Today we welcome Johanna McCalmont to tell us about a short story from Belgium, written in French by Rwandan-born author Joseph Ndwaniye:
Ever since I started reading as a child, I’ve always been drawn to stories about people whose lives are different from my own and to books that transport me to places I’ve yet to visit myself. Stronger than the Hyena does both, and that’s why I’m excited to share it with you for World Kid Lit Month.
Plus fort que la hyène (2018)
Written by Joseph Ndwaniye
Illustrated by Anne-Marie Carthé,
Cover Fred Ebami @fredebami,
Published by La Cheminante. ISBN 9782371271081.
Stronger than the hyena grew out of Rwandan author Joseph Ndwaniye’s (1962) desire to create a link between his work as a nurse in a bone marrow transplant unit in Belgium and his passion for literature, which, along with music, he believes offers hope in the most difficult circumstances.
The short 6,400-word story in French contains 11 chapters and introduces middle-grade readers to Gato, a 13-year-old boy who suffers from sickle-cell anaemia. It opens with Gato struggling to explain to his new classmates at secondary school in Brussels, Belgium, why he is absent so often. He gradually tells an attentive teaching assistant about his condition and how he has lived with it since he was an infant. Readers discover how Gato’s doctor first explained the disease to him when he was old enough to start asking questions, how he suffers from regular sickle-cell crises, and how he constantly requires painkillers and antibiotics to relieve the symptoms of his condition. Towards the end of the book we read about his extended stay in hospital when he receives a bone marrow transplant from his sister. The story carefully describes how difficult this period is, both physically and emotionally, for Gato and the rest of his family. Whilst there is a happy ending for Gato with the news that the transplant has successfully cured his condition, the narrative also sensitively explains, through the character Mario, that not all children are as fortunate as Gato and that many sufferers cannot find compatible bone marrow donors and therefore have to learn to live with the condition and regular blood transfusions for their entire lives.
Stronger Than the Hyena, however, is not like many other books that simply explain sickle-cell to sufferers from a medical perspective. This moving story also contains a second plotline in which Gato’s parents take him to Rwanda with his sister for the first time to meet their grandfather. In Rwanda, Gato is fascinated by his grandfather’s talent as an inanga-player and storyteller. Gato asks his grandfather to teach him how to play the instrument too and, as a parting gift, his grandfather gives him a small inanga to take back to Belgium. His grandfather also tells him a story about a partridge that outsmarts a hyena trying to catch it. This story will comfort Gato later when, like the triumphant partridge, he tells the hyena that appears to him in a dream one night, representing his condition, that he will escape it too. Gato’s grandfather tells him to practice the inanga every day, to speak to it, and to invent his own melodies and stories which will comfort him when he’s in pain. The inanga thus becomes an important part of Gato’s life, keeping him company when he’s in isolation during the bone marrow transplant and allowing him to cheer up other young patients when they hear him play. When Gato returns to visit his grandfather after the successful bone marrow transplant, his grandfather calls the villagers to listen to Gato play and then introduces Gato to the village as his successor, thus passing on his role as the Muhanzi, the musician and story-teller, to his grandson.
This moving and charming story would be of specific interest to readers and their families coping with sickle-cell anaemia and African diaspora across the English-speaking world who may be taking their children to Africa for the first time. It would also be a useful addition to any library seeking to broaden the horizons of young readers who may not have any direct connection or knowledge of what the characters in the story experience.
Joseph Ndwaniye (1962) was born in Rwanda and has lived in Belgium for over 20 years. His first novel, La promesse faite à ma soeur (2007) was a finalist in the Prix des Cinq Continents de la Francophonie. He published his second novel Le muzungu mangeur d’hommes in 2012 and has been included in Nouvelles de Rwanda (2019). Plus fort que la hyène (2018) is his first young adult novel. You can follow him on Facebook
Johanna McCalmont is freelance translator and conference interpreter from Northern Ireland who is currently based in Brussels, Belgium. She works from French, German, Dutch and Italian into English. She was selected for the 2018 New Books in German Emerging Translators programme. Her work has also been featured in No Man’s Land. You can follow her on Twitter @jo_mccalmont