Title: Beneath the Darkening Sky
Author: Majok Tulba
Plot summary: African child is taken from his village and beaten, brainwashed and trained to become a rebel warrior. But he thinks he can outsmart the rebels.
Rating: 4 out of 5 locked and loaded AK-47s
Plenty of kids run away from home. Some make it as far as their best friend’s house, or the tree in the backyard. Others, like Sudanese author Majok Tulba, ran away to a refugee camp.
Beneath the Darkening Sky is not an autobiographical tale of Tulba’s experiences in Sudan because, as he points out in the acknowledgements section at the back of the book, he wasn’t as tall as an AK-47 assault rifle — so he wasn’t forced into the back of the truck to become a rebel warrior. As the book itself states: “This is the story of what might have happened to him had he been an inch taller“. So, technically, Majok was lucky.
The lead character, Obinna, wasn’t lucky. He was one of many three foot-plus boys in his camp. He and his brother Akot were taken, along with other young boys and some useful young girls that were destined to be turned into sex slaves and makeshift nurses. A number of the parents in the village were shot, raped, burned — or worse.
The story follows Obinna and Akot to a rebel training base. Obinna, who later becomes known as Baboon’s Ass because he pukes on the Captain’s pants, keeps mucking up time after time, and is beaten on the countless occasions he resists being turned into a rebel fighter. His brother doesn’t resist, and even gets in on one of the beatings.
While others are killed for minor mistakes, the Captain takes a liking to Obinna’s suffering, his determination and his apparent stupidity. The Captain knows killing Obinna would be too easy, so he makes turning him into a cold-blooded warrior a personal challenge.
There are parts of the book that you will have to re-read, often a few times. Not because of poor writing — there’s very little of that — but because you can’t believe, or don’t want to believe, what you’ve just read. I’ll put it this way, if you felt queasy reading about Obinna spewing, you shouldn’t read this book. Spew is like a carriage of rainbow fairy dust being towed into town by a unicorn compared to some of the shit that goes down in this story.
The narrative is made all the more unbelievable by the fact that a lot of these stories are based on firsthand accounts from people the author spoke to when piecing together Beneath the Darkening Sky. Tulba probably spoke to a dozen or so people, but the rebel forces attacked dozens of villages, killed thousands of people, enlisted innumerable kids, and cared little about any of what happened as a result. This story is one corner of a one-million piece jigsaw.
The way Tulba words it, killing or being killed is part of daily life in this book, much like getting a double skinny chai soy latte is for us. And that’s what makes it truly chilling. It’s a book that shines a light on the plight of the immeasurable masses touched by civil war in countries all across Africa.
To those of us who haven’t experienced war, this’ll make you happy we live in Australia. Tulba now lives in Sydney with his wife and three kids after leaving Sudan in 2001, and he’s no doubt happy about that.
Read this book and think of all of those people who didn’t get out.