Mohamed’s vivid and lyrical writing offers insights not only into Somalia’s troubled history but into the conflicted relationships we all have.
By: Marcia Kaye Published on Thu Apr 11 2014
Much has been written about Somalia, but not enough by Somalis. Nadifa Mohamed was a welcome voice in 2010 with Black Mamba Boy, a novel based on her father’s early life as a street child searching for his father. She set the bar high with that book — it won or was shortlisted for several British prizes — and with this second novel, she’s done it again.
Unlike her first book, which centres on fathers and sons, this one focuses on women. The Orchard of Lost Souls is set in the city of Hargeisa in 1987, with Somalia on the brink of civil war. The ruthless military dictatorship is on a bloody mission to crush rebel uprisings, and history tells us the country is edging toward collapse.
During a rally to honour the regime, three female lives briefly converge by chance. Deqo, a nine-year-old girl from a refugee camp, has been brought to the stadium to perform a dance with other orphans. When stage fright makes her forget the steps, her caregivers beat her. Kawsar, a wealthy widow in her late 50s, witnesses the abuse and intervenes to stop it. She is arrested by Filsan, a young soldier from Mogadishu on her first assignment in Hargeisa. Anxious to impress her superiors that she’s as tough as any male soldier, Filsan takes Kawsar to the police station and beats her savagely, breaking the older woman’s hip. Meanwhile, young Deqo has slipped away and escaped.
Here the three lives diverge, and the book divides into three sections. First we follow Deqo, who survives alone on the streets through sheer wit and grit until a houseful of prostitutes takes her in. Desperate for an identity — in the refugee camp she called herself Deqo Red Cross just to have a family name — she happily lives with these colourful characters, until the day she realizes she’s being groomed for the sex trade. “Her body is not her own, she thinks; it is a shell they are trying to break open.” Before she can be pimped out, she flees once again.
Kawsar, unable to get her broken hip repaired as the hospital has few supplies or staff, goes home. Bedridden, she relies on care from neighbours — until they are forced to flee — and a young maid, who, in the midst of mortars, cluster bombs and strafing fighter jets, wants only to go beauty school. Meanwhile the soldier Filsan, charged with destroying water reservoirs around a village rumoured to support rebels, is tested to see if she’s actually capable of murdering insurgents.
Themes of loss and abandonment, especially between parent and child, permeate the novel. Deqo’s mother deserted her as a child; Kawsar is grieving the death of her only daughter; Filsan was beaten by her father and now, although a good soldier, is lonely and childless.
Author Mohamed, who was born in Somalia in 1981 but raised in London, returned to Hargeisa in 2008. In The Orchard of Lost Souls, she shows us glimpses of life in the enchanting country she once knew: “a bare-chested man with a silver swordfish slung over his thin black back, a shoal of children reciting the Qu’ran from their wooden slates, a girl milking a white lyre-horned cow.”
But now, the country is rapidly crumbling and we know the centre cannot hold: “. . . the soldiers will return the street to the desert, unplug the stars, shoot the dogs and extinguish the sun in a well,” writes Mohamed. She doesn’t flinch from detailing the abominable brutality, the cold-blooded murders, the decomposing bodies covered with ecstatic flies. It’s amid this chaos that the three females meet once again. And just when you think you can’t bear any more bleakness, Mohamed shows us the human connections that, despite all odds, endure.
The clear-eyed candour of Mohamed’s vivid and lyrical writing offers insights not only into Somalia’s troubled history but into the conflicted relationships we all have, whether with one another, or with ourselves.
Marcia Kaye (www.marciakaye.com ) is a journalist and author.