by Tara Sullivan
Kindle e-Book, 368 pages
Published June 27, 2013 by Puffin Books (Also available in paperback)
Genre: Multicultural, Social Issues
Awards: Notable Social Studies Trade Book, 2014
YALSA Top Ten Best Fiction for Young
MLA: Sullivan, Tara. Golden Boy. New York: Puffin Books, 2013. Kindle file. ISBN-13: 978-0142424506. e-Book, $8.45.
Find it in your local library!
Habo wants nothing more than to be a normal thirteen-year-old boy: one who kicks around a football with the other children during midday break at his Tanzanian village school, whose family shows him the same love and warmth as they show his dark-skinned siblings, who has a long and certain future ahead of him. If only his skin weren’t milky white and sensitive to the brilliant African sun, his shaky eyes blurry and watery blue, his tight knots of hair a pale shade of yellow. Even his name, Dhahabo, means “gold” in Swahili, a constant reminder of the albinism that makes him different.
But for Habo, being different isn’t just frustrating. It’s dangerous.
When Habo was born, his father abandoned the family, rejecting his light-skinned son. Thirteen years later, the poverty-stricken family is evicted from their farm, and Habo’s mother decides to move them to Mwanza to live with her sister. The family’s arduous journey, during which they accept a ride from a dangerous ivory poacher who mutilates an elephant for its tusks, ends with unexpected conflict in Auntie’s home. She tells them that Mwanza is unsafe for people like Habo because the waganga, or local healers and witch doctors, sell albino body parts as good luck talismans for large sums of money. The police in rural Tanzania mostly ignore albino mutilations and murders since many of them are either corrupt, or they themselves believe in the superstitions of these terrible charlatans. Habo’s family would be much safer in the city of Dar es Salaam, over 1,100 kilometers (roughly 700 miles) away, but the trip is costly for four people. As his family works hard to raise enough money to leave Mwanza, Habo must remain hidden in a tiny, uncomfortable pantry until they can flee to safety.
When disaster strikes, Habo runs away to Dar es Salaam to protect himself and his family. Alone, defenseless, and on the run in an unfamiliar city, Habo summons the courage to face the trials and danger thrust upon him by his condition. His quest to find his place in the world echoes the real-life search undertaken by thousands of albinos in present-day Tanzania, a nation with the highest number of people with albinism in the world and the most dangerous country for them to call home. Habo struggles to determine his own value in a society that considers him both priceless and worthless, and his journey serves as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit.
VerdictPlease read this book.
Golden Boy transcends being a story about human rights and the atrocities faced by the thousands of people with albinism living in Tanzania today who are living in exile and fear, though it is a book that importantly brings awareness to this tragedy. It is also a book about discovering where each of us fits in and learning that who we are consists of more than what others perceive us to be, that no one can take away our self-worth without our permission.
Habo will make you smile, bring tears to your eyes, and (hopefully) spur you into action when you see injustice happening around you. He's not written to be a traditional hero, and his journey is not a traditional one, either. Habo clearly suffers from trauma induced by the attempts on his life and years of feeling rejected and isolated from his own family. He carries the burden of their lives in addition to his own, and he wavers between feelings of anger and guilt for these people who can’t protect him as his very existence puts them in constant danger. Habo is a complicated and nuanced young character and Sullivan validates feelings of isolation, frustration, depression and loneliness through a plot that will keep you reading long into the night. Habo is also bright, observant, and incredibly sweet, and against all odds he manages to maintain a degree of innocence about the world.
Often it is the fear of death that propels Habo into action, and in fiction and real life, there’s no greater motivator. But as his story continues, he grows from a reactionary character to one who makes serious and conscious decisions about his own fate with maturity and wisdom only found in a child who has suffered so tremendously. I was so proud of him by the end of the book. The boy called a “zeruzeru” – literally, “zero-zero,” “nothing” – finds a name for his condition, his voice, his place in the world, and a life where he knows that he matters.
Golden Boy is highly recommended for anyone ages 10 and up. All the feels will be felt, and I hope that you take all the messages of this book to heart as much as I did. This beautiful book has overtaken Bone Gap as my favorite 2015 read, and I loved Bone Gap, so take heed: Golden Boy is a tremendously important feat, and tremendously worth reading.
