Reviewed by Marshall Hughes
Grace Akallo & Faith J.H. McDonnell
"Informative in an area many readers are not familiar with, Girl Soldier leaves the reader not with despair but with a sense of hope for the future."
Dragged out of her high school dormitory in the middle of the night by a mob of child soldiers, members of Joseph Kony‘s “Lord’s Resistance Army,” 15-year-old Grace Akallo is forced to live first as a child soldier then as a concubine and virtual slave for a military commander until her escape into the unknown of the Sudanese and Ugandan outbacks. Eventually, she is brought to America where she has become a spokeswoman to bring to light the atrocities of her homeland. This is the story of her life before and after her kidnapping, a life which cannot help but fascinate the reader.
Grace Akallo had a happy, carefree existence as a little girl, feeling loved and having no fears as she walked alone to school or played with the other children in her northeast Ugandan village.Nighttime was a time to sit around a fire and listen to stories and family histories that had been passed down from generation to generation.
But soon, as always seems to happen to the people of Uganda, war caught up with her. First it was the Karamojong, cattle rustlers from Eastern Uganda who believe that all cattle were given to them by God to the exclusion of everybody else. The Karamojong came through her village and killed everyone who didn't hide well enough, including Grace’s grandfather, the artful storyteller and love of Grace's life.
Later, eight months after she entered high school, it was the Lord’s Resistance Army of Joseph Kony. Grace was one of 139 girls kidnapped from her high school dormitory---ironically on Uganda's Independence Day. Some 80% of Kony’s “army” consists of abducted children, who are broken physically and mentally and forced to sever all ties with their past in order to become “good soldiers.” To prove themselves, they must take someone from their past, often a sibling or playmate, and beat them to death.
(Kony is closely tied to the Islamic Sudanese government, which slaughters non-Muslims in its own country and enjoys having a proxy in Uganda to slaughter non-Muslims there in order to ease the spreading of Islam throughout Africa.)
After being forced to walk into Southern Sudan, Grace, too, was forced to kidnap children. She was given to a senior commander as his "wife." Severely beaten, raped, and forced to live on a diet of rats, lizards, leaves and soil, she survived. Three times she tried to kill herself, but each time someone grabbed the gun from her hand as she put it to her head. After one long period of no food or water, she fell by the roadside and, being mistaken for dead, was buried alive in a shallow grave. After regaining consciousness, she dug herself out of her would be-grave and walked on.
Despite her circumstances, Grace kept praying and kept her faith. One night she had a dream/vision of walking across a river and back into Uganda. Shortly thereafter, when Kony sent 100 of his available child troops on a suicide mission, the chaos that followed allowed Grace to lead a group of children back into Uganda . . . by walking across a river on a bank of grass not visible from the river bank. The group later stumbled onto a small village where, after several harrowing experiences, they were allowed to stay before being transferred to a World Vision camp. Grace eventually returned to her high school and then was brought to the U.S. where she attended college.
Uganda has long been home to a terrified populace. It has long been a corrupt, violent, evil place ruled by heinous dictators. A century before Kony, in 1884, King Mutesas died and left his kingdom to his son, Mwanga, a homosexual pedophile, who was convinced by Arab Muslims that Christians obeyed a higher authority than mere earthly kings and thus would not be conducive to the Muslim's slave trading which Mwanga supported. Mwanga ordered the martyring of Christians, beginning on June 3, 1886.
The most well-know Ugandan dictator was Idi Amin, who killed about 300,000 of his own people during his 1971 to 1979 rule. Exact figures cannot be established, but estimates of his carnage range up to half a million dead. It is hard to exaggerate Amin’s cruelty. When a small group within the Uganda military staged a rebellion in January, 1977, resulting in the death of seven military members, Amin ordering the slaughter of thousands of people, including every member of the village of former Ugandan president Milton Obote, whom Amin suspected of being behind the rebellion. The city became extinct. When the Israelis successfully concluded their against-all-odds rescue in the famous Entebbe Airport Incident (at Entebbe, Uganda), killing all of the hijackers and losing only one soldier, (the brother of future Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu), Amin was so angered at the embarrassing outcome and loss of potential ransom revenue that he had all of the air traffic controllers and civil aviation authorities killed, even those that were not on duty at the time.
Amin’s love for all things Muslim and hatred for all things Jewish is perhaps best shown by his reaction to the killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. He sent a cable to the Olympic Committee congratulating the Palestinian killers and praising Hitler for the deaths of six million Jews.
While Girl Soldier contains a fascinating history of Uganda, it is Grace’s first-person account of a young girl’s life in a war-ravaged country that will most touch readers. Chapters alternate between the history and background of the various conflicts in Uganda, as written by Faith McDonnell, and a first-hand experience of living through it all, as written by Grace. It perhaps should not be marked up to mere coincidence that the names of the co-authors of this book are Grace and Faith.
For all of the carnage wrought on Uganda throughout its history, there is hope. God's spirit has stayed with the people of Uganda throughout their history. Amazingly, the percentage of Ugandans who believe in Christ actually rose from 52% to 70% during Amin’s reign, a figure that has since risen to over 80%. Around 10 percent of the country is Muslim.
As with many African conflicts there are more than just two sides to wars and conflicts. Girl Soldier uses two pages in the front of the book to explain the alphabet soup of military and paramilitary forces and movements, over a dozen in all. Still, sometimes it is hard to keep separate the UPDA and the UPDF from the UPDCA, and the LRA from the NRA etc. Readers would be well advised to keep a thumb in this reference section as they go through the book.
Despite the hard times suffered by Grace, the book does not leave the reader feeling totally hopeless or in despair. The book seems to follow the general rule of Gary Haugen of International Justice Mission which states that the best way to communicate awful realities is to present 30% despair and 70% hope.
The pace of the book slows at the end, with the focus moving towards what Grace is now doing in America for her people and her home country. She has spoken before Congress and on various television shows including the Oprah Winfrey Show. There are more than a dozen websites listed for people to find out more information about Uganda. This reviewer could have done without the inclusion of Amnesty International, but that is a personal matter. There are also lists of things to pray for and concrete things that people can do to help.
The only real criticism of the book would be that the pictures are of low quality (OK, horrible quality) and sometimes their value is questionable as they add little to the story.
Informative in an area many readers are not familiar with, Girl Soldier leaves the reader not with despair but with a sense of hope for the future. And we all need hope, even if we aren’t starving teenage concubines caught in the middle of a war zone.
Marshall Hughes is a former sports writer for the Honolulu Advertiser. For most of the past 22 years he has taught English in Japan. He has taught at the university level in America, Japan and China. Among his hobbies are sports, traveling and photography. He has been to 41 countries and is always hoping to go somewhere new. He is an award-winning photographer in both Japan and America. His bi-lines include The Washington Post, The Pacific Daily News (Guam), The Contra Costa Times and several sports publications.