Three hundred thousand children under the age of eighteen participate in armed conflict globally, according to the Quaker United Nations Offices–Geneva and Save the Children Sweden. While the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers believes that the numbers have decreased overall in the past few years, due to some governments ratifying international treaties banning the use of children in hostilities and the cessation of several major wars, conflicts in Africa — particularly in Burundi, Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, and Uganda — continue to engage over one hundred thousand children.
Johnny, known as Mad Dog, is one of these children. The fictitious character of Congolese writer Emmanuel Dongala, the eponymous Johnny Mad Dog
, is a sixteen-year-old rebel soldier in an unnamed West African nation. Laokolé, also sixteen, flees from Johnny and other rogue militia on the day she is to write her baccalaureate exams. Johnny and Laokolé are the dual narrators of Dongala’s novel. In alternating chapters, Dongala chronicles Johnny’s and Laokolé’s coming of age in the midst of civil war.
Attention to genocide and to the role of children in armed conflict has been more prevalent in Western media over the past year. Names like "Darfur" and the "Lord’s Resistance Army" now slip easily off tongues in American conversations. Yet rarely do these conversations include knowledge of the thousands of individuals in Sudan, Uganda, and numerous countries around the world who experience daily the atrocities paraded across our newspapers and television screens. Novels play a particularly powerful role in promoting understanding of and empathy for complex human conditions. Portraying a reality that most Americans thankfully will never experience, Johnny Mad Dog
fulfills this role, drawing its readers into a situation at once unfamiliar, with graphic descriptions of violence that may prove disturbing to some readers (young or otherwise), yet populated by characters whose hearts and minds are eerily recognizable. Inspired by real events in Dongala’s home of Congo-Brazzaville, this book would be an effective addition to a high school English, history, or global issues curriculum, especially supplemented with resources from organizations such as Human Rights Watch and the Office of the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary General for Children in Armed Conflict.
Johnny Mad Dog
is particularly powerful among a cluster of novels released in 2005 that address the issue of child soldiers, including the acclaimed Beasts of No Nation
by Uzodinma Iweala and Delia Jarrett-Macauley’s Moses, Citizen & Me
, winner of the George Orwell Prize for political writing. The dual narration of Dongala’s novel allows the voices of two young protagonists to sear the reader. Johnny is unpredictable and violent with little to no moral compass. "I am not a murderer," he says. "I fight wars! In war, you kill, you burn buildings, you rape women. That’s normal. That’s what war is all about — killing is natural. But that doesn’t mean I am a common murderer!" (p. 313). Laokolé, headstrong in her own way, remains capable of seeing the good in people, even in the midst of violence that swirls around her and affects her most intimately. "How was it that despite the cruelty humans were capable of, there were still people who sacrificed themselves for others?" she asks herself. "To put this another way: given all the evil that human beings strive so hard to perpetrate, the good ought to have been driven out of existence. Yet it exists" (p. 157).
Although Dongala seems to hold Johnny and Laokolé in stark contrast, he draws parallels between them that speak to the complexity of people and of war. Both Johnny and Laokolé thirst for knowledge, but it leads them in different directions. Johnny understands his role in the fighting and killing as leadership; his fourth-grade education makes him, in his own mind, superior to those who surround him. As a result, he takes up arms and tries to create a different social order that he believes will benefit his country. While he does loot for fancy suits and DVD players, his most prized booty is books; after the fighting has ceased, he will create a library befitting an intellectual. Laokolé has steadfastly pursued her education in the face of family tragedy and poverty, almost completing high school; instead of inspiring superiority, this relatively advanced education makes her hunger for more. Over the course of her experience with war, her dreams of becoming an engineer grow to dreams of becoming an astronaut like Mae Jemison, a profession that will allow her to use knowledge rather than force to better society.
Johnny Mad Dog
goes beyond revealing the complexities of two individuals and their particular experiences in West Africa. The novel has three important messages for American educators. First, it is a worldwide call for attention to children like Johnny who are swept up in the glory of war, and children like Laokolé who are caught in power struggles, "the grass on which two elephants were engaged in combat" (p. 66). Laokolé looks at a Belgian journalist and wonders whether "a European could identify with the sufferings of these women as closely as someone from India or Afghanistan, or a Palestinian or a Somalian." She concludes, "I think she could. Weren’t we all human? Any person can understand and share the pain of another, if only he or she makes the effort to do so" (p. 305). Laokolé’s pain is a call to make that effort. As educators, we have the responsibility to help children grow up to be the kind of adults who will do just that.
Second, Johnny Mad Dog
breaks the silence on American complicity in fostering ethnic tension and in inciting young people to war. In this novel, militia leaders choose names from U.S. films as their noms de guerre
. "Rambo" and "Chuck Norris" join Johnny Mad Dog in indiscriminate destruction and murder, in the same way that Tupac Shakur’s music has been integral to recruitment efforts in Sierra Leone’s rebel training camps. The youth culture of our students is not limited in its impact to American high schools and neighborhoods. Our students need to know of the global effects of American media and pop culture and the indirect role their support for it may play in conflicts half-way around the world.
Third, Johnny Mad Dog
raises powerful questions for all educators about the consequences of a lack of attention to education in countries torn by conflict. The most hopeful moment in Johnny Mad Dog
occurs when Laokolé spontaneously begins to teach a group of children in a refugee camp. She explains:
The hand. The head. One can’t manage without the other. . . . This was a rhyme that my grandfather, my father, and I had all learned when we were small. And now I, in turn, was passing it on to a new generation. Doing this gave me great intellectual satisfaction — and suddenly my hope in the future revived, for the first time since the beginning of this stupid war. (p. 297)
Decades of research have indeed shown that education is a way to prevent the recurrence of violence and to create economic opportunities that allow displaced people to rebuild their societies, rather than slip into the violent behavior seen in Johnny Mad Dog, the boy. Despite knowledge of how important education is in situations of conflict, however, education is not a key element of humanitarian responses by U.N. agencies. Pressure on donor governments, including the United States, will be necessary to change the importance given to education in attempts to avert the continuation of conflict and of conscription of young people like Johnny into its embrace.