Reading South Sudan: Beneath the Darkening Sky

Beneath the Darkening Sky tells the story of Obinna, a child soldier who is weaponised by a rebel army into killing and raping his countrypeople. It reads like a never-ending list of horrors but what stands out is how Obinna becomes desensitised to these traumas. By offering a glimpse at the country’s recent history and emphasising the humanity of fellow Africans, this book about South Sudan fits in with the Reading Africa project.


When the rebel army torches Obinna’s village, his family dies and he’s conscripted into the force. As he tries to live with the trauma done to him, he also commits crimes of his own. In the army camp, he makes friends with Priest and together they try to find meaning in the brutality of their everyday lives.

On first reflection, this novel about South Sudan didn’t seem to do anything for me. That concerned me; this is a book about a child who rapes and kills. But after further thought, I realised that maybe it’s because he’s so dehumanised that I can’t relate. The novel’s setting is very sparse and the plot has a single narrative centred on Obinna. The way it lays out the straightforwardness of survival is an embodiment of the tunnel vision of ‘kill or be killed’. The character arcs are so unfulfilling they may as well be non-existent. Priest plays the guitar and keeps Obinna company. Akot disappears almost as soon as the children are kidnapped. This leaves the reader with Obinna himself and his humanity. And it’s hard to relate to someone who has become so mechanical as to state, “I’ve decided that losing feeling is good. If I lose all feeling, there will be nothing to fear.”

It makes me wonder, what was Obinna like before he was recruited? We learn he was good at school and something of a goody-two-shoes. The sad thing is that there was only a glimpse of his life before he was literally stolen away into the army, into an experience that can’t be erased. The story feels incomplete which, I guess, is what war does: it stops everything from its natural progression.

The narrative of survival also speaks to me of how meaningless the ins and outs of politics are to people on the ground, even though it shapes their lives. After all, the war Obinna is fighting is political but he has no revolutionary fervour.

“They think my village is their enemy. I didn’t know we were on a side.”

However, thinking that there is no broader message in this book about South Sudan is to overlook its emphasis on a theme that should be so basic: children should be protected, not weaponised.  During trauma, the mind shuts down so that survivors of the most horrific crimes don’t remember a thing afterward. Maybe the very idea of child soldiers was so horrific that I shut down as a reader. What’s beautiful about this effect is that it’s similar to the mechanisation that Obinna goes through. He tells himself that it’s only been two days since he was taken from home.  This reminds me of how, when I’m on a difficult hike, I count my steps. When I get to a number around 28, I automatically just start again. I don’t want to know just how many steps I’m taking; all I care about is making it end. It’s ironic that the mechanism to make something end is to pretend you’re still at or near the beginning.


The mechanisation of Obinna’s character and the novel’s tone reminds me of how easily we become desensitised. In Cape Town, the gang-related murder rate is so high that the Cape Flats is often described as a war zone by residents. Meanwhile, those of us who don’t live in the Cape Flats have gotten so used to the idea of living within minutes of a warzone. Our entire country is accustomed to news reports reading like a mortality list and pavements of impoverished street children. No one is surprised by the theft of cellphones or car robberies; we focus on what victims “could’ve” done to prevent it, not on the root of the problem. This all points towards our desensitization.

As an antidote to this, Beneath the Darkening Sky hints at the power of family. In the few pages that precede the rebels’ arrival in Obinna’s village, we learn that Mama and Papa sleep near the goats to ensure wild animals don’t eat their sustenance. As the rebels arrive and the dogs bark, Obinna remembers that Mama taught him to recognise that kind of bark as a sign of danger. Just those two facts show how the hierarchical structure of the family works to protect children directly (by ensuring they have future meals) and to teach them how to protect themselves (by sharing knowledge on the meaning of dogs’ barks). This may seem minor but its importance is shown when the rebels order that “cousins, brothers, any blood-related people were not allowed to stay in the same building” or talk to one another. In precolonial Africa, family connections were so strong that they were the basis of political systems. This, too, indicates the power and importance of maintaining family structures. There is a truth to how important these institutions are, especially when we’re talking about absentee fathers and single moms in the context of the war on gangsterism.

“They say it’s every man for himself. Even if you’re not yet a man.”

What This Book Taught Me About South Sudan

In South Africa, South Sudan is infamous for secession and war. This is a reality that Beneath the Darkening Sky cannot repel.  There is a civil war that is characterised by child soldiers, rape, crop destruction, and many killings. This is likely the civil war that took place before South Sudan’s secession from Sudan in 2011.

“They make the young ones kill first. Heads are tossed into the burning huts and bodies are thrown. Just like the butcher, only he never killed so many animals at once.”

However, we do also learn about traditional life. Like most South Sudanese, villagers in the book follow traditional religions. Mama grows kale, cassava, okra, and sweet potato and Obinna’s family raises goats. There is poor infrastructure — the roads are so bumpy they cause Obinna to throw up on the Captain’s pants, earning him his first punishment. The civil war means that South Sudan’s rich cultural heritage and diversity (it’s home to over 60 ethnic groups) is neglected.

About South Sudanese Author Majok Tulba

There are many wonderful works of Sudanese literature but since the partition of Sudan only took place in 2011, there are fewer novels from the new country on offer. Many books about South Sudan have been written by outsiders.

Majok Tulba is one of a few South Sudanese authors. He fled conflict in South Sudan when he was sixteen, finding refuge in Australia. He’s written a second novel, When Elephants Fight, which details the refugee crisis in South Sudan.

In 2013, Beneath the Darkening Sky was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize and the Dylan Thomas Prize. It won the Kathleen Mitchell Literary Award in 2014.

Why You Should Read this Book About South Sudan

Although Beneath the Darkening Sky is not a touching novel in itself, by depicting the worst state of humanity it points us towards recognising and maintaining our natural humanity. What I’ve taken away from this South Sudanese novel is how precious our humanity is.

In a letter to his children, Che Guevara wrote, “Above all, always be capable of feeling deeply any injustice committed against anyone, anywhere in the world. This is the most beautiful quality in a revolutionary.” To feel an injustice, you have to be able to feel. Feeling is a beautiful quality that can lead to remarkable, revolutionary things. After all, it’s the absence of feeling in Beneath the Darkening Sky that allows so much trauma to be perpetuated.

Jenna Solomon

Jenna is a journalism, African studies and social development graduate. She writes about active citizenship and lifestyle in South Africa.

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