“How Beautiful We Were” by Imbolo Mbue is a powerful, painful and heart-wrenching story about a fictional village in Africa called Kosawa, who lives above a large oilfield. A foreign, multinational company headquartered in the US brokers a deal with the dictator in the country, whom the US has installed, to extract the oil and pay the dictator and his government a certain percentage of the profits.
The foreign company has little to know environmental qualms about polluting the air, the water, and the land where the oil is extracted to the detriment of the poor village of Kosawa. Children begin to die from exposure of the polluted conditions, and yet the company nor the government make any effort to mitigate and remediate the situation. Every few years, a local news story brings the plight of the people to the conscience of the international community, some promises of change are made, the village receives some paltry reparations for the damage to their land and the negative impact to human life the drilling has caused, and then they proceed to carry on with business as usual.
The saddest part of this story is that in third-world countries this scenario has been playing out for hundreds of years. The story even recounts a few generations prior to the oil discovery where foreigners came enslaving the people in the village to harvest the sap from rubber trees. Money and power are used as a manipulative force to put one person or a small “ruling class” so that an outsider can exploit local people and resources for their own benefit.
The story is told from multiple perspectives. Ms. Mbue tells the story through various villagers from Kosawa. The old, the young, the children and she tells the story through their eyes as these people age and see the iteration of attempts to fight for themselves, to extricate this negative external source from their village to protect their children and their families. The chapters are long and at times the story drags, but I think it is an important story. It is something to “see” and something to “recognize.” As a person in Western society, in the first world, how are my choices impacting the lives of people around the world. Am I, even indirectly, making a negative impact globally by my lifestyle or everyday choices? It is a question worth considering and reckoning about how I might make different choices in light of my answer to that question.