By Sonia Nair
Dwelling in a seemingly idyllic Sudanese village, Obinna is an 11-year-old boy who lives a life not far removed from that of any other 11-year-old. He gets bullied by the bigger boys in his class, he does not get along with his older brother Akot and he wants to be a doctor when he grows up. Yet Obinna’s carefree existence is rudely interrupted and irreversibly changed within the first ten pages of Majok Tulba’s Beneath the Darkening Sky, when rebel insurgents wreak havoc on Obinna’s village – killing those they deem superfluous to their cause and recruiting girls and boys as “hospitality girls” and child soldiers respectively.
Dark but beautiful, simple yet affecting, Beneath the Darkening Sky is an account of Obinna’s struggle to retain his innocence and character amidst depraved acts of violence, senseless killing and a self-perpetuating cycle of vicious hatred and mindless retribution. Although the novel is very much a work of fiction, it paints an alternate reality of what would have happened if Tulba was taller than the AK-47 that was used to measure the height of prospective child soldiers.
That height – such an inconsequential marker of a person – could irrevocably change the course of one’s fate is both petrifying and iniquitous. That Tulba’s imagined character, Obinna, is one of the millions of child soldiers who were not as fortunate as Tulba himself lends a grim sense of perspective to the novel and a stark realisation that every experience portrayed in the novel is as heartbreaking and unjust as it seems.
Narrated from the eyes of an 11-year-old, depictions of the rebels’ atrocities are punctuated with a child-like candour that leaves the reader to infer and grapple with what is taking place beyond Obinna’s unacquainted view of the world.
The killer boy grabs the head from the ground. The old man’s eyes are still open. Maybe he’s still alive. Maybe they can put the head back on.
What happens to the women is nothing like what I’ve glimpsed in our village at night, or even seen with the animals in the fields – it is not from this world. They rip, and push and cut.
Tulba is unrelenting in his portrayal of the physical and sexual violence that Obinna and his peers endure but as Tulba reveals in an interview, every portrayal of violence in the novel is modelled after experiences that child soldiers are all too familiar with. Tulba’s painstakingly meticulous attention to detail and colourful language imbue such descriptions with a sense of authenticity that is at once hard to digest and impossible to tear one’s eyes away from.
Tulba’s account of Obinna’s life is rendered all the more powerful by his refusal to sentimentalise the experiences Obinna endures or box his characters into the “good” or “bad” camp. As hard as Obinna tries to retain a sense of self amid the moral corruption and inextricable acts of cruelty that convolute many a child recruit, his self-preservation and survival instincts gradually kick in, with devastating consequences. It is with a deep sense of sadness that one reads about the watershed moment in Obinna’s life as a child, soldier where he ceases to be the person he once was.
Many of the characters that pepper Obinna’s life are a mass of contradictions, complicating the overarching question of who is “good” and who is “bad”. In Tulba’s novel, there are only survivors and non-survivors.
Tulba’s colourful characters, evocative sketches of the world Obinna resides within and his compelling art of storytelling effectively paint the heartbreaking reality of a world so far removed from our own it chills to the bone, lingering with the reader beyond the last documentation of Obinna’s thoughts.
Obinna’s friend, Priest, personifies this dichotomy more acutely than any other character. Although he dislikes violence, he nevertheless performs it with a mission to shoot his victims in the head to prevent them from suffering terrible ends in the hands of the more vicious rebels. By justifying his quest for survival on a seemingly noble intention, Priest imbues Obinna with a similar mindset and removes the moral dilemma that comes with killing a human being. Armed with this deceptively righteous ideal, Obinna embarks upon his preordained destiny.
Tulba’s colourful characters, evocative sketches of the world Obinna resides within and his compelling art of storytelling effectively paint the heartbreaking reality of a world so far removed from our own it chills to the bone, lingering with the reader beyond the last documentation of Obinna’s thoughts. As Tulba refrains from moralising the conduct of the rebels and the child soldiers, we begin to see how the perpetrators of violence are but embodiments of a failed government, brainwashed individuals and a by-product of their circumstances; they are Obinnas in different shapes, forms and sizes.