Adwoa Badoe has written an insightful coming-of-age story with the contemporary teenager and young adult in mind. Set in present-day Ghana, the protagonist of the book is sixteen year old Gloria Bampo, who has just failed thirteen of the fifteen courses in junior secondary school (JSS) in Accra and cannot advance to the senior secondary school level. Unfortunately her family is in financial straits with her father (Daa) unemployed and her mother (Maa) in a very sickly state and not able to work at her main source of income. Gloria's sister, Effie, is in the final stages of catering school and working hard to be able to help the family stay afloat.
Fortunately Auntie Ruby arranges for Gloria to go work as a nanny, with no compensation, for one of their distant relatives, Dr. Christine Ossei. So even though her aspirations are to be a seamstress or a highlife singer, she is packed off and sent to Kumasi to care for Dr. Christines eighteen month old son, Sam. Daa encourages Christine to treat Gloria as family and no pay would be necessary as long as Christine agrees to take care of her and provide for her occupational schooling. Auntie Ruby insists that Gloria should call Christine Sistah to seal their bond as family.
Once in Kumasi Gloria makes fast friends with a girl named Bea Kotoh. Her mother is divorced and struggling, so Bea has become a hustler who seems to manifest all of her material wants while having no funds. Soon she is showing Gloria the ropes around the doctors and nurses compounds at Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital and its environs. This faster lifestyle eventually brings Gloria to the attention of several males in her proximity. Christine has already warned Gloria to be careful with men, however Gloria and Bea both fall prey to the affections of some of their male admirers in order to have money for the desires of their young lives. It takes a horrible tragedy to remind Gloria that Dr. Christine and her parents were right about how important education is to a person's life and that she needs to stop her secrecy and duality.
The author of this book, Adwoa Badoe, was born and raised in Ghana where she attended Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi and upon graduation in 1988 qualified and practiced as a physician. After her migration to Canada, she became the owner and artistic manager of Afroculture where she is a writer, choreographer and public purveyor of African history and arts.
Both her knowledge of life as a doctor in Ghana and her distinctive artistry as a storyteller are brought bear on the themes of Between Sisters. Gloria muses, Life seemed to be made up of the Somebodies and Nobodies. (31) This tension between the rich and the poor is a very relevant issue in all parts of the world, but Badoe makes it unmistakably clear that [only education will reduce class friction] particularly for women. Without taking an overtly preachy tone about gender inequity in education, this story is definitely one that speaks to the vulnerability of poor girls who are forced to be hired out as household help to ease familial financial strain and perhaps provide a better future for undereducated young ladies. But as Gloria shows us, these girls walk a line between childhood and womanhood that they are ill-equipped to handle. Internally Gloria struggles to be Somebody but with conflicts ensuing because she is living a double life so to speak. On one hand, she was the dutiful, obedient daughter and sister with her natal family and Dr. Christine, but on the other hand she is dangerously experimenting with the taboo lifestyle of sugar daddies, sex and secrets. I think this ambiguity is common to the process of advancement into womanhood and this makes Between Sisters a cautionary tale with universal significance.
In many ways I compare this monograph to Tsitsi Dangarembga's similarly formatted Nervous Conditions . They both have the intimacy of first-person narrative and a female centric approach. My criticism of Between Sisters is that a cautious Badoe toned down the political and what could be sexist implications of the abuses suffered by girls employed as household help. But since this book is for a much younger age-set than Nervous Conditions, I understand the restraint. In the future I would love to read a more mature and hard-hitting novel by Adwoa Badoe that deals more harshly with the cold hard truth behind the issues of child labor and elitism, that, in fact, can be far more exploitative and dangerous than is depicted in this novel.
This is a noteworthy tome told with style and grace that I can recommend to teachers and parents, and in fact I will be passing this on to a friend of mine who educates sixth graders and mentors girls in a book club.
Published in Africa Access Review (July 6, 2011)
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