The day in Bo began a long and didactic discussion of the future of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Sierra Leone, attended by bishops of various countries and pastors who are now administrators of churchwide bodies. The day ended with a celebration of the fertile energies of adolescent bodies. They dared the adults to join them, and protect them, on their joyful and dangerous journey through life. It was a celebration, ultimately, of trust.
As a scholar of African History, I know something about these traditions. I have a sense of the sacred nature of these dances that celebrate fertility. But it was nonetheless shocking to see them performed by church youth before an audience of Lutheran Bishops.
The Lutheran church in Sierra Leone is thirty years old, and ten of those years, as stated by several attendees who lived through the 1990s, were scarred by a civil war, marked by deliberate brutalities that were intended to upset the normal moral order. For them, it was a lost decade, and the church and the country stuck in a societal adolescence. It is a land that habitually, and daringly, casts from its consciousness the continual traumas that have haunted it for 400 years. The slave trade took five thousand people a year for during the century before Freetown was established as a British settlement for liberated slaves. Slave ships were captured at sea, the captives unloaded here, and slavery became a shared memory. The traumas lurk somewhere in the magical region that Pierre Bourdieu called “the Realm of the Undisputed.”
“The fact that warfare, raiding, and the knowledge that bodies could become commodities in exchange for wealth formed part of the every day conditions of life for over four centuries was surely insidious in itself. Terror had become a taken-for-granted aspect of the environment in which people’s lives unfolded.” (Shaw, 41)
For anyone interested in understanding this Middle Earthen kingdom where magic is still alive, I would start wiith Mariane Ferme’s “The Underneath of Things.” Read that first, and then go on to Paul Richards’ “Fighting for the Rain Forest,” and finally William Reno’s “Corruption and State Politics in Sierra Leone.” There may be some newer books out there as well, but, if you really want a challenge, read Rosalind Shaw’s “Memories of the Slave Trade,” whence the quotes that populate this essay come.
In a long discussion of Sierra Leone’s unstable history with men and women who lived through the war, one also recommended Ayi Kwei Armah’s barbed novel of postcolonial ennui in Ghana, “The Beautyful Ones are not yet Born.” It tells the tale of a particular tragedy that has never quite been conquered in West Africa, and is more accessible than Syl Cheney-Coker’s magical journey through Sierra Leone in “The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar.” In the meantime a new millennium has presented a more optimistic societal canvas than has been present for a long, long time. Sierra Leone’s new, democratically elected president is making his first tour upcountry since taking office, and is following close on our heels. His advance security people are present everywhere, just below the level of consciousness. They represent a widening governmental commitment to competence in a nation where a generation of the civil servants, professors, and businesspeople fled into exile, and a new world had to be built by the young. At the sprawling hotel where we are staying, it was only the jolt at breakfast of the scantily clad young women, who inevitably accompany all advance presidential guards, that brought their presence to my notice. One must keep in mind that in Africa, and this is particularly true in Sierra Leone, you are living in a society where 50% of the population is under age 15, and a great number of them are vulnerable where families and infrastructures were decimated, where social norms came under fire, where jobs are few. They seek protection.
At the center of the Crossroads, you get all the messages you are looking for. However big a thing is, it is to the center that it has to come. All these roads, they have meanings. If something is hidden, the road will tell you in the center. (Pa Yemba, quoted in Shaw, 92)
The road from Freetown to Bo is new and smooth and well marked. Parts of it pass through primordial landscapes whose modernity is marked only by the absence of of the towering trees that once lorded over the coastal rainforest. Human settlement has slashed and burned all but the palm trees that still cast their storybook shadows over the verdant hills. Elsewhere the roadsides jostle with bikes and motorbikes, pedestrians and goats. As elsewhere in Africa, all share the same narrow public space, and accidents do happen, but are here considered exceptions to God’s tender mercies and the respect for each other during the fleeting moments when viable public infrastructures are there to be shared.
We stop at a crossroads to wait for another car in our little caravan. American bluesman Robert Johnson sang of magical happenings at the crossroads, of devils on Greyhounds, and hellhounds on the trail. He conjured the magic of the crossroads from sinews of cultural memory that his ancestors brought from the Western coast of Africa. A Temne diviner in Sierra Leone explained to Rosalind Shaw that “The spirits come to the Crossroads.”
As Americans, we should know this, in blood-scented junctions along the Mississippi Delta and Ferguson, Missouri. As Americans, we should also recognize these African adolescents in the songs of Chuck Berry and the Dixie Cups, of Beyonce and the Black Eyed Peas. American culture does not exist without Africans and the traumas that brought them here.
“Well I’m all grown up. I ain’t a baby no more. And I can do the things, I couldn’t do before. Well I can go downtown, and I can shimmy all night, and he wants to kiss, I can say well that’s alright. And I can fall in love, and marry by and by, because I’m all grown up, and that’s the reason why.” (The Dixie Cups)
You want to warn them. You want to build a wall around them. You want to turn back the clock until they shrink back into a child’s body where their innocence is evident and their vulnerability sparks the instinct to protect them. But they are telling you that you have to let them go. The dance is telling you that it is their sexuality that drives them into the world. The dance is telling you that their mastery of their bodies signals their mastery of the world and all its cruelties, of which they know almost nothing. Adolescence is one of those magical crossroads filled with all the possibilities of life and all its attendant dangers.
