary/civil war based on genocide and with starving children in its wake…well, actually, I *should* be moved by that. And I was, but not necessarily due to Achebe’s writing, which, outside of the poems, was very textbooky and dry, quite surface info of dates and people and speeches. I think Half A Yellow Sun gave me a deeper understanding of what life in Biafra was like during and after the war, her ability to combine stories and characters and experiences into a work of fiction with characters I cared deeply for was more moving for me than this book.
We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories from Rwanda, by Philip Gourevitch (4 stars). In the spring of 1994 over 800,000 Rwandan Tutsi’s were slaughtered in about three months. They were primarily killed with machetes, that rate amounts to 5 people per minute, hacked to death by their Hutu neighbors and fellow townspeople. The first half of this book is mostly based on interviews Gourevitch had with survivors of the genocide, the second half covers a lot more of the international relief efforts (or lack of efforts) during and immediately after the genocide, the politics involved, the lack of action from the U.N. and other western powers. Overall, this gives a horrifying account, both of the killings, but also of the international community who stood by and did nothing, then followed up with relief efforts to help the Hutu killers, and ending in forcing Rwandan refugees to return to their homes and again live side-by-side with the people who killed their families. My heart is sick ten thousand times over.
An Ordinary Man: An Autobiography, by Paul Rusesabagina (3 stars). Rusesabagina is most familiar as the hotelier who housed 1,200 Tutsi refugees in his Rwandan hotel during the genocide of 1994. Part autobiography of his early life, part war-time history of his country, part the basis of the movie Hotel Rwanda, this book is an interesting and heartbreaking mix. I usually read thru my lunch hour, but had to stop because I couldn’t eat after reading about the horrors and brutality of regular people slaughtering their neighbors, their friends, even their own families. This is a very first-person account, one man’s experience in hell, and I think that, despite the Hollywood success of the film, you need to remember that while reading this memoir.
Other Recommended Reading:
Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton
Long Walk to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela
Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe
Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, by Philip Paul Hallie