It was a surreal experience to read this book straight after Jon Doust’s novel To the Highlands. Doust’s engaging tale is the story of a privileged young man who loses his way in life. He gets packed off to the New Guinea Highlands where he has a great time proving his warped sense of manhood, and pays a penalty that most of us in western society might say he did not deserve even though he brought it on himself.
Majok Tulba’s novel, by contrast, is the story of Obinna, a boy soldier recruited into a rebel army in South Sudan. He is forced to prove his manhood by committing atrocities in order to survive. He is beaten, tortured, deprived of food and water and forbidden even to think about the past or his family on pain of death. It is a harrowing book written by a South Sudanese refugee who narrowly escaped this fate himself.
Obinna’s village is one of many attacked by the revolutionaries. A boy still in primary school, he witnesses the savage murder of his father and the other adult males, and the rape of his mother and the other women. The huts are fired, the crops destroyed and the livestock butchered. The pretty young girls are taken as ‘hospitality women’ and the boys are lined up to be measured. Obinna and his brother Akot are taller than the height of an AK47 so they are marched off into the bush as new recruits.
New recruits are the most vulnerable. They are forced to lead the party along tracks laced with land mines so that inevitably some of them are blown up. From the gruesome description of what happens to the body, I think the landmines are those cluster bomblets which are now banned by international treaty (though the usual suspects have refused to sign up to it). Apart from being used as a de-mining strategy (pioneered by the Nazis who used captured civilians to clear minefields in a similar way) the recruits are fed on scraps, they have very little water, and they have no protection from the elements. If they make mistakes or cause irritation they are beaten, tortured, or shot. They are given horrible names and desensitized so that they too will become brutal monsters.
Akot submits to his new life, and seems willing enough to participate in acts of violence, but Obinna seeks ways to keep a low profile and distance himself from the horror. He is lucky in just one way: he makes a friend called Priest who teaches him to play guitar, and this both saves his life and threatens it.
I am not a great guitar player and I have never performed for a real audience, just the Captain and Christmas, and the birds at home. But in this moment, the stage is the safest place I can be.
So I close my eyes, feel the smooth strings and strum.
Finally I am back in my village. I walk the paths, pass the huts, smell the air. I am in the garden, playing on the wall that makes us such good neighbours, chasing away birds. I am with my goats, guarding them on the narrow road, keeping them out of the crop fields. I am with my mother, smelling the maize flour as it boils, dropping twigs in the cooking fire. I am in a field, playing hide-and-seek with Pina, dancing with a thousands bodies around me. (p136)
This moment when he forgets himself in sweet memories of home is transmitted to his audience, who feel it too. As he sings ‘the wind will carry us home beneath the darkening sky’ there is a hush, and then a ripple of applause, and a boy calls out his love for his mother. These words threaten the power of the rebel leaders and Obinna is in great peril, a peril which plunges him into a world from which redemption seems impossible, even with Priest’s consoling advice.
‘Blood seeps into me’ Obinna says, ‘staining my bones’ (p149) and this image is a powerful reminder that for thousands of child soldiers in Africa and elsewhere experiences like this cause irreparable damage to the psyche. Beneath the Darkening Sky is not an easy book to read, but it is an important work. I couldn’t put it down.
Fishpond: Beneath the Darkening Sky