The Great Agony and Pure Laughter of the Gods
Author: Jamala Safari
The distinction of this text among the growing corpus of accounts (both fictional, like this novel, and autobiographical) of the experiences of African child soldiers – or rather, of children kidnapped and made to fight wars – lies in the convincing, matter-of-fact sobriety with which most of its most agony-inducing events are recounted. Also to be noted is the fact that the novel emerges from the DRC (the so-called Democratic Republic of Congo – formerly Congo-Kinshasa), which is one of the murkiest and least known areas of complex and chaotic military conflict, civil war-type butchery and additional violent mercenary intervention and exploitation on our war-torn continent. In the novel the narrator is a youngster of fifteen, Risto Mahuno, who will later endure many months of enforced conscription by one of the warring militias in the region. He first becomes aware of the phenomenon of kadogo (child soldiers) when he hears that “some of his friends had joined the most feared army group, the Mai-Mai” – supposedly invincible because of “magical potions” and numerous talismans; claiming to be there to “protect people from foreign invasion”. Then Risto adds:
But they were not the only ones with the goal of protecting people from outside armies; there were many others: the Movement of Liberation from This, the Movement of Liberation from That; Patriotic Front for This; Patriotic Unity for That. Risto was shocked to learn that the army in his town [Bukavu – capital of Southern Kivu Province, at the heart of the conflict] was not part of the national army; the militia that “protected” them was a rebel army. All the militias wanted to get rid of “the rebel army”, but they were rebels themselves, according to the national government in the capital of Kinshasa. It was confusion, curse and chaos. (45)
The DRC is known for having the world’s greatest mineral wealth: besides the now notorious “blood diamonds” it has the richest resources in cobalt and (besides copper, gold, etc) it is the only source of coltan, which is vital for the manufacture of cell phones and computers. In another passage we hear the explanation of Landu, a distant cousin of Risto’s who later on lives like a brother in Risto’s family:
His family stayed in Burinyi village. It produced a lot of gold, coltan and cassiterite, like many other parts of South Kivu, and for that reason, it had attracted many armed groups. Each group wanted to control the mines, and each militia used children as soldiers to work and fight for them. Landu was a runaway child soldier. He had served in a Congolese militia controlled by Major General Simba Kali. (103)
But many of the militias and armies involved in the scavenging for valuable minerals are from, or are controlled from, neighbouring countries, with fingers pointing especially at Rwanda, while “Western” and Asian buyers of the looted wealth must certainly share the guilt for the suffering inflicted on the Congolese. The conflict has cost between five and six million lives and is also known to have brought about horrifically high levels of sexual violence against women and girls. As Risto says sadly, late in the text, in explaining the situation: “Congo was a victim of wars it had never wished for” (147).
Safari’s novel (published 2012, in South Africa, where the author lives at present) allows us to imagine how living under circumstances like those outlined above affect local children’s lives. Risto refers to his existence as resembling life “on a fragile island” with no way out or off it; “All around him, children like him, raped and killed, many with hacked-off hands and legs, the young mutilated” (9). The violence most forcibly breaks into his own life when a group of local boys’ soccer game ends because a bomb has ripped three of the players to shreds. It came from across the Ruzizi River on the Rwandan side – a more brutal reminder of a war they had tried to forget by playing soccer cannot be imagined. Two of the dead boys were among his dearest friends and he is not even allowed to attend their funerals to say farewell to them, because children in their culture are shielded from death. No wonder Risto yearns for some cave where he could “get in, close his eyes, clog up his ears, and ask rat and mouse to fill up the hole with soil” and have “peace” (9). Such despair in this formerly life-loving fifteen-year-old does not even anticipate the deeper woes still to come.
The poignancy of his friends’ death is underlined for the reader when Risto recounts how he had invited both of them along to spend the immediately past, months-long school summer holiday with him at his maternal grandparents’ home in Bugobe, a village considered a “little Eden” in the region because of the lushness of its vegetation and the abundance of fruit. In the village, Risto’s cousin Benny (a boy of the same age) spends all his days with them and teaches them the various fun activities available in and around the village. Youth, which had seemed paradisal at that time, has now become precarious life. With the militias preying on communities to drag children and youths into their activities, teenagers become scarce on the street. Their whole neighbourhood community is evacuated for two months when they get the news that the region has been invaded, but even after their return conditions are so unsafe for the young that Risto’s parents send him away – again to his grandparents’ village – but this time he is not on holiday and his friends are dead. Moreover, Risto encounters a much changed Benny and an unrecognisably altered village community where all had been so happy. Now, Bugobe village is no refuge; it is as much under threat from the roving, predatory militias as the town is, or even more. Risto had felt terrible about leaving town, because love had just begun to blossom between himself and Néné – a girl living nearby. But there was no questioning his parents’ decision; he had also seen for himself how the army uniforms on some of his schoolmates “swallowed their spirits as well as their bodies”; only later would their families learn how these boys are devastated, “forced into violence, in secret ways they dare not pronounce” (44).
