The Attic Child by Lola Jaye: Shedding Light on Little-Known History

BY DENISE MORAN

A picture is worth a thousand words.

When author, psychotherapist, and speaker Lola Jaye viewed a photograph of Sir Henry Morton Stanley and Ndugu M’Hali at the National Portrait Gallery in London, she was inspired to write about Ndugu, which led to the novel The Attic Child (William Morrow, 2022).

The photograph was part of an exhibit titled “Black Chronicles: Photographic Portraits from 1862 to 1948.” It showed Welsh-American explorer and journalist Stanley sitting cross-legged and dressed in a suit, pith helmet, and tall boots. Ndugu, who was born in Africa in 1865 and died in 1877, is standing barefoot, bare-chested, and only wearing a blanket tied about his waist. Stanley glances up at Ndugu who casts his eyes downward while serving Stanley a cup of tea.

Stanley and Ndugu are represented in Jaye’s book by the fictional characters of Sir Richard Babbington, a wealthy English explorer whose travels mirror those of Stanley, and Dikembe, the boy Babbington brings back with him to England.

Babbington refers to Dikembe as his “prized possession from the Congo.” Babbington dresses Dikembe in suits and sends him to school to acquire an English education. The chance to continue as Babbington’s “companion” ends when Babbington dies. The new owners of Babbington’s English mansion treat Dikembe as a servant and lock him in the attic at night.

“It was incredibly important for me to humanize Ndugu away from the slave narrative,” Jaye said. “Away from the ploy of dehumanizing black people so as to excuse the inexcusable.”

The Attic Child offers readers the opportunity to realize what happened from 1885 to 1908 when Belgian King Leopold II established the Congo Free State in Africa. While Leopold’s supposed goal was to bring civilization and Christianity to the Congolese people, his real purpose was to force the people to labor for valuable resources, such as rubber and ivory, so he could enrich his personal coffers. Leopold was responsible for the murder and mutilation of 10 million Africans in the Congo.

author Lola Jaye

While the Congolese people did not suffer these injustices without fighting back, their rebellions were mercilessly quashed under Leopold’s direction. It was not until the suffering within the Congo Free State was more widely known that international pressure forced Leopold to turn the country over to Belgium. The Belgian Congo remained a colony until the Democratic Republic of Congo gained its independence in 1960.

“As evidenced by the emails I have received and the reviews posted,” Jaye said, “many readers never knew of the atrocities that were inflicted during 1885 to 1908 in the Congo. This novel has given them encouragement to read further into this important part of world history and to think deeply about some of the origins of modern day racism.

“Something as imbedded as racism cannot end overnight,” Jaye added, “but if The Attic Child forces someone to open their eyes and work on what they can do to prevent or alleviate some of the pain and destruction it causes, it’s a start.”

Jaye was born and raised in London. She has also lived in both the United States and Nigeria.

She was inspired by Nigerian novelist, poet and critic Chinua Achebe who stated: “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

“As a British-born Nigerian,” Jaye said, “writers like Chinua Achebe reminded me that it was impossible to tell stories that perhaps don’t fit the popular narrative and to give a voice to the unheard. To remind us, as black people, that our stories matter.”

Jaye realized it was a challenge to write about Ndugu since he died at the age of twelve.

“As Ndugu unfortunately lived such a short life,” she said, “there wasn’t a cluster of years available to work from. However, what this wonderful little boy had experienced in his short life was still extraordinary. During my research, it was sometimes hard to ascertain what was real or what existed to fit neatly into an accepted narrative. I needed to look at the research and delicately weave in what was coming out of me as a fiction writer.

“I thought about including the true story of Ndugu being made into a waxwork model for Madame Tussauds, but I felt in the end this did not fit with the novel. I wanted to concentrate on those powerful images of him in those photographs. I thought including a waxwork depiction would dilute the pictures in some way.”

The Attic Child actually portrays two children: Dikembe and Lowra Normandy Cavendish. Lowra was raised in the same English mansion where Dikembe once lived. She also endures being locked up at night in the same attic.

“I felt it was important to show the contrasts of the two children,” Jaye said. “Both had similarly horrific childhoods. I wanted to portray a togetherness, a connection that could transcend decades. Having both characters ‘present’ was a way in which to do this.”

 

About the contributor: Denise Moran worked as a freelance reporter and photographer for The Chicago Tribune and wrote two books for Arcadia Publishing. She has been writing about the first female physician, architect, and chemist to design, build and manage a hospital in the United States.


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