“Kamakwie” by Kathleen Martin is about the author’s visit to Kamakwie, Sierra Leone, focusing on stories of people she meets there. Martin, an author by profession, is asked to join a group consisting mainly of medical professionals to a trip to Kamakwie. Over the course of several weeks, Martin met many people, spending time speaking with them and getting to know them.
I myself lived in South Africa (in between Johannesburg and Pretoria) for three years, and have heard many stories of Western and wealthy peoples’ experiences of African and poor countries. Most of them describe how inspiring it is that they live in such poverty and are always happy. While this might be true, I do not find it convincing that because other people are starving and ‘happy,’ we too should be happy. Sometimes the focus is on how similar everyone is, but again this often feels forced when there are so many obvious and interesting differences in our experiences.
Martin avoided both these clichés in “Kamakwie.” The stories were simply true retellings of people’s lives. Whether describing their aspirations or experiences in the war, these are recounted with refreshing honesty.
When I picked up “Kamakwie,” I wasn’t expecting such an emotionally riveting book. Martin starts out describing people she is meeting, reactions to her camera, and the work her team is doing to help stop malnutrition – much of the battle is simply educating people to recognize early warning signs and bring children to the hospital as a first, and not last, resort. As the book progresses, we see more of the poverty people are living in. Many babies are not born alive, and when they are, most children end up suffering from malnutrition – a very serious and sometimes incurable affliction. If a child has managed to stay alive and get enough food, getting an education is almost impossible. Many families do not have enough money to pay fees for even one child, let alone the four or five children (or relatives a grandparent, or other relative, may be caring for) all needing to go to school to escape poverty.
Not only is life a struggle today, but from 1991 to 2002, the country was torn apart in a civil war. The war was a cruel war; many civilians were brutally killed for no reason (more than 50,000 people died), children soldiers were forced to fight, and the entire infrastructure of Sierra Leone was devastated. Martin learned many stories from adults and older children of their experiences in this war, i.e., whether they fought in it, were forced to kill their children or neighbors, or simply hid while they watched their friends and family killed. Most surprising, Martin finds almost no grudges or hatred, even when formerly opposing people live together in the same town.
Not only is the content of “Kamakwie” powerful and moving, but it is very well written. It is easy enough for younger readers to enjoy, but the descriptions are still beautiful. I enjoyed this description from page 101 of the kids coming out to join a soccer game: “Kids pour around the sides of the building like iron filings drawn to a magnet, word of the ball spreading somehow through the wind.”
Martin also took many pictures in her time in Kamakwie and the book has full-page, glossy photos on every other page, providing an even more intimate look at individual experiences in Sierra Leone. When Martin is recounting someone’s story or describing her interaction with them, there is normally a photo to provide an interesting and accurate image of what we are reading about.
I would recommend “Kamakwie” by Kathleen Martin with the highest regards to anyone, of any age, interested in Sierra Leone, the devastation of war and poverty, or a story of joy. Readers as young as middle school, and even adults, will enjoy this authentic and moving depiction of people’s lives against a well-described and multi-layered backdrop of suffering and happiness.
Kamakwie: Finding Peace, Love, and Injustice in Sierra Leone
Red Deer Press (2012)
Reviewed by Madeleine Sullivan (age 18) for Reader Views (6/12)