Between Sisters – Adwoa Badoe

Ask a Ghanaian (adult) reader what books she read in her teens and she will list books by Enid Blyton, the Nancy Drew mysteries and Mill and Boon romance novels. Oh, and Tintin comics.  What you will not hear are books by Ghanaian and African writers.  There were very few books written for Ghanaian/African teenagers and young adults when I was growing up.  So, I skipped that crucial stage in my reading life and proceeded straight to “serious” African literature, since there were plenty of those books in my household.  The dearth of African YA literature persists.  But, the publication of Between Sisters (2010) mollifies our screams for redress.

This is the story of Gloria Bampo, a teenager who lives with her parents and sister, Effie, in a suburb of Accra.  The novel begins on the fateful day that  Gloria will receive  her Junior Secondary School (JSS) examination results.  Like numerous Ghanaian teenagers, these results will likely decide her entire future.

“Nii Tetteh, Kofi Andah, Gloria Bampo…” she (her teacher) called, checking our names off a list.
We made a single fine and walked up the corridor toward the office.  In our school we filed for everything!
We crowded around the notice board searching for our names.  I held back, almost too afraid to look.
There was my name, third on the list.  I was the first to fail.  Out of fifteen subjects I had failed thirteen, passing only needlework and art.

Gloria’s father has been unemployed for two years and her ailing mother supports the family on meager profits earned from selling medicinal herbs.  They cannot afford to pay for Gloria to re-take the JSS exams nor can they afford to enroll her in any vocational training.  It is decided, without any input from Gloria, that she will work as a nanny and a housekeeper for Christine, a medical doctor.  The set-up is presented as a living arrangement between ‘sisters’ even though there is no discernible relationship between Gloria and Christine.  Effie, always the bold and outspoken sibling, will not be fooled and says “only the poor give away their daughters like this”.

Gloria handles her duties well and adapts to Christine’s middle-class community of doctors and nurses. She is amiable and very quickly befriends some of the other teens in the community.  Her new BFF is Bea, a smart and ambitious girl who is neglected by her doctor father. Gloria and Simon, an older teen, form a youth band and a budding romance begins between the two. What happens to Gloria is nothing out of the ordinary.  Except she and Bea are attractive girls and older men begin to show interest in them; older men who are quite skilled in spotting a likely teenage prey.  In West Africa, we call these predators sugar daddies.  Their arsenal are their wealth and prestige.  It was alarming to watch a sugar daddy prey on Gloria but also heartening to see how she negotiates her life through this particular mess. Gloria is a strong and an amazing young woman.  She is very perceptive and brave.  Her ability to understand and articulate what is happening to her and around her is extraordinary.

It is clear that the author, Adwoa Badoe, intends for the reader to always question how a young girl such as Gloria ends up as a nanny and housekeeper.  Such an interrogation leads us back to Gloria’s education.  Gloria is a functional illiterate after spending nine years in Ghana’s educational system. No one has bothered to read to or with this child; not her teachers and certainly not her parents.  She was promoted year after year till she failed the first mandated national examinations.  This happens to thousands of Ghanaian children every year who if they are to further their education, will need an extraordinary intervention.  For Gloria, this intervention is Christine when the latter discovers Gloria’s problem.  Most children in Gloria’s situation are not so lucky.

The book is also critical of the practice of  unpaid housekeeping work when it is performed by young girls.  Christine is to pay for Gloria’s vocational training and in gratitude, Gloria works for free.  Christine admits to her husband that:

I don’t pay her.  I’ve taken over her upkeep and future education.

Her husband is not pleased with the arrangement but Christine defends herself, saying “we are like a family”.  To which her husband replies: “The operative word here is like, Christine.”

I could go on about all the issues that are interrogated in this short book. But I will stop here.  Adwoa Badoe, at the Accra launch of the West African edition of Between Sisters, admitted to using her writing to address social issues. And she has done that perfectly in this book.  We , in Ghana, are quite familiar with Gloria’s journey.  Most of us are either related to or we employed a girl like Gloria.  Adwoa Badoe is imploring us to do right by them.  To respect and uphold their human rights, especially their right to both a quality education and a protected and safe childhood.

So, is the book entertaining?  Absolutely.  It is well-written.  The language is simple but its meaning profound.  Urban Ghanaian life, with its sounds, sights and smells comes alive in this book. You will be crying and laughing with Gloria, who has a great voice and a strong point of view.  I am proud of this Ghanaian girl.  Now, all we need to do is get this book into the hands of young readers and of course, write more YA literature.  We have readers to grow!

