A refugee from Sudan, Chagai Chol Lual was just a teen when civil war in his country forced him to flee on foot to Ethiopia. How Childhood Hardship Prepared Me for Life is his memoir of his early years.
In a hodgepodge of recollections, he shares stories of his childhood in Sudan, where his widowed mother struggled to provide for the family; his escape from his Dinka village when militants burned it to the ground; his life in an Ethiopian refugee camp; and his return to Sudan. Although he eventually immigrated to Egypt and then Canada, where he started the Padang Lutheran Christian Relief to assist fellow Sudanese refugees, he only lightly touches on these years.
Lual’s story is hard to read, not so much because of the hardship he faced but because of his struggle to write rich, coherent, moving details of his life in his second language. On his initial flight from his village he writes: “Stumbling through the thick grass, I got lost and nearly starved. Imagine the feelings of my anxious mother when she saw me leave on my own, in spite of my boyhood. This was the first time I had been away from home, basically on my own and I enjoyed it. But who knew what hungry wild animals might have eaten me in the bush.” This is as deep and detailed as Lual gets in his writing, which fails to touch the reader emotionally.
How Childhood Hardship Prepared Me for Life has one redeeming quality: its insight into the culture of Sudan’s Dinka tribe, where polygamy is common and sitting near the kitchen is a sign of weakness in men. Otherwise, Lual’s story of childhood hardship would have been better served by a competent ghostwriter able to weave a more emotionally touching, riveting memoir.