One day in the forests of Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a supply truck gets stuck in the mud. Eleven-year-old Malika is sent across the forest by her grandmother to see what can be scavenged before it gets dug out. Along the way Malika meets the charcoal makers (one is a relative), and then Mountain Gorillas, and then the forest rangers (who she first thinks are dangerous) and then poachers. She also brings her pen and paper so she can hopefully find a little time to draw along the way.
The various stories of the park begin to interweave as Malika meets these characters. You find out that one Forest Ranger used to be a poacher, that a female ranger (a rarity) was a victim of rape and escaped genocide, that the head poacher just wants to make money and be a powerful man, and that the newest poacher recruit is just a young boy, terrified by what he sees.
Written by the Stanford University Graphic Novel project, this volume is an attempt to highlight what is happening in this politically unstable region of the world. People are poor and need fuel to cook their food and boil their water. But making charcoal involves cutting down and destroying the forest, when the endangered gorillas live. The rangers are few with limited power and have to negotiate and compromise with the poachers. And caught in-between are children and elderly like Malika and her grandparents, who end up being sent to a refugee camp.
Told in simple pen and ink drawings, the novel does convey the complexities of the Virunga forest enough that the reader gets a glimpse of life there, but just a glimpse. I wish all the art was as beautiful as the cover but it is not. The drawings are almost too simplistic. Undeveloped might be a better word. And there is so much more the artists could have done with the dynamic fluidness of this storytelling form. On one successful page, Esther, the female ranger, is explaining to Malika how she copes with all the horrors in their world by putting them into the red eye of a weaver bird in her mind. And the images are of a weaver-bird close, then closer, and then of Esther and Malika reflected in a huge close up of the weaver bird’s eye. But most of the pages are just a series of boxes. I can only assume that some of this came from the student nature of the project and the time limits involved.
Recommended for high school and up (gunfight, mention of rape)
Virunga: Africa’s Oldest National Park
by Standford University Graphic Novel Project
Stanford University Press, 2009