Yet Risto is in for a lovely surprise and a spell of great happiness. Since girls, too, are at risk of being kidnapped by the militias as sex slaves, Néné’s parents had given her a choice of two villages to go and stay, where they have family and where they thought she would be safer, and of course, Néné chose Bugobe. Shy as both these teenagers are, they show their love to each other by spending most of their waking hours together; the happiness they derive from each other’s company does not need verbal articulation.
Their joy is of brief duration, however. After only a few days they are awoken at night by the dreadful sounds of gunshots, then “whistles and drums being beaten, then screams”; at this point Benny (who had slept in the same room) informs Risto “in a voice cold with hopelessness” that their village has been invaded. They try to run away, but are stopped in their tracks by a “fierce, deep voice” from the dark – as a group of men “gigantic with untidy beards, scraggly uncombed hair and ragged clothes” and, of course, armed with “guns and machetes”, appear in their midst (59). Risto and Benny are taken to carry huge loads of looted goods and to herd stolen stock for the militia members despite every possible plea and bribe their grandparents can hope to offer. On their nearly unendurable, long march through the jungle, one younger boy who has collapsed under his load and is unable to continue is calmly shot dead and his load distributed among others. They walk past villages, all evacuated – “a daunting eeriness yawned from each house they passed” (in Risto’s telling description) – the very image of desolation (61).
At the men’s camp in the forest, where they eventually arrive, Risto notices some “very young girls with the drawn faces of old women” and “dressed in dirty, untidy and cheap clothes” (64). The next moment a fierce quarrel erupts between two of the men in their foreign language. It turns out that they are arguing about whose turn it is to get one of the newly kidnapped girls as a “wife”. The camp commander, a gigantic man, comes to quell the fracas by assigning the girl to one of the two quarrellers – and she turns out to be Néné, “to be exchanged like a cheap piece of goods”. In Risto’s appalled view she looks “like a little chick in front of elephants” – a small, barefoot, weeping teenage girl. The chief, meanwhile, turns to the conscripted boys and informs them that they will never be going back, but will be trained in the camp to become “young lions” (65) who will have the “wonderful opportunities” of killing and raping among their own people under his command. Anyone who attempts to run away will be killed, he warns. He promises the kadogo meat (for which they will have to wait many days), but, starving and exhausted as he is, Risto is overwhelmed with self-reproach at not having even attempted to do anything to rescue or protect Néné from “the hands of a devil who was happy to take pleasure from the anguish of a small girl” – a man “almost three times her age” and twice her size, “who had barely washed for months” (67) – the last detail in particular indicating his ravaging, empathetic imagining of what Néné is at that very moment being subjected to (66-7).
But the boys are put through their own hell. Risto notices the helpless weeping to which the usually strong-minded Benny has been reduced. Risto has no opportunity to pass on his father’s advice of long ago to his cousin: to play along with kidnappers and gain trust by co-operating until an opportunity eventually arises and only then make an escape. There is no chance of this now; the boys are given no food and are immediately subjected to gruelling training exercises. One young boy collapses with exhaustion and is unable to get up again, despite the screaming warnings of dire punishment by their trainer. As a consequence the other boys in the groups are ordered to beat him so as to “teach him a lesson”. Each of the still standing boys is ordered to get a stout stick in the forest and to administer twenty-five blows to the prone child. Bearing his father’s advice in mind, Risto obeys the order, but notices how appalled Benny is that he could so betray one of their fellows. Indeed, another boy at a slightly later stage informs the trainer that the beaten boy is dying and that he cannot go on beating him in turn. The lieutenant “punched the refusing boy, felling him to the ground” (70), then takes a bayonet and plunges it into his back where he lies. Subsequently, other boys are ordered to hack off the second victim’s limbs if they want to escape having this done to them too, and again, Risto is the first to “oblige”, to Benny’s shock. Benny is alienated from Risto from this point, but all the surviving boys are racked that night by the horror of what they have done and been subjected to. Their “shame, guilt and self-hatred” (70) are overwhelming. The pressure on them is not let up, however: within a few days three adult captives (poachers who had been hunting game to feed their families) are brought into the camp and the kadogo (who had been given training in how to shoot with guns) are ordered to shoot them dead. Risto is (again) the one who fares best, catching the commander’s eye as a promising future soldier, but horrifying Benny.
