Maison Rouge: Memories of A Childhood in War

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  1. Isis Dia says:

    Maison Rouge is a memoir narrating the experiences of Leila Liliane Juma during the wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly known as Zaire) and neighboring countries, namely Burundi and Rwanda. The book was named after the house in which the author spent her childhood in the city of Uvira in Eastern Congo, on the northern shore of Lake Tanganyika. Her father, a highly-regarded man, known for his generosity and praised by all as the “pillar of our community” (67), used their home as a shelter for the disenfranchised, including refugees from neighboring countries. Soon, Leolina (the author and main character) becomes aware of the pangs of war as her home is transformed into an asylum place for the many refugees pouring in from Burundi and Rwanda.

    The story starts with the moment she and her family arrived at the refugee camp in Tanzania. In the second chapter, the author reminisces about her life back in peaceful and plush Maison Rouge, then gradually progresses to the wartime and its horrors, followed by the moment they arrived at the UNHCR refugee camp in Tanzania after escaping Uvira on foot and by boat.

    The same narration structure is used by Sandra Uwiringiyimana (who also grew up in Uvira) in her book entitled How dare the sun rise: Memoirs of a War Child, a book also recounting the life she endured in war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. In Uwiringiyimana’s book, the narrative begins with her refugee camp being under attack by militiamen. This allows the reader to delve into the story from the get-go and to remain engrossed by the narrative as events unfolded.

    Besides war, Juma’s story addresses other powerful themes such as altruism, compassion, and forgiveness. Leolina teaches great life lessons when sharing her room with a family of refugees, taking care of the wounded, and especially forgiving a rebel soldier who almost raped her and an older woman, Yayabo, who had betrayed her father, thus contributing to his certain demise. This last character trait of hers shows her maturity and psychological strength given her young age (she turns 16 when her family managed to escape from Uvira). Most importantly, it reveals that she is already in a healing process while still going through hard times. Indeed, by heeding her mother’s plea to forgive Yayabo, she exemplifies courage and resilience: “Yes, Maman. Papa taught me not to keep bitterness in my heart. To do that gives power to those who have wronged you” (122).
    Couched in a realistic and neutral tone, Juma’s fast-paced narrative is a riveting account that will appeal to young readers. The short vignettes and vivid descriptions, and Juma’s ability to turn wounds into wisdom and pain into power, will no doubt leave a lasting impact on readers. As a young African myself, I would definitely recommend her book to every young reader as a great opportunity to learn about the devastating impact of war on the lives of thriving communities in Congo and the Great Lakes Region.

    Reviewed by Isis Dia (Freshman, Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis)

    Rating: 4

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