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Building A Worldview

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Harrison Opoku is an eleven-year old Ghanian boy who has just moved to London with his mother and sister. His father, grandmother and younger sister stay on in Ghana.

Harrison is generally fascinated by England and the locality he lives in – Peckham – and particularly by two things: the pigeon that visits his balcony daily and the local lad gang, called the Dell Farm Crew. He feeds the pigeon and wants to be a part of the gang. He also has two existential queries for the world at large: will lovely Poppy Morgan sit next to him in art class, and can his Adidas runners help him run faster than his classmates in Nike Air Max?  But these problems pale into nothing when a boy his age is stabbed, apparently for no reason at all. That is when Harrison (or ‘Harri', as he is called) and his friend Dean start amateur sleuthing. Starting with a search for the knife (‘It's called the murder weapon', says Harri) to paying close attention to the behavior of people in the area, the boys embark on a strange way of growing up.

As days pass Harri understands the nature of the ghetto he lives, the lines he must not cross: You can't see the lines, but you know they are there… The lines make a square. Only if you stay in the square you'll be safe. That's your home. If you stay there they can't kill you'. He makes up rules to live by (he has reached hundred), which include:
‘No singing in class...
Jumping in the puddle means you're a retard
Going around the puddle means you're a girl
The first one to answer the question loves the teacher'

We also get to see the lives of his Mom, the indomitable Aunt Sonia (who burns her fingertips to ensure there are no fingerprints of hers to record by the state's immigration machinery), and the complications of his older sister, Lydia who has something going on with the Farm gang. The family, here very different from the extended family of Ghana, tries very hard to protect Harri – he does not want to be protected so much that it might prevent him from tracking suspects!, and make a living. We see the tensions of the ghetto's people and their dynamics with the police (the novel appeared during the time of the London riots earlier this year). But we are also given the underbelly of the immigrant lives: drugs, alcohol, crime. What is understated but emerges when you scratch the novel's surface a bit is the immigrant dream that turns to despair: people move from Ghana and other places to the First World metropolis, to discover that they have exchanged one hell for another.

Based partly on the true-life incident when a young Nigerian immigrant, 10-year-old Damilola Taylor, was severely beaten by boys around his age in South London's Peckham (Taylor later bled to death), Pigeon English is a growing-up tale, complete with adolescent angst, the onset of sexual awareness, gangs and school problems. Pigeon English of course fits its title by delivering the story through the boy's perspective in pidgin English, laced with Ghanian slang: ‘Asweh' for ‘I swear' or ‘hutious' for ‘frightening'.  His naïve observations on life, his skewed perspective of the world and inability – being a child – to see the ‘larger picture' in the conversations, attitudes and behavior around him make the voice of Harri-the-narrator believable. Understandably, it is not an easy read, for you need to get past the slang, the child narrator's vocabulary and world-view. The story is passable, and if you hold on to the book for a few chapters you might actually finish it and like it. It is not, let me warn you, a crime thriller in a twist-a-minute mode. It is essentially a boy-tale, and must be read as one.