I realised recently that I rarely read books by African authors. I nearly always read Australian, English and American authors, whose books are usually set in those countries. More fool me. I’ve been missing out.
Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah showed me exactly why I need to expand my reading horizons. There are whole worlds out there that I know nothing about. Whole countries, peoples, cultures and histories that I can learn about from my favourite thing, stories.
Ishmael Beah is known for writing a bestseller called A Long Way Gone, which is a memoir of his home country of Sierra Leone, the civil war and child soldiers. I might be one of the most unaware people of our time, but before reading Radiance of Tomorrow, I didn’t even know if Sierra Leone was in Africa or South or Central America.
It took me ten or so pages before I began to connect with the style of this novel. The surroundings, nature, even inanimate objects have their own stories which are described in detail, such as trees which entangle each other and paths that are starved for warm bare feet. At first the style seemed overly decorative to me, but once the characters began to emerge and I began to understand that the people of Sierra Leone are storytellers, it all made sense. The people’s whole way of life is stories, the stories of their past that the elders pass on to the children, the stories they tell themselves to be able to manage their present, even the stories they know in their hearts but don’t tell. By page 24, I was so emotionally connected to this story that I had a little cry.
Radiance of Tomorrow begins with an elderly woman, Mama Kadie, returning to her village after the Civil War. When she arrives in Imperi, the only other person about is her equally elderly friend, Pa Moiwa. Nearly all of the villagers were killed when Imperi was invaded during the war, but eventually other survivors return too. Many of those who return were maimed in horrible ways by child soldiers. Some of the returnees were child soldiers in the war. The first thing they do is bury the dead and repair their ruined homes.
The villagers also try to recreate their old ways, such as everyone in the village meeting at night to tell and listen to their traditional stories. Their communal evenings start with someone asking, “Story, story, what should I do with you?”, to which the listeners respond, “Please tell it to us, so we can pass it on to others.”
Life becomes difficult in other ways, with a mining company beginning operations in the area. The mining company brings with it misery and tragedy from the very beginning. Children are killed by massive vehicles roaring through Imperi’s main street and the water supply is poisoned. Girls are raped and murdered by men working for the mining company.
Eventually most of the men from the village are forced to try and gain employment with the mining company. Not surprisingly, very little regard is paid to safety and there are a great many deaths amongst the workers from the village. These deaths are hidden and unacknowledged by the mining company. Nobody has the authority to hold the mining company to account except the villager’s representatives, who are taking bribes from them.
Village life is also suffering because the school does not have supplies and the teachers are not being paid. Someone in authority makes a rule that children are not allowed to attend school unless they wearing expensive school uniforms, which barely any of the villagers can afford. The principal appears to be pocketing the school’s money.
My review might make this book sound miserable, but it is not. The title, Radiance of Tomorrow, comes from a sentence in the book, “For what is yet to come tomorrow has possibilities, and we must think of it, the simplest glimpse of that possibility of goodness.” The characters embody this quote, they are full of hope and goodness, even those who have done terrible things during the war.
One last quote, “miracles happen every day when we truly acknowledge the humanity of another or just have a simple, pure conversation with someone else.” After reading Radiance of Tomorrow, I felt as if I had a conversation with Ishmael Beah, and that I learned a lot from it.