This is week two of the Caine Prize blogathon! Next friday, we’ll discuss the third story of the five on the shortlist, Tim Keegan’s ‘What Molly Knew.’ Other people writing about this week’s story, Beatrice Lamwaka’s “Butterfly Dreams” are (to be updated as they come in): The Oncoming Hope, Backslash Scott, Africa is a Country, Method to the Madness, The Mumpsimus, Sky Soil and Everything in Between.
On the surface, Beatrice Lamwaka’s “Butterfly Dreams” (which you can read here) is a story about a return, a reconciliation, and it ends with what seems like a remarkably happy ending. But only on the surface.
Like last week’s, the basic story is simple enough: Lamunu, the young girl who was abducted and became an eleven-year old child soldier, has apparently returned home to her family — four years later, after hope for her survival had been given up — and she has apparently recovered to the point where, in the final lines of the story, she is able to return to school:
You are very happy. We can see you have woken up early. You have packed your bag with your new books. You have written your name neatly written on the books. We know that your dreams will come true. You will be a doctor some day. Do the work that Ma does but wearing a white coat. There are tears in Ma’s eyes. You look the other way. We know that you know they are tears of happiness.
What is left unresolved, however, is what is being so loudly denied in those final words, which protest so very much too much. These assertions of happiness and butterfly-dreams-come-true ring hollow against the still-averted gaze of the child, her continuing silence, and the too-vigorous, too-hopeful insistence that “We know that you know they are tears of happiness.”
These are damning words. In a story built on a recovery from trauma — about a recovery from a trauma which is primarily manifested by the child’s inability to speak about what has happened to her — the climax of the story is the child’s continuing inability to speak. It is a climax defined by the complete and total absence of catharsis or breakthrough or illumination, in other words; she still hasn’t told them anything about what happened to her. The family still hasn’t even told her that her own father was murdered by the very same rebel group she was abducted into fighting for. And even the single, lonely word she has spoken in the story (“thank you”) is instantly flagged as insufficient:
We’re happy to hear you say something. We hope that you will be able to say a lot more. Tell us more than Anena, Aya, Bongomin, Nyeko, Ayat, Lalam, Auma, Ocheng, Otim, Olam, Uma, Ateng, Akwero, Laker, Odong, Lanyero, Ladu, Timi…. Most of all, we want to hear your voice.
But then, what could poor Lamunu say? And what could they say to her? Her family wants her to say “a lot more” than the long list of returned child-soldiers — this horrific series of horrific storytellers that have told the same horrible story (a refrain which, significantly, Lamwaka repeats three times in the story) — but the problem, the insolvable problem. is that her story is not different than theirs, nor can it be:
Most of the children are like you. They too have killed, tortured other children. They too fought in a war that they didn’t understand.
The problem, in other words, is that her family wants her to tell them a different story, to differentiate herself from “the child soldier” as it’s come to be understood to them (Anena, Aya, Bongomin, Nyeko, Ayat, Lalam, Auma, Ocheng, Otim, Olam, Uma, Ateng, Akwero, Laker, Odong, Lanyero, Ladu, Timi). They want her to cease being a name on a list, to erase that new horrible story and return to the happy old story of the good girl being educated to be a doctor. Which is, of course, completely understandable. The family, after all, has suffered losses of their own: their daughter became one of the rebels that took their daughter from them. Their daughter became one of the soldiers that killed their daughter’s father. Their child killed and tortured children like their child.
It is this impossible truth that they still struggle to resolve, or rather, which they struggle to deny. And this is why this is not a story about Lamunu, a character whose experience is precisely as obscure to us, the reader, as it is to her family, whose collective narrative voice composes and constitutes the story. The story, in other words, is about their experience of her return, about their denial and their inability to accept the truth of her return. When they buried her tipu, they buried her, and since the child who was abducted was rendered symbolically dead by that ritual, the child who returned, beyond all hope, now remains dead to them. This is why the apparently “happy ending” is only apparent, a giant denial of what remains true about her experience, the fact that it was what it was, and that nothing can change that. And because they continue to mourn her — because they translated her abduction as her death — she cannot be allowed to return as she is, a child-soldier. She can only be allowed to return as what she is not, and so, cannot return.
After all, she cannot cease being a name on a list — which is what the family repeatedly, if only implicitly, demands of her — by becoming a name on another list. She has moved from the lost of child-soldiers to the list of returned child-soldiers (the list which is proclaimed on the radio at the start of the story), and has now graduated to the list of child-soldiers being rehabilitated into society via a special school for that particular population. But it is this accumulation of new identities — this acquisition of new associations and experiences — that they refuse to deal with, or to deal with in dealing with her. For example, when she hears planes flying overhead — planes which are going to bomb the rebels she still identifies with — her family both recognizes that this is the case, and shuts down:
[W]e listened to you curse under your breath. We watched you tremble when you heard the government fighting planes flying over Katikati. We knew that you were worried about the people you left behind. We knew that you knew what would go on when the planes went after the rebels. We didn’t ask you for stories. We have heard the stories from Anena, Aya, Bongomin, Nyeko, Ayat, Lalam, Auma, Ocheng, Otim, Olam, Uma, Ateng, Akwero, Laker, Odong, Lanyero, Ladu, Timi, Kati.
This is the very picture of denial: they know that she is still one of that number, a name on that long list of abducted children, and yet precisely because they know that, because asking her for her stories would be to confirm what they know to be true, they retreat into silence. They don’t ask for stories they don‘t want to hear. Which is why she cannot speak to them, why she doesn’t tell them she is returning to the school she can only return to because it is, explicitly, for the thing they cannot explicitly admit her to be: still a child soldier.
We learnt from the neighbours that you went to school. You asked the headmaster to register you as a primary six pupil. We didn’t know that you could talk. We were happy that you said something, even though it wasn’t to us.
She can only speak to those who address her as what she is now, not those who address her as what she was. And here we see something deeply and profoundly true about re-integration, that the problem can’t be located on the individual. The work that must be done is not simply about transforming her, about cleansing her, or removing from her the experience which continues to define her. That cannot be done. The society itself must change before it can accept her again, something the society of her family manifestly hasn’t done. And until then nothing has been resolved, nothing has ended, and no one can have been healed. “Each day we pray that we get the strength to tell you,” the narrator says, near the end; “And one day when the war ends, you will tell us your story. And we will tell you our stories.” But the most important thing – carefully unsaid, because the narrators cannot let themselves say it — is the war hasn’t ended. And so, the stories haven’t yet been told, haven‘t yet been allowed to be told.