In Sierra Leone / Edition 1

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In 2002, as Sierra Leone prepared to announce the end of its brutal civil war, the distinguished anthropologist, poet, and novelist Michael Jackson returned to the country where he had intermittently lived and worked as an ethnographer since 1969. While his initial concern was to help his old friend Sewa Bockarie (S. B.) Marah—a prominent figure in Sierra Leonean politics—write his autobiography, Jackson’s experiences during his stay led him to create a more complex work: In Sierra Leone, a beautifully rendered mosaic integrating S. B.’s moving stories with personal reflections, ethnographic digressions, and meditations on history and violence.

Though the Revolutionary United Front (R.U.F.) ostensibly fought its war (1991–2002) against corrupt government, the people of Sierra Leone were its victims. By the time the war was over, more than fifty thousand were dead, thousands more had been maimed, and over one million were displaced. Jackson relates the stories of political leaders and ordinary people trying to salvage their lives and livelihoods in the aftermath of cataclysmic violence. Combining these with his own knowledge of African folklore, history, and politics and with S. B.’s bittersweet memories—of his family’s rich heritage, his imprisonment as a political detainee, and his position in several of Sierra Leone’s post-independence governments—Jackson has created a work of elegiac, literary, and philosophical power.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“A fascinating document that reflects importantly on widescale violence and war, the nature of narrative, the sensibilities of witnessing, the play of memory, and the predicament of anthropology in places and among peoples that the discipline has studied in calmer times.”—George Marcus, author of Ethnography through Thick and Thin

“Throughout In Sierra Leone interpersonal, domestic relations of inequality—the everyday resentments, harshness, and ironies that characterize hierarchical relations between Big Men and their entourage, older brothers and their juniors—unfold against the backdrop of History with a capital H. Only someone with Michael Jackson’s unique blend of anthropological and poetic sensibility and long-term engagement with Sierra Leone could write this book.”—Mariane Ferme, author of The Underneath of Things: Violence, History, and the Everyday in Sierra Leone

From the Publisher
“A fascinating document that reflects importantly on widescale violence and war, the nature of narrative, the sensibilities of witnessing, the play of memory, and the predicament of anthropology in places and among peoples that the discipline has studied in calmer times.”—George Marcus, author of Ethnography through Thick and Thin

“Throughout In Sierra Leone interpersonal, domestic relations of inequality—the everyday resentments, harshness, and ironies that characterize hierarchical relations between Big Men and their entourage, older brothers and their juniors—unfold against the backdrop of History with a capital H. Only someone with Michael Jackson’s unique blend of anthropological and poetic sensibility and long-term engagement with Sierra Leone could write this book.”—Mariane Ferme, author of The Underneath of Things: Violence, History, and the Everyday in Sierra Leone

Foreign Affairs
In this rambling but ultimately compelling essay, Jackson, an anthropologist long acquainted with Sierra Leone, combines a fragmentary history of the country with a description of its people and its countryside as they emerge from a nightmarish civil war, peppering his tale with ruminations on the nature of anthropology. Jackson visited Sierra Leone in 2002, ostensibly to help his old friend S. B. Marah, a prominent politician approaching the end of his career, write his autobiography. Several lengthy excerpts from their interviews make up the core of this book, offering arresting details of the life and times of a classic African "big man" and illuminating the nature of postcolonial politics in Sierra Leone. Readers who want an explicit explanation for the collapse will be disappointed; indeed, Jackson seems to believe that a rational account is impossible. Yet it is telling that Marah's world-view is dominated by personality and social relations, with political power a means of rewarding one's self and one's kin rather than of promoting a sense of national identity or purpose.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822333135
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 4/10/2004
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 232
  • Sales rank: 1,344,773
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 7.82 (h) x 0.84 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Jackson is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen. He is an award-winning poet, novelist, and anthropologist. Among his many books are Minima Ethnographica: Intersubjectivity and the Anthropological Project; Barawa, and the Ways Birds Fly in the Sky; At Home in the World (published by Duke University Press); Pieces of Music, a novel; and Antipodes, a collection of poetry.

