Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away by Christie Watson

Blessing and Ezikiel are lucky children. They are one of the few Nigerian families to live comfortably due to their parents’ professional jobs. They live in a comfortable apartment and go to an excellent private school. Ezikiel plans to become a doctor and they both study hard. They are isolated from the poverty and strife most Nigerian families face each day.

All that changes when their parents’ marriage breaks up. They are forced to leave their apartment, school and city and move out to the rural area with their mother, who has to move back in with her parents in order to survive. It is a huge culture shock for Blessing and Ezikiel. Instead of special foods meant to alleviate Ezikiel’s allergies and asthma, they eat a country fare, much simpler and full of foods they have never eaten. There is no electricity, no air-conditioning, no plumbing or running water. There is no money for new clothes and books. The only school is a primitive one where the children are beaten regularly. Ezikiel is determined to make the best of it all, but Blessing is lost and confused.

Their relatives, who they did not know before, are now the most important people in their lives. Their grandparents had not spoken for years to their mother, as they did not approve of her marriage. The grandfather is a proud Muslim man, an oil engineer by training who has never been able to work at a job that uses his training. The grandmother is the midwife for the area and delivers the babies. Soon after they arrive, the grandfather takes a second wife, Celestine, who is a loud, brash woman who is naïve and ignorant but who quickly starts having babies. These strangers are now people it is important to form relationships with. Blessing becomes a midwife’s assistant and helps her grandmother deliver babies, the one positive in this strange new life. She loves the job and the way she is able to help form new families.

The mother has to work long hours and rarely sees the children. She is now a waitress and works for the white men employed by the oil company. The oil company is the force behind everything. It takes the oil and energy resources, but the people of Nigeria get none of the benefit. The government gets payments but none is used to improve rural life. There are energy spills and environmental disasters which foul the water and air and make growing crops difficult. Few of the Nigerian men are employed as the workers are all white men who are brought in from overseas and who live segregated lives in gated communities guarded by security forces.

Things get worse when the mother falls in love with one of the oil workers. At first, the children believe it is just a monetary arrangement, as he provides money to make their lives easier. But it also brings strife. Ezikiel quits school and becomes estranged from his family, making friends with the gangs that call themselves freedom fighters. As it becomes apparent that the man and their mother are in love, Ezikiel’s behavior becomes more belligerent as he refuses to admit another man into his family.

Christie Watson has written a stunning debut novel. The characters are bold and full of life, and the coming of age dilemmas the children face are exquisitely portrayed. The part the oil company plays in everyday family life and the Nigerian country with its strife and poverty is explained convincingly. This book is recommended for readers of family sagas and for those interested in how families can overcome difficulties to remain close.

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