Book review: Harmattan by Gavin Weston

There’s an ill-wind blowing through the troubled Republic of Niger... and it’s not just the dry, dusty, damaging Harmattan breeze that sweeps in from the Sahara across West Africa.

Gavin Weston’s heart-rending debut novel, inspired by his personal experiences as an aid worker and child sponsor, opens a window onto another world; a harsh, forbidding lanscape where political and civil strife is a way of life, Aids is the principal way of death and children are victims of both.

During his stint as a relief worker in Niger in the late 1980s, Weston witnessed the terrible privations of sub-Saharan Africa but it wasn’t so much the grinding poverty that shocked him as the emotive issue of child-marriage.

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As a tribute to the young victims, and particularly the young Nigerien girl sponsored by Weston and his family when he returned to his native Northern Ireland and who abruptly stopped corresponding with them when she was married off at 12, he put pen to paper.

Harmattan, the story of Haoua, a spirited and intelligent girl growing up in a remote village in Niger and facing the kind of odds that are unimaginable in the West, is a truly emotional reading experience, a moving and brutally honest account of poverty, sickness, oppression and shattered dreams.

Eleven-year-old Haoua Boureima lives in the remote village of Wadata in Niger where her father grows millet and sorghum and her mother is a housekeeper. She has a stable home life and a loving and attentive mother, and enjoys working and playing with her brother, sister and their friends.

Haoua is one of the village’s lucky children. Her schooling is being paid for by her sponsor family, Neil Boyd, his wife and twin daughters Katie and Hope from Co Down who are the same age as Haoua. Their photographs and postcards give her a tantalising glimpse of another world, one which she has slowly started to believe could be hers through her dreams of becoming a teacher.

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Haoua’s father, entrenched in age-old traditions, disapproves. ‘Educated girls argue with their parents,’ he tells her, but Haoua has an older brother, Abdelkrim, a serving soldier who sends money home to support the family and is a progressive thinker.

When Abdelkrim comes home on leave, the family’s humdrum existence is turned upside down. He has a bitter quarrel with their father, accusing him of gambling away the money he sends and of being the cause of their mother’s worsening health.

‘Your ways are no longer my ways,’ he tells his angry father who, it emerges, is planning to take a second wife.

And for Haoua, there are new storm clouds on the horizon. As civil strife mounts in Niger, she begins to fear for Abdelkrim’s safety, her mother’s illness is much more serious and further advanced than anyone had recognised, and her father’s plans are turning out to be far more threatening than she could have ever imagined.

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Approaching her 12th birthday, Haoua is alone and vulnerable for the first time in her life...

Niger’s unforgiving landscape with its parched earth, searing heat and vast palette of colour is beautifully evoked but just as powerful are the raw descriptions of Haoua’s broken life... her challenges, her traumas, her terrible losses and the dreadful destiny shared by so many young girls.

Haoua’s plight is made even more moving by the contrast to the lives of the Irish twins whose comfortable existence in the West is a far cry from the realities of everyday life in Niger.

Weston weaves a brilliantly detailed and dramatic story full of haunting images and unforgettable characters... a vivid and visceral reminder that for some, the promised land is still a distant country.

(Myrmidon Books, paperback, £8.99)