Between Sisters is highly recommended.

( Amy Reads reviewed Between Sisters last during the first Ghanaian Literature Week. See also Buried In Print’s review)

(Review copy of book given to me by Smartline, the publishers of the West African edition.  The book is sold at Amazon and at The Book Depository.  In Ghana, check your local bookstore.  )

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19 comments

  1. Heyy! Do you know where I can find this book in Ghana? EPP doesn’t sell it… Wasn’t sure what you meant by ‘local book store’, as the local book stores have a weak selection of African novels 😦

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    • I think there might be copies at the Legon Bookstore. The local publisher is Smartline Publishing, located off the Spintex Road. They should have copies as well.

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  2. It was a book i initially picked to read not really knowing much about how it will interest me ,however, when i was through the first two chapters , i couldnt help but to finish .Really like the traditional feel: how she truely put up the traditional discriptions of situations and events, really perfect. Good work really

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    • Thanks for leaving a comment on my blog, Seth. Adwoa Badoe makes it look effortless, doesn’t she? Agree about her depictions; she captures those parts of Ghanaian society so accurately and realistically.

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  3. Adwoa’s intent is profound. I agree that many more of such books need be written but again also, many like Gloria must be found to read them!

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    • Yes, those like Gloria should read this book but that is the problem at the moment. The high rate of functional illiteracy among the youth in Ghana. We need to change this.

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  4. I think that writing to cover social issues is fine, as long as it is done in a way that flows well – and Badoe definitely manages that. Glad to see that you enjoyed the book. Like you I was interested reading about how the school system has failed.

    School systems are similar here in the remote Northern communities. It’s disheartening because I keep trying to convince my sister’s boyfriend’s little sisters that school is fun and they should do well and go on… but even if they do listen to me they will have to spend a year upgrading just to be eligible for universities. Sad to think of how children are being let down all over the world isn’t it?

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    • Yep, children are being let down all over the world. A crime really, given what we know about human development and education. Plus, really, underemployed or unemployed youth are a threat to national security and national stability. Frankly, I fail to see how my country Ghana hopes to really develop if a sizable portion of our population are functionally illiterate.

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  5. Have not read the book but your succinct review provides a useful vista. I share Adwoa’s idea of writing for national transformation. I do not share though her claim that the house help system in Ghana is necessarily evil and dark. Of course on occasion this system can be atrocious but this should not cast it as totally obnoxious. It think it served as a very useful social safety net for decades until we in Ghana got intoxicated by all this human rights discourse which we have not properly deconstructed.

    I think we should fine tune the system in order to barricade it against sadists and psychopaths while working hard in the long run to construct a more just and equitable society.

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    • She did not say that the house help system was evil. What she takes issue with is the unpaid work in exchange for the promise of vocational training, which may or may not happen. Human rights is not something one get intoxicated with BTW. Human rights is what is owed people. Most young girls who end up as house helps did not set out to be so. They fell into the job as a result of a lack of education and/or lack of opportunity. And yes, in for a good number, this is the best job that they will have access to. In most cases, the wages they earn cannot even be considered living wages. Certainly not what one can retire on nor fully support/raise a family on.

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    • Yeah, I’m also not a YA fan but I’m promoting such books for Ghanaian young readers. I know, I’m also interested in her poetry. I will let you know if I find any.

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  6. This one took a bit to grow on me, but in the end I found myself quite attached to Gloria. I think the distance for me resided primarily in the dialogue (my thoughts are Link removed and added to the post) and I wonder, if there is another edition in West Africa, if there might have been changes to the text, affording a more natural, organic feel to the way of talking. In any case, I agree: young girls absolutely should have this available as an alternative to Enid Blyton. (Whose dialogue was atrocious, I might add.)

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    • No, I don’t think there were changes to the West Edition. At the launch of the book, the author talked about finding the right dialogue and narrative to describe a semi-illiterate young girl, which can be tricky I guess. But I thought she did a good job with the dialogue. It might be the “Ghanaianisms” in the text that distanced you from the book at first. In which case, it will be interesting to see how you far with Nii Ayikwei Parkes’ Tail of the Blue Bird. That is, if you get a chance to read it :).

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