CM . . .
. Volume XI Number 1 . . . . September 3, 2004
Thirteen-year-old Binti lives with her older brother Kwasi, her older sister Junie and her father, a coffin maker, in Blantyre, Malawi's largest city. Her mother has been dead for six years. Binti is a child actor in a radio play called "Gogo's Family" that is popular throughout Malawi. Although she has some family and business responsibilities in her father's business, The Heaven Shop, Binti is a typical, self-centred child who is stunned by her father's sudden death from AIDS. Swept away to other cities by her self-righteous, obligated aunts and uncles, Binti and Junie are separated from Kwasi and treated like indentured servants, their money, belongings and self-esteem stolen. Junie's fiancé's family forces him to break off the engagement because Junie's family has been "tainted by AIDS." Junie has to leave school. She turns to prostitution and sends Binti to live with their grandmother in Mulange where her gogo is looking after a group of young children and babies all of whom are homeless and parentless due to AIDS. Here, Binti learns that she can go cold and hungry, that she can work tirelessly and that she can comfort others. Memory, one of Gogo's orphans, is the same age as Binti. She has been raped by an HIV positive friend of her uncle, as many men believe that sex with a virgin will cure AIDS. Both Memory and her child, Beauty, have AIDS. Jeremiah, an HIV positive young man, helps Binti to find Junie (now HIV positive) and Kwasi. The four young people carry on Gogo's work after her death and begin a profitable coffin business.
Binti is a strong character who grows considerably through the struggles she faces. An educated girl attending a private school, Binti looks forward to a positive, productive future, maybe even fame as a well-known actress. When her world comes crashing down around her, Binti gathers her courage up, abandons pretense and privilege and adapts to gruelling physical work and sacrifice. Binti seems like a young, innocent 13-year-old. Although warnings about AIDS surround her - there is an Anti-AIDS club at school - she is bewildered by the information she finds out about AIDS at the hospital where she takes her father, and she doesn't seem to understand that Junie has become a prostitute. She is unprepared for menstruation even as she takes on adult responsibilities.
Both Junie, with her sarcastic, sharp tongue, born of having to take on her mother's role at the age of ten, and Kwasi, a dreamy, artistic sensitive boy, seem more realistic and will appeal more to readers who may reject Binti's initial childish voice. Friendly neighbour Mr. Taska, the doctor in the hospital, and Jeremiah the AIDS peer counsellor, all "tell" the reader much about AIDS that sometimes seems too didactic. More convincing are the suspicious, uneducated aunts and uncles, the angry, long-suffering Memory and the brave, gentle Gogo, who deal the best they can with the roles they have been given in life.
Present-day Malawi comes alive for the reader as children sell candy out of cardboard boxes on the side of the road, second hand clothing from America is sold from stalls, and Binti sweeps wood chips into a corner of their yard where someone who needs fuel will come to get them in the night. The public hospital is a harrowing warren of patients packed into every available bed and even lying on the floor between beds. In Lilongwe, people are washing clothes in the river and evening light is provided by oil lantern. In the country near Mulanje, people live in clay huts with grass roots. Binti constructs coffins of reed grasses before she has access to lumber. The hungry orphans of the Orphan Club eat from huge pots of nsumi and beans and squat over a hole for a toilet. There is no soap for hand or clothes washing. The world of Africa jumps off the page and into the reader's heart.
The theme of looking after each other is stressed throughout the novel. Mr. Taska, a business rival of Binti's father, and Mr. Wajiru, the radio play director, do everything they can to help Binti and her siblings. The stressed aunts and uncles see disobedience everywhere and don't have the strength or education to be compassionate. Consequently, they can't gain Binti's love or confidence. Jeremiah and Gogo welcome Binti unconditionally, expect her co-operation, and address her anxiety over her brother and sister. The community at Mulanje works together to feed the orphans. Ellis is dedicated to reducing the suffering of the world's children, and she believes that young readers of her books will not tolerate in the future the social conditions that swamp Africa today.
The topic of HIV/AIDS is totally connected to sexuality. This makes it difficult to address for a young intended audience. AIDS is not a gay disease. Everyone, of all ages and both genders, is susceptible. Although the schools Anti-AIDS club ends their play with a 'Virgin Power" chant, and Jeremiah carries condoms as part of his HIV/AIDS education kit, Ellis uses many euphemisms to soften the question of how AIDS is spread. Junie tells Binti that she has been given money by men because she is "nice to them." Memory has AIDS because her uncle's friend forced her to "go with him as if she was his wife." Junie "entertains truck drivers," and "men pay more if she doesn't make them use a condom." Junie's and Jeremiah's eventual illness and deaths are not addressed. This implied approach and Binti's child-like behaviour place this short novel in the hands of younger middle school students with whom parents and teachers will have to be prepared to take, as Ellis has, a very simple, straightforward, activist approach to the discussion of HIV/AIDS that will surely evolve from any reading of The Heaven Shop. Older middle school students will easily be able to read between the lines and may indeed feel that Ellis has not been frank enough. Ellis walks a thin fine line between informing readers about the horror of a society that is reeling from a pandemic, and building compelling characters that inexorably draw the readers into the life of Africa.
Joan Marshall is the teacher-librarian at Fort Richmond Collegiate in Winnipeg, MB.
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