The setting for this novel is a remote village in the Republic of Niger, where we find a young girl named Haoua and the many people involved in her life, either directly or across a great distance such as the Irish family who act as her aid sponsors.
Haoua is a wonderfully compassionate and intelligent child who works hard, practices her reading and writing as often as she is able, and has a dream of becoming a teacher. Unfortunately, her mother becomes sick, and Haoua must leave her schooling behind temporarily, in order to help with the household and her siblings, almost single-handed as her father vanishes for lengthy periods of time. With his passion for gambling, and infidelity it’s little surprise when rumours of his seeking a second wife are spreading like wildfire.
Still, Haoua hopes that once her mother makes a recovery, life can return to normal – or as normal as it can be with the constant rising of civil unrest. Little does she know that things are about to become far worse than she could ever have imagined.
This is a book that grabbed my attention from the first few pages. I grew to enjoy the letters that passed between Haoua and the family that sponsors her and make it possible for her to receive an education. The writing greatly magnified how different life can be for people in other countries, and I couldn't help but look at the life that I have, and realize that even with the challenges and traumas I have faced, it seems so trivial in comparison.
At times I paused, startled by the growing discomfort I was feeling, and I have to state I did find that the book triggered rather strong emotional responses. I’m unsure if that was due to my own experiences with sexual abuse/violence in my past, or because of the vivid descriptions of the events written by the author as well as the knowledge that the book is based on facts. What I am sure of is that even with the discomfort, I have no regrets about reading this novel, and not only will I be reading it again in the future, but I will be looking for further material on the subjects raised in the book.
The author, Gavin Weston has clearly done his research. The geography, the culture, the regional dialects and so much more, paint a brilliantly detailed picture. For me, one thing I noticed and liked about the book in general, was that there is a glossary in the front of the book and it’s extremely helpful when encountering the languages sprinkled throughout the pages. I love languages, and I liked that at times I found I didn't need to check the glossary with certain words as I had become familiar with them.
Above all though, if I could only say one thing about this book, it would have to be that this book will change your life. It’s impossible to avoid thinking about the issues within the pages of this book. It’s impossible (for me, at least) to not be filled with a longing to seek out more books dealing with the culture and issues that I have now become aware of. Mostly, it is impossible to wake up and not be filled with an immense sense of gratitude that regardless of how many challenges I face, or how much I have survived, I have so much that I had previously taken for granted.
In an interesting Q&A over at Every Mother Counts (You can read it here), Gavin states that the character Haoua is a compilation of multiple girls whose stories he had read about. I had wondered about that as I was reading it. I think for me that added to my determination to share my thoughts on this book. This book is definitely a challenging read, but it's an important one. Something needs to be done. Awareness needs to spread like wildfire.
Note: I finished the book this morning. I did the review around lunch. It's now evening and I was still mulling it over in my mind and trying to find the words to define how I felt after reading this. I've decided that the best description is that it left me feeling as if I had been punched and all the breath had been knocked out of me. It's not often that I have such a strong reaction. Rarer still are the reactions that are physically intense. I highly recommend this book.
You can learn more about these issues at the following resources:
http://www.forwarduk.org.uk FORWARD - The Foundation for Women's Health, Research and Development is an African Diaspora women's campaign and support charity that campaigns against child marriage and seeks to advance sexual and reproductive health and rights as central to the wellbeing of African women and girls.
http://twitter.com/FORWARDUK FORWARD on Twitter
http://twitter.com/WestonOfTinTown Gavin Weston on Twitter