How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue: A review
As I was reading this book, something kept niggling in the back of my mind. It reminded me of something else I had read, but I couldn't quite bring it forward. But finally, it came to me; it was The Constant Gardener by John le Carré. That book detailed the exploitation of an African country and its population by a pharmaceutical company. This present book details exploitation by an oil company. Different kinds of companies but the lack of regard for humanity was something I found quite similar.
The country in this book is never actually named. The author was born in Cameroon and grew up in a coastal town in that country but later went to college in the United States and is now an American citizen living in New York. Though she doesn't name the country, the fictional village she writes about is called Kosawa. In that village lives a young girl named Thula and her family. It is through Thula that we experience the traumatic events affecting her village.
An American oil company is drilling for oil near their village and that process is poisoning their air, water, and soil. The river that they depend on has turned to sludge. The soil will no longer grow the food they need. Worst of all, their children are dying, having been poisoned simply by breathing the air and drinking the water. Thula's younger brother, Juba "dies" but is brought back to life in his father's arms by the village's twin healers. Following this experience, Thula's father determines to go to the capital city to speak with authorities there and bring the condition of the village to their attention, even though village leaders have been attempting to do that for years. He and a few other men from the village make the trip. They are never seen again and their families cannot learn what has happened to their loved ones. Thula, her mother, and her brother are devastated. There is no response from the government.
An NGO takes an interest in the village's plight and attempts to negotiate with the oil company to improve things. They also work to provide education for the children. Thula is a gifted child who elicits their particular interest. They arrange for her to attend better schools where she impresses her teachers and when she reaches college age, she is sent to America, to New York to attend college.
During all these intervening years, the children of Kosawa have continued dying prematurely and Thula and her age group have become activists to try to force change. From New York, she continues advising her friends back home regarding their actions and sending them money whenever she can to help finance their activities.
Mbue not only tells her story from the side of the villagers, she also explores the lives of the men who work for the oil company. These are local men from other surrounding villages who are just trying to provide for their families and secure a better life for them. Even though they are doing the work that is despoiling the land and degrading the environment, are they the enemy? The company's executive officers are actually the ones profiting from this and it is they who could change the operations of the company. They choose not to.
Again, as I read this book, I was reminded of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests and other similar environmental actions. Sadly, the country described by Mbue is governed by an authoritarian regime that has little interest in responding to populist actions. It is a tragic story that the reader feels instinctively is going to end badly for all. It is, in fact, the all too familiar story of so many parts of the world today.
Mbue is a brilliant writer. She writes this difficult narrative in a very straightforward manner with prose that goes straight to the heart. The story of Thula and her transformation from village girl to movement leader and her ultimate fate is one that will stay with me. Although there was much that depressed me about the chronicle, I am very glad I read it. I think you might be, too.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars