Sierra Leone is a name that has become familiar over this last year – albeit for the wrong reason. While the Ebola outbreak started in Liberia, which has had the largest number of deaths, the neighboring West African nation of Sierra Leone has been equally devastated. And this is only a new and different form of devastation that the people of these parts are living through.
It is ironic that I would not have known of the location and geography of this country, but for this epidemic. Since I have enjoyed the wonderful books of Chimamanda Adichie and some other African writers, I picked up the this book because it was set in Sierra Leone. Of course the fact that it had won the Commonnwealth Writer’s prize and been short listed for the Orange Prize were strong recommendations.
The story switches back and forth between the late 1960s, the immediate post-independence period, and 2005, the post civil was period. A British psychologist, a specialist in post-stress disorders, takes a sabbatical in Sierra Leone, thinking that he could help the survivors of the civil war. He is personally going through a period of self-doubt and his exposure to the realities of the atrocities of the civil war, awaken to him to new realities.One of his elderly patients, waiting for his death in the hospital had been a a faculty member at the History Faculty of the University in the late 1960s. He recounts his experiences of the time and his obsession with the love of his life. The inter-twining of these disparate lives, and that of a local surgeon who has had his own personal trauma in the civil was make for a compelling story. And linking the three men, is the daughter of the Professor who is loved both these men.
Sierra Leone was a British Colony and Britain which strongly supported the abolitionists in the 19th cntury, re-located many freed slaves to this part of Africa. The country has a small population of mixed origins. The Institutions an systems inherited from the British provides a sense of familiarity. “A lot of universities in our country were closing their humanities departments or having their grants cut. Liberal arts were the first to be hit in times of economic stress. The government argued certain skills were more in demand than others. Philosophy, literature, drama – sucg subjects were a luxury, a frivolity even….” This could well be written of the Indian attitude to education.
Of course, we thankfully were able to sustain and nurture the democracy we inherited – unlike so many of the other ex-British nations. Sierra Leone has had a troubled history through the 70s and 80s with a disastrous civil war in the 90s. The extent and nature of the human atrocities that occurred, would compete with what we hear of the current activities of extremist groups in the regions of Syria, Iraq. Aminatta Forna, without going into excessive details of the atrocities themselves, deals well with the human fall out – not only how they suffer but also how people reconcile, live on and face life – because what else can they do? She is a lyrical writer, who has sketched a moving story – and created warm and real characters.
While people and human relationships do not change with location, the location add interest to a story and that is something that I look for. In this case, I had a glimpse of the recent history of a nation I knew little about – a nation for whom the Ebola epidemic is only the latest in a series of calamities.
PS. Its just by coincidence that as I was writing this review, I read this NYT article