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Stella Gaitano: رواح إدو (Edo’s Souls)

This is apparently the first novel from South Sudan to be translated into English and a very fine novel it is. Edo may have the book named after her and she does occasionally appear throughout the book, even after she has died and her influence remains throughout the book but she is not really the main character.

Edo did not have a happy life. She had ten children and only one made it to their first birthday, the others all dying not long after their birth. This was, of course devastating for Edo, so much so that, on one occasion she locked herself in a room with the dead baby and tried to revive it by feeding it. Her friends had to drag her out and bury the unfortunate child.

The one child that survived did not have a happy childhood. Her mother was convinced that she was about to die and either ignored her or treated her badly as she did not want to become too attached to a child who was going to die in the not too distant future. Her friends advised Edo to give the child a horrible name, as that would scare Death off, so she named her Eghino, which means one who defecates a lot. Naturally this did not make life easy for the poor girl.

Edo herself was bitter. She has a score to settle with God for taking away all her children. Everyone knew she was good, pitiful, even wrong in the head at times. She took up causes. For example, it was the tradition that if a man murdered someone, the victim’s family could take his sister as compensation. The sister more or less became their slave, while the murderer wandered around scot-free. Edo got this changed. She helped her friends. For example one friend has children who constantly wet the bed. Edo came up with a solution involving toads. She helped other friends with domestic problems. Using her devious intelligence, Edo initiated many secret matters without anyone being the wiser. To them, she was nothing more than a hapless woman, whose soul had been consumed by grief, and owing to straitened circumstances, her mind lost.

Edo, as mentioned, took little care of her daughter but the villagers did. She helped them so much that soon Eghino was not only no longer shameful but a name to proudly bear and other girls adopted it. However Edo became a better mother when Eghino fell from a tree and Edo was furious with Death for not keeping to his side of the bargain. Edo rescued her daughter and cared for her.

Eghino and her mother went to the newly arrived Christian missionaries. Many took Christian names which they added to their African names so, for example, Edo became Maria-Edo. Eghino, however, became Lucy and dropped the Eghino.

One day, Edo decided Lucy was old enough to marry and that she was no longer needed as a mother. She announced that she was going to die, went to her hut, and died. At the funeral, Lucy met Marco and while the funeral ceremony was going on, the pair consummated their love. Marco chose Lucy because she was peculiar and took life by the reins.

However civil war broke out and young men got involved. Most young men became collaborators, paid informers or soldiers. Marco decides it is time to flee with Lucy and their baby and we follow their very difficult travels first to Juba and then to Khartoum.

Lucy finds it difficult to adapt to the big city. They do things differently there. People are strange. They talk a different language. They have strange customs such as running water in the house.She and Marco are staying with friends of Marco and there are issues there. However she soon gets very serious about being a mother. She does not want her children to go to school (her schooling lasted one day) but is persuaded otherwise. With the arrival of each child Lucy was reborn, becoming more feminine, more mature, more beautiful and more experienced – her motherly instinct to protect grew with each child.

For the rest of the book we follow we follow a series of first-person narrations. These are told by Lucy and Marco, by Peter and Theresa, the couple they are staying with and by Jalaa, Peter’s foster-sister. Peter had been brought up by Baba Abdelsalaam. His father had disappeared – we later learn of his fate – and his mother had disappeared, though he never looks for her. Baba and his wife had only daughters, including the oldest, Jalaa, whom we only meet well into the book, and Tahiya with whom Peter nearly has a fling, which ends badly, not least because Tahiya and her mother turn against him

Marco and Peter are very close, so much so that Peter feels he cannot do without Marco. However, initially, Theresa and Lucy are not. Theresa hugely exploits Lucy, treating her as a servant and when Peter finds out he throws Theresa out, though all are later reconciled, though not before Lucy threatens to return home on many occasions. Lucy is a mother. It is what she enjoys, helping even to mother Theresa’s children. Some people see me as obsessed with being pregnant, while others grumble that Marco is forcing me to keep having children because he’s an only child, but they don’t understand or even know about the mission. My mother has trusted to me. The mission, of course, is for her to have lots of children and for those children to survive.

Peter had left home when things became difficult with Tahiya and his foster mother and he enrolled in the military academy. He is now a soldier but with the ever more difficult situation in Sudan, he does not have an easy life. Marco does get a job and he seems happy enough.

This is a feminist novel. As a child Peter inadvertently witnesses one of his foster sisters undergoing genital mutilation and he is, not surprisingly, horrified. Jalaa, whom we only meet later in the book, has become a crusading lawyer for women’s rights, helping women, particularity prostitutes and, of course criticising genital mutilation.

However, there is a background to all of these events – the situation in Sudan as South Sudan moves to break away. One of the main differences between the North and the South is religion. The North is Muslim and the South partially Christian and partially indigenous religions. Initially, despite genital mutilation the North is relatively relaxed about behaviour. For example, alcohol is tolerated. However as things get worse, the system becomes more strict, e.g. flogging and mutilation as punishments. Southerners coming North found themselves forcibly converted to Islam, including a name change. One man was circumcised and his family assumed his entire penis had been cut off.

When things get worse,things get more difficult for our protagonists. Peter is already caught up between rival factions in the army and he will eventually have to flee. Lucy tries to return to her village but finds things have changed a lot and, as she is fearful for the safety of her children, soon returns to Khartoum. Jalaa and her boyfriend also face difficulties.

This is quite a complicated novel. We are dealing with the Sudan Civil War and the differences between the South and the North. We follow the stories of several interrelated characters, whose relationships with one another are not always smooth. Peter and his foster family, for example, clash more than once. We see feminist issues as being key, particularly though certainly not only as regards the role of women in Muslim society. We also learn a lot about the culture of the two Sudans. Gaitano tells her story very well and a complex, well-written novel from South Sudan is most welcome.

Publishing history

First published in 2018 by Rafiqi
First English publication in 2023 by Dedalus Books
Translated by Sawad Hussain