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Read an Excerpt

In Sierra Leone

By Michael Jackson

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3313-9

Chapter One

Night Flight to Freetown

In the late 1960s, the English writer Graham Greene, expressing his fondness for the West African country where he had spent time during the Second World War, referred to Sierra Leone as "soupsweet land." When I first went to Sierra Leone in 1969 to do ethnographic fieldwork for my Ph.D., Greene's affectionate comments and famous signature were still in the guest book at Fourah Bay College, where Pauline (my first wife) and I stayed for a while before going north. Before long, the ebullience and piquancy of life in Sierra Leone captivated me, and though the ominous shadows of a corrupt regime and bankrupt economy were increasingly evident in ordinary people's complaints, frustrations, and fears, it was still easy for a stranger like myself, living up-country in a remote town or village, to imagine that life would go on as it always had, despite the hardships. Then, in 1991, fighting in Liberia spilled over into eastern Sierra Leone, fomenting a rebellion that quickly gathered force. In the years that followed, the Revolutionary United Front laid waste to the country whose soul it had purportedly set out to save, killing, raping, and maiming tens of thousands of innocent people. In the West, media images of amputations and atrocities committed on civilians by "child soldiers" toting Ak-47s reinforced, in many minds, a view of Africa as a place of incorrigiblesavagery. After the intervention of, first, a Nigerian-led military force, then the UN, the rebellion was finally crushed. And in January 2002, as Sierra Leone prepared to announce the end of the war, I went back to the "soupsweet land" to find out what fate had befallen the people with whom I had once worked and lived, and to see how their stories might be fitted into the broken mosaic of the decade through which, as the Mande say, God slept.

During the years I had been away, my friend Sewa Bockarie Marah had been urging me to help him write his autobiography. After a political career spanning the four decades since Sierra Leone's independence in 1961, and interrupted by two stints in prison as a political detainee and ten months of exile during the war, S. B. was now one of the president's right-hand men, and had, no doubt, an intriguing story to tell. But was I the best person to assist him in this task? Though I knew something of his illustrious Kuranko heritage and his political constituency in the north, and had long been fascinated by Hannah Arendt's notion of the political as a power relationship between private and public realms, I balked at the prospect of venturing into the vexed and often duplicitous world of Sierra Leone politics. Besides, unlike his younger brother Noah, who had been my close companion and field assistant for many years, and had introduced me to S. B. in 1970 when he was managing the Alitalia agency in Freetown (during a five-year break from politics, following his party's electoral defeat in 1967), S. B. had always been a somewhat remote and enigmatic figure to me. And I did not want to compromise myself by writing hagiography. Yet, as I made ready to leave for Sierra Leone, none of these misgivings seemed to matter.

Perhaps the reasons for this change of heart could be divined in my dreams, or lay in the impasse I had reached in my writing, for in the days before I left Copenhagen, its public squares half-covered with dirty, frozen snow, and the air misty and dank, my mind was crowded with images of renewal. There are times when we need to break with routine, to get away from it all, and start over. But how can such fantasies of a new beginning be reconciled with the reality of the world of which one is already and inescapably a part? And how can the quest for renewal avoid the destructiveness of revolution?

Daybreak was still three hours away when the night flight from Gatwick landed at Lungi, and I followed the other disembarking passengers across the tarmac to the dismal hangar that served as an arrivals hall. "Under Rehabilitation," read the sign on the wall. "Sorry for all Inconvenience and Discomfort."

Under dim fluorescent lights, I waited as baggage was manhandled from a trailer, and everybody jostled around the low tables on which it was dumped. After retrieving my bag, I let myself be pushed along by the crowd to where helicopter tickets to the city were being sold. Then I made my way to the north end of the old airport building where people were waiting for the first helicopter. British soldiers in mufti. Aid workers. NGO personnel. Businessmen from Russia, Eastern Europe, and Lebanon. Returning Sierra Leoneans. A few minutes later it began to rain, unusual for January, and as the first helicopter settled awkwardly onto the tarmac its spotlights rendered the rain visible, like scratch marks on glass.

