The first installment of her three-part memoir, Africa’s Child chronicles Nhambu’s childhood and follows her into early adulthood. Growing up as a mixed-race orphan in East Africa, Nhambu–then Mary Rose Ryan–had to face many kinds of discrimination and abuse from various antagonists. She was raised in a Catholic orphanage run by German nuns, and it is there where she began to develop a passion for learning that ultimately led her to a brighter future. Despite enduring abandonment, physical illness, and unimaginable abuse, Nhambu manages to cope and finds solace in education and dance. Not everyone she encounters is set on hurting her though; as time goes on Nhambu does find friends and mentors who believe in her and who help pave the way for Nhambu to overcome her circumstances. Throughout the book, she reflects on all of these experiences, the profound and the awful, with warmth, clarity, and a surprisingly acute sense of humor.
For a memoir, the narrative arc of Africa’s Child doesn’t stray very far from the template, and it doesn’t need to. The most interesting thing about how the series organizes Nhambu’s life is the decision to tell her story over the course of three books. This first installment is so compelling, that it leaves readers wondering how the events of Nhambu’s life could have continued to unfold with so much poignance that it warranted another two books. One of Africa’s Child’s most moving, and at times harrowing features is how it conveys the nuance of humanity through its characters. Nhambu encounters unspeakable mistreatment and extreme love and devotion, sometimes from the same people. The nuns who raise Nhambu are a prime example of this duality, and Nhambu clears the way for her readers to really digest it all with her deft, personable reflections. In fact, Nhambu’s tone and writing style in general, especially when considered alongside the gravity of her circumstances, are precisely what make the book remarkably human. While the trauma of reality, no less a reality like hers, can often stunt the psychological growth of an individual, Nhambu almost casually demonstrates an astounding emotional intelligence in her interpretation of her experiences and her understanding of humanity. This quality, more than any others, sets the book apart. Nhambu offers her own account of how her experiences and, more specifically, her lust for education and knowledge have shaped her, but readers are afforded the unique opportunity to see it for themselves through her clever, empathetic prose.
At times, Africa’s Child can be difficult to get through–it shines a light on the most sensitive kinds of hardship and depicts some of the more heinous acts that humans can be capable of. But Nhambu’s masterful, gentle account of this raw humanity, as framed by her thoughtful reflection of it, is exactly why Africa’s Child is a must-read.