War in the Time of Childhood: A review of 4 child-soldier novels
by Tolu Ogunlesi (2009)
Allah is Not Obliged; by Ahmadou Kourouma
Beasts of No Nation; by Uzodinma Iweala
Burma Boy; by Biyi Bandele
Song for Night; by Chris Abani
Sometime within the last decade and a half, Britain and America spotted the profit-turning potential of the lives of unhappy children. It suddenly dawned on the publishing world that, bound within the pages of a book, the intensity of the emotion-evoking power of a victimised child will rise one notch. This gave birth to that (now)-expansive genre known as “misery-literature” — stories of childhoods sacrificed on the altars of domestic/familial abuse.
(Famous examples: Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It, Don’t Tell Mummy by Toni Maguire; Sickened: The True Story of a Lost Childhood by Julie Gregory; Don’t Tell Mummy: A True Story of the Ultimate Betrayal by Toni Maguire, and Somebody Else’s Kids: They Were Problems No One Wanted! by Torey Hayden). Misery Lit books currently account for close to ten percent of the British Book market, drawing in millions of pounds annually in revenue.
Following closely on the heels of misery-lit has been “child-warrior lit”, heartrending stories of African children caught up in vicious wars. Somehow, it seems that, in shifting from the West to Africa, there had to be a corresponding shift in subject. Africa seems to constantly inspire, demand and deserve grand gestures — special sessions and resolutions of the United Nations, billions of dollars in aid, unprecedented high-powered military commands, exaggerated travel warnings for foreign tourists, and so on.
Therefore, in keeping with this rule of grand gestures, domestic misery seems painfully inadequate a theme for a continent like Africa. The child is therefore seized from his/her domestic setting, and planted in a theatre of war, set firmly in a continent better known by its wars and rumors of wars.
The nonprofit group Coalition to stop the use of Child Soldiers defines a child soldier as “any person under the age of 18 who is a member of or attached to government armed forces or any other regular or irregular armed force or armed political group, whether or not an armed conflict exists.” Research reports estimate that there are as many as 300,000 child soldiers in combat around the world, at any point in time.
The last few years can confidently lay claim to being the years of the child soldier. The African child soldier, to be precise. Gun-totting children have marched, with their oversized uniforms and ill-fitting consciences, from the many battlefields scattered across the dark continent, onto the pages of recent literature — fiction and non-fiction, garnering for themselves height of celebrity once reserved for their Western-world child-actor counterparts.
Few would have believed, a decade or two ago, that the African child soldier would earn himself such an assured place in the annals of 21st century fiction. From the dreary, statistics-ridden pages of NGO reports, to the award-winning pages of contemporary fiction.
The list includes such distinguished folks like Sierra Leonean Ishmael Beah (Memoir, A Long Way Gone), Agu (fictional) — hero of Uzodinma Iweala’s novel Beasts Of No Nation; Ahmadou Kourouma’s novel “Allah is Not Obliged” (described by the UK Guardian as ‘…a gruesome but exuberantly narrated litany of corruption and carnage as witnessed by a child soldier in Liberia’); What is the What, Valentino Achak Deng (non-fictional hero of Dave Eggers’ fictional recreation of life as a child refugee in war-torn Southern Sudan); and Ugandan China Keitetsi’s (non-fictional), author of “Child Soldier: Fighting for my Life” (the story that influenced Uzodinma Iweala); and My Luck, the protagonist of Chris’ Abani’s very recent novella, Song For Night.
A child abuse victim is simply a victim, at the mercy of (typically familial) abusers, and remains so until the situation changes (through growing up and leaving home, or through a dramatic rescue by concerned authorities.) But in the case of the child warrior, he is not simply a victim, or does not remain a victim for very long, and quickly transcends into an active — even if unwilling — perpetrator of evil. Therefore, the African child-warrior is a conflation of the victim and the “inflictor”, of the oppressor and the oppressed.
The child-warrior is therefore one level above the “closet-violence” victim. Every child-warrior therefore finds himself trailed by a feeling different from pity — a (melo)dramatic cross between shock, disgust and curiosity. Seeing violent adult impulses and emotions through the eyes and voice (and, I daresay, gun-nozzle) of one not yet equipped to handle such inspires everything but pity.
There is a temptation that teases readers to jump to the conclusion that to read one child soldier novel is to read all child soldier novels. On the level of the horror, the similarities are all very striking. The relentless narrations of forced violence, the self-questioning, the guilt, stark portrayals of the devastation of war, the foray across “mined” fields of consciousness into a past when all was well with the world, and when childhood was simply life under the shadow of family and familiar surroundings.
