Through the Eyes of Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone isn’t the first holiday destination most people think of.  In fact, most people don’t think of Sierra Leone at all, unless someone is discussing child soldiers or Leonardo DiCaprio movies (may I mention here just how impressed I was with Leo’s Saffer accent in Blood Diamonds?  No joke, he nailed it about as well as someone from Not-South-Africa ever could).

There are some very good books coming out of West Africa, though – books that really capture life, culture, and a world that people outside of Africa often don’t get to see either in person or in print.  With one of my newest favorite authors, Aminatta Forna, Sierra Leone is firmly represented on that growing list.

So, the sign says no littering. No littering, but surrounded by litter. And a word to the wise – if you don’t live here and you try to throw down your empty bottle of Coke, you won’t like the reaction you get.

Ancestor Stones, which came out in 2006, was one of the few books I was able to find that wasn’t a story of child soldiers when I looked to check the Sierra Leone box.

It’s not that I think the child soldier story doesn’t need to be told, but rather than it is unfortunately not terribly uncommon throughout Africa and I’ve got two child soldier stories for two other, different, countries already in my queue.  Child soldiers are not all that Africa is – I’ve lived on this continent for several years; there is so much more to it, so many more dimensions.  I wanted something that delved more deeply into what it is to be completely immersed in Sierra Leone.

And Aminatta Forna has illustrated that better than anything that has come before.

Through the stories of four sisters, whose father’s many wives spanned decades of coming and going, Forna describes the life and changes that come to Sierra Leone in the twentieth century.  From subsistence agriculture, to overseas education, to war, and to new beginnings – the women in Forna’s story both live the story and see it play out.

Forna doesn’t pull punches, either.  Women throughout history in Sierra Leone were often in a precarious position.  Men hold the power – the power to marry more women, the power to refuse education, the power to marry daughters to whomever they choose and for the reasons they choose.  If a women wanted to leave a marriage, she had to count on being able to repay the bride price her husband had given for her, and that was if her husband was willing.

When, added to this framework, a horrendously violent war came – those women who had managed to carve out a niche for themselves found themselves fighting to survive, and not all of them did.  Forna paints graphic – but unavoidable – pictures of some of the inhuman things that humans do to each other.

The essence of so much of Africa – children playing around their school.

Forna knows Sierra Leone first-hand.  After being born in Scotland, she moved with her Sierra Leonian father and her Scottish mother to Sierra Leone.  In 1970 her father was imprisoned, and in 1975 he was hanged.

It is this background – the love and loss and longing and betrayals of Africa – that make Ancestor Stones so powerful.  Yes, things went very, very, very bad.  Things went horribly wrong in ways that many of us in the West can’t comprehend.  And, often, we can’t comprehend why the longing remains.  Because the longing does remain – Africa never lets you go.  Forna doesn’t explain why, she shows why.  Showing is really the only way it makes sense.

Since the war ended, and now that the ebola epidemic has died down, Sierra Leone is back on the travel list.  And if you want to see a part of real Africa – with beautiful beaches and lush forests – balanced with grinding poverty and an educated class struggling to introduce an honest upward mobility, it is there for the visit.

Because there just is something about Africa that is indefinable, but which hooks into you and holds on tight.  Hemingway found it.  Out of Africa captivated millions because of it.  Even Madonna keeps coming back.

Because (TIA) –  this is Africa.