I have never cried at the book fair before, but twenty minutes with Henning Mankell had me wipe my eyes on my sleeves. I have promised to do a piece on him, but anything else I want to say will have to wait until later. Today it’s all about Sofia.
Henning has written three books about Sofia, called Secrets in the Fire and Playing with Fire. The third, Eldens Vrede, hasn’t yet been translated. Sofia is real and lives in Mozambique. Twelve years ago she lost her legs in a landmine, and her sister was killed. Henning writes about what happened and how she has fought her way back to as normal a life as she can have.
I have read the first two books, and so have most of Sweden’s eleven-year-olds (of a few years ago), as the books were handed out free in the schools. They now have strong views on landmines, and write letters to Sofia by the sackload, which Henning takes with him whenever he goes. The official understanding on how landmines work, is that it needs the weight of a soldier’s boot to set it off. Clearly not true.
The good news is that Sofia is happy, most of the time. She is in her early twenties now and has three children. She is well known in Mozambique, and the proceeds from the books go straight to her, which helps with the cost of living.
Sofia’s doctor admitted to Henning that he wished Sofia had also died, so bad were her injuries. When Sofia recently contracted malaria, the treatment was at times very painful, but she showed no concern, as what she had gone through before was so much worse.
What Sofia does miss, though, is being able to dance. It’s part of how African women express themselves, and she can’t join in. She turns away when she sees others dancing. Henning tells Sofia what he writes, and he has become a kind of father figure to her.
After the first book came out, about ten years ago, Henning had lunch with Astrid Lindgren. He told her the story of Sofia, and she immediately arranged for some books in Portuguese to be sent to her. So Sofia read Pippi Longstocking. She very wisely assumed that as it was impossible for a girl to lift a horse, that it really was about strength of some other kind. She then made a dress for Astrid, believing her to be a little girl and not a woman of ninety.
Henning is off to Mozambique next week, and he will say hello to Sofia from all of us. Do read the books about her.