A Girl Called Problem

A Girl Called Problem Book Cover A Girl Called Problem
Quirk, Katie
Fiction, Middle School
Eerdmans
2013
256 pp.
ISBN 978-0-8028-5404-9.

"In 1967 Tanzania, when President Nyerere urges his people to work together as one extended family, the people of Litongo move to a new village which, to some, seems cursed, but where thirteen-year-old Shida, a healer, and her female cousins are allowed to attend school. Includes glossary and author's note." Publisher

The setting is rural Tanzania. The story line centers on Shida, a young girl who lives with her mom in the village of Litongwe. Her name, whose translation in English means ”problem,” summarizes the story of her life. Her father has passed away and her mom is struggling to stay healthy and keep pace with the changing social and political landscape.

The author successfully weaves local culture into the story line. Through non-English words, naming patterns, folklore, community activities, and kinship, readers are immersed in the culture of the Sukuma people and become part and parcel of Shida’s everyday life. The patriarchal flavor of the society is evident and gender roles are clearly defined. When Shida expresses interest in becoming a medical nurse, trained in the modern ways of medicine, her mother’s stand is clear ”Shida, stop!….. You are a girl now….how many medicine women do you know in our village?” (p. 31). Nevertheless, Shida is resilient and determined to hold her head high amidst poor living conditions, lack of enough food, tattered clothes, illness and poverty. The latter is implied throughout the book.

Shida is not the only one caught in a web of hardship, uncertainty and loss. The country is going through change. The villagers are at a crossroad; new ways of life and the languages of the Mzungu (white man) are slowing creeping into their long-standing culture. Shida’s family and others in the village are caught between exhortation for change by their beloved leader President Nyerere and their familiar ways of life. Medicine, politics, and farming methods are all changing. Not only is this confusing, it creates anxiety among the people who have to relocate to new sites created to meet new political ideologies of socialism. Shida and her family have to make life-changing decisions. The process of thinking through the pros and cons of the familiar and the unfamiliar is excruciating.

There is something gripping and captivating about the book. There are vivid descriptions of the people, the culture and the everyday life. It is a story of resilience, a lesson in Tanzanian history, politics, folklore and tradition. The reader is led through the paths of societal and political change and has the opportunity to explore African proverbs at the start of each chapter. Swahili, a widely-spoken language in East Africa, is used to illustrate, metaphorically, what is going on in the characters lives i.e. the name Shida means problems and Njia Panda, narrow path. The names reflect the problems and the limited options that the young women have in this patriarchal and hierarchical society.

This book reads well. The language and story lines are easy to follow and occasionally, the author succeeds in bringing out the people’s warmth and laughter in the face of hardship. That being said, the problems that plague Shida and her family overwhelm the story, especially towards the end of the book. There is a sense of hopelessness about Tanzania; the all too common negative stereotypes about Africa are perpetuated in this book. Africa is the place where struggles are never ending; where kids have no childhood; they have to live like adults, and where people die each day of strange diseases. The author unveils her Africa experience through a dark lens, affirming that in Africa, misery is the norm, and villagers will either be killed by too much pombe (beer) or killer diseases like malaria; they will live in mud “huts,” wear tattered clothes, and accept illiteracy as a virtue. This predictably negative approach appears in many novels written by visitors, foreigners, and scholars who have lived only one or two years in an African community. Africa remains a mystery to them. They have bought into the old Dark Continent theory and litter their writing with myths of witches, spirits and fear. It is 2013 and the story is still the same — Africa equals “hardship.” I disagree. My continent offers much more. Authors should balance hardship with the cheerful Africa, the beautiful Africa, the warm African people. I longed for a happy ending in this book, I longed for some sunshine, and some light at the end of the tunnel. There is too much emphasis on medicine men, illness, curses and other unexplained forces. This Africa is a mysterious, intriguing place that only the people who live there can survive. The story line could be used to open up discussions about world poverty, hunger and other circumstances surrounding humanity but the limited, singular perspective makes this difficult, makes one question the author’s reasons for painting Tanzania with such a dark palette.

Reviewed by: Jane Irungu, University of Oregon

Rating: Grade: Middle

Published in Africa Access Review (November 20, 2013)

Copyright 2013 Africa Access

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