Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Eritrea: Heart of Fire, by Senait Mehari

This memoir bears a subtitle on the cover: "From child soldier to soul singer". This slightly over-hyped subtitle is, in part, what has led to controversy over the book, as various commenters have pointed out that the author was never a child soldier. She did not in fact, claim that she herself fought in battles. She did however write an account of her childhood in which she was abandoned at birth by a mentally distressed mother, raised in orphanages for several years until her paternal grandparents fetched her back, and then went to live with her father and his third wife.

When she was six, her father sent her along with her two elder half-sisters, to a camp of the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). They had been fighting in a civil war against Ethiopia, in a battle for Eritrea's independence. However by this stage they were fighting more against another Eritrean group, the EPLF, as the two groups contended for power within Eritrea.

The younger children in the camp did not have to fight, but they did do a lot of the hard work in the camp, and were also taught to carry and fire guns. Things did not go well for the ELF, and eventually Senait's uncle managed to rescue her and her sisters, and took them to live with him in Sudan, before her father, now living in Germany, sent for the girls.

Senait did not get on well with her father and at the age of fourteen left home to live on the streets. The memoir continues on to describe how she managed to teach herself music and become a recording artist.

I found it hard to decide for myself how much of the controversy over the book may in fact be correct, and how much may be the result of certain interest groups not wanting to admit that child soldiers did in fact exist. It is entirely possible of course that there are errors in the book even without the deliberate intent to exaggerate - after all, I would have to say that my recollections of events that took place when I was six years old would not be entirely accurate, even without the complicating factor of trauma to overcome. Then, in order to make a coherent story from a chaotic set of recollections, facts may have been manipulated slightly to align better with each other. I cannot believe though, that the story was entirely fabricated - there must be at least a good proportion of truth in there.

At any rate, I found it to be fascinating reading, and I learnt a good deal about the recent history of Eritrea, and its independence from Ethiopia. And incidentally, I found that one doesn't have to be white to have racist attitudes - Senait's mother was Ethiopian while her father was Eritrean, and apparently the darker skinned Ethiopians were looked down on by the lighter skinned Eritreans (and the Sudanese in the story, who were mostly Moslem, taunted the Eritreans, who were not only of a different skin tone, but also did not dress in a suitably modest manner).

Heart of Fire was translated from German and published in London by Profile Books in 2006. (I have returned the book to the library and didn't, unfortunately, note the name of the translator)