Some books, you know you’ll never forget. Harmattan, by Gavin Weston, is such a book.
Haoua Boureima stands as one of the most vivid and sympathetic characters I can recall. In many ways, she could be any of hundreds of millions of girls, looking after her siblings, studying for school, helping her family, playing with friends, dreaming of becoming a teacher. Haoua, though, lives in a world that many of us with Kindles will find foreign, where one may still catch sight of wild giraffes and a girl may get to the age of 11 without ever having used a faucet. And it is in this world that we see what is exceptional in Haoua–her beauty and her spirit–and learn some of the human cost of our deeply dysfunctional society.
Weston shows a tremendous empathy for and understanding of those caught in the gears of these machines. It is a great challenge to present a cultural context for certain events without excusing those who perpetuate abusive systems, but Weston pulls it off. As a person with an anthropology degree who has studied ethnography, I found his portrayal of life in Niger to be incredibly skillful and anything but simplistic. All of the characters here–from Haoua’s family and friends to her neighbors to the aide workers who struggle to help the region–are nuanced, with realistic motivations and complex understandings as well as limitations. Haoua’s correspondence with her sponsors from Northern Ireland, for instance, serves to show us both the similarities and the differences of the two families’ lives and also what we in the comfort of the West may think we understand of such a different world.
Though the nature of the environment and the story make for very tough reading in sections (the book does not shy away from some of the horrors humans can inflict on each other, but it handles them with great dignity), this is also a book of surprising joyousness. Weston very effectively hints at the wonderful social life, the networks of family, the reverence for nature that still undergird even cultures wracked by war and poverty, making the loss of that warmth and positivity all the more pronounced. There are even touches of humor. You will root for young Haoua, and that, I am certain, is Weston’s point rather than trying to offer any panaceas.
Part of me wants to say you owe it to the Haoua Boureimas of the world to read this, but I think it is more accurate to say you owe it to yourself. Because as hard as Haoua’s story is, it is, as she herself notes, just one more story among many, heartbreakingly common. There are no simple answers, but certainly understanding others as this book tries to must be at least a beginning. This is truly a rare and important work that will affect you deeply.