Beasts of No Nation is a child-soldier’s letter to himself, an attempt to convince himself of his inherent goodness. This attempt plays itself out in the haunting ambivalence that pervades the novel. “…I am saying to myself it is time to be killing, I am ready…” Agu declares at one point. Moments later we find him retracting his comments. “I am not wanting to be killing anybody today. I am not ever wanting to be killing anybody.”
It is in this ambivalent space that much of a child-warrior’s life is lived. My Luck, the protagonist of Chris Abani’s Song For Night, has his forearms covered in crosses — self-inflicted marks made with a knife-tip, a miniature cemetery [“my own personal cemetery” is what he calls it], entombing memories as symbols for the dead. On one arm are crosses cut in memory of loved ones who have succumbed to the war, on the other the crosses (significantly fewer in number) are “one for each person that I enjoyed killing.” The forearm crosses mark the boundaries of My Luck’s life, navigated as it is between loss and revenge. Needless to say, loss always triumphs.
Song For Night is an illuminating study of the mind of a child soldier. Beyond My Luck’s ambivalence, lies a fertile imagination, which colours the entire novel. The imagination is all that is left, after the loss of speech. The child warriors here are mine-clearers, and have gone under the surgeon’s knife, to have their vocal cords cut out. Unable to articulate their pains and fears and desires, they resort to sign language, to the creation of symbols as a form of communication. Every chapter in Song for Night is headlined by a symbol. Truth is a forefinger raised to the sky. Danger is a deeper silence. Dreaming is hands held in prayer over the nose.
In all four books fine detail abounds — the imaginations of these under-aged warriors seem concerned with the accretion of details, perhaps as a distraction from the pain of war. In the war novel viewed out of an adult consciousness, one comes to the conclusion that war’s most significant impact is in its physical destruction — in the loss of comrades, and of battlegrounds, and of equipment, and of conscience.
But in the war story told from the lips of a child, this physicality of war seems to take a step backward, to allow us glimpse an additional perspective — the loss of “voice” that is concealed beneath the loud damage of combat. All four novels seem bent on establishing that, for child combatants caught up in the evil of war, natural speech is the first enemy that is taken out. And all four protagonists (Agu, Birahima, My Luck and Ali Banana) seem, to varying degrees, and in their own unique ways, hung up on language.
Agu of Beasts of No Nation speaks in a tongue that seems to have been made up as his journey progressed. A collage of pidgin English, inconsistently improper English, Americanisms, and an occasional burst of correct English; a language of communion between his past and present. (There is no future). There is a matter-of-factness about the recounting or war’s gory episodes that demands a flinching. Iweala gets away with the weird language by not setting his war within any defined geographical location. All we know is that it is an African war, fought on African soil, and narrated in a language that must be African because it is not competent English.
Sadly, I found the language getting in my way too often. Here is a novelist present on the battlefield, haunting his creation (through language), playing the part of guardian angel as Agu stumbles on through the trauma of the war. Abani on the other hand is content to let his protagonist carry on with his life, ensconced in a time capsule alone with the reader. We follow My Luck on an unsuccessful journey in search of his platoon, from whom he has been separated after an accidental mine explosion.
It is a circuitous journey, as psychic as it is physical. The line between past and present has been rubbed clean beneath the feet of the trudging mini-soldiers. “I don’t know how long I’ve been stranded on the sandbank, having lost track of time. Night blends into day blends into night, seamlessly,” he narrates, at the beginning of the chapter titled “Fish Is a Hand Swimming through the Air.”
Another time, he tells us “[t]ime is standing still.” Literally. His watch, inherited from his father, is broken, like everything else. The voiceless My Luck tells his story in perfect English, reminding us that, within the space of the imagination, thought is carried out unhindered by the limitations of learnt or mis-learnt language. My Luck’s voice is the language of thought, germinating in an infinite, unregulated space. Or in his words, “[t]he interiority of the head, which is a misnomer — misnomer being one of those words silence brings you — but there is something about the mind’s interiority no less that opens up your view of the world …I am not a genius, though I would like to be, I am just better versed at the interior monologue that is really the measure of age, of the passage of time…” It is this interior monologue that Abani allows us to overhear. In the absence of speech, there is the absence of all the (grammatical) millstones that weigh speech down.
Agu’s vocal cords on the other hand are intact, and we hear his speech laden with all its imperfections. We hear his story, but his language is another story on its own, drawing part of our attentions and sympathies to itself.
Much of Biyi Bandele’s Burma Boy is conducted in Hausa vernacular. But Bandele doesn’t inflict this vernacular upon us, he skillfully translates into English, while leaving just enough of it to tantalise. Memorable nicknames and comically mispronounced names abound, a fallout of the fact that much of the dialogue in the novel — so that “Captain” emerges on the native tongue as “Kyaftin”, Sergeant becomes “Samanja”, Private, “Farabiti” and General, “Janar.” The English King, George VI transforms into a near-mythical “Kingi Joji.” In Burma Boy, language is both a barrier and a bandage, keeping people out as well as in.
