Reading Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala once again, reminds me of Ibrahim and Garbo. Even though the students where I taught brought more than 60 first languages with them, few of our students came from Africa.
Ibrahim was 19 when he arrived at our school from Sudan. He was tall, light skinned and soft spoken. Many USA students confuse the African continent with a single country and so one day, Ibrahim agreed to talk with our world history class about his country. On the large map tacked to the wall, he showed Sudan on the eastern side of Africa and told about what it looked like and his family there. Then quietly he mentioned war. The simple words slipped through his lips, “I was a soldier for five years.” My gaze traveled from Ibrahim’s face to those of my other students, and I could see the gleam of excitement like Agu had felt after watching war movies but before he experienced war on the ground.
A hand flew up and the question burst forth, “Did you ever kill anyone?” Tension filled our room. Ibrahim’s soft face clouded up, his jaw set and pain filled his eyes. I told him that was not a question he needed to answer. Now I don’t remember how we moved from his story back to our history text.
Shortly after this, I received a withdrawal notice for Ibrahim. When I asked the counselor what had happened, she told me Ibrahim didn’t believe high school was the place for him. He didn’t like being around all of the kids, and he wanted to work for money. He’d had to leave that teeming teenage environment.
Garbo arrived from Liberia during that country’s second civil war. He was 14, still growing, muscular, also soft spoken, and dark as a night without moon or stars. He joined his father who had left Liberia, his wife, two sons and at least one daughter when Garbo was less than a year old. Garbo had not seen him since then. In the States, Garbo’s father had acquired a new woman, an African-American, and had another son. He had come to the USA to go to college.
Because Liberia is an English speaking nation, Garbo was not put in an ESL class despite the reality that listening to him speak English was like listening to a foreign language, and I was never sure how much he understood. As Agu explains what he sees, feels and experiences in the novel, I could see Garbo talking with me. At least twice he stayed after school to talk for 45 minutes to an hour. Fortunately, I had just read an extended article about Liberia and her civil wars. As he recounted what he’d seen, soldiers, violence, cannibalism, his injured finger smashed under a rock, I could put the pieces together and wonder if in fact he had witnessed all of this, or like me, simply knew about it.
The social part of high school was hard for him. His dark skin caused the African-American kids to taunt him and call him “black shit.” When he came to me for help, I went to our African-American dean and asked her to intervene with preventative measures. She didn’t until Garbo finally lashed out and got into a fistfight in the locker room in gym. Another time when the kids would not stop harassing him, he just stopped, looked at them, and quietly said, “In my country, I would just kill you.” He finally made friends with the Latino boys he played soccer with, and it was a Latino family that took him in when his father and the son his father had with the African-American woman moved to Texas and did not want to take him along.
On his final day of high school right before graduation, he came to my room to thank me. As he hugged me, his body shook with sobs and tears of joy washed down his face. I think he was going to the junior college and would play soccer for them. A few years later, he stopped by school to give me a stuffed toy for my granddaughter and a photo of his son, a boy he had with an African-American woman without benefit of marriage. As I looked at the photo, I wondered about what will happen to this child of an African-American and an African. Will he be free of the dangers of war, or will he be lured into gang life and the war of the streets?
When I think of them, I send love and healing to Ibrahim and Garbo wherever they may be.
Saturday, October 14, 2006
Reflecting on Beasts of No Nation
Guest Post!!! I'm going to leave the last word on child soldiers before our non-virtual discussion on Sunday to one of our Esteemed Readers (Stevi). What might happen to Agu after the novel ends? Here's a possible answer: