By Foday Samateh
“English Language is the study of the rules of grammar; how language itself functions is the business of literature.” — Ernest Cole
Dr. Ernest Cole taught me at The Gambia College and we have since stayed in touch. With that disclosure in mind, I attempt to review his second book “Space and Trauma in the Writings of Aminatta Forna.” To put things in perspective, Dr. Cole and Forna are both Sierra Leoneans. For further background, Forna is biracial born to a Sierra Leonean father and a Scottish mother. Three of her four works are about Sierra Leone.
Forna’s first work, “The Devil that Danced on the Water,” is about her search for the truth about her father’s execution on dubious allegations that he had been involved in a coup. In the process of the fact finding, the memoir lays out the structures and operations of the powers of the government before and after the war. “Ancestor Stones” is a novel in the form of collection of stories from the point of view of four women without husbands. The widow, the spinster, the divorcee and a wife whose husband isn’t accounted for are in for a hard life in a traditional society that puts the premium on marriage and places female identity at the mercy of patriarchal hegemony. And the second novel “The Memory of Love” is set in post-conflict Sierra Leone dealing with trauma that is rooted in history and identity. Memory as a central plot partly echoes the title of Wole Soyinka’s “The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness.” The reader encounters foreign journalists, humanitarians, missionaries, investors, academics, and tourists, some of whom have exploitation of an already broken country in mind for their own gain. The plot includes themes of love and betrayal, emotional, physical and psychological sufferings, fragile peace, reconciliation, and “possibilities of redemption for the nation.” The less pertinent here is Forna’s third novel “The Hired Man” about post-war Croatia.
Space and Trauma in the Writings of Aminatta Forna is a testament to two things. First, Dr. Cole loves the writings of Forna. It’s not far-fetched to say he celebrates them even. And second, he, like Forna, loves Sierra Leone so well to see its flaws and to see those flaws as responsible for catastrophic consequences; namely, the ten-year civil war. These parallel scholarly and patriotic loves — one of enthusiasm; the other, the unapologetic courage to confront uncomfortable truths — are the motivations for the book. The subject-matter explores themes of space and identity. Space is conceived as theoretical constructs involving gender and power relations, geographical or physical and mental landscapes, and a “site of trauma narratives.” Examples are Sierra Leone as a territorial and socio-political entity, its various cities and towns, the State House, universities, prisons, hospitals, public streets, forests, refugee camps, homes, living rooms, bedrooms, kitchens, and minds enchanted with dreams or haunted by nightmares. Identity deals with individual and collective, domestic or diasporic, and memory in terms of historical and contemporary. Identities are defined by gender roles, cultural norms, hierarchical status of the powerful and the powerless, and the dehumanizing interaction between the perpetrators of violence and victims of violence.
The book, Dr. Cole points out, is “conceptualized as a scholarly contribution to spatiality study concerned with theorization of war and trauma in post-war societies.” And so power, gender, trauma and violence comprise some of the themes of his analysis of Forna’s writing, which he classifies as war narratives. This scholarly conceptualization is the sole focus of the Introduction and the subsequent Theoretical Framework of the book. Their only use is academic housekeeping. While the literati will find these sections engaging and worthy of plaudits, the general readership is, alas, likely to find them rather rarefied, recondite and repetitive. In addition to being unduly long and less interesting compared to the main body of the book, they are the least essential.
Once the reader reaches chapter two that delves into Forna’s first work, “The Devil that Danced on the Water,” the memoir about her search for the truth behind the political murder of her father, the vintage Dr. Cole leaps from the pages as a connoisseur of literary criticism. Free of the encumbrances and pedantries of academic writing or dispensing with the formulaic interference of the laborious style, he discusses the works of his beloved writer and the lived experience of his beloved country as mutual reflections of each other. As he examines and lays bare Sierra Leone from pre-colonial rule to post-independent stumble into the honorific civil war, he breaks down the whole into constituent elements and repurposes parts as metonymic representations of the whole. The reader relives the history, watches the politics degenerating, sees the forces of good losing to the forces of evil, feels the culture disempowering and oppressive especially to women, bears witness as the society falls headlong into violent conflict that consumes thousands as innocent victims, and hopes for the best about the uneasy peace characterized by post-conflict trauma. Long before the rebels notorious for their deployment of child soldiers to wreck wanton havoc and hark limbs, the corrupt powers be in Freetown, the capital, employed violence indiscriminately as a political weapon of repression by using impressionable youths as mob enforcers against the civilian population. And if Sierra Leoneans were largely responsible for the war on their own country, Dr. Cole concurs with Forna that the outside intervention forces weren’t much of angels, either, whether during the war or peace time reconstruction efforts.
