When a photographer witnesses war crimes, will she have to abandon her calling to save herself?
As Lena and Kojo work in conflicts across East and Central Africa, there is immense psychological pressure, and it’s not certain if their relationship will survive.
Eighteen years later, Bene walks the gritty back streets of Paris for one night in a music festival. He is on his way to meet his father in Kenya, a man he’s never met.
Ahead of the Shadows is about the intense relationships that come from work in war zones, the transmission of trauma from one generation to the next, and how one unconventional boy might be able to break the cycle.
It’s such a pleasure to close the blog tour for this small but powerful book about the dangers and struggles of working in conflict zones. I had a period in my teens where I wanted to be a journalist and was in awe of Kate Adie and Feargal Keane. My life didn’t go that way, but I remember reading Feargal Keane’s memoir and a long piece by Italian correspondent Janine di Giovanni that really impressed upon me the life long effects of being and working surrounded by danger. There are the effects of what they’ve seen such as PTSD and a terrible restlessness left over from living such an adrenaline fuelled existence. Many can’t overcome that restlessness and choose to live a peripatetic existence, endlessly wandering from one crisis to the next, using drink to avoid the worst of their memories. It destroys people and their relationships. So, when I saw the blurb for this novel I was interested to read it.
I think the author really captured how adrenalin fuelled these jobs can be as we follow Lena into the Democratic Republic of Congo. With her group she settles into their temporary accommodation for the night, only to be woken by the sound of a dozen phone alarms going off raised voices and activity. With very quick thinking she pushes a piece of furniture across her door and sits against it, eventually falling asleep on the floor. It shows the reader how alert Lena is to the possibility of violence at a moment’s notice. With no clear sides in the country’s conflict, as well as soldiers for hire, child soldiers and rape regularly used as a weapon, Lena doesn’t know from which side danger might come. There’s no clear wrong or right and danger could come from local bandits, not just men engaged in conflict. The next day, with most of her party having left in the night, Lena rings her lover Kojo for advice on what to do. He advises her to walk to the border and cross to Kigali in Rwanda where he can send someone to meet her. As she walks alone towards to border my heart was in my throat. The author creates so much tension and our own knowledge of corruption and violence in these regions adds to our fears for Lena. It seems to take forever for her to cross the no man’s land between the two countries and she seems so defenceless. Hours later in Kojo arms, she is awake as he sleeps, aware that she feels so much safer with him present, but she still has adrenaline coursing through her body.
When writing about such dramatic events and heightened emotions in one timeline of the book can leave the present day sections feeling flat by comparison. However, as we go to Paris with Bene who is on his way to meet his father for the first time in Kenya, the author doesn’t try to compete. She lets Bene’s world seem almost dreamlike in comparison, at least on the surface. As he wanders in Paris he meets a beautiful young woman called Fatima who takes him on a tour of her city. These sections are like a dream sequence within the harsh realities of Africa from almost two decades before. There’s a sense of going with the flow as Bene goes out with Fatima into the evening. This stop has been a hiatus in his journey out to Kenya to meet his father for the first time. He should be carefree, but here and there we get traces of anxiety. When she takes him to a party at her ex-boyfriend’s place he doesn’t look forward to being with strangers, especially if they’re fakes. Most are out on the apartment balcony, watching a singer in the square below. It’s not his type of party. He goes to find Fatima as he wants to leave and steps onto the heaving balcony and wonders at how easy it would be to throw oneself over the railings and what it would take to turn that urge into a reality? I wondered where these dark thoughts and anxieties came from in such a young man. As if he’s only just running one step ahead of the shadows.
Lena’s time in Sudan is a tough read, but an important one. There was a period of time when family and friends were fed up of hearing me ask why news programs and governments had forgotten what was happening in Sudan. I remember George Clooney funding a satellite to view areas where rumours abounded about the mysterious ‘Janjaweed’. The UN seemed reluctant to use the word genocide but it was happening. The author captures the fear these masked murderers on horseback generated in the villages. They were thought to be mercenaries, appearing with no warning, except for the sound of pounding hooves. They left no time for people to flee and showed no mercy. Men were killed, young boys rounded up and recruited or killed, young girls and women gang raped. Then the survivors rounded up and placed in camps. Lena travels there as an NGO worker, trusted to bring back her clear observations for Kojo’s project.
Kojo has trusted Lena to see exactly what’s happening, she has experience of travelling through conflict regions and knows how to find the truth. Even he is taken aback by her phone call, when she tells him that no other place they’ve travelled to holds the amount of fear expressed by survivors. She tells him there’s something more going on here, that even the workers are scared and the people to scared to speak. They’re petrified. Kojo has never known Lena use hyperbole, so when she suggests people are being rounded up, Kojo suggests they talk in person. The longer Lena spends in Darfur the more she thinks about her friend Stefan, another photographer, the one who killed himself. Kojo notices when they’re reunited, a mental distance, and a physical one too – as if she’s constantly on alert and ready to flee. It takes a catalyst to set, what has only been a feeling up till now, into reality. Something to force her into taking flight. The author brings all these strands together beautifully, a full eighteen years since Lena and Kojo were in Sudan. Will Kojo come to understand her urge to flee and find safety all those years ago? Will he forgive her for keeping secrets? This is a beautiful book about the horrors humanity is capable of and what it means to bear witness to these atrocities. It is about being broken down with no joy in life and a sense of despair that can kill and how those responses to trauma can pass to the next generation. However, it’s also about those things that happen to bring us back to ourselves. The things that help us to see the future again with a sense of joy and hope.
Meet The Author
A.B. Kyazze is a British-American writer and photographer. She spent two decades writing and taking photographs around the world in conflicts and natural disasters – in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Darfur, Sudan, where Ahead of the Shadows takes place, and other parts of Africa, Asia and the Balkans. Her photographs and non-fiction work have been published in travel magazines, The Huffington Post, The Washington Times, The International Review of the Red Cross, and by Oxfam, Save the Children, and the British Red Cross.Into the Mouth of the Lion, A.B. Kyazze’s debut novel, was published in May 2021. She has also published the Humanity in the Landscape photography book series, and a number of short stories, articles and book reviews. Today, she lives in southeast London with her young family. There she writes, mentors other writers, runs a freelance editing business, and facilitates creative writing workshops in schools and libraries. She serves as a Trustee for the Oxford Centre for Fantasy, a creative writing charity. For more information go to http://www.abkyazze.com