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The Girl Who Saw Lions

The Girl Who Saw Lions is actually the story of two girls with very different lives. Abela lives in Tanzania, the orphaned child of a family stricken with HIV/Aids. When her uncle sends her to England her grandmother thinks she is going to a better life, but Uncle Thomas is involved in child trafficking and Abela faces a bleak future as an illegal immigrant. The other girl is Rosa, who lives in Sheffield in a one-parent family. She and her mother do everything together. Rosa can’t imagine anything changing in her life, until one day her mother tells her she is considering adoption. 11+


Available from Amazon.

Published in hardback by Anderson Press, 2018, ISBN-13: 9781783446469. (Originally published by Andersen Press in 2007 as Abela – The Girl Who Saw Lions, and in paperback as Abela)

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I no longer knew where I was walking to or from, or why. I just wanted to sleep. And then the moon glided out from behind a tree and I saw the lions, and they saw me. (Abela)

I don’t want a sister. What if I’d said I’m thinking of adopting another mother? (Rosa)

Foreign editions

The Girl Who Saw Lions/Abela was also published in France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, South Korea, Spain, Sweden and the USA. See the very different covers further down the page!


The Girl Who Saw Lions/Abela won and was shortlisted for many awards.

What gave me the idea of writing ‘The Girl Who Saw Lions?’

My inspiration for The Girl Who Saw Lions (which was originally published as Abela) came from a visit I made to Tanzania some years ago. I had never been outside Europe before. Tanzania is a very beautiful, fertile country in East Africa, and I fell in love with the landscape, the colours, the people, the food, the animals. I wrote a diary when I was there, describing everything I saw, and I knew I wanted to write about it one day.

Soon after I came home, Africa was the centre of a dreadful viral epidemic, HIV/Aids. The death toll was horrific. I kept thinking about the people I’d met in Korogwe, the little village I’d lived in for a month. I could still hear the children singing in the school, playing round the market; I could remember eating with their families, sharing stories. Were they all safe?

Also at home, I was in touch with a one-parent family who were going through the process of adopting a child from Tanzania, and who were finding it to be a very difficult and painful process for all of them. Almost without my realising it, the three events were coming together in my mind, until at last I knew that I had a story to tell and began to write The Girl Who Saw Lions.

Berlie Doherty tells parallel stories, each separate and compelling in their own right, but stories that eventually tangle together bringing a message of hope and what it means to be a family.


How did I research ‘The Girl Who Saw Lions?’

First, I had my memories, my photographs, and my ‘Africa diary’. I had two friends who had been working in Tanzania when I was there, as teachers and later as supporters of HIV/Aids victims, and they were enormously helpful to me with the Tanzanian background to The Girl Who Saw Lions.

I had my own experience of adoption, as before I became a writer I had for a short time been a social worker specialising in Child Care and Adoptions. That was many years before I began to write the book, but I knew enough from that experience to be able to make the right kind of enquiries about the current adoption processes.

I also needed help with facts about illegal immigrants and asylum seekers, and the specialists who talked to me confirmed that the problem of FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) was something I needed to tackle in The Girl Who Saw Lions. But children as young as nine or ten might be reading my book, I said. Even so, it happens to children as young as nine and ten. My challenge to myself was to write about it with honesty and yet with a light touch.

An involving, moving and, above all, relevant novel that ought to be in every school library in the land and put into the hands of as many children as possible.

Adèle Geras, The Guardian

Was ‘The Girl Who Saw Lions’ an easy book to write?

No – it was probably my most difficult! I had several very sensitive issues which I wanted to write about with truth and with care. The book is for children, and I wanted them to be able to read it with empathy and interest and with an understanding of what both Rosa and Abela are going through. In many ways The Girl who Saw Lions is my most important book, for both myself as a writer and for the children who read it. I’m very pleased that it is widely translated.

Most of all, I wanted it to work as a story, in which the characters of Rosa and Abela are so strong that young readers care about them and want to know what happens to them. That’s my job as a writer.

The foreign editions of ‘Abela’/‘The Girl Who Saw Lions’

The Girl Who Saw Lions, along with my five favourite children’s books about refugees and asylum seekers, is featured in book blog Shepherd.

Excellent… what could be an unbearably sad tale is made compulsively readable by a writer of grace and skill.

Nicholas Tucker, The Independent

If you enjoyed reading ‘The Girl Who Saw Lions’…

Another book about adoption is The Snake-Stone. Other books about orphans are Street Child and Far From Home: The Sisters of Street Child.

Work in schools

I don’t really see this as a book for Primary-aged children. Children are much more aware of what is going on in the world than they used to be, but I still feel that we can’t expect children to reach emotional maturity any earlier than they ever did. I would see this as a book for children of 12+. The novel covers many important ideas – Aids, immigration, adoption, child trafficking, children’s rights, and more.

