September 2007

Dee Jarrett-Macauley

features

Home Can Be a Terrifying Place

At age six I first discovered Freetown, Sierra Leone, a colourful and complicated place where my extended family, a seemingly endless stream of aunties, uncles and cousins, had lived for generations. Freetown itself delivered sensuous novelty: house boys bare-legged or in sandals washed the clothes, 7UP and Fanta replaced milk, brightly decorated poda-poda (minibuses) sped through town and gigantic palms filtered sunlight. As a typical Creole family with a pure and precise sense of discipline, Sundays found us worshipping at Rawdon Street College Chapel. Life was delightful but restrained, as though Edwardian gentility were newly fashionable; loose behaviour, "big yay" i.e. covetousness entirely sinful. But childhood was also cossetted, and as children we belonged to the entire family, and the community, not to parents alone. Later, as teenager visitors our freedoms were snatched and savoured: at a beachside nigthclub we groove to reggae; with our cousins we linger over breakfasts of avocado pear, suck mangoes and munch crispy pink apples; we share bitter jokes about strict discipline and occasionally, hazy dreams about our romantic futures.

For years I carry this Sierra Leone around with me in my head, adding fragments of family news, and occasionally bewilderment at political coups and social crises. My Freetown provides a source of security, and sinking into it is an indulgence barely recognised. I believe there is no reason to suspect this would change...

But of course, the ten-year civil war came, and things did change. In 1997 rebel forces attacked Freetown and some family members fled to England. Others, like my cousin Ned, learned to live with the increased risk. "I was here throughout the crisis. It was really terrible. Many things were lost... It was better that I stayed. When you have business interests at home, your hear news and then you can't sleep. It's better to be on the spot. At least that saved me a lot of stress and anxiety... And the experience is good. Meeting these people (the rebels), seeing how they operate. I see them burn houses. One boy came here saying [President] Kabbah should watch out... if he doesn't Freetown will run red." 

In April 2001 I had gone to Paris for the premiere of Philippe Diaz's film, Nouvel Order Mondial, a graphic and chilling depiction of the Sierra Leone atrocities. My old images of Freetown were shattered. Humbled, and like the country's frightened civilians, uncertain which way to turn, I inched towards fiction. I would portray a genteel Creole family thrust against this utterly heartbreaking scenario. Safe in London, I wrote my debut novel, Moses, Citizen and Me, a work of imagination, which makes use of my memories to portray a Sierra Leone family as a microcosm of the ruptured nation. The central character of the novel, a former boy soldier called Citizen, is the youngest member of the multi-generational family, which includes an elderly grandfather, Moses, and a Britain-based young woman, Julia, the narrator. The story is told through scenes of the family at their Freetown home and through magical scenes, involving other former child soldiers and a rainforest teacher, Bemba G. Within this text, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar acts as a means of dramatizing the nation’s history both in the post-Independence period and within contemporary times; this fusion of past and present ills has enabled readers to make sense of this political fiction, understanding it as one that it goes beyond "a human interest story."

Finally, in January 2006, I went back to Sierra Leone for the first time in thirty years. Sliding doors with a serious twist. Recent visitors to Freetown had warned of decaying buildings, dirty streets, sprawling refugees, intermittent electricity, and mosquitoes. I paid attention, and packed accordingly, but nothing could have prepared me for the emotional experience of regaining my ancestral home, even in those desperate times.

The Caribbean novelist-in exile George Lamming wrote: "I have lost my place, or my place has deserted me." I found this to be true for me also, but I also wanted to be a match for the place and its contradictory ways, not for ever afraid. With novel and family history as passport, I entered the "new world order" Freetown, to see for myself.

Of course, Freetown is not the city I remember; it is polluted and intensely overcrowded, with roads difficult to navigate even in a 4-wheel drive, and paralyzing traffic jams. On the city's edges, in disused buildings and open spaces internal refugees are the new settlers. "You should see Crossroads now!" someone warns me, and I do see. Thousands of people, many of them young and recently arrived from the decimated provinces, are trading in whatever they can. Circular trays of fresh peanuts, bags of ice blown up so big they resemble clear haggis, CDs at one thousand leones (two pounds) a go, second hand books. Life goes on in the heat and hum of generators.

I returned to Freetown to recover a sense of belonging and to see whether the novel rings true. I returned with thoughts of my late uncle the chief architect of Sierra Leone, Joseph Ransford Jarrett-Yaskey, because when he died my sister had lamented that everything he had built would have been destroyed. This was not entirely true because he is survived by his daughters and several grandchildren, as well as indirect descendents, but her comment touched a fear that his architectural vision had been assailed, and with it a physical manifestation of what "home" meant for me. On my first day, I am reassured that his famous buildings remain, among the burnt out edifices, and in the lobby of his "British Council" my heart lifts: a sizeable group watch African football on the wide-screen, and both the cafe and library are packed.

