African Child Soldiers

by zunguzungu

A propos of our discussion of “Butterfly Dreams,” I’ve collected covers from most of the main “African Child Soldier” narratives and posted them below, intermixed with text poached from Eleni  Coundouriotis’ “The Child Soldier Narrative and the Problem of Arrested Historicization,” a great article.

The recent proliferation of African child soldier narratives largely reflects a new shape of African literature, written and marketed outside Africa. I propose arrested historicization as a way of understanding a narrowing down of the historical scope of a long-standing convention in African literature, the war novel. The war novel, as I argue in my work elsewhere, is a genre that is counterposed to the mainstream African novel: it is strongly identified with national audiences, it lies largely outside the canon of the African novel as taught in the Western academy and is produced more frequently by African publishing houses.

Child soldier narratives are symptomatic of an arrested historicization in part because they become trapped in a rhetorical effort to restore the childhood innocence of their narrator and, as a result, produce a metaphor of African childhood that is politically limiting as a characterization of the historical agency of the continent’s peoples.

Recent popular writing about war in Africa has relied increasingly on the self-help model of the recovery narrative, deploying the language of addiction and thus privileging a view of the individual that is significantly abstracted from culture and society. Whereas psychoanalysis has played a key role in the understanding of the postcolonial condition, nowhere more prominently than in the work of Fanon himself, the recovery paradigm focuses less on analysis and more on the production of a self.

Traumatized by chaotic and extreme violence, child soldier survivors have little recourse to complex historical and political explanations of what got them where they are. Many, if not most, are also addicted to drugs that make the recovery narrative all the more appealing to them.

Thus the autobiographical narratives of child soldiers are framed as victim narratives where responsibility for the committing of atrocity by the child soldier is largely disclaimed as either abuse the child has suffered, or the result of drug addiction from which the child must be rehabilitated. The recovery narrative allows for the problem of responsibility in the war to be shifted onto the task of recovery itself.

What we see in child soldier narratives where the act of narration is part of the therapy does not correspond to the experience of the vast majority of child soldiers. In real life, instead of storytelling, we find an insistence on rituals of purification. As one subject explains: “If a person goes to fight a war, he becomes another person, because he learns how to kill other people, even his own mother and father . . . . During that time he only thinks of killing . . . . When he returns he has to be treated to become his own self again.” Rituals of purification become key to the process of reintegration and they “do not involve verbal exteriorization of the traumatic experience of war” because “people would rather not talk about the past.” Whether this reluctance to talk about the child soldiers’ war experience is a good or bad thing concerns me less for the purposes of my argument here than to make the point that narratives such as Beah’s, which are marketed as authentic, are mediated through the process of therapy provided by international organizations…

The newer narratives that are most successful are the ones that take this abstracted figure and parse it, examining it as an invented discourse about Africa.

The phenomenon of this discourse’s arrested historicization isn’t resolved, however, by the work of critique since this critique is, like arrested decolonization, a form of answering back rather than an autochthonous discourse. Overcoming these limitations might require the work of reading, of setting in motion an interpretive practice that is attentive to the historicizing nuance of authors whose narratives do not accommodate the frames already in place.