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Voice of a Dream

Voice of a Dream

Author: Glaydah Namukasa
Publishers: Macmillan
Pages: 96
Price: £3.60
ISBN: 978-1-4050-9592-1

Reviewer: Uche Peter Umez

Category: Young Adults.


  Dressed in a Nurse’s Uniform
Uche Peter Umez

The Ugandan writer Glaydah Namukasa evokes poetic memories of Langston Hughes’s enduring lines in A Dream Deferred in her debut young-adult fiction. Her novel, Voice of a Dream, does not pretend to lay claim to any Langstonian influence, however. It barely operates as a poetic text, although the author’s style of writing is at once mellifluous. A poem even appears somewhere in the pages. Voice of a Dream appears to be a simple story of a simple girl with a simple dream. You may call it an AIDS story with a difference. But it does not seek to explore the myths and facts of the dreaded disease or blare out its horridness into our minds. Instead, the theme of AIDS serves as a mere backdrop for the well-paced plot. A backdrop, fleeting yet haunting.

The storyline is not unfamiliar, particularly with families living in the developing countries. The overriding themes in the novel are timely and significant, now that Africans have become increasingly aware of the frightening numbers of people suffering from HIV. There is no doubt that Africa is the region most affected by the virus.

Voice of a Dream is set predominantly in Kitala, Uganda, a country known more for the phantom of her infamous late despot Idi Amin Dada than for her revival of a flourishing literature. The novel reads initially as a love story, as foreshadowed in the prologue. A neat romantic tale of two teenagers, Nanfuka and Sendi, who live in disparate social environments. In the first chapter Sendi attempts to sweet-talk Nanfuka into having sex him, but it goes amiss, or rather it turns out botched due to the latter’s refusal. Thereafter, the story gradually spins into waves of misfortune that crash one after the other over Nanfuka, as she is summoned home from school.

Told in omniscient multiple POV, much of the story revolves around Nanfuka, the 16-year-old, who is compelled to cope with the crisis in her family. She has to determine what is most important, the extent to which she would continue to pursue her dream. She must also confront the series of hard luck that expose the vulnerability of her family, that threaten to dissipate all she has come to hold dear and believe in. In the wake of this, she must resist the estrangement that shadows the possibility of growing up as an orphan and the cynicism that accompanies unexpected “parenthood.” 

Her father is dying (eventually dies) of AIDS, her mother is nowhere to be seen, and her insensitive father’s sister Aunt Naka is just too desperate to marry her off to a man three times her senior. Therefore, with no parents to support her in a world as cruel as it is tumultuous, Nanfuka abandons her “preciously balanced days” and her “varied enjoyments of school,” and struggles to make sense of the adult ambience in which “joy is only a dried up banana fiber that breaks the moment she pulls on it” and a world in which “darkness darkens even the daylight around her.”

After the burial of her father, she is saddled with the responsibility of rearing her four siblings, including baby Anna, her HIV-positive youngest sister. She learns to get more committed towards tending the garden, fetching firewood, picking ripe coffee beans, and weaving sisal and palm leaves into mats to sustain her “children.” As often is the case with provincial communities and their propensity for insularity, hers offers her no shelter. No shoulder to lean on. Instead she is mocked. Covertly alienated, mostly because she stands a chance of being the “first nurse in Kitala.” As a student of SLouise, a prestigious secondary school in the city, she attracts the envy and contempt of her friend Kizza, her neighbor Maama Jojo, and a few other neighbors.

Evidently, as her family’s misfortune makes it to the gossip charts in Kitala, and her siblings feed on once-a-meal rations, sugarless-tea and millet porridge, Nanfuka has no more choice except to settle down with the well-off elderly suitor her aunt has contracted on her behalf. Another option is to accept the brash overtures of her late father’s friend, Uncle Medi, which promise a short-term succor. 

Her row with her boyfriend Sendi further upsets her emotional balance and, although she builds her hopes on the results of the presidential elections which guarantee Universal Basic Education (free education) for all children, assistance would only come when she resorts to consult her mentor, the amiable and religious Nurse Kina who almost routinely inspires her. She lays out a list of “ten principles” to guide Nanfuka in her struggle to become both a happy parent and nurse.  

Nanfuka’s life appears as “fragments of charred grass,” yet she decides to “never give up,” by selling mats and baskets in the open market. The most emotive scene is when Aunt Naka threatens to sell the land and take away Nanfuka’s siblings. Luck runs into her, nonetheless, when a French couple buys some quantities of mats from her, and her Maama returns home weary and remorseful.

Voice of a Dream is a book both children and youths will enjoy, not only because of the well-crafted tapestry of its rich and lucid diction, but because it intersperses harmonious imageries that reinforce the atmosphere and pathos of the story. The imageries of the ragged herd-boy, the avid kite and the Crested Crane and others, imbue the plot with a nuanced grounding. The characters are of course genuine. And the reader will no doubt empathize with them, because of their resonance.

It is interesting to observe the burning pang that desire (love?) breeds in the youth and the gloom that settles over the heart in such moments, as exemplified by Sendi’s situation when he is scorned and distanced by Nanfuka. He realizes the folly of propping up a derivative identity ultimately and, shedding that identity, experiences a subtle character growth, as it were, in the final chapters of the novel.

Glaydah Namukasa has written a brilliant novel that is thematically broad for all children and young adults. It will keep them enthralled. Piqued at the same time. It is not preachy in any way, or judgmental. It hints at didacticism, that much is obvious. The romance is maturely managed so that it does not dovetail into melodrama. The author has also pointed out other varied themes: forced marriage, child labor, peer influence, pre-marital sex and abortion. Literacy is also at the core of the narrative, because education remains instrumental in attaining one’s dream. Her descriptions are vivid so also is her depiction of destitution so that the reader easily relates to happenings in those parts of Uganda. The entire tone of the story undulates from the jaunty to the nostalgic, reflecting the emotional ebb and flow of Nanfuka and Sendi, characteristic of teenagers and the way they “come of age.”

Little wonder then Voice of a Dream won the Senior Award in the 2006 Macmillan Writer’s Prize for Africa. The bottom-line: this is a story of a dream realized. The power of a dream.

Uche Peter Umez
won the 2008 BSU Creative Writing competition, and was Highly Commended in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition [2006  & 2008]. An Alumnus of the International Writing Program (IWP), USA, and Caine Prize for African Writing Workshop, his short fiction, poems, reviews and non-fiction have been published on-line and in print.

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