There is a great deal to explore and discuss and my hopes for the novel are that it will be read and appreciated on two levels – one as a story about the different lives of two girls, and of whether they will ever get to meet, and the other as a platform for discussion and social awareness, giving young readers the opportunity to explore, absorb and understand lives and situations that are very different from their own.

A very moving book and highly recommended.

Birmingham Post

Discussion questions

The publishers have devised an extensive and very useful discussion programme for use in schools and reading groups. Here it is:

This novel is told from the perspectives of two characters, Abela and Rosa. What impact does this have on how you see the story and the people in it?

In the beginning, Abela’s mother is very sick, but we don’t learn until later that the disease she has is HIV/Aids. Abela only has a child’s understanding of the disease and her mother’s death. Discuss the ways in which storytelling choices such as these deepen your sympathy for Abela.

In chapter 11, Abela undergoes a ritual procedure that her grandmother (Bibi) describes as getting her ‘clean’. In Britain, it is known as ‘female genital mutilation’ (FGM), and is illegal because it is a dangerous procedure which causes girls a lot of pain and medical complications such as infection. Ask your teacher or librarian to help you find out more about FGM. Why do you think Bibi agrees to make Abela undergo FGM? How does it make you feel about Bibi overall?

Think about the different lives that Rosa and Abela lead in the novel. Look particularly at things like clothing, housing, education and medicine. How does this novel make you reflect on the different circumstances for young girls in the UK and in developing countries like Tanzania?

Uncle Thomas and Susie come up with a scheme to traffic Abela into the UK. Consider the characters of Thomas and Susie: why do they each decide to do this to Abela? How do you feel about Thomas and Susie throughout the story?

At the beginning of her story, Rosa is very unhappy about her mother’s decision to adopt a child. Discuss the reasons for Rosa’s feelings of rejection, and how she changes throughout the book.

Think about the things Abela is able to bring with her to the UK: her forged passport, medical certificate, kanga, Coca-Cola car and key-ring. Discuss what each of these objects mean to Abela, and why they are important to her.

After escaping Susie’s flat, Abela is put into foster care by the local authority. She finds settling in very difficult. Think again about the events of chapters 13, 15, 17, 19 and 23, when Abela is living with the Oladipo family. Why does she feel so lonely and angry, and how do things change after she runs away?

The Girl Who Saw Lions is told in both first person (Abela and Rosa’s points of view) and in third person (a narrator tells the reader what is happening). Why do you think the author chose to write the novel in this way? Think about what effect it has on what the reader knows and when, compared with what the characters know.

In the end, Rosa’s mum adopts Abela and the two girls become sisters. How do your expectations change as the story develops? Did you expect the ending to be happy or sad?

The strength of the story is the author’s empathy with all her characters, and her skill in engaging the reader with their feelings.

Books for Keeps

Creative activities

Write a short story, told from the perspective of two characters from different backgrounds, who end up meeting in some way. It could be characters from different countries, or characters with different interests or beliefs, or even a person and an animal.

Design a cover for The Girl Who Saw Lions. Think about the different sides of the story, and the many people and things that appear in it. Consider how to give a sense of the story, while keeping the design eye-catching and interesting to someone who hasn’t yet read it.

Write a letter from Rosa to her newly adopted sister Abela before she comes to live with her. What things would Rosa tell her? How should she phrase things, given that Abela is ten years old and English is her second language?

Well-written, with very real characters, this latest Doherty title is a heart-breaking yet ultimately hopeful examination of HIV/Aids, child trafficking and adoption. (SEASON HIGHLIGHT)

The Bookseller

Writing tip

I couldn’t have written The Girl Who Saw Lions without referring to the photos I took and the journal I wrote during my visit to Tanzania. I always write a diary when I’m away on holiday or visiting another country for work. Maybe you could do this too – a new landscape, with all its unfamiliar sights, sounds, smells, tastes and impressions, could be a great source of inspiration to you in your writing. Even a day trip to a new place can give you a lot of inspiration. You are looking at things you’ve never seen before, so try to capture it all in words. This will help you even when your story is in a familiar setting. You need to describe a place as if you’ve never seen it before – remember that’s what it’s like for you every time you read a book!

An eye-opening book, The Girl Who Saw Lions (originally published as Abela) is the touching and profound story of two girls who apparently have nothing in common. The two girls tell their own stories. Abela, growing up in Tanzania, is surrounded by suffering. Her father has already died and now her mother and her baby sister are desperately ill. When they die too, Abela is sent off to England and an uncertain future as an illegal immigrant. Rosa, growing up in England, has everything she could possibly want. There is no reason why these two should become sisters. Their individual stories and the story of how they come together through adoption make a beautiful, satisfying and complete story.

Julia Eccleshare, pick of the month January 2018, LoveReading4Kids

This is a moving and wonderful read suitable for children 12 years and above.

Sinobukhosi Mpofu,

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