Here is part two of my five-review Caine Blog series. This review is of the short story “Butterfly Dreams” by Beatrice Lamwaka from Uganda. You can download and read the story yourself here.
Let’s start by pointing out that this story is by a Ugandan, about northern Uganda. Beyond that, let’s get to the first thing I liked about this story: it’s written in second person. I always felt that there was something alluring about writing in the second person – it really puts the story onto the reader in a way that I don’t think is really possible without using “you.”
The story is told from the perspective of what I presume to be a family member, to you, the recently returned victim of a Sudanese rebel group’s abduction – (the region and descriptions lead me to think that it’s more than likely the LRA). You were a little girl when you were abducted, but you didn’t return home until five years later – where you were welcomed home with open arms – once you were cleansed.
What I found interesting in this story was the struggle for the narrator and the rest of the family as they navigate through rehabilitation of the reader. The reader doesn’t speak, doesn’t smile, doesn’t really show any recognition of the family. Having buried her spirit while she was still missing, the family worries that they’re left with a shell of the girl who was taken, and there are quite a few short scenes that show her dealing with her demons alone. On top of this, though, the family struggles with their own circumstances in an IDP camp. One of the more memorable descriptions about the camps was this:
Our children no longer know how to hold a hoe. They have forgotten how the ground nut plant looks. Now, our land buries our children. Our gardens grow huts. We now live in a camp.
It’s a cruel revelation, that the reader has returned from abduction to see her family in a camp, with their livelihood ruined. This family wasn’t forced to leave their land behind like thousands of displaced in northern Uganda – they had their land taken from them by the displaced, as the government declared their land an IDP camp. The narrator describes the “empty huts with empty people” who had lost their spirits – just like the reader, whose spirit had been buried.
We see ourselves – as the reader – go from a freshly returned abductee to being slowly rehabilitated in an IDP camp and eventually going back to school. We see the family struggle through rehabilitation and living in the crisis of displacement. There was little literal progression of the story line, but the narrator revealed more and more about the predicaments of both the family and the abducted girl as the pages went on, which gave a deeper dimension to me, but still it seemed like something was lacking. The writing toggled between past and present several times, which sometimes worked, sometimes made it feel disjointed; the writing also changed form a bit here and there along with the setting, sometimes as story-telling and sometimes as a sort of testimony. Maybe I just don’t have a soft spot for short stories?
In the end, the tone of the writing was what separated this piece from other “poverty porn” types of stories for me. Even then I’m kind of torn. The story is about a family’s struggle to cope with a crisis as much as it is about showing you how bad children have it in the North. While I would hardly expect a writer born in Gulu to shed the atmosphere in which she grew up, it is interesting to see how many of these Caine Prize stories will cater to the troubled-dark-continent narrative. At the outset of this co-blogging experience, Aaron pointed to this, a critique that the Caine Prize was judging African writing based on stereotypical Africa (as viewed by more developed, Western countries). The argument is that, over the last ten years, the Caine Prize has guided African writing into exactly what people here think about Africa already – ignoring the greatest satire on how not to write about Africa. (Props to my friend Heidi for first showing me that piece last month, by the way). Bulawayo’s and Lamwaka’s stories seem to fit that genre of look-what-happens-to-children-in-Africa. At least this story didn’t have a stereotypical Westerner in it too, plus it had a radio in the beginning!