Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 1, 2012

Beneath the Darkening Sky (2012), by Majok Tulba

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.

©Lisa Hill

Author: Majok Tulba
Title: Beneath the Darkening Sky
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, 2012
ISBN: 9781926428420
Source: review copy courtesy of Penguin Australia

Fishpond: Beneath the Darkening Sky


  1. Indeed, a harrowing tale, Lisa and your excellent review has brought home sharply to me the atrocities carried out by some African countries in the name of freedom fighting. Child-soldiers are the bane of African terrorist acts and I fail to see or understand just how low a human being can sink in his bid to claim power. Thank God, those child-soldiers who lived to tell the story are being rehabilitated back into society to be part of the future. Thank you for sharing this.


    • Thanks for dropping by, Celestine!


  2. Oh so heartbreaking. I have heard and read a lot about this book and a friend told me I would need to put on my ‘tough boots’ before tackling it. Thanks for another great review.


  3. I have heard a lot about this title and it is one I want to read though it sounds quite intense. Great review Lisa!


  4. Fantastic review – this is going straight on to my wish list!


    • Hi Michelle, this is the first book that I know of, by an author from Australia’s Sudanese community. I think it’s an exciting development, and I’m hoping to discover more voices from our refugee and migrant communities telling their stories and bringing a more global perspective to our literature.


  5. This sounds a little like Chris Abani’s novella Song For Night which is about child soldiers set in an unspecified African nation. As harrowing as these stories are, I’m pleased to see them being published — fiction is often a good way to enlighten an otherwise ignorant world about real-life atrocities. I haven’t heard of this one before, though, and it’s not listed on Amazon UK. I take it that the author is now based in Australia?


    • Hi Kim,
      Yes, it is in the same vein as Song for Night, I read that one too and it was equally powerful. Tulba came here as a refugee some years ago and I am hoping that this is not his only story to tell.
      I’m surprised Penguin haven’t made this available overseas, but it may just be a bit soon. It’s only just been released here.


      • I’ll keep my eye out for it over here… sometimes they do take a year or two to reach these shores.


  6. […] Beneath the Darkening Sky, Majok Tulba (Penguin Group Australia) See my review […]


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