Book: I,Charles from the Camps
Author: Joel D. Hirst
Page Count: 213
The eponymous Charles is Charles Agwok, the northern Ugandan protagonist of Joel Hirst’s latest novel. He is of the Acholi ethnic nationality. For those even mildly familiar with the recent geo-politics and history of East Africa, these key words—Acholi, Ugandan—furnish a third, the LRA. The LRA, which stands for the Lord’s Resistance Army, is a fundamentalist Christian guerilla militia that has been fighting against the present Museveni regime since the late 80’s. It is led by the elusive Joseph Kony and seeks a Uganda governed by the Ten Commandments. Untold horrors, from rape to child soldiers to the use of girls as sex slaves to terrorism, have been left in the wake of its every entanglement with Ugandan forces.
The novel, told in the first person, is a peculiar coming of age story seeking to set out and engage the realities of recent Ugandan history through personal narrative. It starts with Charles in one of the camps and traces his career from camp hustler to petty criminal to Kampala underworld enforcer to being a commander in the LRA, in his thirties, with the nom de guerre Okot. At the end of the novel though, he is in another camp, this time an old man, this time somewhere in Tanzania where he now has a wife and children who know nothing of his earlier life. Charles has, by the end of the novel, obliterated his own brutal history except for the novel which is, in truth, a confession and an attempt to justify his life against his times.
When dreary conditions at the camp he’s lived in see him seize the opportunity to steal a stash of cash from a foreign-run NGO in the camp, his naiveté and the imminent betrayal of his confederate force him to flee, even though he knows his father will be in a lot of trouble for this. The clear eye of Joel Hirst for details shines from these very early pages of the book, in the creation of a visual and emotive panorama of the web of despondency of youth in IDP camps, corruption of camp officials and the often hypocritical objectives and practice of camp NGOs. Our protagonist, who is not the hero of this tale, hightails it to Kampala where he first befriends a dog. As he makes a reputation for himself in the Kampala underworld, he meets the love of his life, Ruth, a girl from elite circles whom he seduces. Fate, and jealousy, sees him murdering Ruth’s lover during a shakedown. The inevitable flight away from Kampala and what the law in the hands of the powerful can do to him lands him in the arms of the LRA. A precocious character who reads books and is fascinated by the written word, his innate violence sees him continue on the path of evil already set upon in Kampala. By the end of his time in the LRA, there is no textbook crime of the stereotype “savage African” trope he has not committed.
The issue of stereotype casts a heavy pall on this book and, I admit, in the very first few pages I was put off by the self-loathing of Charles and his denigration of his being African and ruing the terrible luck of living in an African camp, emphasis African. This continues through the book, with highly relevant conversations, as recollected by Charles, framed through this negative imaginary of what it is to be African. Yet, Africa is not a country. It is 54 plus countries on one island and in each of these countries, there are hundreds of thousands of African narratives just as authentic as Charles’. Even within his own Uganda, even within his own camp, alternative Africas exist. The preponderance of these alternative Africas are not cliché terrible and savage and brutal as this protagonist would have us think he believes. As a character trait, Charles self-loathing is unconvincing and to the extent that this book is his attempt to gain emmpathy, by deploying the device of telling his story in which he is a victim of circumstance and then asking “what would you have done different” it fails. At every pivotal point in the downward spiral of this life, alternative choices could have been made. An example of the earliest: if he knew that a place like Kampala existed, he did not need to go there only after stealing from an NGO and being on the verge of capture. There were no gates to the IDP camp, it was not a concentration camp. He, and all there, could leave at any time. Africa played no role in his not leaving or making different choices.
When we step out of the novel, questions arise about the underlying narrative. The story is very contemporary. Joseph Kony is still on the loose though his LRA is no longer considered a serious security threat to regional stability. Yoweri Museveni has remained in power in Uganda since 1986 and, remarkably through the device of fortuitously discovered birth documents, is in fact growing younger. Prior to Kony and Museveni, there was Idi Amin, a textbook and quite perfectly mad military dictator of the African variety who took power from Milton Obote who had, in fact, led Uganda to independence. The history of Uganda has been so unstable because of the British divide-and-rule that created and emphasized ethnic suspicion competition in Uganda, and, after Independence, the geopolitics of the Cold War both of which are well out of the hands of any Ugandan or African. Yet, it is these two factors that bear direct causality to Charles Agwok being in a camp in the first place. Nowhere is this context given, or even understood, in I, Charles, from the Camps. A refugee camp does not just appear out of thin air. It is an effect of other things. In the exclusion of these ultimate causalities lies my main query with this book.
Nonetheless, as stated earlier, Joel Hirst is able to do a marvelous job of stepping into the mind of a flawed character in his brave use of first person narration. Very rarely do we find instances of authorial intrusion. On the contrary, character-specific observation is acute and very well developed. There is a kernel of greatness in this book and I found myself wanting more, wishing to know more of the story from the point of view of the other characters consigned to bit parts by Charles Agwok. Ruth, for example, who loved him, who comes across as two-dimensional, and Friedrich as well, who “saves” him twice. I would have liked to know what happened to his family after he fled the camp the first time, and what happened to his dog after he had to abandon it in Kampala.
The first person is an excellent narrative choice which is difficult to pull off, but it is testimony to Joel Hirst’s ability that we want to know more about the supporting characters in the tragic story of Charles Agwok, Ugandan, African, anti-hero and would be reframer of his own brutal history. In achieving this, congratulations are due to Mr. Hirst.