Radiating hope for the future
A bleak, haunting yet ultimately uplifting novel about rebuilding after a war.
ISHMAEL Beah’s 2007 memoirs, A Long Way Gone, was a brave, brutal, haunting and horrific glimpse into the life of child soldiers in Sierra Leone.
Prior to the decade-long civil war that began in 1992, Beah’s life was simple: he hung out with his older brother and friends, trying to rap and dance to hip hop music.
When the war broke out, Beah was 12, and in a single moment he lost the innocence of childhood and learnt of adult treachery when he was forced to pick up a gun and become a child soldier.
Following international intervention when he was 15 – mostly from children’s aid agencies – Beah was saved by an American woman who he now calls “Mother”. He was lucky, but millions in Sierra Leone were not, and this is something Beah is very aware of.
In his author’s note in Radiance Of Tomorrow, Beah writes:
“I wanted to have people understand how it feels to return to places that have been devastated by war, to try to start living there again, to raise a family there again, to rekindle some of the traditions that have been destroyed.
“How do you do that? How do you try to shape a future if you have a past that’s still pulling at you?”
In essence, the fictional Radiance Of Tomorrow is built on the traumatic and all too factual events of Beah’s childhood and his experience of returning to Sierra Leone after living for two decades in the relative comfort and safety of the United States.
The central characters in Radiance Of Tomorrow are two childhood friends, Bockarie and Benjamin, who return after the war to their home village of Imperi, which had suffered a massacre. They are teachers who, idealistically, want to help rebuild their village and impart knowledge to the village children.
But there are many obstacles to their well-intentioned plans.
For one thing, many villagers find it difficult to forget the atrocities they experienced (entire families have had hands cut off) and witnessed and move on with their lives.
And a mysterious Colonel stirs up suspicion when he arrives with a group of children who had obviously been child soldiers during the war.
Beah cleverly keeps readers guessing whether the Colonel had masterminded the abduction of children in the 1990s, prior to the start and well into the civil war, and if he had anything to do with the Imperi massacre.
And then there’s the international corporation that arrives to mine minerals; again, Beah introduces a plot twist that keeps us guessing: is the company actually digging illegally for diamonds?
To make matters worse, the corporation starts throwing money around; so, in addition to the lack of food and potable water, and murders, rape and theft that plague Imperi daily, now jealousy and age-old feuds raise their ugly heads as the villagers compete for the money.
Will Bockerie and Benjamin see their dream come true? Will Sierra Leone ever experience peace within her borders?
Although Radiance Of Tomorrow is not as brutal as Beah’s memoirs, he does not shy away from providing gruesomely realistic details about the aftermath of war.
In the opening chapter, for instance, he paints this vivid picture of a character walking along a path:
“There was one town in particular that was eerier than the others – there were rows of human skulls on either side of the path leading into town. When the breeze came about, it shook the skulls, causing them to rotate slowly, so it seemed they were all turning their hollow eye sockets at her as she hastened past them.”
Indeed, Beah’s fiction is deeply rooted in reality. There might not be a troubled Imperi or an international corporation mining for minerals (or diamonds), but the reality is there remains civil unrest in Sierra Leone and international corporations have been flocking to the Western African country to exploit for themselves the ongoing chaos from years of war.
Beah’s writing is simple and clear: it is easy to get absorbed in this novel.
A nice touch is how he uses a local Sierra Leone dialect, Mende, in parts of the book; it is a poetic dialect – “ball” in Mende is translated as “nest of air”. His use of the dialect, particularly in dialogue, adds a sense of authenticity.
While Radiance Of Tomorrow should be read by everyone, it might not be to everyone’s liking, reaching out perhaps mainly to those who have an interest in Africa and African literature.
It will also appeal to those who like their novels to have a thread of hope and positivity. While there is much bleakness in Radiance Of Tomorrow, it is not all doom and gloom; the underlying message of the novel is that the power of humanity can outweigh all negativity, and tomorrow is always another day filled with hope and endless possibilities.