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Charlene Thurston Advocates for Imbolo Mbue

Charlene Thurston Advocates for Imbolo Mbue Picture

“We should have known the end was near. How could we not have known? When the sky began to pour acid and rivers began to turn green, we should have known our land would soon be dead. Then again, how could we have known when they didn’t want us to know? When we began to wobble and stagger, tumbling and snapping like feeble little branches, they told us it would soon be over, that we would all be well in no time. They asked us to come to village meetings, to talk about it. They told us we had to trust them.”

So begins How Beautiful We Were. This poignant novel by Imbolo Imbue, the Cameroonian-American author of Behold the Dreamers, describes a fictional, but very plausible, African village, beginning in 1980 and continuing through several decades. The novel takes place in Kosawa, where people live simple but beautiful agrarian lives, steeped in ancestral tradition, love of family, and strong spiritual values. What was once a beautiful land becomes destroyed by the toxic waste of a large American oil company which has been given rights by a corrupt, greedy authoritarian governmental leader. Not only is sludge clogging the waters, but the lands become nonproductive, and the air difficult to breathe. When its children begin dying, the villagers plead with the corporate representatives to stop their drilling and restore their land but to no avail.

Using beautiful and powerful prose, Imbue leads us through the major plotline of the novel which follows the years of attempts by the village people to regain their land and lives, including the devotion of one of its young women to become educated and lead a revolutionary effort to attain justice. Narrating through the voices of many different villagers, she exposes the reader to many other themes as the story moves forward. In this way, we develop a glimpse not only of African culture, but also of the power of journalism, the slow process of the justice system, the plight of the powerless against money and greed, the danger of authoritarianism, the devastating effects of toxic waste, and the helpfulness and limitations of foreign aid organizations.

This is a story for our time, a story that is not a soft, happy, feel good story through which we can escape the realities of our world today, but a story that is so important for us to read to look into the face of what happens when big, powerful corporations and greedy, corrupt government leaders ravage the lives of ordinary citizens who just want to be able to realize their very simple dreams of living their ordinary lives in community with the families they love.

A quote from the recently deceased Dr. Paul Farmer encapsulates an essential underlying theme of Imbue’s novel. “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that’s wrong with the world.” I highly recommend this book.