Crossing the Stream
This fine novel for middle-graders is set in contemporary Ghana and realistically depicts the lives of its protagonists: Ato, age 12, and his two best friends, Dzifa (a bold, nonconformist girl—viewed by other parents as “wild”) and Leslie (a cautious, germophobic boy). The intricate plot begins when Ato reads a school announcement inviting students to propose projects “to protect the green earth, the blue sky, and the animals and people between the two” (p.3) to get selected to visit the bird island sanctuary Nnoma. He has been dreaming for five years about seeing the marvel his father had helped to create. Ato’s father is dead, but he is Ato’s hero whom he aspires to emulate. Together the three friends initiate their project of growing a garden using only organic pesticides in a vacant area in their neighborhood, shared with Papa Kojo who also grows vegetables, adjacent to a church started by Yakayaka (who “yacks” nonsense), the self-proclaimed “prophet of fire.”
Meanwhile, Ato’s mother, struggling to run a business and worrying about whether her son will reflect well on her, reluctantly agrees to send Ato every weekend to stay with Ato’s paternal grandmother. Nana lives in an upscale neighborhood, but Ato soon comes to regard her as “cool” and loves spending time with her despite some peculiar qualities (an old porch sofa that the Prophet has warned must be avoided because it was the spot where Ato’s father died, a large, grave-like hole in the back garden, and the potions she concocts to cure illness and protect Ato’ growing plants). She understands his drawings, listens carefully, and over several weekends, suspensefully recounts a story to Ato that helps him to develop courage.
Back home, though, sinister events occur: Ato’s mother is increasingly swayed by the Prophet to fear Nana, plants and animals in the vacant plot are dying, and the children discover (in a hair-raising escapade) that Yakayaka’s “refuge” for homeless boys is a scam. The plot’s resolution is structured around an interrelated group of mysteries that add suspense and pose questions that a boy Ato’s age would ask, such as: Why does his mother distrust Nana? How did his father die? What is Nana trying to tell him with her story about the boy and his friend? What is the Prophet Yakayaka up to? Why is he trying to turn Ato’s mother against Nana? Who/what is killing the animals and plants in the vacant lot? What can Ato and his friends do about this? Would Ato ever measure up to his image of his father? In the end, one question remains unanswered: What did his father leave on the bird island? Perhaps this allows for a sequel.
The main themes emerge naturally from the plot as contrasting perspectives. First, there is Ato’s need to measure up to his image of his father’s expectations. Notably, the one letter from his father expresses confidence in the son’s ability, while Ato’s mother is constantly reminding him of her doubts about whether Ato will measure up and uses Ato’s behavior as a reflection of whether she is a good mother. In contrast, Nana, like her son Ato’s father, also believes in Ato and uses their weekends together to show him the meaning of true courage.
A second primary theme portrays Ato’s mother’s lack of self-confidence, her dependence upon others’ approval, and her fear of what she doesn’t understand. She allows herself to be swayed by Prophet Yakayaka and duped into fearing that Nana has magical powers and evil intentions. In fairness, Mum is a single mother, raising her son alone, and running a business. She is struggling to keep it all together and make ends meet, drives a rickety car, and lives in a modest neighborhood. In comparison, Nana—who lives in a fancier community with a nice house and car—not only makes weekends fun, but also tries to instill in Ato being open to life, not fearing the unknown or different, and not pre-judging others. Eventually, Ato learns that Nana gained these insights from hard experience and the sorrow of losing her only son to a bad heart condition. The title of the book signifies this theme, referring to the Forbidden Stream that separates Nana’s refined neighborhood, Tamarind Ridge, from the Zongo, a community with poor housing and lacking basic amenities. Nana takes Ato across that stream and shows him people on the other side living productive lives and how she came to view them as her friends after learning from her own son how to do the right thing.
In addition to the symbolism of the Forbidden Stream, birds play a major symbolic role, beginning with the island bird haven. Dzifa is a magpie—assertive, talkative, bold, while Leslie is an “obedient” parakeet. Ato draws a cassowary killing a wild dog, which Nana instantly recognizes (hinting at how well-read both of them must be since cassowaries are only native to Australia and Indonesia, thousands of miles from Ghana in west Africa). Ato becomes as fearless and cunning as a peregrine falcon capturing its prey when he exposes the evil intentions and deeds of Yakayaka.
The author, Elizabeth-Irene Baitie, born and raised in Ghana and now living in Accra, convincingly portrays local culture through her characters’ speech patterns, descriptions of street and community life (hawkers lining the road with tamarinds and groundnuts to sell, crowded with taxis, goats, chickens, and dogs; a chop bar where waakye and fula are offered; seasonings such as suya powder; and shops selling shoes and perfumes). A scientist, Baitie was an avid reader in school and writes novels for pre- and teenagers that accurately depict varied life in her country without sensationalizing hardship or deprivation. She has received both the Burt Award for African literature (twice) and Macmillan Prize for Africa. I highly recommend this excellent novel, which reflects a specific location and culture but also contains universal appeal.
Reviewed by Barbara A. Lehman, Professor Emeritus, Ohio State University
Published in Africa Access Review (August 26, 2021)
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