Sierra Leone: hearts and minds

IMG_0368

I’d been trying to find an English-language Sierra Leonean alternative to work by Aminatta Forna for some time. I didn’t have anything against reading Forna – by all accounts she’s a very good writer – but I couldn’t help feeling that the British-born author had had a great deal of coverage since her most recent novel, The Memory of Love, won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize Best Book Award 2011, and was short-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2011, the IMPAC Award 2012 and the Warwick Prize 2011. I was curious to know what other stories Sierra Leone had to offer.

For a long time, the answer seemed to be not much. I did stoogle upon the website of the intriguing-sounding Sierra Leonean Writers Series, but my attempts to contact the company and find out how I could buy its books came to nothing. Other than that, most of the books out there from the West African nation – which is still recovering from an 11-year civil war that ended in 2002 – seemed to be decades old.

Then RebeccaV stopped by the blog and left a comment to say she was also involved in a global armchair adventure, in which she was trying to read around the world in 80 books. As fellow literary globetrotters can often be a great source of recommendations, I clicked through to her blog to see what she’d read so far. And there, staring back at me, was the answer to my Sierra Leonean quest: A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah.

Telling the story of the years Beah spent evading capture by the rebels in the Sierra Leonean jungle and then serving as a child soldier in the army before finally being rescued and rehabilitated, the memoir takes us into the heart of the civil war. Through its frank depiction of the extreme brutality the author experienced and participated in, and the courage and compassion of those who helped him, it reveals the best and worst that humanity is capable of –and the steps by which any one of us might get there.

The violence depicted in the book is among the most shocking and severe I have ever read about. From the gruesome descriptions of the massacre sites Beah passed through in his years of wandering in the jungle after the war separated him from his family, to the mutilated messengers carrying the Revolutionary United Front’s (RUF) ultimatums to the villagers it planned to attack, the suffering unleashed by the annihilation of social structures in much of the country is gut-wrenching. In the midst of the madness, particular sequences stand out – such as the cruel chain of events that saw Beah arriving in the village where his parents were rumoured to be staying only minutes after the RUF had struck, killing everyone in sight.

What stops the narrative from tipping over into the wallowing, sensationalist trauma memoir this book could so easily have been is the quality of Beah’s writing. The book brims with descriptions that capture the beauty, strangeness and sadness of the world through which he fled. We read how ‘the evening was waving its fingers, signaling night to approach’ and the boys ‘walked fast as if trying to stay in the daytime’, and how the Atlantic Ocean sounded like ‘the roar of big engines, the rolling of metal drums on a tar road, a thunder exploding, roll after roll’ to Beah and his companions when they encountered it for the first time.

In addition, the writer excels at capturing profound emotional shifts succinctly. When Beah heard the story of what the RUF did to his friend Saidu’s parents and sisters, for example, we read that his ‘teeth became sour’, while, on the day the army lieutenant recruited the boys to fight ‘it seemed as if the sky were going to break and fall on the earth’.

Beah’s acute sense of the weight and value of words enables him to go where many other authors might fear to tread. From the drug-fuelled army initiation process and his trembling first touch of a gun, through to his initial kill, and on to the point where ‘killing had become as easy as drinking water’ and even a psychological need, Beah takes us through his own dehumanisation. Having inhabited this with him, we are able to understand the reluctance of the child soldiers to be rescued and taken away from the only structure and purpose they knew. We can also appreciate the huge task facing the rehabilitation staff, many of whom expected to deal with traumatised children without realising that they would come in the form of armed and drugged killers bent on violence at all costs.

In light of this, Beah’s recovery, which we also witness step by painstaking step, and his account of his experiences are nothing short of remarkable. In fact, the memoir is one of the best things I’ve read. Utterly engrossing, it brought me close to tears several times, made me laugh, took me to places I could never otherwise imagine, and inspired me to marvel at the goodness, kindness and potential in the world. You can’t ask much more.

A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah (Fourth Estate, 2007)

Côte d’Ivoire: if you are easily offended, keep reading

Apparently, there are people who take books back to bookshops. When I was studying for my Creative Writing MA, a visiting publisher told us that after Vernon God Little won the 2003 Booker Prize there was a rash of returns up and down the country in protest at DBC Pierre’s expletives.

No doubt if Ahmadou Kourouma’s Allah is not Obliged had enjoyed a similar prominence when it was published in the UK, a similar thing would have happened. Riddled with obscenities and swear words in both Malinké and English (French in the original), many of which are hurled directly at the reader, this story of life as a ‘small-soldier’ in West Africa packs a vicious punch, not least because it is narrated by Birahima, a 10-year-old boy.

Most squirm-inducing of all are Birahima’s repeated descriptions of himself and his community as ‘Black Nigger African Natives’. Seeing this most incendiary of words exploding again and again on the opening pages, I was reminded of what my Togolese author, Tété-Michel Kpomassie, wrote about his first encounter with the term:

‘It was the first time I’d ever been called that, though I’d long ago realized that when someone having a dispute with a black man calls him “rotten nigger” or “filthy nigger” or some such name, it’s always some embittered neurotic trying to work off frustrations that have nothing at all to do with the “nigger”.’

Kpomassie’s observations hold true here. In fact, as the narrative progresses and Birahima unfolds his gut-wrenching story of running away from life with his abused and disabled mother only to be co-opted into one guerrilla group after another in Liberia and Sierra Leone, witnessing torture, massacres, rape and butchery along the way, the reasons for his aggressiveness become clear. His linguistic assaults are as much about a war with himself as they are about a war with the world, and reveal his struggle to assimilate all he has seen, thought and felt.

The shock factor is only one side of it. Pithy and waffle-free, Birahima delivers a refreshingly concise and even wry account of West Africa’s recent political history with some piquant insights along the way: ‘The woman is always wrong. That’s what they call women’s rights’; ‘Refugees had it easier than everyone else in the country because everyone was always giving them food’. He even reveals the unacknowledged glamour that the life of the small-soldier seen from the outside may have for many deprived children, for whom a taste of power, respect and good food contrasts favourably with the destitution and helplessness of everyday existence.

The voice can get a little wearing now and then. In particular, the repeated bracketed definitions from the Larousse and Petit Robert dictionaries, which, Birahima explains at the beginning, he is using ‘to make sure I tell you the life story of my fucked-up life in proper French’ feel like a bit of a missed opportunity. While Kourouma does work the odd observation out of them now and then with Birahima’s alternative definitions of ‘torture’ — ‘corporal punishment enforced by justice’ — and ‘humanitarian peacekeeping’, there are too many straight definitions for this device to pay its way.

Nevertheless, the book is a startling and fresh insight into a situation most of us can thankfully only guess at, as well as a masterclass in characterisation. It deserves to be read widely. Outraged readers should be bombarding the returns desks in their droves.

However if the second-hand copy I bought through Amazon is anything to go by, that is unlikely to happen. Inside the front cover there is a ‘withdrawn’ stamp from the Bournemouth Library Service; since the library bought the book in 2007, not enough people have read it to justify keeping it on the shelves. Now that is something worth getting angry about.

Allah is not Obliged by Ahmadou Kourouma (translated from the French by Frank Wynne). Vintage (2007)