July 07, 2008

Wicked Cool Overlooked Books: But What Is the Truth?

It's the first Monday of the month, and time once again to enjoy WCOB ~ Wicked Cool Overlooked Books.

Africa. It's a continent that is constantly embroiled in conflict, and it's a gathering of small nations and kingdoms and peoples of which I didn't really learn much in school -- except from the viewpoint of 19th century novels, which were required reading for most of my high school and college years. I learned to loathe the phrase "dark continent" as a cop-out and a nasty racial euphemism, and squirmed uncomfortably as teachers trotted out pictures of bushmen with wild hair and bones in their noses, spouting what sounded like gibberish, and reminding everyone of what Western Civilization was not. There had to be a broader Africa, I knew, but we never saw that one. Instead we focused on nearly-naked people who guided the Wild Kingdom guys around the jungle. I often wished that I could see the people as more than National Geographic photographic fodder. There were other worlds in Africa, real stories, real experiences, and real girls like me.

Beverley Naidoo's Carnegie (and myriad other) awarded novel, The Other Side of Truth is one of the first novels I read which produced evidence of another Africa.

Twelve-year-old Sade Solaja and ten-year-old Femi lose their mother almost before their eyes -- two loud cracks, squealing tires, and she's on the floor, bleeding. It doesn't pay to be the wife of an outspoken Nigerian journalist; you can die for what your husband believes. Nigeria, Sade's father, Folarin, is horrified by his wife's murder, and is stunned by grief and terror for his two children. But he can no more stop writing the truth about the corrupt government of Nigeria than he can stop being an African man.

He would not be silent, not save himself. But Sade and Femi -- must be safe. They decide that the family must emigrate to London, but there's a problem -- their Papa can't get out. Posing as the children of another woman, Sade and Femi exit the country that very night -- not realizing that they may never see their father or homeland again.

This is a harrowing, fast-paced adventure told through Sade's eyes. Sade has to be incredibly resilient, incredibly mature and incredibly brave as circumstances conspire against she and her brother. Every step toward freedom takes her that much further from memories of her mother, her Grandma, her family, her home. Grief is tangled up with terror, as the very real danger stalks them all the way across the sea. Twenty four hours after the death of their mother they are freezing, homeless, alone, and not exactly sure that they'll ever be safe again.

Does telling the truth, regardless, harm you? Or will it save you in the end?

On a recent flight from Miami to Dallas, I had the experience of sitting in the plane with several African families -- mothers with babies slung on their backs, young girls, young boys, toddlers, uncles and fathers. In traditional clothing, they had blankets tied around their bodies printed with the letters USAID, which indicated that they were part of a State Department refugee relocation plan. They spoke no English, and I could not begin to guess from which country on their massive home continent they hailed, but around me, all of the passengers changed from their busy workday attitudes, and became astonishing. Peole gently helped them into their seats, buckled their seatbelts, helped them choose refreshments from the drink tray, and smiled at their children. This is us, we all told them silently. We are America. It will be better here.

At least one hopes.

I thought about this story that day, and I wished I could launch a thousand paper cranes -- symbols of all the good luck and good wishes to them, thoughts of comfort, prosperity and peace as they begin life from scratch with no one but each other.

What is the truth? That justice and human rights are the right of every person, on every shore. Keep hoping that no other child will lose a parent to a corrupt government, and not another person will flee their homeland for a safer, less familiar shore. Keep hoping that someday freedom and the right to speak the truth will belong to everyone.

More Wicked Coolness rounded up at Chasing Ray.


Sarah Stevenson said...

What an intense-sounding book...and what a wonderful story about your experience on the plane. Brings tears to my eyes...

Andromeda Jazmon said...

I read this last year and really enjoyed it. I am looking for more books set in Africa for young children. Somehow my five year old got the idea that everyone if Africa is poor and has to sleep on straw. I keep trying to show him evidence of the variety and complexity of the continent. It's a challenge.