Children of war

For years, the west saw Africa as a distant "hell" of coups, refugees and revolutions. But its write

What Is the What, Dave Eggers, Hamish Hamilton, 480pp, £18.99

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, Ishmael Beah, Fourth Estate, 229pp, £14.99

Burma Boy, Biyi Bandele, Jonathan Cape, 212pp, £12.99

As an African writer whose work centres primarily on the lives of African characters displaced and damaged by coups, wars and the subsequent migration they inspire, I've learned to develop what sometimes feels like an overly vigilant and critical eye for any misrepresentation of the continent I was born in and then fled as a child. Like almost all Africans living in the west, I've seen our homes and countries either ignored or depicted in the simplest terms: the words "hell" and "horrific" all too often serve as the starting point for a narrative. Reading books and essays by foreign correspondents and academics, I wait to shrink back in frustration or fling them away. I abhor the word "save", especially when used in the infinitive, as in "to save Africa", because of the historical ignorance it implies.

Until recently there was little to be said or done about this, so few African books were making their way into the western world. The explosion of violence that began three decades ago had muzzled the continent. The lights dimmed and, to the west, Africa became once again little more than the dark continent - a landscape riddled with wars and exploited by postcolonial powers. Growing up in the United States, I was acutely aware of how everything I saw and heard about my native Ethiopia was being translated and interpreted by a voice that, far too often, knew very little and cared even less. From famines to the various coups, civil wars and genocides, the bodies amassed around the continent. We died by the millions, and with the exception of a handful of thoughtful accounts by western journalists, little was said and done from the outside, and even less was uttered out loud from within. Conflicts that were created and sustained by cold war alliances and the deliberate manipulation of resources by a handful of men were reduced to age-old - and therefore inevitable - consequences of "tribal allegiances".

The shift from the days when the standard axiom in publishing was that books about Africa, regardless of how well they were executed, simply do not sell, to the current critical acclaim and attention, has been sudden and drastic. The past few years have been significant for African writers. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel Half of a Yellow Sun has become the international success it deserves to be. Ishmael Beah's memoir, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, which tells the story of how the violence during Sierra Leone's civil war transformed Beah from a 12-year-old boy in love with rap music into a soldier who fights and kills through a haze of drugs, reached the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Beah's memoir - along with What Is the What, Dave Eggers's novelisation of the experiences of one of Sudan's Lost Boys, and Burma Boy, Biyi Bandele's historical novel about the African soldiers who fought in Burma during the Second World War - has brought to life the overlooked and forgotten stories of the children who fought and died in some of the world's worst conflicts.

On the surface, these three narratives are linked by their depictions of war through the eyes of children. But to reduce any one of them to the "harrowing" or "heartbreaking" terminology that springs seemingly a priori from the critics' mouths is to slip back into the reductive discourse that relies on brutal shorthand to discuss Africa. As Bandele's haunting and funny book makes clear, there is nothing new about child soldiers. Children have picked up weapons and been forced to run from those who want to drag them into war for as long as wars have existed. Burma Boy centres on the experiences of a small group of West African soldiers from Nigeria who have responded to "Kingi Joji's call" to come to Asia and kill the "Janpani". The hero of Bandele's novel, Ali Banana, is only 14 at the start of the campaign, and it's primarily through his eyes that we see both the folly and the love that war breeds among boys pretending to be men. Of course, child soldiers can be found not only in Africa, but also throughout Asia, from Afghanistan to Thailand. What attracts immediate and superficial attention to Africa's child soldiers, however, is that the brutal existence of a child soldier dovetails neatly with depictions of Africa both as a place born of hell and misery and as a continent that, like a child, can be saved. These three books succeed not only in taking on a difficult subject, but in capturing characters who are agonisingly real, and therefore more than just tragic ciphers waiting to be rescued.

Early in What Is the What, the central character, Valentino Achak Deng, recalls the mental approach he takes to every slight and wrong inflicted upon him since he arrived in America. The novel is Eggers's fictionalised retelling of Deng's true-life journey from his village in southern Sudan to a refugee camp in Ethiopia and finally to Atlanta, Georgia. The journey is marked by death and Deng's acute sense of suffering and mourning for those who have already been lost. It's these stories that Deng carries with him; when someone harms him now, he steadies and braces himself by silently saying, "You would not add to my suffering if you knew what I had seen." It's a spare and eloquent line made all the more beautiful by what follows next. "I would continue my stories," Deng says, "talking to the air, the sky, to all the people of the world and whoever might be listening in heaven. It is wrong to say that I used to tell these stories. I still do . . . The stories emanate from me all the time I am awake and breathing, and I want everyone to hear them."

Until recently, however, no one was hearing those stories in full: neither Deng's nor Beah's, and certainly not those of Bandele's Burma Boy, who fought and, in many cases, died six decades ago in silence. The consequences of not knowing or ignoring these narratives stretch across space and time. After surviving forced conscription and war, and the equally difficult challenge of reclaiming his identity in a rehabilitation centre for child soldiers, Beah stands bewildered before a US customs agent who asks if he has a bank account before granting him a visa. The incident illustrates how the political indifference with which most of Africa's conflicts have been treated has contributed to the longe vity and brutality of the wars that both Deng and Beah survived. It's the not knowing, the deliberate closing of the eyes and ears to all but the simplest explanations, that has allowed for decade after decade of irresponsible aid and a shameful lack of military and political intervention.

During a recent panel conversation with Beah and myself, someone in the audience asked him about the UK's intervention in ending Sierra Leone's civil war. Roughly 500 British soldiers were able to help bring that war to a sudden and dramatic halt, and while Beah pointed out the obvious gratitude for the UK support, he also pointed to the equally obvious question that lingered: why didn't it happen earlier? Similarly, the war in southern Sudan that drove Deng from his home began in 1986. It ended in 2005 with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which was largely brought about through international pressure. What is surprising and shocking about the sudden glut of international attention given to Africa isn't its existence, but that it took so long to take shape.

Narratives are the bastard children of war - the indirect and necessary products of violence. In the absence of a narrative voice, we are left only with anecdotes, body counts and haunting images that we can never fully explain. Africa has had enough of these. What Is the What, with its slow and humane depiction of the causes of Sudan's civil war, is not only a remarkable novel, but proof that the simple act of listening can reveal whole worlds to us. These books are long overdue and desperately needed. While, as a writer, I know better than to believe narrative alone can change the way our nations respond to each other, I do believe, however irrationally, that it's harder to say that our lives are "hell" and that our conflicts are unavoidable when the truth is sitting right in front of you.

Dinaw Mengestu's "Children of the Revolution" is published by Jonathan Cape (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New Britain - The country Brown inherits