“As far as Jamal could tell, only two things were wrong: a dirty yellow vapour was streaming from the canister and everyone in the compound was dead. The smoke that made Jamal cough and choke in his hut was partly from the contents of the canister and partly from Auntie Sheema, who had fallen onto the cooking fire.” [page5]
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a terrorist!
Jamal lives in West Africa. His hut is set apart, away from the family compound, because of something that makes him twitch, something that may or may not be in his head, which may be evidence of black magic. “After his mum died and his grandfather left, taking all the palm wine from his uncle’s store, everyone told Jamal that he was unlucky.” The fact that he is “marked by spirits” is what saves the boy when terrorists attack the village, since he is overlooked.
Jamal decides he has to find another family that is “plagued by spirits and who would look after him if he kept the ghosts away.” So he takes his kitbag and his copy of The Koran given to him by the Imam – who was nice to him unlike the other adults – and heads off into the unknown, “following the tracks in the dust until the sun was high.” He climbs a solitary tree and sees a mountain which “looked odd, a great grey boulder rising out of the plain,” and remembers that is where his grandfather lives, so he will go find him.
To stop getting hungry as he walks, remembering his aunties and their “fish soups and groundnut stews – red with chillies and tomatoes,” he tells himself to “think about climbing that enormous mountain.” He is haunted by ghosts and spirits and “the stories his mother had told him, before she left. The one about the giant snakes that guarded the mountain, or the one about the eagle that ate fish from the River of Life and was chased away by the water spirits . . . Thinking about them now made him want to cry . . .”
The Mountain Man
“Jamal wanted his grandfather to be wise and kind. Like the grandfathers in the stories he had heard when he hid behind the thorn hedge. The stories that his uncles wove from the evening smoke.” Sadly the truth is far from his fantasy. When Jamal finally finds the smelly and nearly naked old man sitting outside his cave by the fire on the mountainside, chewing some betel, he is disappointed. The man is vicious and nasty. As he stirs a pot of stew on the fire he says to the boy, “There’s none for you, so don’t look hungry.” At the sight of the Koran he yells, “Get away and take that book with you.” Jamal is pelted with stones as he flees, slithering down the scree into the trees and out on to a dusty red road where curls up into a ball, pulls his blanket over him, and sleeps.
The boy is rescued by a team of humanitarian workers, “Don’t worry, sweetie. Don’t fight. We’re here to help you.” Jamal is puzzled by the woman’s words, “What would be all right and who was sweetie? […] Maybe she thinks I look like her friend, thought Jamal. Or was she called Sweetie and she was telling him not to bother her?” He is taken to a camp where he is fed three times a day and clothed and given medicine for his epilepsy.
Cultural crossed wires
Jamal’s rescuers are well-meaning but unwittingly patronising in their treatment of him, bordering on the rude. Though there is, at least, a nice lady with a tired voice. He is asked why he is called Jamal, what part of the country he is from, and which tribe. He is questioned about the gas attack, dismissed as being a fool, and told he will be sent back to his grandfather. Jamal’s dismay is poignant and distressing, “He didn’t think he was from a tribe. He thought he was from a family. He explained this to the judge. He was surprised that he had to explain about families to this man. He looked clever, he looked as if he had been to school, but he didn’t seem to know about families.” He is then told he has to take his medicine at specific times and that it has to be kept in a refrigerator, which indicates a lack of understanding about Jamal’s situation and his environment. When the penny finally drops about the boy’s abusive grandfather, the decision is made to send him to the orphanage run by nuns.
This gentle satire is reminiscent of the trouble with charitable do-gooders and, more specifically, voluntourism – when idealistic and privileged students are sent as volunteers to help disadvantaged and poverty-stricken communities with little or no understanding of their history, culture, and ways of life. To support development programmes that would not happen otherwise is obviously highly commendable, but the sustainability and the effectiveness of the approach are questionable.
The Lost Child
Jamal befriends cook’s boy Afiba who helps him to escape as he is scared of going to the orphanage. Afiba’s uncle gets him out of the camp, and dumps him in town. The boy ends up walking along a half built railway track with stalls alongside it, teeming with people. Although Jamal manages to hang on to his kitbag and The Koran, his bag of clothes and food is taken off him by the other street boys who mock him for being a country bumpkin; and his medicine is nicked and swallowed up by a kid on a bike. As Jamal sits hungry and perplexed by a factory fence, the factory watchman yells curses at him, and throws stones, telling him to clear off.
“The spirits were whispering buzzy little secrets and he could feel their smoky blackness flowing over him. Although he didn’t know it, Jamal fell to the ground, shaking at the watchman’s feet.” Once again, it is his epilepsy that saves Jamal from further abuse. The street boys as well as the adults begin to steer clear of him.
Hundreds of words describe spiritual evil in all 140 African languages, and beliefs in witchcraft and the supernatural abound – in town and country. Spirits are a way to explain the imbalance between good and bad fortune, and otherwise inexplicably bad events. Children are often singled out by parents or other family members because of a variety of symptoms that allegedly point towards being possessed. In areas where civil wars and economic disasters have destroyed communities, accusations of possession by evil spirits and sorcery are rife. In many towns, the street becomes the home of children abused and abandoned for being witches.
Now that Jamal is just another street boy, what will happen to him?
Harshly beautiful and stark with near-despair, The Ghosts & Jamal is an unsettling and powerful read. As you journey down the dusty road, you are truly walking in Jamal’s shoes, seeing the world through his eyes, mystified by the mercilessness of the adults – bar one or two flashes of kindness – who write him off so easily, and who clearly do not give a damn. This debut young adult novel should be on every school reading list, for its honesty in its depiction of the consequences of terrorism, sorrow and coming to terms with an uncaring world.
Who are the terrorists?
At a deeper level, The Ghosts & Jamal asks the question: what is to become of those children exposed to escalating violence and explosive weapon attacks, resulting in dead family members and being deprived of the most basic needs of health, education, protection and love?
As wars escalate around the globe the situation is getting worse, not better. Not only are civilians – especially women and children – increasingly caught up between governments and armed groups fighting each other. But they are now actual targets in the battle for control.
The Ghosts & Jamal by Bridget Blankley | HopeRoad Publishing | fiction £8.99 202pp PB March 2018 | ISBN: 9781908446633
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