Freetown is at peace, but people warn it is a fragile peace. "Wasn't a coup averted just last week?" my cousin-in-law Manilius Garber asks. Some look upon the United Nations' Special Court as an expensive distraction from national politics, but take comfort from the recent election of Liberia's President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. I am glad to be in the country again and in a few days the mood of Freetown will become familiar to me; I will join in  BAW WAW SOCIETY'S rap, "Typhoid Fever," with its opening scream "Doctor, doctor, my child is dying." I will piece together tentatively offered narrative fragments, adding them to other stories.

Freetown is a city dominated by young people, and country-wide over sixty percent of the population are minors. In the rich afternoon sun, I stand at the end of Howe Street, surrounded by about fifty young men, members of the long-established self-help organisation, Sweissy Jewellers and talk to the Secretary General, Jubati A Wai, a final year Political Science student at Fourbah College. He is rightly proud of the support available to registered members "facing life's emergencies... birth, death, marriage," and the scholarships and adult literacy classes for those who cannot go to university. The organisation has become a rallying point for the kind of disaffected young men who would have been pressed into the war but now cry out: 

"We say we should be the leaders now. So why say tomorrow? When we are here now. We have the energy. We have the charisma. The potential. So engage us. Now so we don't get sinister imaginations. We want work now. Create work now. Bring light now. Bring food now."

Women traders are absent, so for gender balance I turn to the producers of "Salone Uman," a Krio woman's radio program. With an energy reminiscent of Britain's early feminist conciousness-raising voices, come reasonable and, some might say, commonplace demands for gender equality -- a say in the home and in public life, education, training, and equal chances of promotion. In London I had learnt about the work of SAWE, the Society of Women Against AIDS, and FAWE, a group of female educationalists, organisations which are leading sex education especially for young girls many of whom are mothers at thirteen or fourteen. Particularly for girls keen to attend school, say the broadcasters, sexual coercion, in the vernacular for sex -- "this Mammy and Daddy business" -- must stop. 

On the streets on Freetown many single, orphaned, or "separated children" cope without schooling. As in other parts of Africa, not everyone can afford school, but even those who can attend have to make do with limited resources: a sweet seventeen-year- old Annie Walsh pupil confided, "we would like more books," and the enchanting beginners' class at Rosbans Preparatory School look alert while their teacher builds a pyramid of tin cans in the yard. There are hopeful signs however, at the Milton Margai School for the Blind which had been totally ransacked during the war, a boy called Abu comes to hold hands and cheerily tells me his "potato leaf supper was sweet." 

In a country in which houses, schools, road, and energy supplies have more or less collapsed, the concept of "home" is inevitably shaky, and not everyone wants to go to the home they had. Mr. Barrie, a driver, is perhaps sturdier than some, for unlike many Sierra Leonians he has brought his family back from Guinea where they fled after witnessing the execution of their neighbours.  "Everything's gone. The whole house was ransacked. But we are buying back. Many Sierra Leone poeple have stayed in Guinea. I didn't want to stay there. I'm not French. I'm English."

A vestige of that sentiment is true for me too, and my sense of belonging, so essential to the struggle for life, is being affirmed when I visit an old-style Creole house where in a typical yard chickens stretch, washing is hung up to dry and in a shaded corner shack, women cook stews and plasas every working day. It was there that age six I spotted a dog, and puzzled, began to laugh and asked: "What's he doing here in Freetown, I thought all dogs were English?"

Food could also be more English than in England. Custard, for instance, was not the thick canary paste of school dinners, but a molten heaven, a vanilla-scented cream which, I now suspect was also flavoured with a dash of liquor was served. Now, in adulthood I expect Freetown's restaurants to serve a plethora of African dishes and am disappointed that the only two appear -- jollof rice and groundnut stew -- higlighted "African dish." Reclaiming the mother-tastes I must rush to Balmyra Restaurant at lunchtime and bag the last African "dish of the day" portions for our family group.

Finally, at the UN Special Court I met some former child combatants, and was struck by their pain, their struggle. One would like to attend school in his town in the north, but is afraid. He could go to school in Freetown, his counsellor encourages but this too is difficult. He does not feel safe. Anywhere.

On leaving him, I reflect on some of the more upbeat child soldier characters in Moses, Citizen and Me, zipping through ideas, learning how to cross-examine each other: "true-story or made-up story?" and the acceptance of dissent.

Suddenly I feel the dizzying midday sun rush over me, my characters words slip and slide; the real and imaginary merge.

Delia Jarrett-Macauley (DMS, Ph.D., FRSA) is an acomplished writer, academic and broadcaster with a career spanning over 20 years. Her impressive body of work is held in high regard both nationally and internationally. Delia has published three books, the most recent being her first novel Moses, Citizen and Me, which received the 2005 Orwell Prize for political writing.