Set in Niger, this is the heartbreaking and heartwarming story of a young girl called Haoua who dreams of becoming a teacher and who is excited by what she learns at school.
The book trail reading of this book took me to the heart of Niger and its harsh landscape:
‘It was early September. The sun continued to beat down relentlessly and the air was humid and alive with mosquitoes at dusk and dawn. The rains had been good and the hard, baked ground around Wadata was covered in a thin fuzz of greenery.’
‘……a fierce and unexpected harmattan blew in from the north, whipping up the desert and coating everything in a thick blanket of red dust.’ – page 22
But the real story of ‘Harmattan’ is not its landscape but the experiences of the people who live in Niger – especially the young women such as Haoua who have to survive off the land at the same time as battling against the men in their lives. And sometime even the women – for as the book opens we are subjected to a beating in both the literary and physical sense as we feel Haoua’s pain:
‘The floor feels cool against my hands. It is how I want my face to feel. Instead, my cheeks burn and my hot tears, splattering on the ground, form tiny craters and are sucked into the dust;lost forever.’ – page 9
Haoua is telling us of a beating she has just been subjected to. She tells us she no longer believes her father. She tells us that she has been told that she must no longer think of her school or education as she is a woman now. Then the prologue ends with the one of the saddest phrases in the book:
‘That was before my twelfth birthday.’ – page 12
I admit this set the tone for me as my heart sank on reading that sentence.
Twelve! A child being told all these things and beaten both physically and mentally. I imagined myself back as a twelve year old – starting a new school, getting excited that I would start learning French. How different my place in life from that of Haoua! Her innocence and sheer joy of attending school is clear from the letters she writes to her Irish sponsor family, which in a life of darkness and despair provide some of the lightest moments:
‘I am schooling now, but I am in primary one. Friends make the world go round.’ – page 13
Unfortunately, her mother becomes sick, and Haoua is ordered to leave her schooling behind in order to help with the household and to look after her siblings. There are some heart breaking scenes as we learn that her father, once a champion of her education is now dead set against it.
‘Educated girls argue with parents more.’ page 112
She has to do her chores and hard labour almost single-handedly 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 start spreading like wildfire.
Still, Haoua hopes that her mother will get better, life will return to normal – that she will be able to return to her beloved school and finish her presentation which has been her pride and joy. The happiness she feels at having such a presentation to do at school was for me in direct contrast to the somewhat typical attitude of children in the West when given homework. Such a different in attitude between two nations! This made me feel for Haoua even more and to feel her pain at her education being cruelly taken away from her.
Her education was more than building her future and rescuing her from drudgery – it was her absolute joy.
Sadly there are things about to happen that will make Haoua’s fate a very different one to that which she imagines or hopes for.
The author, Gavin Weston has clearly done his research. The geography, the culture, even the sights and the smells hit you from every page. Whilst there is clearly a message to this book – to raise awareness of the shocking situation faced by young girls such as Haoua, the book does not preach or describe. Instead it shows reality from a young girl’s point of view and we as the reader are left to see what is right in front of us.
One of the strongest points of the book for me was the glossary in the front of the book for the African and French words 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. The writing is so much more effective when some of the words take on different meanings when spoken by different characters.
For example, when Haoua’s father is annoyed at her for talking of the aid workers, the word Anasara meaning ‘foreigner’ or ‘white person’ takes on a negative tone:
‘These are anasara ways. Not our ways,’ he spits at her
This book is definitely a challenging read, but it’s an important one. I’m proud to think that a North East publisher Myrmidon books was the one to showcase it to the world for the beautiful writing and the messages it carries.
Let our leaders read this book. Let them see what it’s like for children facing no education, violence and forced marriages.
Let them experience it first hand.
Only then will anything ever have the chance of changing.
Let’s do our bit and become educated ourselves by buying this book and spreading awareness.
Let all the Haoua’s out there have their voices heard.