________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 17 . . . . April 18, 2008


Chanda’s Wars.

Allan Stratton.
Toronto, ON: HarperCollins, 2008.      
382 pp, pbk., $15.99.
ISBN 978-1-55468-025-2.

Grades 8-12 / Ages 13-17.

Review by Darleen Golke.

***½ /4

Reviewed from Uncorrected Proof.


What time is it? I don't know. Minutes could be hours; hours, minutes. I've stepped out of time.  Hypnotized by fear, like a mouse in front of a snake.

Every so often, children with machetes add new wood to the fire. Their eyes are sunken, as if peering from tiny caves. Their hair is matted with mud and straw. Mostly, they're dressed in rags; some of the girls in burlap maize sacks, seams split for arms and heads. Only a few have shoes. Others have sandals made of rubber tires, tied to their feet I'm not sure how. By sapling strips?  Nylon cord? The rest are barefoot. A lot of them hobble along on swollen feet.

Mandiki downs the end of a bottle. A boy takes it away, while a girl wipes his mouth with a cloth. He gives her bottom a slap, rise, and claps his hands. The group falls silent. Mandiki takes a cattle brand and sticks it in the fire. He grins through his mouth of dead men's teeth. "It's time to meet the new recruits."

The rebels, both adults and child soldiers, force the bound herd boys onto their knees in front of the flames. The child soldiers pull off their hoods, while the adults plan the barrels of their automatic rifles at the base of the herd boys' heads. The herd boys' faces are frozen in terror. Pako is thrown down beside them.

Mandiki stares into each of their eyes. "Don't think you can escape, he says quietly. "Don't think you can run home. If you ever try to leave my protection, you will be caught. And do you know what will happen then? You'll be held to the ground and chopped into bits. Your families too."

Silence, except for the crackling of the burning wood.

In the sequel to 2004's award winning Chanda's Secrets about the HIV crisis in Africa, Stratton returns to fictional Bonang and orphaned Chanda Kabele who struggles to keep her small family together after her mother dies from AIDS. The stress of caring for her siblings, six-year old Iris and five-year-old Soly; providing food, shelter, and care for their daily life; earning money as a replacement elementary school teacher; and grieving for her mother trigger nightmares that drain Chanda of what little energy remains at the end of each day. Her neighbour, a kindly busybody, urges her to visit her mother's family in Tiro; however, Chanda cannot forgive them for sending her mother to die alone in the bush because, like many Africans, they feared her illness and the stigma attached. Throughout the region, deaths are attributed to pneumonia, cancer, heart disease, tuberculosis - anything but AIDS. 

     Finally, Granny Thela calls, begging for a visit. Chanda agrees and, after being warmly welcomed by the Thela family, feels peaceful and forgiving until she learns the family intends to marry her to Nelson Malunga, the son of the neighbouring family. Years earlier, Chanda's mother had refused to marry into the Malunga clan, thereby bringing a perceived curse upon the Thelas. Chanda flatly refuses: "My home is in Bonang. I have a job. I have Soly and Iris to raise. And then I want to finish school . . . I have dreams." In her anger, she reveals a secret about the abused young Malunga child, Pako, who runs off, triggering events that significantly impact all of Tiro and area.

     A rebel group led by General Mandiki hides in Ngala's national park and comes out periodically to stage raids in an ongoing civil war in the region. The government's signing of a friendship treaty spurs Mandiki to launch attacks on selected areas around Tiro. Unfortunately, the government refuses to acknowledge the rebel raids, blaming poachers or bandits instead. "Investors fear instability," Chanda's mentor, Mr. Selalame explains: "Nobody wants peace. If Mandiki loses he'll be executed. But if Ngala wins, the foreign funds it gets to fight terrorism disappear. Its leaders need that cash to pay for their limos and mansions." On his raids, Mandiki "kidnaps children. He uses them as slaves, decoys, human shields. They become child soldiers. If they try to escape they're killed - kicked to death or chopped to bits with machetes," and Mandiki threatens to execute their families.

     Raiding in the Tiro area, Mandiki captures Pako and forces him to betray his family and his village. When Chanda and Nelson inadvertently stumble upon Mandiki's camp, they witness the brutal ceremony of branding captured children as well as Mandiki's control over Pako. That night, Mandiki attacks Tiro, rapes and murders villagers, burns buildings, ransacks the hospital and store for supplies, and kidnaps the children, among them Iris and Soly. Chanda resolves to rescue her siblings, and, with Nelson's knowledge of tracking and the bush, the pair manages to follow the rebels’ trail, locate the encampment, create an distraction, and, in the ensuing chaos, extract their siblings from Mandiki's control.

     Unfortunately, the children's brief imprisonment and exposure to the horrors they witness in the bush affect them profoundly. Back home in Bonang, Chanda struggles to help them recover. Not only are the children scarred physically by the branding, but they are also damaged psychologically by their forced participation in a massacre. Soly and Iris gradually recover; however, Pako does not and finds his own solution.

     In the Afterward, retired Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire addresses the plight of child soldiers "broken by adult wars they cannot hope to understand." Stratton explains children and youth are "forcibly recruited for combat in strife-torn regions of Africa, as they have been, and continue to be, in conflicts around the world." Chanda's first person narrative resonates with passion as she reveals her inner conflicts and fears against the backdrop of her country's problems.  Many references to the characters and events of Chanda's Secret slow the first part of the novel, but the pace picks up when the rebels enter the action. Chanda's determination to rescue her siblings, albeit somewhat implausible, speaks to her strength of character; however, she needs Nelson's bush skills to accomplish her goal. The specific descriptions of tracking techniques, animal behaviour, and village life testify to the depth of Stratton's research and his ongoing interest in the lives of Africans. He manipulates the plot to focus on how political actions impact the most vulnerable in society. Drunkenness, family conflict, rape, child abuse, superstition, cruelty, HIV, and the plight of child soldiers number among the issues raised in the novel. Graphic details of the brutality and the inhumane treatment of children powerfully emphasize the theme of man's inhumanity to man, but they may be disturbing to some younger readers. The hopeful conclusion suggests that love, courage, forgiveness, friendship, and family can help heal the deepest wounds.

     A Long Way From Home, Ishmael Beah's moving account of his experiences as a child soldier in Sierra Leone and his recovery from the trauma, might provide mature readers with further insight into this horrific abuse of children.

Highly Recommended.

Darleen Golke, a former teacher-librarian, lives in Abbotsford, BC.     

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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