Eucabeth Odhiambo is a professor of teacher education with teaching experience from kindergarten to middle school. Auma’s Long Run, her first novel, captures the reader’s attention and emotions and provides the often under-examined and under-appreciated perspective of a girl. Auma grows up in Koromo village among the Luo community in Kenya. The title of the book speaks to the story of Auma, not only as a competitive runner but as a person whose life symbolizes running as an escape from fear, abuse, tradition, and towards what she calls, “greater responsibilities” (293). Auma’s story is also a journey motif. We see her personal growth from girlhood to forced adulthood. While in her teens, Auma has no choice but to take up her parents’ responsibilities after she is left orphaned.
The storyline begins with Auma living with her siblings, parents and grandmother. Dad works in Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya that is almost a day’s drive to Koromo village. Despite the distance, he makes it a habit to visit at the end of each month. Auma’s mother is a hardworking woman who not only cares for her children and her mother but also sells sisal ropes at the local market to meet the needs of her family and to supplement her husband’s income. Auma’s parents are well known in the village as generous people who despite their meager earnings, always contribute to the village’s fundraising efforts.
In Koromo, families are plagued with death. Parents are dying all over from what the community calls “slim” disease which refers to HIV/AIDS. Auma is deeply troubled by these deaths and the mystery and stigma behind the disease (56). The author shows how the stigma around HIV/AIDS is so great that people do not want to call it by name, leading to the spread of the disease. The author also brings to the fore many misconceptions about HIV/AIDS i.e. that it is a disease of those who are “walking around” or the promiscuous. The first deaths attributed to AIDS and known to Auma are the parents of her best friend. Seeing her friend’s grief, Auma is determined to become a doctor to find a cure for the disease. Immediately after these deaths, Auma’s family is plagued by the disease. Her father comes back from the city sick and later dies from AIDS. A few months later Auma’s mother dies. Auma is left to fend for her siblings and grandmother. She rises to the challenge, overcoming insurmountable odds, including bullies in school, poverty, abuse and a difficult life that robs her of her childhood. Odhiambo also highlights other topics, including conflicts between traditional beliefs and Christianity, issues of corporal punishment in schools, marriage of young girls who have “gone to the moon” or reached puberty (138) and wife inheritance. Odhiambo cautions against taking Auma’s story as representative of most Luo in Kenya but it is a story she often heard during her research experience in a Luo community.
The novel does have weaknesses. Odhiambo contributes to the stereotype of Africans as a people with no agency when she fails to describe the efforts the Kenyan government has made to curb the HIV epidemic, i.e testing, counseling, prevention programs, low-cost antiretrovirals and community awareness programs to educate people and raise awareness about HIV. Additionally, the ending of the story is rushed and uneven. The reader is left in the dark as to the fate of Auma, her siblings, or her best friend. Perhaps the author is planning to continue the story in another book.
Still, Auma ‘s Long Run is a great read for those who are interested in learning about HIV/AIDS, its impact on communities and families and the plight of children and especially girls and orphans living in economically-challenged communities.
Reviewed by Anne Rotich, Ph.D. University of Virginia
Published in Africa Access Review (April 25, 2018)
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