The child-warrior most hung up on language is Ahmadou Kourouma’s protagonist, Birahima. His language is patently that of one who has seen far more of life than his age can justify, the language of not just any adult, but a jaded, been-there-done-that-seen-all-evil adult. Whatever else Birahima’s weapons (his “kalash” for example), his most ammunition are his words. His mouth is a salivashnikov, spraying obscene words with reckless abandon. “…I’m disrespectful, I’m rude as a goat’s beard and I swear like a bastard… I don’t say fuck! shit! bitch! I use Malinke words like faforo! (my father’s cock — or your father’s or somebody’s father’s)…” is how he puts it.
Four dictionaries serve as his verbal armoury, from which he wages war on a cruel world. Life has left him an orphan — son of a father who died “while I was still crawling around on all fours” and a mother whose rotting leg eventually killed her — and as a consequence, a street kid.
Unlike Ali Banana and the other kid warriors of Burma Boy, who have willingly elected, schemed even, to be soldiers (Ali Banana actually has to inflate his age in order to get enlisted into the army), Birahima has been thrust by fate into the waiting arms of war — a war that like every other war is dependent on an endless influx of new combatants, to replace maimed and dead ones, and to supply new vigor, as well as freshly-damaged consciences.
All through the novel Birahima retains firm control of his words, taking a perverse delight in using words taken from a variety of languages and then going ahead to explain them in annoyingly smug, unsolicited dictionary-style expositions.
Ali Banana (Burma Boy) and Birahima (Allah is not obliged) share a characteristic that distinguishes them from My Luck and Agu — a sense of humor. Both of them are reminders that sometimes, humor is the last layer of defense in the human psyche’s immune system. While Agu (Beasts of No Nation) and My Luck (Song For Night) are recounting their stories in a matter-of-fact style, Ali Banana and Birahima spend a significant portion of their time, fooling around. Death and humor sandwich each other, till the redeeming power of humor begins to equate a special kind of victory.
Burma Boy, as a laugh-out-loud novel, is, for one set in one of the most brutal stages of a brutal war, an admirable and brave achievement. When Banana discovers that one of his comrades has brought kulikuli (fried groundnut paste) along from Northern Nigeria , he cannot believe his eyes. “Kulikuli here in India? God is great.” And in a tense moment Birahima can still manage to notice the shrunk penis of a naked fellow combatant.
Burma Boy is the most unusual of the four novels because it hovers around a war much farther removed from the 21st century than the wars regularly featured in the other child-warrior books — Rwanda, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Uganda, etc. (Song For Night skillfully tries to avoid overt geographical tagging, but it is clear from its mentions of “North”, “South”, “Igbo”, “the French” that it is a novel of the Nigerian Civil War, 1967–1970).
This is finally one war that is not African in any way. Not in the warlords, nor in the “booty” being fought over. Take a back seat, Angolan oil, take a nap, Sierra Leonean diamonds, let Master Hitler et al show you how blood is shed. These are not Hutus and Tutsis, or Igbos and Hausas massacring each other. Mr. Bandele seems to be trying to remind us that Africa has never owned the copyright on war.
Burma Boy is also the most innocent of the novels, the one where the “drugs” are therapeutic (Atabrine). Beasts of No Nation has its “gun juice” (“Everybody is always wanting gun juice because it is drug and making life easy. Gun juice is making you to be stronger and braver”); Allah is not obliged also has its hard-drugs. Beyond drugs, however, senseless cruelty (as a tool of desensitization) seems the most important conditioning tool in the training of all child soldiers.
In the final analysis, two things are evident: One, that there is nothing that can reverse the cruelties and tragedies of war, not even the finest brand of humor. The Yoruba proverb — that twenty children cannot play for twenty years — is a law that even in peace-time is as true as gravity, not to talk of in a time of war.
Two, unless new wars stop arising to replace old ones, 1940s Ali Bananas will continue to be replaced by 1960s My Lucks, who will go on to mentor the Agus and Birahimas of the present day. It is a vicious cycle, similar to that which drives many child victims of domestic violence to (in adulthood) replicate the damage they have experienced. The default is that human beings will only bequeath what they own, and this applies equally in matters of property and of the psyche.
I for one however look forward with hope — that these child-warrior novels will succeed in making such a powerful impact on the world’s consciousness that, before long, AK-47s, land-mines and child-soldiers will join dinosaurs and mammoths — wherever they might be.
Tolu Ogunlesi © 2009