Since I was scheduled to take the second helicopter I passed the time talking to a young man from Lungi village who worked part-time for the helicopter company, loading and unloading baggage. When I asked Isa how the war had affected his life, he told me that his brother had been abducted by rebels while traveling from Kenema to visit their father in 1996. Though he managed to escape, he came home with a bullet in his knee, which now caused him great pain and prevented him from working. "During the war, everyone was alone," Isa said. "Everyone had to fend for himself. There was no order."

It was still pitch dark and raining heavily when the dilapidated helicopter crossed the broad expanse of the Sierra Leone river, with me a nervous passenger, and followed the coast southward towards Lumley. When we landed, I breathed a sigh of relief, and clambered quickly out. The helicopter's spotlights illuminated the wet sea grass battered by the downdraft from the rotor blades.

I had taken no more than a few steps when a young man with a broad smile walked up to me and introduced himself as S. B.'s nephew and namesake. Small S. B.'s instructions were to drive me directly to my hotel. "Uncle says you are to get some sleep, eat breakfast, and then call him," he said. "Then I will come back and drive you to the house."

After two hours' shallow sleep, I went to the hotel dining room for a breakfast of dry bread and jam, instant coffee, and a plate of sliced papaya and pineapple. Then I phoned S. B. and returned to my room to wait, only to find myself besieged by memories, as unspecific as they were unassuageable-the smell of the woodwork, a curious mingling of varnish and mildew ... the frangipani and bougainvillea outside my window ... the long stretch of Lumley beach, its ochre and buff sands scoured by the unceasing tides.

S. B.'s house was in the hills, overlooking the west side of the city and the sea. When I entered the parlor, Sewa rose from the chair in which he was sitting, heavier than I remembered him, and moving with difficulty, but essentially unchanged. The same odd mixture of charismatic self-confidence and acute sensitivity.

We shook hands, and he asked me about my flight, and whether the hotel accommodation he had arranged was to my liking. Although I said I was happy with the arrangement, I had been mystified when he phoned the night before I left Copenhagen to say he had booked me into a hotel in order that I should have "peace and quiet," for in the past I had always stayed with Sewa and Rose, and peace and quiet had never been an issue.

When I told S. B. I was looking forward to collaborating on his biography, he said that he already had the title for the book. "Within These Four Walls. I have had it in mind for many years. But I am tied up today. We have a crisis in Parliament. One of our senior ministers has resigned." And he abruptly called for small S. B. to come, and for one of the houseboys to bring him a cap. "But don't worry," he said, as he walked toward the door, adjusting his cap on his head. "We will be going north the day after tomorrow and we will have plenty of time to discuss our business then."

Within minutes of S. B's departure, Rose entered the room. Fuller in the face and figure than when I last saw her, she was still stunningly beautiful. We embraced with tears in our eyes, marveling at how swiftly the years of separation were annulled, as if no time at all had passed since we were last together. I then showed Rose several photos of Heidi, my daughter, and of my wife Francine and our two children building a snowman with Heidi in a churchyard near Sankt Hans Torv on Christmas day. As for Rose's children, they were now, like Heidi, young adults, and all living in London where they had taken refuge from the war.

"But you know," Rose said, "I was expecting that you would be staying here as you always do. I had prepared your room. Then S. B. told me that you would be staying in the Cape Sierra hotel. But this is your home, Mike; you must come and eat here whenever you like."

I asked Rose about S. B's younger brother Noah, with whom I had done my fieldwork during the 1970s and 80s. How could I get in touch with him?

It had already been arranged. Noah was aware I was arriving today and he would come to the house that afternoon.

Of all my reunions, this was the most overwhelming. When Noah walked into the room, I did not recognize him at first because of the glare from the doorway behind him, and because he was wearing glasses. But then he emerged from the shadows, and we fell into each other's arms, clasping each other, tears rolling down our cheeks, and when we sat down together on the sofa and began to talk we continued to touch each other, as though still unable to grasp the transformation that had just occurred. If the sights and smells of Freetown had reawakened memories of a long-eclipsed period of my life, then seeing Noah again was as if a lost part of my soul had been restored to me.

