In her well-written debut novel, Golden Boy, Tara Sullivan introduces young adult readers to contemporary urban and rural Tanzania through the eyes of Habo, a thirteen-year-old boy living with albinism. Unlike the dark skin of his brothers and sisters, Habo (short for the Swahili word Dhahabu or Gold) has blue eyes, yellow hair, and white skin. As Habo interacts with a variety of diverse Tanzanian characters (old and young, rich and poor, urban and rural) readers experience what it means to be different: he is the object of constant stares and whispers and can’t participate fully in activities common to other boys his age. Habo lives near Arusha in northern Tanzania. He tends to his family’s goats but wishes he could do the chores of other children his age, who share stories and jokes, while collecting water and firewood together.
Habo’s family is thrown into crisis when his father — unable to accept Habo’s difference — abandons the family. His Mother moves the younger children, including Habo across the country to live with her sister in Mwanza. Only after spending their last shilling on the long journey from Arusha to Mwanza do we learn that Mwanza has recently become unsafe for people living with albinism. Some traditional healers believe that people with albinism bring luck and their body parts have been sold as good luck talismans. Giving himself pep talks, Habo confidently faces the threat and strategically overcomes numerous challenges as he searches to find his rightful place in the world. Eventually, we accompany Habo and a new friend to the national library in Dar es Salaam, as they search for books on albinism and learn more about the two cabinet members with albinism who had recently been elected to Tanzania’s Parliament.
Sullivan has drawn her novel from actual news reports about recent murders, kidnapping, and mutilation of people with albinism in Tanzania, but she situates this human rights issue, within the much larger tapestry of Tanzanian life. By physically taking us across the country with Habo, she shows us the great geographical, social, economic, and cultural diversity of Tanzania, she has taken great care avoid another simple story about an African victim. In sharp contrast to stereotypical images perpetuated by American media of poor African children– lacking shoes, food, and “proper” shelter– through Habo’s experiences we gain a much richer picture of Tanzanian youth. Habo is a complex, interesting, and yet rather ordinary (not exotic) character. The author exposes the issue of albinism without focusing on the sensational details. Instead she shows the many ways that Habo’s friends, family, and government address the issue to ensure the safety of all. Also rather than demonizing traditional healers, she takes care to make distinctions between the few traditional healers who condone these abuses and the many traditional healers who do not.
Yet it is difficult to endorse this novel without great reservations. I am deeply concerned about how this book will be read by American youth. Will they be able to recognize and learn from Sullivan’s attempts to show the nuances and complexities of Tanzania through Habo’s journey? Or will they simplistically view Tanzania through the lens of mutilations and murder? Is it ever appropriate to teach American students about human rights abuses in Africa isolated from the study of similar human rights abuses in other parts of the world?
Before assigning the novel, I would first introduce students to the politics and power of representation. To make the lesson more relevant and balanced, I’d use the resources noted below to discuss misrepresentations of Africa and I would have students complete the very worksheet that I completed as a tool for reviewing this novel. The story organizer can be found on the Africa Access website with a great list of Do’s and Don’ts for teaching about Africa. http://africaaccessreview.org/evaluation-criteria/
Reynolds, J. (2004). So Many Africas, So Little Time: Doing Justice to Africa in the World History Survey. University of Illinois Press: http://worldhistoryconnected.press.illinois.edu/2.1/reynolds.html
Keim, C. ( 2009). Mistaking Africa: Curiosities and Inventions of the American Mind (second ed.). Boulder: Westview Press.
Brown, B. (1994). Africa: Myth and Reality. Social Education, 58(6), 374-375.
Chimamanda, Adichie, TED Talk: Danger of a Single Storyhttps://www.google.com/search?q=chimamanda+adichie+ted&oq=chimamanda++a&aqs=chrome.3.69i57j0l5.4730j0j7&sourceid=chrome&es_sm=122&ie=UTF-8
Boston University Center for African Studies, Tips on Teaching about Africa http://www.bu.edu/africa/outreach/resources/tips-on-teaching-africa/
Reviewed by Elizabeth Boner, University of California at Berkeley
Published in Africa Access Review (April 27, 2014)
Copyright 2014 Africa Access