My reading of this study of Forna’s works contends that, like in all wars, there were unique aspects to Sierra Leonean civil war, but there wasn’t anything uniquely wrong with Sierra Leone that set it on the path of self-destruction. Civil wars are as old as nation states. Sometimes it’s for freedom, sometime for vengeance, sometimes for domination, sometimes for wealth, and sometimes for the lust for power. History of the world shows it doesn’t matter if a nation state is considered advanced or primitive, homogeneous or diverse in population by way of ethnicity, race or religion. All what are required for a people to turn on themselves are enough ingredients of grievance, greed or guts, and a triggering incident or occasion. No society is forever immune from internal violent conflict. The only inoculations or antidotes are a credible rule of law and a shared sense of justice for all. Even those may not always work. But at least they offer the best hope.
In spite of the grim themes of the book, it is a delightfully mesmerizing read. Being the literary sleuth that Dr. Cole is on constant lookout for the authorial voice, he pays close attention to Forna’s language to identify the plots in her works, pick up on elements of characterization, and assign meanings to images and imageries. He notes that animal imagery and symbols of dogs, ants, snakes, and cockroaches illustrate the disillusionment in the country. Red ants and black ants killing, capturing, and enslaving each other before the bewildering eyes of young Forna, for instance, represent double meanings: The literal meaning of the insects battling for territory and sustenance, as well as the metaphorical meaning of the civil war that would engulf the human society of Sierra Leone.
Such examples that abound in the book serve two reminders in the course of my reading. First reminder is his lectures at The Gambia College. For instance, the stick young Richard Wright’s mother gives him in “Black Boy” to stand up to neighborhood kids who bully him on the way to the grocery store signifies a weapon of self-defense and empowerment. Piggy’s glasses in “Lord of the Flies” for his poor eyesight enable him to function as the smart thinker and wise counselor to Ralph, the elected leader of the stranded children on an island. Jack, who wants to usurp Ralph’s leadership, knows he has to render Piggy useless as the brain power first, and so he breaks the glasses, thus dispossessing Piggy of his ability to see and to think for Ralph. That done, the center of order couldn’t hold and mere anarchy is loosed on the little Eden, turning it into a hell. Not unlike Sierra Leone typified by the political killings and silencing of the likes of Forna’s father.
It was during one of those lectures in The Gambia a student asked the then Mr. Cole about the difference between the study of English Language and literature. Without missing a beat, and with the energy and passion of a baptist or evangelical pastor of the American South in the middle of a Sunday sermon, he responded in these memorable word: “English Language is the study of the rules of grammar; how language itself functions is the business of literature.” I will be remiss to not state that his arrival from Sierra Leone prompted by the political upheaval there had been a true blessing in disguise for The Gambia. In the seven years he served as a popular lecturer at The Gambia College and then at the budding University of The Gambia, and as a public intellectual, he helped transform the literary scene of the country. His unmatched contribution is showing how to read literature. It is also true that, notwithstanding the opportunities the United States offers him in his pursuit of academic career, he truly discovered himself in The Gambia.
The second reminder of his analysis of Forna’s works is the resemblance of his approach to the English literary scholar A C Bradley’s in the acclaimed “Shakespearean Tragedy.” Dr. Cole’s scrutiny of the key characters in Forna’s four works bears remarkable affinity to Bradley’s burrowing into Shakespeare’s language to discuss and explain the bard’s four great tragedies from plots to characters like Othello, Iago, Desdemona, King Lear, Goneril, Regan, Cordelia, Macbeth and Hamlet. They both find in even the most bland word or plain phrase a gold mine of meaning only a supremely sophisticated reader can discern. And they both prove the assertion that every word a writer uses has a purpose.
It’s apt to conclude by circling back to Forna and Sierra Leone. Dr. Cole quotes Kai Mansaray, a fictional local surgeon in the novel “The Memory of Love,” remarking in despair about the post-war situation that, “People think the war is the worst this country has ever seen: they have no idea what peace is like. The courage it takes to simply endure.” If there is a case to be made for authorial voice in this study of war and trauma narratives, this one gets the top billing. Kai, without doubt, speaks for Aminatta Forna and Dr. Ernest Cole on behalf of Sierra Leone and every post-conflict society.
NAMs Should Recognize, Accept and Nurture Democracy!
Let us be clear!
Citizens of the Gambia have a right and the duty to call their elected and appointed public officials to express their opinion or concern to them about national issues. Citizens have a right and a duty to call public officials to express our disagreement or to congratulate them on any issue or concern citizens have. This calls can be on their phone or through email or on radio, television or social media or in meetings and other forms of gatherings and channels, peacefully. That is citizen participation in a Democracy.
Therefore, the complain by some NAMs during the discussion of the draft constitution about citizens calling them out as harassment, intimidation or insult is not only unfounded but it also constitutes a threat against citizens. This action from some NAMs is only intended to silence citizens, thus preventing electorates from holding their elected representatives accountable hence undermining democracy and good governance. Just because citizens elect their leads does not mean those leaders must be left alone because they know what to do and they will do what is right all the time.
Each and every National Assembly Member should have a telephone number, email address, an office space as well as other means of communication that will ensure access by the electorates. Hence the practice of sharing the phone numbers of NAMs and sharing their pictures on social media with the purpose of influencing their decision is a normal practice in any democracy. NAMs should welcome such nonviolent and direct engagement action than to perceive it as offensive and intrusive.
Civil society actors have been quite responsible and respectful and there is no NAM who can call out a name of the civil society actor to have insulted him or her. Yes, a NAM may not wish to be called or to see his or her picture on social media campaign posters, but that does not mean that such campaign is offensive, illegal or intrusive. Therefore, NAMs must humble down themselves and realize that they are the people’s representative. They must recognize and accept that the people have a right and a duty to engage them directly.
Remember, when these NAMs were candidates seeking election in 2017, they embarked on massive campaigns in our communities. Those campaigns included telephone calls to voters and in many instances would even visit voters in their homes just to seek votes. When elected, NAMs have the mandate and the power to promote public interest by ensuring that they allocate necessary resources for the provision of social services and the protection of the rights of citizens. Hence the work of NAMs touches on the life and death of each and every Gambian.
Furthermore, NAMs are expected to perform their duties in line with their conscience and national interest. However, it is also obvious that NAMs, just like any other public official, do sometimes underperform, or violate their mandate or ignore the law and even engage in corruption and abuse. As human beings not each and every NAM will have good wisdom to know the right and the courage do the right in the interest of the nation. Furthermore, NAMs can also be influenced by other interests for various reasons. Therefore, citizens who are particularly conscious of their rights and duties cannot afford to keep their hands off of NAMs and all public officials.
This is why electorates, citizen groups, businesses or other entities engage in advocacy, lobbying or litigation as a means of participating in influencing decision making. They engage in these actions to hold elected officials and public institutions accountable so as to ensure transparency, efficiency and responsiveness. It is through such engagements that citizens make sure elected public officials respect the rule of law, protect human rights, combat corruption and abuse of office and protect the public good.
Let us put it to public officials that the democracy that the Gambia enjoys today was not delivered by the President and National Assembly Members on their own. They did not elect themselves into office. Rather they all went out to campaign for votes from citizens. Therefore, it is blatant attack and a threat to our democracy for NAMs to ridicule and threaten citizens who are playing their constitutional duty to hold them accountable.
Let NAMs promote and nurture the culture of democracy and not seek to attack citizens who are practicing democracy for the good of the country.
For the Gambia, Our Homeland
LinkedIn: Madi Jobarteh
Phone: +220 9995093
“Africa needs a new type of citizen: A dedicated, modest, honest, informed man and woman who submerge self in service to the nation and mankind. A man and woman who abhor greed and detest vanity. A new type of man and woman whose humility is his and her strength and whose integrity is his and her greatness” – Nkrumah.
“To protect the Treasury from being defrauded, let all money be issued openly in front of the whole city (country), and let copies of the accounts be deposited in various wards (regions).” Aristotle