Africa’s unending wars are notoriously harsh on her kids; the boys get forcibly conscripted as child soldiers while the girls are forced to grow up quickly to serve the sexual urges of the beasts that fight these senseless wars. In a normal world, Risto Mahuno could have been just a boy playing in the sand and Nene – his childhood love interest, just another village girl.
But the war over the minerals of the Congo – Kinshasa, not Brazzaville – shatters the idyllic peace of Bukavu, forcing children like these to run the gauntlet of rebel groups hell-bent on recruiting them to prop up their armies.
By the time he’s 16, Risto has seen enough gore and mayhem some people can only experience in several lifetimes. He has killed where the other option was to be killed.
When he escapes the clutches of the rebels where no other child has ever succeeded before, he’s not exactly the lucky one.
The writer, who has himself settled in South Africa – and could easily be writing about himself, makes Risto travel through several borders with no destination in mind. All he knows is that he has to get away from the brutality of a war whose genesis he did not craft.
The difference with this work of fiction is that Risto chooses to return home when he takes ill at a refugee camp in Mozambique, with freedom almost in sight.
In real life, Africa’s troubled souls travel down south to settle and seek refuge, as Jamala Safari’s own life story attests.
To salvage his plot, he returns a mentally unsound Risto to Nene, herself burdened with her own tales of war and carrying the unwanted child of a military savage who made her his ‘wife’.
The attempt at a happily-ever-after fails because both are 16. As a love story, The Great Agony & Pure Laughter of the Gods is not convincing.
But as a crucial addition to the body of literature documenting the scars of war on children, it passes with flying colours.
The picture of Nene as a reluctant mother and Risto training to be a mechanic so he could support his ‘wife and child’ is emblematic of what horror Africa’s wars wreak on children.
The Great Agony & Pure Laughter of the Gods, released in July 2012, was published by Random House Struik.
© makatilemedia 08/2012