Golden Boy by Tara Sullivan has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.
Thirteen-year-old Habo is sometimes called “ghost boy” by the kids at school. He lives with his mother, older sister, Asu, and two brothers in a small Tanzanian village. Unlike his family members, who bear the rich brown skin of his people, Habo has white skin, yellow hair and light eyes that move around and focus with great difficulty. No one he knows understands how he got this way. His father left them after he was born, suspecting Habo’s mother had been with a white tourist.
When their farm is seized, the family must vacate immediately. Habo, Asu, Mother and youngest brother, Chui, start on a lengthy journey to Mwanza to live with Habo’s aunt. They take the bus until their money runs out. Then they disguise themselves as locals. They hope to cross the Serengeti on foot without paying park fees. After several days of walking and several nights of sleeping on the road, the family accepts a ride from a charming man in a Jeep named Alasiri. Habo and Chui learn the ugly truth about Alasiri when he takes them out alone the next day. He makes them help him and his fellow poachers butcher an elephant, harvest the ivory and leave the corpse to rot. Alasiri takes a few elephant parts — toenails and teeth — to a witch doctor. When the witch doctor sees Habo, he whispers something to Alsiri about luck.
Alasiri drops the family off, and they finish their journey to Auntie’s house. Auntie is shocked and anxious upon meeting Habo for the first time. She is the first person to tell him there’s a word for people with skin like his. He’s an albino. Habo’s relief at being able to name his condition is quickly squelched when Auntie says the family can’t stay with her. In Mwanza, she explains, albinos are hunted and killed. Their body parts are believed to bring good luck, and the wealthy pay tens of thousands of dollars for albino hair, legs and hands. Auntie has heard the large city of Dar es Salaam, halfway across the country, hasn’t had albino killings. They even have an albino or two in high-ranking government positions. Auntie finally agrees to let the family stay until they can earn money for the expensive trip. Habo spends his days hiding behind sacks of corn while his family members work. Even so, Alasiri eventually finds Habo and tries to kill him for body parts. Habo escapes, takes the money his family has saved and makes the two-day train trip to Dar es Salaam alone.
Habo wanders in the new city for several days, so hungry he finally tries to take a blind man’s food. The blind man, named Kweli, catches Habo. Instead of having him punished, Kweli allows the boy to stay with him as his assistant. Kweli is a carver, and Habo feels safe within the man’s walled compound. He learns life lessons, as well as carving techniques, and he becomes friends with Kweli’s granddaughter, Davu. Day by day, Habo becomes more relaxed and feels safer in his new life. He helps sell Kweli’s work in the village and learns to carve his own creations in various types of wood. Kweli’s kindness, encouragement and training help Habo discover his own self-worth.
One night, Habo returns to Kweli’s to find the old man talking to Alasiri. He watches from the shadows as Alasiri tries to convince Kweli to carve something in ivory for him. Kweli refuses, but Alasiri leaves contact information in case Kweli changes his mind. When the poacher is gone, Habo breaks down and tells Kweli that Alasiri is the man who has been hunting him. Kweli convinces Habo they should go to the police. With officers planted in the compound, they set a trap for Alasiri. The police not only witness Alasiri’s admission to poaching, but they also see him try to kill Habo. They assure Habo that Alasiri won’t be free again in the boy’s lifetime.
As the police take Alasiri away, Habo sees his sister, Asu, standing across the street. She has crossed the country to find him. Kweli invites her to stay, and Habo finally contacts his family to let them know he’s alive.
Many characters, by virtue of their Tanzanian culture, are superstitious. They believe in luck, relying on witch doctors and magic talismans to provide good fortune and keep evil away. Some people believe spirits live in the Makonde masks Kweli carves. Tanzanians in various regions believe an albino’s body parts bring good luck: Tying an albino’s hair in your fishing nets ensures you’ll catch fish. Albino hands and skin bring good luck in business. A person who puts albino legs on either side of his door entrance will quickly become rich.
Habo’s father leaves because he doesn’t understand why his son’s skin is white. Mother’s lack of understanding causes her to keep Habo at arm’s length much of the time. Asu defends and loves Habo regardless of his unique appearance. Just as Alasiri slaughters elephants for personal gain, he mercilessly hunts Habo in the interest of making money. Kweli invests himself in Habo, pushes him to grow and helps the boy see his value as a human being.
The Lord’s name is used in vain once. In a somewhat gory scene, Alasiri and his men dismember an elephant with machetes and chain saws. Blood and flesh cover them, and flies buzz around them. The chain saw squeals as it hits bone. The men rip ivory out of the elephant’s face before harvesting other parts such as teeth and toenails.
Although Golden Boy is a work of fiction, there are numerous true accounts of albino killings in Tanzania. In a final note, the author discusses some of her research on these crimes.
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