Child Soldier

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Child Soldier By (author) China KeitetsiWhat is it about misery that makes for such compelling reading? Tales of miserable childhoods fill the shelves of the nation’s bookshelves. Remember ‘Angela’s Ashes’, filled with grubby little Irish children picking coal off the streets and drinking their tea out of jam jars? Or Dave Peltzer kicking off a glut of impassioned shock-lit, stuffed full of physical, mental and sexual abuse, each book striving to be more shocking than the one before? It reminds those of us old enough to remember of the Monty Python sketch in which a bunch of northerners compete over who had the worst childhood – “We were so poor we lived in a paper bag at the bottom of a lake!”

These books all cry out “My mum/dad/gran/school/priest/social worker treated me worse than a dog …… but I’m a survivor” and the public laps them up in a frenzy of voyeuristic fascination. How many autobiographies can you think of about happy childhoods? I can’t think of any but then I don’t suppose “My mum and dad were fantastic and my childhood was full of love and comfort” shifts the mountains of paperbacks that publishers are looking to sell.

‘Child Soldier’ takes the misery shock-lit genre in an international direction and to a level that our home-grown ‘crap-childhood’ writers could only have nightmares about. It should be fascinating, it could be fascinating, but having just finished this book I can entirely understand why I found it for just £1.99 in a remaindered book store, marked down from its cover price of £18.99. I wanted to like it – honest I did – and I was genuinely interested to know more about the life of child soldiers but there’s no hiding the conclusion that years of skipping school and fighting left the author singularly unqualified to write a compelling or readable autobiography and desperately in need of a good ghost writer and some tougher editing.

China Keitetsi was born in Uganda, and ‘brought up’ (in the loosest sense of the word) by a violent father and a manipulative and deceitful step-mother. She ran away to find her real mother but was so scared that her mother and her neighbours would ‘eat her’ that she ran away again, finding herself ‘co-opted’ into the National Resistance Army of M.V. Museveni. All of this by the age of eight! The army exploited small children as fully fledged and extremely obedient soldiers, using them to trick their enemies, and training them as frighteningly loyal body-guards. By becoming the family that these children lacked, the NRA instilled a shocking degree of compliance amongst the child soldiers who soon became hardened to the reality of death and destruction.

Girl soldiers were also exploited sexually by their officers and China had been repeatedly raped long before reaching sexual maturity, sometimes developing bizarre feelings for her exploiters. She becomes head body-guard to an NRA government minister who rapes her every night at 9 pm but despite this, can’t bring herself to betray him when he’s arrested for government crimes. Eventually, and by the most circuitous of routes, China escapes from Uganda and becomes a refugee in Denmark and an international spokesperson and campaigner for the rights and protection of child soldiers.

“China’s story really needed effective editing because the way it’s presented takes a fascinating life and makes it into a very poor tale.”

Now then, if you are thinking that’s all bit too much plot let me just say that nothing above goes beyond what’s written in the cover synopsis. And maybe that’s part of the problem – the introduction, the dedication and the synopsis give away so much plot that there are few surprises left to the reader. We know before we open the first page that she will have a child by another soldier, that she will leave that child behind, that she’ll go to Denmark, become a spokesperson for the plight of child soldiers and meet a bunch of leading politicians. To be honest, if you just read the cover and the dedication you could pretty much skip the rest of the book. For me the biggest surprise was having to plough through 112 pages (out of a total of 272) before the author even mentions the army. Considering the title was ‘Child Soldier‘, I thought this was a bit too much scene-setting.

If you are looking for an “eye-witness account” of life in the NRA as promised in the cover blurb, you will struggle to find it here. Keitetsi is just not capable of describing her experiences in a compelling way. She flits between the significant and the mundane without any filtering of what is and isn’t important (or for that matter, what is or isn’t interesting). We really can’t tell what order things are happening – for example we learn she’s pregnant but up to that point she hasn’t mentioned she was in a relationship so it comes as a surprise. Then a lot later in the book, long after her baby’s birth, she’s writing again about being pregnant but we learn nothing of whether it’s actually the same pregnancy as before or if it’s not, the whole story of that possibly second pregnancy is just left hanging.

I can understand why the story is such a muddle because I know that if someone asked me to recall my childhood it wouldn’t come out in any structured or prioritised flow of information. I would produce a largely incoherent babble of what I remembered but I wouldn’t expect anyone to pay to read it. China’s story really needed effective editing because the way it’s presented takes a fascinating life and makes it into a very poor tale.

This book is painful to read – but sadly it’s not the shock-value of the writer’s experience that causes that pain; it’s the rambling incoherence and inconsistent attempts at pseudo-patois that make it such a drag. China grew up speaking a local Ugandan language, moved to Denmark and presumably learned Danish, so why do we get subjected to this weird form of English where the odd sentence structures serve not to give a sense of authenticity and original ‘voice’? Instead the odd language just distracted me from the story being told. Here’s an extract where China writes about seeing a witchdoctor;

“Before he began to tell me of what had brought me there, he spit on the money and all that I said was “yes…yes…yes’, and at that time I was baffled of his incredible accuracy”.

China today is still a young woman and her campaigning for the rights of child soldiers the world over is undoubtedly important work. I’ve read other accounts of child soldiers in Africa and been intensely moved by the plight of them and their families but this book was a disappointment. It’s also a shame we don’t learn anything about China’s life and work after her escape because the book ends shortly after she reaches Denmark. If you want to read one book on this topic, my recommendation is to go for well-written fiction – such as Moses, Citizen and Me by Delia Jarrett-Macauley (set in Sierra Leone) – rather than well-meaning but badly composed fiction.


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Child Soldier
by China Keitetsi

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Written by koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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