"I cannot find words for what I feel," Noah said, "but seeing you is like being born again."

"It's the same for me," I said. And I had a fleeting memory of some lines I had read the night before in W. G. Sebald's Austerlitz, while waiting for my flight at Gatwick, about the compulsion we sometimes feel to go in search of places and people in our past we have all but forgotten, to keep a rendezvous with them, and thereby, perhaps, create some semblance of unity in our own lives.

When I last saw Noah, he had been working as a trade inspector in Koidu. What had happened to him since then?

"I continued to work as a trade inspector," Noah said, "but I was transferred several times. From Koidu I moved to Port Loko. Then to Makeni. Finally Lunsar. I was suffering from glaucoma, and had to have an operation. But the rebels were threatening Lunsar at that time, and the two expatriate doctors had to flee the town within a day of performing the second operation. They had given me medication, and bandaged my eyes, but when the rebels broke into my house and took me captive I had to leave everything behind. They taunted me. They said 'Pappy, here, drink' and thrust a bottle of beer at me. I said I didn't drink. They pushed a cannabis cigarette into my mouth. I told them I didn't smoke. I said: 'Would I eat if I were not hungry?' From Lunsar we walked to Masimera where we stopped for two days. I asked if I could talk to their C.O. They said 'What! A civilian like you wanting to see our C.O.!' One of them lifted his weapon to show what would happen if I went on pushing my luck."

Four days later, Noah said, the rebels abandoned him in a Temne village. His eyes were no longer bandaged, and he was in a lot of pain. In the months that followed he lost the sight of one eye, and now had only limited vision in the other. Unable to return to teaching school-which he was doing when I first met him-and with little hope of finding any other work, he survived in Freetown on his wits, scrounging money to buy rice and food for his family and pay school fees for his kids.

That afternoon small S. B. drove Noah and me downtown, and I saw some of the changes that had come to the city in my years away. The City Hotel, where my wife and I stayed when we first came to Sierra Leone in 1969, had been a casualty of the war, though one of the coconut palms in the forecourt had survived the fire that gutted the building.

It was strange to look up at the windowless concrete space where our room had been, and to think further back to when Graham Greene killed time here during the war, later describing his character Wilson, at the beginning of The Heart of the Matter, as sitting on the balcony with "his bald pink knees thrust against the ironwork ... his face turned to the sea."

We drove east to Noah's sister's house, so that I could pay my respects to their mother, Aisetta Sanfan. Physically not much more than skin and bone (S. B. and Noah were convinced that their mother was at least a hundred years old), Aisetta was lying on a palliasse on the floor of a back bedroom. I had never expected to see her again, and as I touched her shoulder and greeted her I felt as though I was reaching out across an unbridgeable gulf. Then her eyes flickered open. "How is Heidi?" she whispered, without stirring. "Is she there?" My daughter had been born in Sierra Leone, and Aisetta had cared for her when she was a baby.

"No," I said, "but she promises to be with me next time I come, and she sends her love." When Aisetta closed her eyes it was as though she were closing them on a world of immense sorrow and disappointment.


Excerpted from In Sierra Leone by Michael Jackson Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations xi

Maps xiii

1. Night Flight to Freetown 1

2. The North 12

3. Place of Refuge 20

4. In Kabala 32

5 .The Beef 41

6. Within These Four Walls 49

7. The Executions 56

8. Fina Kamara’s Story 64

9. Tina Kome Marah 74

10. Early Days 86

11. Independence 98

12. Going Abroad 107

13. In Government 112

14. Thinking Back 125

15. Seeds of Conflict 132

16. The War 140

17. Day into Night 151

18. The Reversals of Fortune 161

19. The Value of Shade 170

20. Exile 180

21. In Conakry 186

22. Trust and Truth 192

23. The Hotel 201

Notes 209

Index 223

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