Next Friday I’m heading back in time, so to speak. That is, I’m going back to Freetown, Sierra Leone, for the first time since I left in 1976 after two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer. My emotions are very complicated as I went to Freetown straight out of college, age twenty-one. I was part of a large group of Peace Corps Volunteers serving in Sierra Leone at the time along with a number of British (VSO) and Canadian (CUSO) volunteers. I can’t speak for all of them, but for me it was a seminal experience in my life. So going back after so long and after a horrendous conflict is scary. Will it seem familiar? (I know the Cotton Tree will be even if the City Hotel is gone.) Will Krio come back to me? (Kushe-o… How de body?…) My way around town? Bargaining for a taxi? (Remembering that instead of it being two leones to the dollar it is now 4, 357.05 leones to the dollar. Talk about inflation!)
Here’s my twenty-one year-old self upcountry circa 1976
I’m going for a meeting of the Friends of Sierra Leone, a group that came together when things were first falling apart in Sierra Leone and no one in the world media seemed to be paying any attention. I remember several difficult meetings at the Sierra Leone Consulate here in NYC with Sierra Leoneans hopelessly talking about what we could do. It took an invasion of Freetown for the world media to finally take notice and then it was mostly about child soldiers, blood diamonds, and amputating limbs. Around that time I did a project with my fourth grade to raise money for Sierra Leone and draw attention to other aspects of the country than had been in the news to date.
In 2000 the Friends of Sierra Leone held its yearly meeting at Mystic Seaport to celebrate the Amistad. The replica of the ship was just completed and the museum had several exhibits about the captives and their stories. While preoccupied with events in Sierra Leone I noticed that there had been children on the Amistad (something Spielberg left out of his movie) and later became obsessed with learning all about them (as they all came from what is now Sierra Leone). That turned into my story about Sarah Margru Kinson which is to be published by Candlewick Press in a couple of years (as it is an interactive book with envelopes and such it is complicated to create so while the writing is long done the designing and illustration is just getting underway).
The reason for this meeting is to celebrate Peace Corps return to Sierra Leone. They had been there since the 60s, but were pulled when things go too dangerous in the mid-90s. The Friends of Sierra Leone lobbied tirelessly to get Peace Corps to bring them back and finally last summer the first cohort returned and a second group is starting their training now. And so we will be in Freetown shortly meeting with the current volunteers, returned volunteers (what Peace Corps calls those of us who served), family members of current volunteers, Sierra Leoneans who are also members of the organization, and many others. If the weather prevails (it is the rainy season so who knows) we will visit Bunce Island, a notable slave fort that has great meaning and significance. (I’ve always rued that I missed my chance to go during my own Peace Corps training because I was sick reacting to a shot of some sort —we got many.) We will visit a school we’ve supported as an organization and help at another one. Hopefully I will also visit the school I taught at, still there after all these years.
I will take photos and hope to blog as well — this grand adventure of mine.
I am overdue writing this post about the remarkable, amazing, and wonderful Anna Hibiscus books by Atinuke. After reading Betsy’s review last summer I requested the books and fell completely and totally in love with them. Since then I’ve been delighted to see others in America become equally smitten, say the folks over at Horn Book who have just given two in the series well-deserved stars. My special thanks to reviewer and teacher Robin Smith who just now reminded me of them as she mentioned them on the ccbc-net discussion list as exemplars for raising issues of economic differences for children.
For those still unfamiliar with this charming series, the books are from the point of view of a young biracial child, Anna Hibiscus who lives in “… Africa. Amazing Africa.” In each of these early chapter books mostly set in an unnamed city, professional storyteller Atinuke gently, authentically, and lyrically strings together a series of episodes that present life for one extended Nigerian family. There are threads tying each set of stories together — Anna’s anxiety about having to sing in front of an important audience or her visit with her Canadian grandmother — but it is the individual little stories that make these books so powerful.
Having lived and taught in Sierra Leone I’m fairly obsessed with bringing material to American children that communicate an authentic viewpoint of life in West Africa. While she does not identify Anna’s home country, author Atinuke’s background is Nigerian and I can only say that what she describes rings true to me from my own experience a few countries to the west. (I’m going back to Sierra Leone this summer for the first time which will be quite an experience!) Like Robin, I too admire Atinuke’s deft handling of the class and economic issues that are familiar to me from my time in West Africa.