At the crossroads on the road to Bo, a young woman, a teenager with soft shoulders and round cheeks approached the window with a basket of the fullest, ripest pineapples you’ve ever seen. She lingered at the window, hoping for a sale, her eyes as sweet as a shy child when asked what they want for Christmas. And when we waved her off, telling her we weren’t buying, she turned away with that same heart-breaking smile and not a trace of disappointment. It struck me that this girl, impoverished as she is, selling fruit by the roadside on a Friday, has everything she needs. Somehow, even on that chaotic corner, the African village, that ancient and most durable institution, has nurtured her in body, mind, and spirit. She is altogether healthy, her immediate needs of food, shelter, and love are present in sufficient abundance. What is missing, clearly, is the chance to do something more with her life, to train her capabilities and channel her generosity of spirit into something more productive. But what struck me is that the humble abundance that her family and village have given her offer only the thinnest layer of protection.
What struck me was not her poverty, but her vulnerability. On that day, you’d be hard pressed to find a more well-adjusted American teenager. But the American teenager, the middle-class ones at least, are cocooned in layer upon layer of institutionalized protection: security cameras and police, medical insurance and hospitals, food safety regulations and drug controls, a trillion dollar military and drones, trigger warnings and conflict free zones. This girl stood at the crossroads with pineapples on her head. And ghosts flew around her: ebola victims, child soldiers on meth, slave raiders with cutlasses and nets and crushed consciences. I can only imagine, and hope, that the ghosts protect her like the village does, as one of their own. If more restless ghosts still roam the land, they are not seen. But one can only imagine that they lie in wait to inhabit their human hosts and take their revenge.
“Landscapes bear traces of violent histories in different ways. One is through the suffusion of a place by the lingering presence of past violence and suffering: haunted houses, pools, forests, and stretches of road that were sites of murder, raids, drownings or, car accidents.” (Shaw, 46)
Just before we set out for Bo, we stopped into the Freetown neighborhood of John Thorpe. As with many areas here, a place is named in a feudal sort of way after some long lost occupant who carries an English name because once upon a time the land was ruled by people who had been liberated from slave ships and settled in this colony, converted to Christianity, and named after Englishmen. It was a shallow conquest, and a largely forgotten one, but it meant that traumatic memories of enslavement were planted upon the new society like the Magna Carta.
In John Thorpe the major industry is a sand pit, and heavily laden trucks of sand grind their way up and down the cratered dirt roads. In the cruel and uncaring manner of all plagues, the Ebola outbreak of 2014 hit John Thorpe particularly hard. The virus struck down 182 in the small community, and only nine survived. The Lutheran church worked in its own small way among the international armies of doctors and scientists who descended upon the country in their blue hazmat suits. The Lutherans helped organize community members to bring food to those in quarantine who had no one else to care for them. They found homes for the feared orphans who threatened everyone they met with the possibility that they might be possessed by the infectious ghost of their parents. They found places in school for them. They built some outhouses to stanch the spread of cholera.
It is a warm culture. People crowd in close, they embrace, they shake hands, and this all contributes mightily to the psychological well-being of children and youth, and all those who have avoided or buried the scars of other traumas. And it was those touches and embraces and clasped hands that were most missed when Ebola hit. You see Ebola does not simply infect the individual through the most minute droplet of blood, spit, or semen. Ebola devastates an entire community when all the normal acts of affection are deadly and even healthy people must be regarded with suspicion, and you fear to admit that you found blood dripping from your ears, or eyes, or anus.
Edgar Allen Poe wrote effectively of its human impact in “The Masque of the Red Death,” a horror animated by his fertile imagination and a shred of newsprint. For American readers it was a gothic thrill, and a metaphor for social anxieties and he madness of mobs. For the residents of John Thorpe it was a lived reality, another trauma whose departure was a cause for joy that overwhelmed the memory of the horrors. So they celebrated their survival with us. They thanked us for more than we ever possibly gave them. There are the politics of gratitude, and I know how those politics work, but there is also the ritual of gratitude as a moral act.
And the children performed a small, and underprepared play that dramatized their experience of death and hazmat suits. They fit in some ill-articulated medical terms about the disease and its vectors, but mostly they acted out a generic and reassuring portrayal of familial norms. A husband came home from work and an obedient wife served him and called the children to him as he warned them about the disease stalking the land. The crowd laughed when the skinny husband put an arm around his play-acted wife who, as girls do, had already matured beyond his comprehension. The comedy derived from an irony that pitted the mismatched children against a patriarchal order. And the crowd laughed when another skinny boy in an ill-fitting hazmat suit came to examine the dying husband while his wife cried on the floor. The crowd clicked supportively when the children warned their mother not to touch the dying husband because he might have the disease. And the crowd was possibly quietest when the wife scolded her children for their presumptuous warning in the face of parental authority. What did they know about Ebola anyways? They said they learned about it in school.
What struck me first were the conventions of patriarchal family life portrayed, and the incorporation of the hazmat-suited ghost into that comforting vision of home. Patriarchal perhaps, and one could quickly spiral into all sorts of implications and abuses to be blamed upon patriarchal presumptions. But here this conventional family was an imagined ideal, a reassuring norm a father and mother and three children living in comforting order. As anyone who has worked with children in schools or camps, they like structure. They imagined structure, a family with a salaried father and a mother with time for her children, and a daily ritual of school. They imagined an American sitcom, and all the conventional comforts it could offer. And the reality that surrounds them offers very few of those comforts, and among the families around them, in John Thorpe, the stay-at-home mother and the salaried father and the three well-mannered children in school might be more rare than they’d like, in the wakes of wars and Ebola.
But what stayed with me was the laughter, the healing laughter, the recognition that when people experience real trauma, as opposed to all the hyperventilated traumas Americans subject themselves to every day, that laughter is healing. And that in America we have largely lost the ability to laugh at ourselves, to laugh at our fears, to laugh at our bodily functions. The only laughter we have left, at least in our public discourse, is laughing at each other in scorn. They laughed at themselves, at the way they had been afraid when the plague stalked them, and they laughed at the differences between ideals and reality.
They laughed because they had survived.
See Part II below…