By Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy
It is true that great literature often springs forth wherever there exists great oppression; this is because literature in such places becomes a weapon to fight against a common enemy. Is this not why it is said that the pen is mightier than the sword? And where there has been a war, the war soon becomes material for future writers. The American Civil War of 1861 to 1865 produced the likes of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s first novel (Weep Not, Child) is based on the Mau Mau insurrection, and I am also reminded of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, Cyprian Ekwensi’s Divided We Stand, and Chinua Achebe’s There was a Country; all based on the 1967-70 Nigeria Biafra Civil War. Like the writers mentioned above, Nadifa Mohamed borrows the materials used in weaving her novel from an important period of Somalia’s history; the Somali 1988-91 Somali Civil War (or what in certain quarters is termed ‘genocide’).
Nadifa tells a highly riveting story, albeit shocking and soul-shattering. It is a story of horror, despoliation, and wreckage. It is a story that spells out, in a lucid manner, the animalistic and cannibalistic tendencies of man, especially when in a position of power. It is a story which revolves around the lives of three females who find themselves in Hargeisa at a time when the drum beats of the revolution against Somalia dictator began reaching its crescendo. Through the eyes of these three female protagonists, we are made to see a realistic depiction of how events unfold at the time of the Civil War.
Kawsar is a widow in her late fifties whose sympathy lies with the Somali National Movement, a revolutionary group against the dictatorship government of Somalia, Filsan is a young female soldier under the Somalia National Army posted to Hargeisa from Mogadishu to help quell the voices of insurrection, and Deqo is a nine-year-old vagrant refugee girl who escaped from the refugee camp in Saba’ad to Hargeisa.
An encounter on Independence Day celebrations throws the three females together whereby Deqo is arrested and Kawsar comes to her defence which leads to Kawsar being arrested and Deqo’s escape. Filsan in an attempt to interrogate Kawsar vents her anger and frustration on Kawsar leaving her paralysed waist down. Fate soon unites the three as they chart their escape to Ethiopia amidst risk of being discovered and arrested, drops of cannons, and volleys of gunfire.
The three females are unique in the roles they play in the story as each represents the different perceptions and reactions of Somali women of different generations to the genocidal war which happened in 1988 to 1991 in the then Somalia. Kawsar represents the older generation on the side of the oppressed, Filsan represents the younger generation on the side of the assailants, and Deqo represents the young who is not in full grasp of the world around her and trying to come to terms with it.
Each of the female has had her own fair share of life’s tribulations, and they all share a common sense of loss. Kawsar had lost her husband and her only daughter to the brutality of the oppressive regime which is desperate to keep all dissident voices in check. She lives a solitary life ruing her losses. Filsan is the daughter of divorcee and suspended military officer who is bent on forcing his will on his daughter just so ‘she doesn’t become like her mother’. Filsan’s father makes all her choices for her and she lives her life on the dictates of her dear father and would do nothing that would make him feel disappointed in her. She yearns to bond with her mother someday and worries that she could find no love. When she eventually finds love, it is short-lived for her lover (Roble) is killed in an attack by a group of revolutionaries. Deqo is a homeless orphan of nine, and she has never known what it feels like to have a family. She grew up in a refugee camp and yearns for someone she could call family. It is therefore not surprising that the three characters should meet and see the fulfillment of their emotional needs in the others.
Through the eyes of these three characters, we see wanton loss and destruction wreaked upon the people, with Hargeisa (the novel’s setting) as a microcosm of the larger Somalia society. Killings were indiscriminate as children, women, and innocent civilians were felled by the bullets. Protests were forbidden, and human rights were denied. There were whispers and hints of total annihilation of the people, and many more sub-human acts gorily described in Nadifa’s novel. However, the author is not far from a realistic portrayal of how events played out. The story Nadifa tells deeply hits the human emotional cords.
The novel is divided into three parts. The three protagonists are thrown together in the first part, we learn about their separate lives and existence through a series of flashbacks in the second part, and they are united in the third part.
I like the tempo or quick switches from one character to the other in the first and third parts, but the second part which is the longest was a bit slow in switching to show us what was happening with the other protagonists. It focused for too long on each character and did not give me the feeling that events were occurring simultaneously as the other parts did.
Also, while there may exist contentions that the role of women during the war was underplayed, I would rather the writer sought an equilibrium instead of fashioning an all female’s team. I think I would have loved to see Filsan switching of sides more elaborately described, perhaps using a stream of consciousness and having her change of mind come gradually. Well, as for Deqo, I was really hoping for an Oliver Twist kind of end for her where she is discovered to be the actual granddaughter of Kawsar. It is not impossible that Nadifa might have thought along this same line too since she hints at the resemblance between Hodan (Kawsar’s late daughter) and Deqo in the novel, or maybe it was just Kawsar’s sense of loss which makes Deqo appear to her as Hodan.
However, it is Nadifa’s story and not mine, and she tells it the way she wants it told—she tells it well and beautifully too. As we turn the novel’s pages, we see history come alive before our very eyes. We marvel especially at the author’s use of language for it is not just prose, but poetic prose. Virtually every sentence in the novel is laced out in the sublime language of poetry which should not come as a surprise considering that she has Somali blood running in her veins.
Finally, an elevated sense of description and particular attention to details give away the uniqueness of the novelist and make the novel a remarkable one. The realistic features of the story mark it out as not just a novel, but also as history. It is a sad tale masterfully told, one that leaves indelible impressions on the soul.
Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy is a poet, short story writer, editor, book reviewer, and essayist. He holds a degree in English Language and Literary Studies and has written myriad critical essays on literature, with most published online. He currently teaches ESL/EFL at Qalam Educational and Technical Centre, Hargeisa, Somaliland.