Now is the Time for Running
Written by Michael Williams
Little, Brown, 2011, 233 pp.
Deo and his friends are playing soccer on a dusty field in modern Zimbabwe when Mugabe’s soldiers arrive. The commander’s announcement to the villagers, “You voted wrongly in the election. You were not thinking. That is why the president sent me here” (p. 16) signals a massacre that changes Deo’s happy but meager life into a nightmare of death and violence. He flees the wreckage with his older mentally disabled brother, Innocent, and a leather soccer ball stuffed with worthless Zimbabwe bills for the distant promise of safe haven in South Africa. As they join others in fleeing to safety, Innocent’s unpredictable behavior proves dangerous, yet also saves their lives. Told in fourteen-year-old Deo’s first person voice in a present-tense narrative, this harrowing tale follows the brothers as they crawl beneath barbed wire, wade through the crocodile-infested Limpopo River, run through a nature preserve full of hungry hyenas and lions, find work on a farm, and eventually make their way to the townships outside Johannesburg and Cape Town. Instead of a safe haven, they live on the streets in constant fear of attack as unwanted refugees by desperately poor South Africans who view them as a threat. When Innocent is murdered in a riot, Deo loses hope and sinks into a life of drug abuse and gangs. His life changes when he is recruited to join a team to play street soccer and is given a chance to compete in the Homeless World Cup.
The difficult depictions of violence and harsh conditions are balanced with the tender relationship between Deo and Innocent and the fast-paced descriptions of soccer matches that frame the beginning and end of this story. The novel is suspenseful and gripping, while also managing to be deeply compassionate with characters that readers come to care deeply about. This complicated novel deals with difficult social issues such as military rule, the exploitation of illegal immigrants, racial violence, and drug abuse, but it is also an uplifting and compelling coming-of-age story rooted in real events.
The novel was originally published in South Africa under the title, The Billion Dollar Soccer Ball (2009). The author is a white South African who writes plays, musicals, operas, and novels and manages the Cape Town Opera. He is also a civil rights activist and published the young adult novels, Crocodile Burning (1994) and The Genuine Half-Moon Kid (1992), both set in South Africa. A photograph of a man burning to death in the 2008 South African uprisings that targeted “foreigners” led Williams to interview three refugees from Zimbabwe. Williams says that their stories of their journey to Cape Town inspired this novel. An Author’s Note at the end of the book provides more information on the 2008 xenophobic attacks on refugees in South Africa and the Homeless World Cup. An educator’s guide is located at http://www.hachettebookgroup.com/_assets/guides/EG_9780316077903.pdf.
This novel could be paired with other recent books on Zimbabwe, such as Out of the Shadows by Jason Wallace (2011), focusing on the beginning of Mugabe’s rule in the 1980s, as well as books on South Africa, such as This Thing Called the Future (J.L. Powers, 2011) and Out of Bounds: Seven Stories of Conflict and Hope (Beverley Naidoo, 2008). Another connection is soccer, especially soccer in South Africa, as depicted in Goal!, a picture book by Mina Javaherbin (2010) and Soccer World: South Africa by Shawn Braley, David Rosenberg, and Ethan Zohn (2010). A picture book that would be a good pairing with this novel is The Composition (Antonio Skarmeta, 2003), set in Chile and also involving a soccer ball and military oppression. Finally, the book could be paired with other stories of refugees who face violence, racism and discrimination around the world, including the United States, such as Ask Me No Questions (Marina Budhos, 2006), Return to Sender (Julia Alvarez, 2007), A Long Walk to Water (Linda Sue Park, 2010), A Time of Miracles (Anne-Laure Bondoux, 2010), The Bite of the Mango (Mariatu Kamara & Susan McClelland, 2008), and Journey of Dreams (Marge Pellegrino, 2009). Immigration and refugees are a much debated topic worldwide with the passing of harsh immigration laws and vigilante groups patrolling borders and waters.
This heartbreaking and hopeful novel is both bleak and inspiring. The novel was named to the award list, 2012 Notable Books for a Global Society, because of the way in which it connects readers to the larger struggles of people in crisis around the world.
Kathy G. Short, University of Arizona, Tucson , AZ