You cannot see the face of the figure on the front cover of Ahmadou Kourouma’s 2000 novel Allah Is Not Obliged, but the scale of the gun the silhouette holds tells you they are small and the words written above their head leave no room for doubt – “Birahima is ten years old. He is a soldier...”
That ten-year-old goes on to claim in the pages of Kourouma’s book that child soldiers are “the most famous celebrities of the late twentieth century”. Whilst an exaggeration, the notion of the child soldier has certainly achieved a status which has made fictional portrayals inevitable. As well as playing bit parts in the 2006 film Blood Diamond and Chimamanda Adiche's Orange prize-winning novel Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), Allah is Not Obliged is one of several books which feature a child soldier as their main character.
Kourouma is perhaps, however, the most established author to tackle the subject, the Ivorian having been described by literary critic Christiane Ndiaye as having “achieved in his life time what most African writers can only dream of: notoriety, superstardom, impressive book sales, a mythical stature”. Set in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea – conflicts which for some have become synonymous with the use of young people on the front line – Birahima is both the book’s protagonist and narrator.
Behind those short sentences on the cover which first introduce him to the reader lie a set of implicit assumptions: that youth and war are incompatible, that child soldiering is an unnatural corruption of childhood. As Professor Alcinda Honwana, an expert on youth and armed conflict, explains in her book on the phenomenon, soldiers “are associated with strength, aggression, and the responsible maturity of adulthood”, whereas children are defined by “innocence, weakness, and dependence upon adult guidance and nurturance”.
This separation of the two words which form the label ‘child soldier’ is borne out in other novels which focus on them. Delia Jarrett Macaulay’s first book Moses, Citizen and Me (2005), also set in Sierra Leone, sees Citizen go from a feral, newly-returned child soldier, across the “bridge back to normal childhood”, to swimming lessons in England with his adoptive mother. The elements of soldier in him are exorcised, visualised strongly when he has a nightmare which literally sets fire to his bedroom, until he is only a child.
Similarly, Uzodinma Iweala’s debut novel Beasts of No Nation (2005) follows Agu’s transformation from a scholarly “small boy” to what literary critic Dr. Madelaine Hron describes as a “vicious serial killer” and back again, when he escapes from the army and enters a rehabilitation centre.
But Kourouma’s novel, despite hinting at the perceived binary between children and soldiers on its front cover, transcends this distinction in its pages. The reader sees Birahima’s life before the war, but unlike Citizen and Agu who live carefree lives in the protective bosoms of their families, Birahima was coping with a severely disabled mother and fending for himself on the streets. This makes it impossible for the reader to starkly juxtapose his life as a child with his life as a soldier. This is made harder still by the fact that his story is told chronologically, whereas the accounts of Citizen and Agu’s experiences as child soldiers are interspersed with flashbacks to their previous lives making the divide between the various stages of their lives stark and marked. Also, unlike Citizen and Agu, Birahima never manages to transcend his life as a soldier. In fact, Kourouma started a sequel which has since been published, Quand on Refuse on Dit Non.
Another contrast arises between the characters’ use of language. Described as “the silent boy”, Citizen barely speaks, and although he is the narrator, Agu’s language is consistently child-like. Birahima, however, not only speaks for himself but is foul-mouthed and self-aware with a dark sense of humour, joking about Samuel Doe’s heart becoming a “delicious kebab”. But while he is no angel, he is also not a monster. He speaks of his time with his mother tenderly, and he displays great empathy when describing the abuse a fellow child soldier, Sosso, suffered at the hands of this father. Birahima cannot be separated into child and soldier as Agu and Citizen can be, but is instead a complex, challenging mix of the two.
Kourouma makes his reader rethink both their expectations about child soldiers and the essentialising of the categories of ‘children’ and ‘soldiers’. In doing so, he follows the postcolonial tradition of dismantling the colonial use of binaries to establish one people or country as ideal and another as deviant, one as right, one as wrong, and one as civilised, one as feral.
Although the reasons behind the differences in these authors’ understandings of child soldiers cannot be ascertained with certainty, a possible explanation lies in the few short years which separate the publication of Kourouma’s novel and those of Iweala and Jarrett-Macaulay. The latter two were writing not just post-colonisation but post-9/11, in at atmosphere which was seeking to sustain rather than deconstruct. Childhood has often been seen as the site of the essential values of humanity, and maintaining those values in children maintains adults’ identities and understanding of the world. The figure of the child solider offered Jarrett-Macaulay and Iweala a chance to reaffirm and reassure, to redefine children and soldiers in opposition to each other where Kourouma had blurred the boundaries.
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