This is how the psychological condition of the boys is described at this stage:
Indeed, all the boys were in shock. The lion-heart tag was in reality an attribute that frightened them, haunted them. How they could come to carry (…) that evil spirit within them, so soon, was the question that confused them all. Killing was evil, a disgusting, shameful thing to perform, and they knew this, but it was still the only way to survive. This was what hurt them, what shocked them, and made them feel evil. (…) Each knew that he could never be forgiven; he was evil, he was a killer. (75-6)
All the usual trust between boys who grew up together disappears; it is not available to sustain them. Risto does at last catch a glimpse of Néné when he goes to return washing he was ordered to do for Amani, the man with whom she is forced to live. Her eyes are full of tears and Risto can at first think of no words to say to her, only embracing her at last and urging her to “be strong” (77). Then Amani returns and Risto has to leave in a hurry. Risto’s words are mockingly echoed, much later, when (on an expedition to collect confiscated mined minerals which commandeered boys are forced to carry) the commander replies to another “officer” who thinks that the loads are far too heavy for such youngsters, saying ominously: “We’ll have to make them remember to be strong” (82). Two days after the mining expedition the boys are sent along with the adult soldiers into their first battle – they will be raiding the huts of remaining occupants of nearby villages and engaging with the feared Mai-Mai fighters. Now Risto witnesses horrible scenes of a murdered father and a mother and her thirteen-year-old daughter gang-raped and dying; the perpetrators are from their camp. Then he is commanded to set a hut alight and not long after, they have to take cover. By complete chance, during this part of the battle Risto spots a stealthily approaching armed Mai-Mai fighter and manages to shoot him dead. For this feat he is extravagantly praised as a young hero after their return to the camp – fame he cannot bear as, during the tail end of the engagement his cousin Benny was spotted attempting to run away home and was gunned down by one of their men for treachery – without Risto’s having been able to protect him, to utter a word in protest, or even to retrieve his body for burial.
To dull the anguish of his guilt and shame and terror, Risto becomes a huge consumer of cannabis and adopts an arrogant, fierce persona, becoming a bully among his peers and carrying his gun everywhere with him. It is only when he (occasionally) sees Néné that the old, tender-hearted Risto resurfaces temporarily. On one of these occasions, however, Amani spots Risto hugging Néné, his “wife”, and determines to have his vengeance on the cocky youth. He soon gets a chance: Risto is ordered to go on a mission, but, having contracted a severe case of malaria, is unable to comply with the order, giving Amani (and a few cohorts who also resent Risto) the excuse to attack Risto, who is now defenceless. They carry his battered body deep into the forest and leave him to die there. By a fluke he is discovered to be still (but barely) alive by a couple of poachers. Lucky chances lead to his waking up in a hospital in a nearby town, where his own mother is helping to nurse him. Landu, the distant cousin and fellow former child soldier that Risto had not previously met, helps with the nursing; he is the one who senses that the boy is much more in need of psychological than physical healing. He tells Risto about his own dreadful experiences (which include participation in a rape, which Risto never did), explaining that youngsters like them should not blame themselves or see themselves as irretrievably evil because of the evil things they were forced to do. For Risto, however, it will be much harder and take much, much longer to get over what has happened.
Almost the entire second half of the text is devoted to outlining Risto’s difficulties after his chance escape from the militiamen’s camp, and it is one of the great strengths of the novel that the agony of this bleak time in the youngster’s life (he is still only sixteen at this time) is so vividly and painfully brought across to the reader.
Even when Risto is declared well enough to be discharged from hospital he remains quite ambivalent about going home and facing the community and other family members again. As if on cue he falls prey to another extremely severe bout of malaria and has to be kept in hospital for several more weeks. During his convalescence he encounters a girl his own age in the hospital grounds. With her is a baby boy who turns out to be the child she had as a result of a gang rape by five men – “soldiers” of some sort, of course. “Yes, I dreamed of being a nurse one day,” the girl tells him; adding bitterly: “but today I am nursing the child of a snake. … I don’t have the heart of a killer (otherwise) … I would have thrown this child into the forest or the lake” (115). She is also burdened, he knows, with the stigma an unmarried mother carries among their people, and instead of being able to comfort her, is grieved by her story. In the short run, the encounter disturbs him and exacerbates his guilty memories, but in the long term it probably plays a role in his eventual rehabilitation (at the close of the narrative).
What Risto faces upon his return home, however, can be described only as a haunting. His guilty feelings (in which his racking sense of shame at what he sees as his own failure and betrayal of two of the people closest to his heart – Néné and Benny – as well as other, to him seemingly unforgiveable, acts) take on an apparently physical form. He imagines an old man who was stopped from taking pills to his sick daughter and gunned down – a shooting in which Risto was ordered to participate, lurking around and following him, as well as a young, unknown woman: the ghosts of his war experiences. He enrols for a course to train as a mechanic (at his father’s insistence), but finds no peace except for the temporary relief found in heavy doses of cannabis at a local den of ne’er-do-wells.
