A Tale of Two Novels

·       Cry, The Beloved Country; and Things Fall Apart

By Anis Haffar

When the book, “Children’s Rights in Ghana, Reality or Rhetoric?” [with Prof Nana Araba Apt as one of the editors] was launched at the British Council (January 18, 2012), it seemed like an ordinary meeting. But the occasion – sponsored by the University of Ghana, Centre for Social Policy Studies (CSPS) – was so timely that the Chief Justice, Georgina Theodora Woode, was represented by another Justice, Rose C. Owusu; and the event chaired by Prof Ken Agyeman Attafuah of the William Ofori-Atta Institute.

In reviewing the book at the launch, I cited some deplorable conditions to which children were subjected in schools around the country, while training teachers there. Such depravity was patently obscene and avoidable when a good many politicians and public officials sported expensive lifestyles and luxurious vehicles while the nation’s children lacked toilets, clean water to drink, and wash their hands to avoid diseases. And to see this happening over half a century after Ghana’s independence, in 1957! The uncaring attitude of a great many of the nation’s adults is unjust and oppressive. Must a nation of “Freedom and Justice” opt to see nothing, feel nothing, and do nothing to allay the suffering of her own little children? Must that be the duty of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs)?

Cry The Beloved Country

When first asked to do the review, my mind flew back to my primary school days, at the dawn of Ghana’s independence. Concerned teachers tasked themselves with the duty to plead with fathers – many quite well off as goldsmiths, farmers, traders, shoemakers, etc – to put sandals on their children’s feet. Some parents debunked the request on the grounds that they themselves never had education nor shoes on their feet in their youth, but survived; and that children must suffer the same deprivation to appreciate the trials of poverty.

In preparing for the review, I recalled the atrocities against children from two required readings in secondary school: “Cry, The Beloved Country”, authored by the South African writer, Alan Paton [1903 – 1988]; and “Things Fall Apart” by Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe [1930 – 2013]. Novels tend to soften the gory edges of reality with fiction, so as not to offend people’s sensitivities by name or setting; but in many cases certain truths that lurked behind the fiction were stranger than the fiction itself.

From 1935 to 1948, Alan Paton was a principal of the Diepkloof Reformatory for native youth offenders which was eventually closed down by the apartheid regime for being “a place for pampering rather than education, the place, indeed, where one said ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to the black ‘misters’”. As a result of the closure, the 800 boys were abandoned to labour on white farms.

Paton, referring in 1982 to the passage from which the title of the book evolved – “Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly” – said, “I am sometimes astonished that these words were written in 1946 and that it took many of the white people of South Africa thirty years to acknowledge their truth, when black school children started rioting [in] Soweto on June 16, 1976.”

Paton was recalling the tragedy where apartheid police shot live bullets into demonstrating children, killing some and injuring hundreds more.

Added to the human tragedies of the apartheid system were some native African atrocities proper against children. In his novel, Chinua Achebe captured a scene where men “armed with sheathed machetes, and Ikemefuna, carrying a pot of palm-wine on his head, walked in their midst” on the pretext of taking him back to his mother, whom the boy hadn’t seen since living with his foster father, Okonkwo.

As one of the men struck a machete blow, the boy screamed to his adopted father, “My father, they have killed me!” Unfazed, Okonkwo “drew his machete and cut him down.”

Though cast in fiction, such gory cases shed light on some superstitious African beliefs and ritual murders that still plague the cruel hearts of many, for crude primitive reasons; in the novel’s case, because “The Oracle of the Hills and the Caves has pronounced it”.

That gruesome fictional episode rings loudly in how some crude African mindsets tend to destroy children; for example, the ritual murders and cutting up of children and albinos for human flesh for “juju” and so on. Such insanity litter the cover pages of newspapers well to this day.

Things Fall Apart

Thank God almighty, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) guarantees: 1. Rights of provision (adequate nutrition, health care, education, economic welfare); 2. Rights of protection (from abuse, neglect, violence, exploitation); and 3. Rights of participation (a voice in decisions affecting the child). African governments are obligated to provide and protect these rights.

Alas, the Irish poet, W.B Yeats [1865 – 1939] comes to mind, in providing the stanza from his poem, “The second coming” from which Achebe adopted the title for his masterpiece which, today, is classified as one of the 100 best stories ever written:

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer; / Things fall apart; / the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world …”

A key advocate on quality international education standards, Sir Ken Robinson, tended to quote Yeats in promoting raising children to be in their “Element”, to be the very best they could become. He said (paraphrasing Yeats) “Everyday our children, everywhere spread their dreams beneath our feet, and we should tread softly” because we tread on their dreams.

It is worth remembering Nelson Mandela when he spoke (6th May, 2000) on “Building a Global Partnership for Children”. He said, “Be ever vigilant, hold governments accountable, struggle for peace and justice. Do not let up for a moment for there is no circumstance in which the neglect or abuse of children can ever be tolerated.”