How Dare the Sun Rise, the author confesses in her postface, is a “declaration of my independence. It is a story of how hatred failed and love and justice prevailed” (278). The story – based on the author’s life – is told in a simple, unobtrusive narrative. It opens with the Gatumba Massacre on the night of August 13, 2004, when militiamen storm a refugee camp in Burundi and shoot indiscriminately dozens of refugees, including Sandra’s six-year-old sister Deborah who, like many of her relatives, dies from her gunshot wounds. Sandra, her mother and father, as well as her other siblings, survive and are relocated to Rochester, New York, thanks to a UNHCR refugee resettlement program. In fact, only the first few chapters of the book cover life in Eastern Congo, where Sandra’s ethnic Banyamulenge group settled, then Burundi (at the infamous Gatumba camp), finally Rwanda, where the family awaits their resettlement to the United States. The author provides some interesting glimpses of growing up in war-torn Africa, describing in vivid details how the normal course of life is interrupted and torn asunder by the absurdity of war. “I knew the sounds of war,” she writes, “before I knew how to do a cart wheel” (42). Her arresting description of Gatumba camp, where the family seeks refuge after they are forced out of Congo because of their ethnicity, could not be more unsettling. A forlorn place with “no schools and nothing to do. No toys for kids, no dolls, no distraction” (69), Gatumba turns out to be worse than that, a deathtrap and “fiery hell” (80) that cut short the life of little Deborah.
Sandra and her family hail from the Banyamulenge ethnic group, a people without a country who “didn’t fit anywhere” (94), trapped along Congo’s eastern border with Rwanda, at the epicenter of the wars that have ravaged the area since the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. This overarching theme of yearning for belonging and searching for identity continues to shape her family life and personal experience even as they all moved to the United States. There, Sandra discovers that America’s race relations are no less insidious and no less fraught with hatred and intolerance than Africa’s ethnic animosities. She describes at length her desire to belong and fit in in America’s so-called melting pot: “I looked black, but I sounded white” (162), she recalled after some years in the United States, worrying that she “could never be black enough” (165). In Rochester’s seediest neighborhood where her family tries to regain a sense of normalcy, she discovers the raw reality of exclusion and discrimination stemming from racial profiling in America’s inner-cities. She learns the hard way, while shopping at a mall, what so many black people have gone through when wrongly suspected of shoplifting, that no matter how hard you strive, America will always define you by your skin color.
Yet, Sandra was meant to achieve what would be unthinkable for anyone in her position, independence, success, and global fame. A small photo exhibit of Gatumba Massacre survivors that she set up in a Rochester’s unassuming gallery caught the attention of several people and served as a launching pad that propelled her into a career of an activist. She is eventually invited to speak before the UN assembly, appears on the Charlie Rose Show, and attends the White House Correspondents’ Dinner where she meets President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.
How Dare the Sun Rise has found its rightful place among a growing genre that includes powerful acclaimed memoirs such as Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Child Soldier (2008), Lopez Lomong’s Running for my Life: One Boys’ Lost Journey from the Killing Fields of Sudan to the Olympic Games (2016), and They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan (2015). Yet, How Dare the Sun Rise is not without its flaws. Although her compelling story does elicit her readers’ sympathy for the plight of refugees, the author never really provides a context to help readers understand the history and events that transformed the Great Lakes Region into a cauldron of war. At times, the narrative verges on the trivial and the melodramatic and becomes a version of intercultural romance and a tale of struggling to embrace the “American Dream,” hence losing sight of its most powerful thread. The compelling appeal of this genre, as exemplified in the story of Lomong or the three lost boys of Sudan, is precisely its ability to convey a sense of resilience, to shatter the dreary myth of Africa’s “tribal” wars and sensationalized senseless violence, and to challenge Western readers (including juvenile readers) to grasp Africa’s postcolonial conundrum beyond the racist stereotypes conveyed by the media. How Dare the Sun Rise could have done more to fulfil those expectations.
Reviewed by Didier Gondola, Ph.D., Department of History, Indiana University, Indianapolis
Published in Africa Access Review (March 4, 2018)
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