by Meshack Asare
(first published by Sub-Saharan Publishers (Ghana), 1997; last reprint 2012)
Winner of the 1999 UNESCO Prize for Children’s & Young People’s Literature in the Service of Tolerance; IBBY Outstanding Books for Young People with Disabilities; in the Top Twelve of Africa’s 100 Best Books of the 20th Century
Contains spoilers – I don’t usually give away the ending of the story when reviewing a picture book, but feel it is necessary here in order to touch on important themes in the story.
Sosu longs to see and experience life beyond his family’s compound but he can’t walk. He longs to go to school like his sister and brother, Fafa and Bubu. Although they pass on everything they learn, it just isn’t the same, and apart from the company of the family dog Fusa and the chickens, he is lonely during the day when the rest of the family is away.
One Monday, when most of the village are away as usual, at work or at school, a severe storm hits. As the waves break into his compound, Sosu realises that the elderly, the sick and the small children left in the village are in ‘serious danger’ and it is up to him to get help. He remembers the drums and knows that he has to get to them…
Meshack Asare is a fine storyteller, with a characterful turn of phrase. He helps readers get under Sosu’s skin and empathise with how lonely and frustrating he must get, despite the love and support of his family. He builds up the suspense in the narrative; and young readers/listeners will feel they are alongside Sosu in his ordeal to reach the drums, willing him to succeed. And somehow, Fusa’s presence is reassuring for readers as well as Sosu.
Although it is nearly twenty years old, Sosu’s Call still feels very contemporary, right down to the TV cameras and newspapers descending on Sosu’s village to cover his achievement. For Sosu, though, the real rewards are being able to go to school, pushed ‘gladly’ in the wheelchair he receives as a thank you from the village, and being accepted as ‘just one of the boys’. For this wonderful book isn’t just about Sosu and his courage and determination, it’s also about the changing attitudes of the people around him: not the people who already knew the real Sosu, his family, but the people who looked at Sosu and saw only his disability and labelled him worthless because of it.
In the course of the narrative, we learn of two incidents that we can assume are not isolated in their undertones: in the first, Sosu’s father takes him out in his fishing boat, but neighbours complain that Sosu should not be brought out onto the Lagoon, thereby risking the displeasure of the Lagoon Spirit. And in the second, Sosu is so enthralled by the village drums one evening that he starts dragging himself across the village towards them. In the darkness, a girl suddenly starts screaming because ‘Apparently, she had taken him to be a creepy spirit!’ It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Sosu feels lonely and unhappy.
So although this is a story that has a happy ending, Meshack doesn’t shy away from injecting a little pragmatism. First of all there was that ‘Apparently’, cited above, which conveys a certain lack of sympathy for the implication that the girl’s fright was taken seriously. The illustration is very evocative here, too, with Sosu clearly defined in the darkness, compared with the girl and the other villagers who are hazy and suggested by the watercolour rather than fully depicted. It could so easily have been Sosu who was frightened by a figure looming out of the darkness, couldn’t it – but would the general furore have been the same? And later, when Meshack introduces that fateful Monday, he writes that ‘all of that changed’ ( i.e. Sosu’s loneliness and frustration), and then he adds, ‘Well, nearly.’ Most readers may not even notice those two words, but for any children reading this book and recognising part of themselves in Sosu, those two little words take away the fairy-tale element of the story and give them something stronger to hold onto.
Sosu’s Call is a wonderful book, with beautiful watercolour illustrations and an exciting story that is full of insightful nuances. It both celebrates Sosu’s courage and subtly asks readers to question their own attitude towards disability.
Read Dennis Abram’s interview with Meshack (Publishing Perspectives, 2014).
View a Gallery of Meshack’s work (including two illustrations from Sosu’s Call), alongside a Q&A (PaperTigers, 2009).