So I want to take this opportunity to briefly explain what people with albinism like Habo are going through in Tanzania, and what you can do to help. I should warn you that the descriptions of violence in some of these articles, videos, etc. that I'm posting below can be graphic, but remember that they are really happening and we shouldn't turn away from acknowledging their suffering if we can avoid doing so.
According to the United Nations Human Rights Council:
Albinism is a rare, non-contagious, genetically inherited condition present at birth. In almost all types of albinism, both parents must carry the gene for it to be passed on, even if they do not have albinism themselves. The condition is found in both genders, regardless of ethnicity and in all countries of the world.
Albinism results in a lack of pigmentation (melanin) in the hair, skin and eyes, causing vulnerability to the sun and bright light. As a result, almost all people with albinism are visually impaired and are prone developing skin cancer. There is no cure for the absence of melanin.Albinism is more prevalent in Tanzania than in any other country in the world. Albinos represent 1 in every 1,429 births in Tanzania, compared to the worldwide estimates of 1 in 17,000 to 20,000, and 14 times greater than in North America and Europe. This means that in addition to living in the most dangerous country in the world for those with this condition, there are far more people with albinism living in Tanzania and Africa on average than anywhere else in the world (an estimated 33,000 people).
Author of Golden Boy Tara Sullivan wrote a brief but thorough run-down of the situation in Tanzania on her website, which I highly recommend reading and passing on. She explains:
The killing of albinos for their body parts to be used as good luck charms is the most extreme form of this marginalization. All over East Africa people with albinism have been attacked, mutilated, or killed for their body parts, predominantly in the lake district of northern of Tanzania. It certain regions it is believed that albino hair woven into nets will catch fish, in others it is believed that albino legs will cause a mine to produce gold. In still others, it is believed that sleeping with an albino will cure AIDS. It is widely believed that wagangas, or shamans, can use parts of albino bodies to give a person fortune, or can use the death of an albino to lift a curse. Some children have been sold by their parents to butchers. Others have been betrayed by brothers, sisters, or spouses.Violence against people with albinism in Tanzania is certainly not new; prior to the more recent spate of violence, babies with albinism were killed at birth, many times by their own parents who believed that they would bring bad luck upon their families and communities. Children have traditionally been and continue to be the most vulnerable victims of these crimes. The UN HRC report states:
The use of children is likely linked to the pursuit of innocence which, it is believed, enhances the potency of the witchcraft ritual. Moreover, children are more vulnerable to attacks as they are easy to find and capture and do not have the physical strength to fend off attackers.Further, many children are sold to poachers like the one chasing Habo by their own families; a "complete set of body parts" of a person with albinism can bring in $75,000 when the average rural Tanzanian family makes an average of TZS 480,000, or about $224 in US dollars per year (the average per capita GDP, or average of all the salaries in Tanzania, was only $2,700 in 2014). The UN reports that as of 2013, they have received information about more than 200 cases of ritual attacks against persons with albinism in 15 countries between 2000 and 2013. They believe that many more attacks occur each year that go unreported.
More attention has been given to the plight of albinos in Tanzania in recent years. Tanzania elected its first albino politician in 2010, and the government has been cracking down on witchdoctors who participate in the albino trade, arresting 200 of them in March 2015. Rural Tanzania, particularly the rural Lake Victoria region (where Mwanza is located), has the highest incidence of these kinds of attacks, while cities are definitely safer. But all albinos in Tanzania, and especially children, still fear for their lives every day.
I highly recommend watching this short documentary on people with albinism in Tanzania, with a particular focus on children abandoned by their families. There's several great documentaries on YouTube on this subject.
Finally, if you feel compelled to take action, please consider fundraising for a great charity called Under the Same Sun. Their mission is to "promote, via advocacy and education, the wellbeing of PWA who in many parts of the world are marginalized, misunderstood, abused and at times mutilated and killed because of their genetic condition." They focus on supporting education programs for children with albinism by providing scholarships and funds for sunscreen, glasses, and other necessities for children with this condition. They also spread awareness of the tragedies in Tanzania and work to stop these violations by educating Tanzanians about albinism.
Tara Sullivan also provides some great suggestions of what you can do to help on her website.