Book Title: Once, There Was a Star

Author: Meshack Yobby

Number of Pages: 260

Ismail Muse, a nomadic pastoralist moves with his family to a more abundant Hargeisa region of Somalia under Siad Barre’s regime. There has been a drought and the people are resettled here because as nomads, their ‘existence was an endless search for food.’ While there, war calls between Ethiopia and Somalia, with Somalia looking to conquer and regain a region of Ethiopia. Ismail Muse vows to fight for his country as a token to Siad Barre-surely something good will come. He leaves his wife, Sahra and 9-year-old daughter Halima to join the battle frontlines.

Once, There Was a Star is a sublime piece of historical fiction weaved masterfully: a detailed chronological account of Ismail Muse’s life circa 1977 spanning a 10-year war and his daughter’s coming of age. We get to see the permanent scars of war, irreparable damage, formation of rebel and progressive movements, suspicion and heartless executions of family, clans, rebels, army men and civilians. It is a story of extremities; of war and hope, of lack and abundance, of tyrannical governance and clan systems, of corruption, plunder and accountability, and of life and death. It is a beautifully tragic story that documents the Ogaden war of Somalia and the devastating effects of the clan civil wars on Ismail Muse and his family.

Somali culture seeps into you in small doses you’d imagine yourself drinking camel milk as you read: the pastoralism and love of goat meat and rice dishes, the khat at the mefrish where men meet to discuss issues. The arranged early marriages and how women wait to be led by their men and male relatives. It is a patriarchal society where men make all relevant choices without any discussion with their wives. The wives exist only to be informed and serve their husbands as their ‘hands must become friends with fatigue.’

Once, There Was a Star incorporates some oral literature techniques and elements such as songs and poetry which are characteristic of Somali tradition. While they enriched the narration, songs such as the one used to beg the haan for butter could have been in Somali since they were passed down from generations. Even Ismail Muse should have referred to his daughter in an endearing Somali term instead of “little flower”. There is a way terms in their original language and dialect signify a tender fondness in relationships.

Still on Somali, the language was brilliantly used and explained in the narration. However, the author removed himself from the zone and felt like an outsider narrating this tale. Granted, he is a Kenyan author who is not a Somali (yes, I know) but he made us travel to Somalia through this story as an observer . A story of a people who never left the country and only knew Somali and the regions. So, the inferences mentioning the language and the people as in “I am writing a story Hooyo, Halima replied addressing her mother using the Somali title…/ Sahra sat under a tree with a haan, the woven container Somalis traditionally use…” were a bit misplaced considering that the terms in most instances were cleverly used.

The story employs the use of radio transcripts from various media houses to fill in some gaps in the plot. That said, the story telling tropes didn’t work for me in some instances like the 17 executions of people at Mogadishu or the 82 murdered soldiers. It would have been way better if the writer took us into Ismail’s mind as he drifts in and out of consciousness so we can witness the execution of 82 Somalia Majerteen clan soldiers. The post trauma of war on his mind and how it takes a toll on his family by extension should have been more evident than him “mumbling things about guns and traitors.” The author brushed through this PTSD part that was pivotal in showing how war affects people at the battle frontlines. This was the biggest plot hole and weakness in the novel.  

This novel poignantly tackles the refugee question, how locals get sidelined, unscrupulous persons profiteering from war and international allies who fuel war between countries through providing ammunition. When you think that the suffering is about to end, with the introduction of Maalim, a shrewd connect ready to brave the ocean for safety in a bordering country, the violence intensifies. These sub plots and individual character story lines keep your emotions in a tug of war between having hope for the characters, feeling so desperate that life turns around for them and being ominous. You literally see the star dimming to the end.

I didn’t feel like the book was thoroughly copy edited considering the abbreviations and common grammatical errors of using too many conjunctions, repetition such as ‘sat down” “drink tea” etc. This may pass as intentional Kenyanised English though, it’s allowed or not. I mean, they are the only phrases that make one think “Okay, this is definitely a Kenyan author.” There was also an inconsistency on the time when Ismail Muse speaks of a looming drought in February 1977 similar to one that happened 3 years ago yet the events set the time at January 1975. Certainly, the book attempts to show the beauty of a peaceful Somalia, the tropical beaches and the trade that existed before the Ogaden war years back. 

All said and done, I didn’t put this book down. It is a very good read with a devastating but oddly satisfying ending. I hope that everyone who comes across it appreciates the kind of research work done to bring forth Once, There Was a Star. I highly recommend this book which deserves to transcend literary spaces in different regions.

If you are in Kenya, get your copy of Once, There Was a Star directly from the author by paying KES 1000 to Mpesa till 9007589 and sending a text with your delivery details to +254115103964

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