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.
(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. )