Eventually he decides to flee his home and sets off on an unplanned and under-funded journey southwards, ending (after many harrowing experiences) in a refugee camp in Mozambique. After some time he is able to telephone his family and some peace seems to return to his troubled mind. A very sad bit of “news” in a letter from his cousin Landu informs him that Néné (still in the camp) is known to be pregnant.
When Risto has to relate the experiences he has never been able to speak of to anyone to a committee that has the task of deciding whether this youth (having left his home voluntarily) is now eligible for refugee status, he has another serious breakdown and is rushed to a nearby hospital. He is returned to the camp when the hospital finds no cure for him. Here he faces the bleakness of a Christmas among people with no resources (material or emotional) to celebrate it. Risto lapses into a state of deep melancholia, recalling the warmth and joy of Christmas that used to characterise this time at his home. He is not even able to telephone home and speak to his family any more, as the refugee who ran a call centre in the camp has left. His relentless memories drive Risto further and further into a state of perturbing ill-health. Eventually it is decided to repatriate him, and he finds himself back in the same hospital in South Kivu (Congo) to which he had been taken after being found by the poachers in the forest. Determining that his problems are of a psychological nature rather than being caused by physical ill-health, the authorities there decide to have him transferred to a psychiatric facility. It is a place run by strict rules – it takes some time before even his family members are allowed to visit him. Because he remains unable to speak of what troubles him, his case baffles the resident psychiatrist, who is unable to decide how to treat him or whether his condition is improving in any way. Ironically, the one person to whom Risto can unburden himself happens to be his psychologically disturbed roommate, who forgets immediately what Risto has told him. Eventually, Risto’s cousin Landu insists on being allowed to see him. He mentions to Risto that Néné is back in their town and has been asking to see him. At this, Risto’s eyes light up and he decides to leave the psychiatric hospital immediately to go and speak to her, without bothering to wait for an official discharge.
Before Risto’s return is described, we learn from the narrative that longing for Risto is as much at the heart of Néné’s sorrow as his yearning for her is at the root of his unhappy and disturbed state. They both think they are unworthy of each other – Néné because she believes that the child she is carrying will have an unbearable effect on Risto, and Risto because he thinks of himself as having betrayed Néné by failing to rescue her from Amani. Néné has bought acid to drink so as to die by suicide before the baby can be born. We also learn that she has been heartlessly gossiped about to the point that she and her mother felt compelled to leave their old neighbourhood and settle in another part of the town. But it is Risto’s opinion that matters to her, not what the gossips have to say. Fortunately, the boy she sent to purchase the acid for her has (unbeknown to Néné) cheated her by seriously diluting the acid, so that it is not lethal. Although Risto arrives at her home with Landu only to find her in a state of unconsciousness, Néné recovers in hospital soon after, and the two faithful young lovers are reconciled.
Especially significant is Risto’s acceptance of the baby boy (born soon afterwards) as his own child. The boy is to be known as Risto Junior, although privately Risto calls him Benny. Risto resumes his training as a mechanic so that he will in due course be able to support his family, while Néné returns to school – determined eventually to qualify as a teacher. This part of Safari’s narrative – written, in part, as a response to their own family’s actual loss of a cousin who probably became a child soldier and whose fate remains unknown – can begin its conclusion with the following beautiful, lyrical passage from near the end of the novel, with its important lessons of humility and reconciliation (on several fronts):
The child of Néné came to earth to heal the ancient wounds and bury the scars of the past. He came with a smile of heaven and the pure laughter of the gods. “He will heal the world,” Risto’s cheering heart whispered to the young mother’s ears. They decided that the child should be called Risto Junior, because he did not have the spirit of his biological father, but that of his adoptive father. He would be a reminder of a persevering spirit; he would be a heroic soul sent by heaven to heal the memories of time and history. He would remind his mother of the happy days and future dreams yet to come. This news puzzled people, but it cleared the vapour of war that they breathed. It gave them another story to tell their grandchildren. (206)
It is the last sentence in the above extract that is especially memorable. For, laudably authentic as this account from (mainly) a war-conscripted youngster’s perspective is in its grim details, we need reminding of how humans find creative ways out of seemingly intractably awful situations. Safari is right to balance the account of the cruelties of life in the militiamen’s camp with the cruelties (such as lack of compassion and sensitive help and the ugly prevalence of destructive gossip) in civilian society. Even so, healing is an effort that can happen only with enormous effort (and even so, only perhaps, so fragile and hard won is the small victory for peace in this text); it takes a long time and requires inventive participation from many quarters.
Safari’s text is harrowing to read for most of its length, but is a rich work in the breadth of its reach, though so unassumingly presented.