I’ve heard some complaining about the author’s decision not to identify Anna’s home country and I have to say I disagree. The choice to begin each story with a lyrical storytelling trope — that Anna lives in “amazing Africa” is lovely and clearly an artistic choice. Yes, some Americans have trouble understanding that the continent of Africa is not a country, but that doesn’t mean every book written for children and set in Africa must identify the country in order for American children to get the right idea. Even without naming the country, Atinuke does one of the best jobs I’ve seen giving a feel and sense of what life is like for one West African child. And because of that I’m looking forward to her new series, The No. 1 Car Spotter, this one from the point of view of a young boy living in an African village.
Aminatta Forna is one of the most thoughtful writers about Africa that I know. (Check out this splendid essay about a vet in Sierra Leone for a taste.) And today she’s reviewing VS Naipaul’s latest work of nonfiction, this one on African belief, in the Guardian. Highly recommended.
I enjoy food critic Anthony Bourdain’s television show No Reservations and was eager to see the Liberian episode as it is a country that borders Sierra Leone (where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer) and so they have a lot in common. I was not surprised that the visit for Bourdain was very disturbing, this is, after all, a very poor country recovering — like its neighbor Sierra Leone — from a brutal prolonged conflict.
Well intentioned as it was meant to be I was most bothered by their visit to a remote village. Not for the reasons that Bourdain was bothered as what clearly unnerved him looked so familiar to me — when I lived in Sierra Leone that is how most people upcountry lived. The women cooking, children teasing, and men drinking palm wine all brought back memories to me, I can tell you. But he looked beyond shocked; I have to wonder who exactly prepared them for that village visit. I mean, this is what rural life was like in Sierra Leone in the 70s when I lived there; I have to assume that was what it was like in Liberia too. Bourdain had clearly no context for what he saw and I completely understand that — the reason Peace Corps required us to serve two years is that it took us a year just to be able to be comfortable living in Sierra Leone as it was so different from what any of us could possibly know. So how could Bourdain, without the training we received, be able to make sense of all that he saw? I’m dubious. In particular when he attempted to explain the devil that visited the village while he was there. His explanation is not the way I understood animism in Sierra Leone. Not going to get into it now, but have to say that what he said was very, very, very muddled.
Tricky stuff and trickier still when it isn’t exactly right.I do wish they’d at least have provided a bit more information on the website; even a few links to worthwhile sites would be helpful.
Mambo Point is the story of twelve-year-old Linus Tuttle who moves to Monrovia, Liberia in 1982 when his dad gets a job at the US Embassy there. A highly anxious kid, Linus hopes for a chance to reinvent himself in a new place (something I, an academic brat who moved frequently as a child, totally identified with). When they first arrive the family has a dramatic encounter with a black mamba snake, mambas being among the most deadly snakes of the region. Once in their new apartment Linus sees a black mamba everywhere. He then learns about kasengs, a belief that people can have special mysterious connections to animals. As the story goes on it appears that this is the case with Linus and his black mamba.
Having served as a Peace Corps volunteer in nearby Sierra Leone a few years before this story takes place and having spent my 7th grade year on the fringe of US embassy culture in Germany I can say that those aspects of the setting are very authentically rendered. From the houseboy (as offensive as the term sounds that is what the household servants were called when I lived in Sierra Leone) to the curio seller and the music of that time and place, Scaletta’s 1982 Monrovia felt remarkably like my 1976 Freetown. I did wonder about the parents seeming lack of interest in the local culture, but as I think about it I recall that sort of situation both in Sierra Leone and in Germany. That is, US Embassy staff in both 1965 Germany and 1976 Freetown were highly isolated from the countries in which they resided. In both places I recall a great effort to replicate America as much as possible.
Linus is an appealing protagonist and the interactions with “his” snake are gripping as are his complex relationships with his older brother and the few other kids he encounters. There is a lot going on the book — cross-cultural understandings and misunderstandings, some incredibly exciting and dramatic scenes, magic of the African sort, peer and sibling relationships — a powerful coming-of-age story. An interesting, compelling, and different read, well worth checking out.
His fair-minded efforts to understand the motivations of the various actors involved ultimately lead him to challenge head-on the over-simplifications and distortions perpetuated by many Western journalists and Save Darfur campaigners.
Thoughtful review of Rob Crilly’s book Saving Darfur: Everyone’s Favourite African War.
