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Tiny Sunbirds Far Away

by Christie Watson

Born storyteller that she is, Christie Watson steps directly into her narrative, and, taking her reader by the hand, casts a spell that lies unbroken until the last page of her book, and her reader, bewitched, is transported into another world.

TINY SUNBIRDS FAR AWAY tells the story of Blessing, the Lagos born daughter of a rich Yoruba father and an Ijam mother (which almost amounts to being of mixed race in the hidebound taboos and tribalism of Nigeria). From her window on the fourth floor of a gated apartment block called Better Life Executive Homes she watches traders in the street below carry brightly coloured baskets balanced on their heads selling flip-flops, batteries, Schnapps, shoe horns, St. Michaels underwear, imported copies of Hello!, oranges, bush meat, alarm clocks and Gucci handbags.

Blessing and her asthmatic older brother Ezikiel, aged twelve and fourteen, attend the International School for Future Leaders, with its air-conditioning, polished floors and wide games field; a fountain plays in the courtyard, and the lavatories are well appointed, marble floored and spotless. Ezikiel belongs to the Chess Society, the Latin Club and the Science Club. He is determined on becoming a doctor. They both adore their indulgent father whose loud voice can sometimes be heard singing when he returns from the Everlasting Open Arms of Salvation Church. His driver and Pastor King Junior usually have to carry him to the apartment because he is too drunk to walk by himself.

But one bright day Mama discovers Father in bed with another woman, for whom he subsequently leaves Mama. Unable to afford to live in the city without Father, she takes them to live with her parents in her home village of Warra in the Niger Delta. Here the river is thickly polluted with oil spills, water has to be carried from a stand pipe in the next village, and there is no electricity or street lighting. The family compound is shared with Grandfather's driver, whose four wives and seventeen children are regarded almost as family, a more or less adopted orphan, Grandma, and later Grandfather's junior wife, and, later, her twin boys. The lavatories are a row of soakaways coated with bluebottles. Blessing and Ezikiel are sent to school a few miles away. Outside is a rusty sign: "Holy Ghost Secondary School: Strive For Excellence".It has earth floors, no chairs or desks, no air-conditioning, no water, and the lavatories make those in the compound seem luxurious by comparison.

Yet the Niger Delta is really a very beautiful land, with extraordinary flowers and trees and wildlife which are dying from air and water pollution and environmental devastation. Its people are very proud and resilient. It is a place of laughter and music and passionate family affection. But most people in the Delta live on less than a dollar a day and enjoy nothing of the enormous wealth generated by the oil wells. Many villagers have no access to schools, health care or clean water. Asthma, cancer and birth deformities caused by heavy oil spills, and gas flaring and are common. Villagers live with the threat of violence, rape and death, the mobile police service is constantly open to bribery, is extremely brutal and is known locally as "Kill and Go". Ethnic and religious groups are covertly armed by the oil companies and provoked into conflict; tribal quarrels flourish unresolved. Due to lack of education family planning is unknown and female circumcision is still carried out on fifty per cent of girls in rural areas.

Blessing and Ezekiel, city born and bred, respond quite differently from one another to surroundings which are as foreign to them as it would be to most Westerners.

Christie Watson tells their story, sometimes with laughter and at times with bitter tears, but always with honesty. It is a fascinating, fast moving story that captivates the reader to the very last page.

Paula McMaster

Published by Quercus - 352pp

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