Posted by: koolwine | August 1, 2010

Sierra Leone: A Long Way Gone

Country: Sierra Leone

Local Name: Sierra Leone, meaning “Lion Mountains”

Title: A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

Author: Ishmael Beah

Published: 2007   Pages: 218

Acclaim: #1 National Bestseller

Time Period: 1993-1997, during the  Sierra Leone Civil War, which was fought between the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) and the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).

Summary: While Beah and his friends are out of town for a talent show, they learn that RUF forces have slaughtered everyone in their village and are advancing towards them.  The boys elude the fighters for days, but are eventually caught by a NPRC unit and forced to become soldiers.  Beah describes his emotional transformation from frightened child to merciless killer.  After an aid organization rescues him, he morphs once again, this time from drug-addicted aggressor to international diplomat.

My opinion: A Long Way Gone lays bare not only the emotional trauma that child soldiers endure but also their long and difficult rehabilitation.  Upsetting and riveting.

In my book, or how Sierra Leone has affected me and maybe you, too:

Georgia on my mind
I call Jekyll Island, Georgia home, although I’ve never actually lived there.  My grandparents did.  Their house was across the the street from a playground, two blocks from the beach, a half mile from putt-putt golf, and a mile from good crabbing.  Paradise.

It’s been 20 years since they moved away, but whenever my husband and I are in the area visiting other relatives, I insist on making a sidetrip out to Jekyll.  The last time I was out there, I bought a book called God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man: A Saltwater Geechee Talks about Life on Sapelo Island, Georgia by Cornelia Walker Bailey.  Sapelo Island is located just a few islands north of Jekyll, and Bailey’s memoir describes a uniquely isolated African American community that has strong ties to Sierra Leone.

Roughly 4,100 nautical miles separate the Georgia and Sierra Leone, but slavery brought them together.  Georgia’s coastal plantation owners were willing to pay extra for slaves with experience growing rice, indigo and cotton; Sierra Leoneans met those qualifications – their county is situated on “Rice Coast” of Africa.  From 1672-1807, the British operated an enormous slave outpost from Sierra Leone’s Bunce Island, shipping slaves across the Atlantic and selling them in Savannah.

Brought to live and work in relative seclusion on Georgia’s barrier islands, the slaves were able to maintain many of their native cultures and traditions.  In Georgia, the descendants of these slaves are called “Geechee.”  For a long time it was assumed that the name “Geechee” was an abbreviation of Georgia’s Ogeechee River, but recent research suggests that the word traveled over from Africa and refers to the Kissi (pronounced “Geezee”) tribe living on the the Sierra Leone-Liberia-Guinea border.

“‘Diamonds are forever’ it is often said. But lives are not.”*
Back in the early nineties, my then-boyfriend told me that he would never buy a woman a diamond ring because of the bad juju surrounding them.  I had no idea what he was talking about.  The cheapskate bastard!  What sort of ring was he going to buy me, then?!

All that worry for nothing: our relationship ended (for unrelated reasons); I realized that my personal desire for a diamond ring was nonexistent (I had only wanted one because it seemed like an integral part of a “normal” American marriage); and by the time I actually got married, the last thing I wanted my fiance to spend big money on was a small sparkly rock that I was likely to lose.

It wasn’t until I saw the 2006 movie Blood Diamond that I was once again confronted with the notion that many diamonds have a sordid history (this message was much easier to take from super-hotties Leonardo DeCaprio and Djimon Hounsou than from my old boyfriend, who I still suspect was just being stingy).

The United Nations defines “blood” or “conflict” diamonds as those having “originated from areas controlled by forces or factions opposed to legitimate and internationally recognized governments, and are used to fund military action in opposition to those governments, or in contravention of the decisions of the UN Security Council”.

The blood diamonds referred to in the movie’s title were mined in Sierra Leone – one of the top 10 diamond producing nations in the world – and sold to De Beers and other diamond companies.  The profits were used to finance the civil war that Ishmael Beah was forced to join.

*Martin Chungong Ayafor, Chairman of the Sierra Leone Panel of Experts [on conflict diamonds for the United Nations]

A shipload of trouble
Djimon Hounsou has made a fortune playing Sierra Leoneans (in real life he is Beninese).  In the 1997 movie Amistad, which was based on a true story, he portrayed Sengbe Pieh, better known as Joseph Cinque, in a leading role.

Imprisoned in hellish conditions on the slave ship Amistad, Cinque and his fellow slaves mutiny, kill their captors and take over the ship.  The Amistad winds up off the coast of Connecticut, the Africans are incarcerated, much (somewhat dull) courtroom drama follows, and when their case reaches the Supreme Court they end up being defended (and the case won) by no less than former President John Quincy Adams.

The happy ending of Stephen Spielberg’s movie has been accused of being  misleading – the viewer leaves the theater thinking that the Supreme Court was moved by Adam’s passionate anti-slavery argument:

“that the natural state of mankind is instead – and I know this is a controversial idea – is freedom. Is freedom. And the proof is the length to which a man, woman or child will go to regain it once taken. He will break loose his chains. He will decimate his enemies. He will try and try and try, against all odds, against all prejudices, to get home.”

But according to Columbia University Professor Eric Foner, the Supreme Court’s favorable ruling in the Amistad case was decided because slave trade in the Atlantic had been outlawed by international treaty in 1840.  The judges were not concerned with whether or not slavery was immoral; they had merely decided that maritime laws had been broken.

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