When I lived and worked in Sierra Leone neither I nor those I taught knew anything about the Amistad story. In fact I first heard about it when the Spielberg film started to be mentioned, controversies and all. Soon after I attended a Friends of Sierra Leone meeting at Mystic Seaport and visited the just-finished replica of the Amistad. Since then the ship has traveled around and now it has made its way all the way to Sierra Leone. The accounts at the Amistad America site are very moving indeed. And here is a recent news report on the visit: BBC NEWS | Africa | Crowds flock to S Leone slave ship.
Folktales shouldn’t be used, except very cautiously, as windows into other cultures. (Judy Sierra, Cinderella The Oryx Multicultural Folktale Series, pg. 165)
In the Rutgers University grad course on fairy tales I’m currently co- teaching we just finished a lively discussion on multiculturalism. One of the books we considered was John Steptoe‘s Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, a beautiful Caldecott honor book that is often used in lessons about Africa because it is mistakenly thought to be an authentic folktale from Zimbabwe. In fact, it is not. Steptoe himself is honest by writing that the book, “was inspired by a folktale collected by G. M. Theal and published in 1895 in his book, Kaffir Folktales. Details of the illustrations were inspired by the ruins of an ancient city found in Zimbabwe, and the flora and fauna of that region.” Unfortunately, few seem to have investigated to see if it really is an appropriate choice to help American children learn about a place that is very far away and unfamiliar to them.
One who has is Eliot A. Singer who writes in his article, “Fakelore and the Ethics of Children’s Literature“:
In The Horn Book Magazine (July/August 1987, p. 478), a reviewer notes of Steptoe’s (1987) celebrated and award winning Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters that the story is a “polished retelling of one from G. M. Theal’s Kaffir Folktales.” The actual title is Kaffir Folklore(Theal 1886), and there is no tale in that collection that remotely resembles the one in the picture book. Maybe getting a title right is a scholarly hang-up, but it does seem reasonable to expect a reviewer who claims something is a “polished retelling” at least to look in the card catalog. To his credit, Steptoe (1988) points out that he was simply inspired by Theal’s book to explore Zimbabwe tradition and come up with his own story, that he “did not write and illustrate a special interest picture book,” one “said to be based on an African tale.” Yet, Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters is reviewed, sold, classified, and, awarded, I presume, as an “African” tale.
One of our students, Jenny Schwartzberg of the Newberry Library, tracked down an on-line copy of Kaffir Folk-lore and after reading through all the tales, I feel the one that probably inspired Steptoe was “The Story of Five Heads.” However, the commonalities are minor; Steptoe’s story is really an original, his alone. Additionally, information about Great Zimbabwe (found here and here) indicates a far more tangled history than can possibly be deduced from Steptoe’s story and illustrations.
Our students agreed by the end of our discussions that this book was better used within a language arts unit than in a social studies unit. I agree wholeheartedly!
After having read about and listened to their music I finally got to see the documentary film, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars when it was aired on PBS recently.
It was personally hard for me at times (especially the footage of Freetown when it was invaded), but it was also wonderful. The film tells the story of a group of Sierra Leonean musicians who connect at a refugee camp in Guinea and become a band — Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars. Their individual histories are heartrending. While some of them are willing to return to Sierra Leone, one (with the most horrific story) is unable to. They will be touring in the US in August and September. And here is a small not-very-good video I made with some clips from the film.
Colleen Mondor at Chasing Ray alerted me to Vanity Fair’s special issue on Africa. I’m of two minds about it.
On the one hand (or mind) it does reinforce my previous post on Africa being the hot continent du jour. Looking through the Table of Contents, I see a lot of articles from the point of view of outsiders — Bono, Christopher Hitchens, Brad Pitt, Sebastian Junger, and Bill Clinton to name a few. And let’s not forget Madonna; Punch Hutton has a very kind piece about her work in Malawi, “Raising Malawi: Madonna Lends a Hand.” Having not yet read the other articles, I can’t speak for the other outsiders, but this one on Madonna? Simplistic, glowing, and you’d never know that some did not think so highly of Madonna and her efforts in Malawi. Chimanada Ngozi Adichie, for one. Check out the Orange Prize winner’s interview, “Madonna’s not our saviour” for an insider’s perspective on all these outsiders. (Thanks to Linda Lowe for the link.)
On the other hand (or mind), I do appreciate the in-depth articles in Vanity Fair and assume there are plenty in this issue. And maybe, just maybe some readers of this issue will decide to learn more. That is always a good thing, isn’t it?