'Imagination will take you everywhere'
Somalian author, Nadifa Mohamed, fled her birthplace of Hargeisa, north-west Somalia in 1986. She and her family escaped falling into the deep abyss which the dictator had pushed her beloved country into; the noose around Somalia’s neck tightened until a bloody civil war broke out in the late 1980s.
Now with a never-ending list of prestigious awards to her name (she was recently selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists), Mohamed has turned her attention to the people who weren’t lucky enough to escape the dictatorship. While her critically acclaimed debut novel, Black Mamba Boy centred around her father’s fictionalised courageous journey across east Africa in search of his own father, her second novel, The Orchard of Lost Souls focuses on the Somalian civil war and it’s impact on three Somalian women. Deqo, a nine-year old street urchin who ran away from a refugee camp; Filsan, a young female soldier determined on serving the dictatorship; and Kawsar, a widow, incapacitated after being badly beaten. Through the eyes of these three characters, the reader is able to see the crippling effect of the war on Somalians – each story is unique yet eventually their lives become entwined.
Despite each characters differences, they are all searching for companionship. Deqo, abandoned by her mother in Saba’ad, found a best friend in Anab – “they were new-found sisters, thrown together like leaves in a storm” – until she died of Cholera. Now Deqo – named Deqo-Wareego, ‘wandering Deqo’ – drifts from a barrel in a ditch (“trapped like a breech birth in a hard, dead womb”), to a house full of prostitutes where she finds a mother figure in Nasra, until she is forced to flee. What the nine-year old really wants is a mother – someone to love and care for her.
On the other hand, Filsan is determined to escape her controlling father in Mogadishu, yet at almost 30 years old, she dreams of falling in love; instead she is “alone, untouched, forgotten”. She serves the brutal military regime with devotion – letting out her anger and loneliness on the civilians; even killing three innocent village elders, “She is in every way a monster”. But when she suddenly finds love staring her in the face – literally, Captain Yasin is sat opposite her in the office they share – she begins to soften. His death in a rebel attack finally opens her eyes to the brutality of the regime.
Mohamed successfully conjures a living hell, where nurses only tend to the injured when they are bribed with money, children are bled dry and corpses are dumped in the street; the suffocating aroma of burning flesh is inescapable. However this barbarity is juxtaposed against Mohamed’s beautiful, poetic personification of her homeland, which shines through the darkness, “A new moon has just been born, fragile and slender in its nursery of stars”. Her prose floats effortlessly – peppered with similes – as if being carried in the soft morning breeze through the deserted streets of Hargeisa.
Kawsar is the one that has suffered most at the hands of the dictatorship; her beloved daughter, Hodan, was detained and shortly after committed suicide. Before Hodan she had many miscarriages and stillborn babies which she buried in her prized orchard – “a spot of colour visible from the sky”, the trees “grew from the remains of the children that had passed through her”. By the middle of the book she has almost given up life entirely – Mohamed compares Kawsar’s life to that of her country’s; “A world that has aged, decayed and will soon end.” The title of the book, The Orchard of Lost Souls is a metaphor for the plight of Somalia and its inhabitants; the country itself is brimming with natural beauty and light, yet it is the dictatorship which pollutes the land.
Reading this shocking account makes the reader realise how much evil human beings are capable of. What is so saddening and infuriating is that this cruelty is not a thing of the past. This is happening right now in Syria, Republic of Congo, Egypt and many more African countries. But this novel also gives us hope. These three determined, courageous and inspiring women have survived loss, heartbreak and a civil war by working together; showing the whole world that good will always triumph over evil.
Nadifa Mohamed I salute you. This novel is breath-taking, compelling and moving – justifying the abundance of awards. Bring on the third masterpiece.