“What did we small ones know about the war and coups and guns and mortars and grenades and landmines……we were children….we were at school when it started…..it was break-time…..the rattling of the gunfire had a rhythm to it…..raatata…raatata…..we could move to it……we danced to the rhythm of the guns….imagine dancing to the rhythm of machine guns…But what did we know?” Heartbreaking, isn’t it? I must admit I shed tears just reading this short story titled “Purple Heart”.
It is one of the stories found in The Baobabs of Tete and Other Stories, an amazing collection by Kari Dako, a Norwegian who has lived and worked in Ghana for many years. In fact one can conclude she is Ghanaian just by reading her book. The book was published in 2002 by Sub Saharan publishers.
To me, “Purple Heart”, does stand out. Why? It points out the dire consequences of wars, wars the innocent children know nothing of. It is a story well told through the character of Selina, a paraplegic child crippled for life and orphaned by a war she couldn’t understand. The title story “The Boababs of Tete” also discusses the theme of civil wars.
“God punished the baobab for her gigantic and bloated arrogance and He tossed her in the air as some insignificant weed and he hurled her back onto the ground first, and that is why the baobab gropes with its roots towards Heaven and buries her head, arms and hands in the deep earth in shame…it is therefore fitting that she should abound in the Land of Shame and Suffering…since no other living thing nourished by the soil wanted to stand and watch the country dying, she could atone her misdeed by keeping awake”. The symbol of the baobab tree is used to describe Mozambique’s continuity and reassurance despite the floods, drought and wars that ravage her people to near extinction.
There are many other issues raised as one reads on and reactions vary from anger, to shame, to joy, to confusion; depending on the particular story being read. How would you feel if a young boy, intent on robbing you ends up being knocked dead (The Boy)? Or it is true what one character (A Conversational Monologue) says about our visitors- that Africa disappears as soon as these people take over…..that they don’t look after anything really, they just destroy everything? Some will have you learning how to appreciate what you have – sometimes we only get to value what we had once we’ve lost it as portrayed in the ‘The Gift Horse and the Mouth’ and ‘And They lived Happily ever after’. And a head teacher in a poverty-stricken rural school who tries to raise funds for the president’s visit (Harambee…..or the President is coming); only that it turns out his efforts were in vain….but Who said it was a fair world? – Just like another story (with similar words for a title) makes the reader wonder about the twists of life.
Even though all stories have an African background, some do focus on Ghanaian society others take us to other countries on the continent while the rest are about our visitors (white foreigners) and how we relate to them and their “strange” behaviors (Bare-Chested Men and Waiting at the Bank). As noted, the themes do vary and the book is quite fascinating, definitely a book one can read many times over.
Kari Dako is now an Associate Professor on post retirement contract at the University of Ghana where she started off as an English tutor in 1975.