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Viewed through the eyes of a young boy, Benedict and his family's new home in Swaziland is a wonderful place. The garden is teeming with fascinating beasts and beautiful plants and this 10-year old boy is mesmerized by the creatures on his door step. The young naturalist is almost able to forget that his place in the family has changed and it seems less important that he's rather lonely. His elder sister is playing with his new sister, his younger brother with his new brother. Benedict is still the one in the middle but he's now in the middle of five children rather than in the middle of three. Most cumbersome is his position as eldest son, a responsibility that he's not entirely sure he likes or wants. It means he's constantly anxious, trying to help, trying to put things right. He's worried that his new Mama's cake baking business isn't going well because as a foreigner she's not really supposed to be working. He wants to find a way to bring in business but he also wants to find a distraction to give Mama something else to think about instead of her ailing business.
Benedict's Baba and Mama (father and mother) are new - or rather not entirely new because they used to be his grandparents. His new brother and sister are actually his cousins who - like him and his siblings - are orphans. At a time when his new Baba and Mama should be taking it easy and slowing down, easing into retirement, they're chasing around Africa to find consultancy contracts for Baba so he can support his five new children. This strange patchwork family might sound unlikely to readers outside Africa but it reflects the reality of life in countries where lives are taken cheaply and where AIDS has cut out whole generations, leaving grandparents to become parents to their orphaned grandchildren.
~Through the eyes of a child~
Through Benedict's eyes we see the beauty and the joy in a country that has the worst statistics for HIV and AIDS infection in the world. We see the gentle distractions of childhood - school projects, searching for treasure, hanging out with his friends - juxtaposed against shocking things happening to ordinary people. As adults we interpret illness as impending death from AIDS, we read of young people contemplating suicide, we wonder why the head master is keeping someone behind after school, and we watch Benedict's sisters learning about Swaziland traditions such as young girls advertising their virginity to the libidinous king in dancing festivals and others going over the border to get certificates to 'prove' their virginity.
Benedict's friends aren't the trendy kids at school but the other misfits and outsiders. There's the kid with the lisp, the young farmhand and his dog, the elderly Jewish mother of the mixed race couple from whom the family rent the house, and the people who run the local funeral home. But most of all Benedict wants to be friends with a girl at school, a girl who's not afraid of creepy crawlies, a girl who's willing to scatter the boys who are torturing a scorpion and rescue the critter but who's too frightened to tell anyone why she has to stay behind after school.
~Do you need to have read the first book?~
'When Hoopoes Go to Heaven' is the sequel to 'Baking Cakes in Kigali' which I haven't yet read so I can't make any comparisons although I can say that it's not at all necessary to have read the first book in order to make sense of the second.
At a superficial level this is a gentle tale of discovery and exploration, a tale of growing up as an outsider and having to find your way amongst new people. Benedict is a lovely character who readers can't help but find endearing but his story is a mechanism for the author to deliver strong messages on many of the harsh realities of life in Swaziland. We learn about the oddly feudal systems exercised by the royal family, that women have no rights and are considered legally as 'minors' just like children, that men can take multiple wives and if a woman disagrees, the man can force her into marriage.
~AIDS and sub-Saharan family life~
About 10 years ago a colleague from South Africa sent me a market research report from her country which showed that few people had pension plans but most had a saving scheme for their funeral. Something like 10% of people had been to a wedding in the previous 6 months but 80% had been to a funeral and almost everyone had lost family members. I also recall a radio programme saying that nobody in the area wanted to go on a diet for fear that weight loss would be misinterpreted as HIV infection. This was the backdrop by which I read this book and recognised the themes. The idea of a ten year old finding a business opportunity by hanging out with the undertakers could only come to a writer who knows the country she's writing about and Gaile Parkin knows her topic. Born in Zambia, she was educated in South Africa and the UK, has worked in many countries including Swaziland where this book is set and Rwanda where her first book 'Baking Cakes in Kigali' was situated. She's worked with the victims of genocide and counselled HIV and AIDS sufferers and their families. However, she's somehow managed to take the learnings of a life dealing with trauma and devastation and convert those experiences into a surprisingly gentle and warm-hearted story of family life. Many people who would not pick up a book that was overtly 'about' the legacy of AIDS will find 'When Hoopoes Go to Heaven' to be both entertaining and educational. You cannot help but 'learn' when the characters pull you into their lives.
If I had one criticism of this lovely book it would be that there's not a lot of real plot development. 'When Hoopoes go to Heaven' is more like an account of 'a year in the life of' Benedict rather than a story with a strong beginning, middle and end, and at times this lack of progression meant I lacked the sense of urgency to read on just to see what happened next since most of the time it was pretty much more of the same. It can be a bit plodding in places but it's still a lovely story which I recommend highly.
When Hoopoes Go to Heaven by Gaile Parkin
Published by Atlantic Books, February 2012
With thanks to the publisher for sending a review copy and to Curiousbookfans.co.uk for arranging to get me the book.
Just in case anyone doesn't know, a hoopoe is a bird, a bit like a colourful small woodpecker with a small crest on its head. The title refers to a dead bird that Benedict finds stuck on the front grill of the Funeral Directors' vehicle.