The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Dare
Fourteen-year-old Adunni captured my heart from the first page as she tells her story in her own honest, brave and hopeful voice.
She tells of her journey from childhood in an impoverished rural village in Nigeria. Her mother has died and her poverty-stricken father sells her as a third wife to an old man in exchange for money. Adunni loves learning and when her mother was alive, she dreamed of continuing to attend school and of being a teacher one day. But this dream recedes as she is trapped into a forced marriage, valued only as a bearer of children, and deprived of any say in her own life. When circumstances precipitate a chance to flee, she takes it and my heart was in my mouth as the loyalty of her little brother saves her from being returned to the brutality of village justice. She escapes to Lagos, but the big city, the bustling capital of Nigeria, does not bring freedom and opportunity and one form of servitude is replaced by another. She becomes the unpaid and abused housemaid in a wealthy household. Education is still a dream, and every day she experiences hunger, long hours of labour, harsh words and physical cruelty. As a maid, she reads, dusting the books in the library at every opportunity, as she knows that, as her mama says, "schooling is your louding voice" - a way to find a voice, to have a say in her own life and to break free of these shackles. A helper emerges in the form of a young doctor's wife, who sees her as an equal, encourages her to learn and helps her find a way out of her confined circumstances and to follow her dream of being educated.
Adunni's story resonates in her own distinctive, and often grammatically incorrect, voice; the cadences and the dislocated, patchwork vocabulary of her thoughts seek to express her fumbling attempts to make sense of her experiences. She has nothing and no-one but can still sing at her work, fight fiercely against unwanted sexual advances and even have some kindness for the mistress who is cruel to her. She is at times terrified, in pain and unhappy but is always questioning and always looking for a chance to use her voice and take the opportunity to find a better future.
Adunni realises that going to school is the next step to a better future. She knows that education will be the "louding voice" that will enable herself to be heard and to educate other young girls so that they too can have a more empowered future. She does this, not just for herself. She is conscious that this is a voice she must use to honour those like the previous maid, Rebecca, who disappeared in murky circumstances and to give strength to other girls now growing up in Nigeria.
The author draws an authentic picture of life in Nigeria, having grown up there. The everyday of food and clothing and houses and conversation are vividly evoked and the reader walks alongside Adunni in the village and the bustling city. And the author drew me to care for Adunni: to share her fear, her confusion, her disappointments, her wonder at the new; to feel for this optimistic, resilient , kind, strong, honest and outspoken girl; and to hope for her to endure, to survive and to find a way out of the confines of her life.
The author clearly uses Adunni's story to shine a light on the difficulties girls face in Nigeria: the rural customs which trap young girls into a cycle of poverty and childbearing in the village and the urban corruption and class system which confine young girls to domestic servitude in the city. Many other characters show the experiences that are commonplace in a country where so many are poor, both as servants in the city and subsisting in rural areas, but others in the city have ostentatious wealth. There is the cook who can return home to his family when he has saved enough to pay for his house, and the young woman who undergoes traditional rituals to encourage her fertility and the second wife, desperate to have a boy child so that her husband will continue to provide her family with money for food, and the wealthy businesswoman who cannot cast off the drunken, philandering and useless husband and many others .
Adunni's journey towards empowerment to be the person she wants to be, to be free, for herself and for all those others is told in this powerful, and moving book. Hers is a voice of hope and humanity to remind us "That we are human. Of value. Important."
A great book for both teenagers and adults to educate, enlighten and inspire.
We should all read it.
Reviewer: Clare Lyon
Sceptre, RRP: $34.99