There were several motivations behind my #ReadAfrica2018 challenge: to educate myself more on all African countries, to read books that I would normally not find on collections of traditional “must-read” lists (but should), and to basically then also talk about them with other people who I think should read them. Sure, I can watch documentaries on civil wars and coups and the terrible effects of colonization, but that would defeat my aim of learning about countries from the people who live there.
Anyway, this past weekend I dropped everything I was doing and traveled the literary road to Somalia in 1987 and 1988, a country on the brink of civil war. Nadifa Mohamed’s The Orchard of Lost Souls is set in Hargeisa, Somalia, a city that is today part of Somaliland, a state that has yet to be recognized internationally. (I now need to read a lot more about this in order to wrap my head around not only the civil war and the declaration of this independent state, but also on why it has still not been recognized).
The novel unfolds through the eyes of three very different female characters, and I love how we watch the events take place through the eyes and minds of these everyday women. Kawsar, Deqo, and Filsan are from different places, and different lives, but each one is affected by the civil unrest in the country in significant ways. Deqo is only 9 years old and naïve despite her life in a refugee camp. She has basic survival skills, but no knowledge on life in the world outside of the camp. Kawsar has spent her life being quiet about the regime, and then loses it in a spectacular manner during a government-led event, which then leaves her bedridden and forced to listen to the voices of the past, present, and future in her head. And then there is Filsan who was brought up to be a soldier by her father, and who suddenly realizes that she might not want the life that she thought she was destined for.
The government (dictatorship) in Mogadishu demands that the rebellion happening in and around Hargeisa be quashed, but it’s bigger than anyone can imagine. The Orchard of Lost Souls provides great insight into the country at the time, but it is mostly the story of life in Hargeisa through the eyes of everyday women. I’ve noticed some reviews with comments on how the characters are generic and how they would be the same as other women anywhere else in the world with a different backdrop, and I think that’s exactly the point. None of these women are special, they are just women trying to survive in a world that was not intended for them to survive in. It was part of why I loved this book so much: these women could be you or me, and they do what they need to do to survive even if we wish they made different choices. I have a huge soft spot for Deqo, her naivety and her knack of surviving at such odds with each other, and then you remember that she is only 9 and completely alone in the world…
There is some fascinating information on Somalia in the novel, woven into the narrative: culture, food, religion, politics, differences in upbringing and families… It makes me intent on digging deeper, reading more. There is a good list of other books provided by the author at the end of the book and I have taken note of them all. No need to end this challenge with only one book from each country!
A solid 4.5 stars for me. I am going to read Nadifa Mohamed’s first novel now, because her writing is just beautiful. The narrative is speckled with phrases that take your breath away, beauty amidst the very dark times that it is set in.