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Updated: March 26, 2014 14:27 IST

Anguished voices

Geeta Doctor
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The Orchards of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed.
Special Arrangement The Orchards of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed.

A searing story of the pre-civil war crisis in Somalia.

The grass is singing once more in a multitudinous clamour from the African continent and this time it is the women who are leading the chorus. Was Doris Lessing referring just to a new awakening when she titled her first novel set in Southern Rhodesia as The Grass is Singing, or was she also channelling the imagery from T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”. where he writes: “In a decayed hole among the mountains in the faint moonlight, the grass is singing.” Since Lessing’s time, the number of fratricidal wars, famines and the rise of monomaniacal despots that have marched across the African landscape, has increased not just the sense of a continent doomed to darkness, but also a black hole of despair, if not backwardness. To be sure there are huge exceptions, the emergence of the Republic of South Africa being just one.

In reclaiming the heritage of her Somaliland roots, Nadifa Mohamed, one of Granta magazine’s “Best of Young British Novelists” this year, overturns many of these knee-jerk assumptions. As she has been quoted as saying, “If Ethiopia is old and sorrowful, Somalia is like a hyped-up teenager speaking a dozen words into a clutch of mobile phones, a different SIM card in each of them.” And for those who are hazy about Somalia, she explains in an article that appeared in The Telegraph: “There are three republics where one used to be, Somaliland, Puntland, Somalia but it is only the last that is internationally recognised.”

It would not be out of place to add that Somali women have been famed for their beauty. Ever since Iman, an internationally acclaimed model, was spotted by an American photographer Peter Beard and placed upon the catwalk, the refugee camps have been fertile sources for hunting new recruits.

 Nadifa Mohamed was born in Hargeisa in Somaliland and this is where she sets her story, going back to the late 1980s with her country just about to be ravaged by civil war. Her family had by then relocated to the U.K. where she had the privilege of an English education.

Her first book, Black Mamba Boy, which was short-listed for the Guardian First Book Award tells the story of her father’s journey from his homeland into the larger world outside.

 The extraordinary ability to get into the skins of her characters and give them lives of their own even in the most horrendous of situations is what sets this book apart. She looks at the crisis of a complete breakdown of governance and the collapse of human expectations through the lives of three women: Kawsar is old and defeated by the death of a beloved daughter; nine-year-old Deqo is a waif, a survivor of a refugee camp; and Filsan, an armed warrior who believes in the revolution but is finally also a victim of her choice.

We see the actual war through Filsan’s eyes. There’s a moment when she watches, through her binoculars, a father fleeing with his young daughter in a car with other refugees. The little girl wants to pee. As the father holds her out, the car, hit by a hail of bullets, moves on. “She stumbles behind, dragging her underwear with one hand…but the driver speeds off, leaving the little girl behind in a screen of exhaust fumes.”

There are also moments of intense beauty; for instance, she describes the “music of raindrops falling over thousands of trees in the ditch, their leaves held out like waxy green tongues.”

In doing so Nadifa awakens the voices of all those faceless women who have nothing left but their stories. In her hands it becomes a powerful tool for remembrance.

The Orchard of Lost Souls; Nadifa Mohammed, Simon & Schuster, Rs.499.

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