For those interested in reading memoirs about events in other countries, I recommend this book by a young woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Sandra is from a Congolese tribe called the Banyamulenge that has been a frequent target of ethnic violence. In August 2004, ten-year-old Sandra sees her mother and sister gunned down and has a gun pointed at her head, while she and her family are staying in a refugee camp. 166 refugees are massacred that day.
Sandra tells her story in a very genuine way – as a child she struggles not just with violence and terrorism, but with the day to day issues of growing up. She tells about the massacre but also tells us about her childhood, her siblings, and her day to day life in the Congo, and then later as a refugee. As a teenager she grows up without a home, and she and her family members endure a number of terrible things. Particularly poignant, and devastating on top of what she’s already experienced, is her story of a sexual assault she experiences in the home of a friend.
Sandra’s story is pretty amazing. Her family moves to the United States and she has to adjust to a very different culture. She thinks everything will be great in the U.S., and it’s not. She encounters racism, bullying, and inequities in the educational system. But she perseveres, and she’s fortunate that her family has people that help them along the way.
Even though this is her story about the massacre, it covers most of her life, and I found it particularly interesting to read about the struggles and changes she goes through over time. As a teenager, she begins to focus on activism, studying how the U.S. treats people of other races and nationalities. While her parents mostly want to forget, she begins meeting regularly with other refugees from her community. Her dedication to this cause leads to some pretty amazing accomplishments and opportunities, which of course led to the publication of her memoir.
I want the killers who targeted my people to face justice. But going forward, I don’t want to spread the seeds of separation. I want to open myself to people of all races, cultures, and faiths.
As with a lot of memoirs, the writing is good but not outstanding – it’s repetitive, with very simple sentence structure, but it’s heartfelt, and it’s Sandra’s story that counts (note that she co-wrote the book with Abigail Pesta). I listened to this as an audiobook, which Sandra herself narrates. And of course with any memoir, you know you’re getting one person’s perspective rather than a factual account. But Sandra is pretty open about her struggles as well as her successes, so the book feels honest and genuine. In particular, I appreciated her openness in talking about the long-term effects that trauma has had on her.
Sadly, many families in many parts of the world have experienced events similar to this one. I might have liked more historical and political detail, but Sandra provides so much personal detail, her story is memorable and compelling. And in this time where people in the U.S. are telling people of color to “go back” to their countries, it’s something I wish everyone would read. I highly recommend it.