CM . . .
. Volume XX Number 27. . . .March 14, 2014
Poni lives in a village in south Sudan where she loves to go to school, does her best to avoid the attention of any boys, and is always happy when she is able to get up to some mischief. But then the war begins, the bombs drop on her village, and Poni takes her mother’s advice to simply run away as fast as she can. Her escape eventually turns into a long walk with many others in the hopes of reaching the Kakuma refugee camp. Life in the camp is filled with difficulties and dangers, even after Poni is able to find two other children from her village. With no family at the camp, no chance for further education and the very real prospect that she will be sold as a child bride, Poni makes her escape and ends up in a compound in Nairobi run by a nun named Sister Hannah. If Poni can be safe and stay in the compound, she perhaps then has a chance to better herself and take advantage of the new horizons which stretch ahead of her.
Poni is one of the ‘lost girls’ of the Sudanese conflict, and the authors’ portrayal of her makes her unforgettable. She is feisty and determined to succeed against seemingly insurmountable odds. Necessity forces her to leave her village and family, but it is sheer determination which keeps her going during the miles of walking to the refugee camp. Unwilling to merely accept what is the norm for most girls her age, Poni learns some tricks of the camp, such as how to get a double food ration and how to get in and out of camp with the help of a little bribe for the guards. Her thirst for knowledge and absolute certainty that only higher education can solve her problems drive Poni to take risks and constantly prove herself.
This tough young woman also has a soft side despite her efforts to hide it. During the long trek across the dry African countryside and in the camp, itself, Poni does what she can to help others and alleviate their suffering. Lokure, a boy from her village, supports Poni both emotionally and intellectually, and eventually she relents and begins to allow a tentative relationship between them.
Other characters in the book consist of Poni’s family and the various refugees and others she meets along the way. While only Poni’s mother stands out specifically, all of these characters add to the realism of village life, the refugee camp and the Nairobi compound.
The authors describe the eastern African countryside in detail, and their description of war atrocities rings true as well. Through Poni’s eyes, readers can see the devastating effects of war. Her physical reaction to the long walk to the refugee camp will have readers just as dry, thirsty and tired as Poni since the authors’ descriptions are so vivid.
The authors briefly look at the theme of western involvement in such conflicts as the Sudanese war by taking Poni briefly into a UN building near the refugee camp. Readers will see the good intentions of the UN staff and how little they mean in the reality of the camp. Any resources seem to have been put toward the aid workers themselves, and when Poni is let down by an unkept promise from a UN staffer, readers cannot help but think it is a metaphor which goes far beyond this particular fictional situation.
Lost Girl Found is a young adult novel with strong female characters throughout, despite a society which is male-dominated. For students wanting to delve deeper than the fictional story, the authors have provided a brief timeline of the modern history of Sudan and an in-depth list of further resources which include books, films and plays written about the Lost Boys of the Sudanese conflict. Lastly, there is a glossary of the many African words used in the novel.
Poni is consistently faced with the question of doing what she knows is best for herself or choosing to help others and give up her own dreams and visions. When bombs fall on the village, Poni’s mother has only one piece of advice: “Run”. Poni frequently has to save herself, and, ultimately, she realizes that her only real obligation is to make the best possible life for herself. This is a character that any reader would be thrilled to have as a student, friend or daughter!
Ann Ketcheson, a retired high school teacher-librarian and teacher of English and French, lives in Ottawa, ON.
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