'Ancestor Stones:' Life and War in Sierra Leone

Aminatta Forna i i

hide captionAuthor Aminatta Forna and her family fled Sierra Leone when she was 11.

Simon Westcott
Aminatta Forna

Author Aminatta Forna and her family fled Sierra Leone when she was 11.

Simon Westcott

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Aminatta Forna was just 11 when her father was hanged for treason in Sierra Leone. His real crime was being a popular leader of the opposition in a country sinking under one-man rule and headed for civil war.

Forna fled with her family to Britain, and from there she gazed back until she could return, as an adult, to write a memoir, The Devil That Danced on the Water. Her next book was a novel, Ancestor Stones, which tells the story of an unnamed country in West Africa, as seen through the lives of four sisters and spanning eight decades.

"The book is set in Sierra Leone," Forna tells Renee Montagne as part of a weeklong series of conversations on war and literature. "I chose not to name it when I wrote the novel because I simply wanted people to enter the stories and not overlay upon them what they thought they knew about Sierra Leone" — that is, a war-torn country of summary executions, amputees and child soldiers.

Forna, who spent a year in Sierra Leone researching Ancestor Stones, found that women have a distinctly different perspective of war.

"I spoke to a lot of women about their experiences of war .... The experience of war is different for women. Every woman in that country lived under the constant threat of rape and sexual assault. In my family's village, on a single day when the rebels invaded, every single woman was raped and some of them were taken away."

When men talked about the civil war, "it was very much about what they did and where they were. 'This area was taken over and then I went here.' Whereas the women talked much more about the emotional truths of war — what was really happening as opposed to what was simply happening in newsreel terms."

One scene vividly captures the desperate reality of war. It takes place in a camp where refugees have been waiting a long time for a shipment of food to arrive. But when the crates are opened, it becomes apparent that there has been a mix-up.

The boxes were full of lipsticks, hundreds of them, in their gold coloured cases. The men in blue helmets immediately surrounded the vehicle and prepared for a riot. All of us had such hunger in our bellies. But a moment later they pushed back their helmets and lowered their sunglasses, to make sure what they were seeing was really true. The women rushed forward, myself among them, to snatch up these shining lipsticks. The many miles between us and our lost homes, our rotting feet, the grass and leaves with which we had tried to line our stomachs, the emptiness of the future: for a short while all was forgotten. We stood in the sun, laughing and ribbing each other, painting our mouths in vivid colours.

"War does reduce people to terrible circumstances, and it's that attempt to hold on to moments of pleasure, moments of joy in these tiny things ...." Forna says.

Excerpt: 'Ancestor Stones'

Cover Image: 'Ancestor Stones'

Ancestor Stones

by Aminatta Forna

Hardcover, 336 pages

List Price: $24.00

London, July 2003.

It began with a letter, as stories sometimes do. A letter that arrived one day three winters ago, bearing a stamp with a black and white kingfisher, the damp chill of the outside air, and the postmark of a place from which no letter had arrived for a decade or more. A country that seemed to have disappeared, returned to an earlier time, like the great unfilled spaces on old maps here once map makers drew illustrations of mythical beasts and untold riches. But of course the truth is this story began centuries ago, when horsemen descended to the plains from a lost kingdom called Futa Djallon, long before Europe's map makers turned their minds to the niggling problem of how to fill those blank spaces.

A story comes to mind. A story I have known for years, it seems, though I have no memory now of who is was who told it to me.

Five hundred years ago, a caravel flying the colours of the King of Portugal rounded the curve of the continent. She had become becalmed somewhere around the Cape Verde Islands, and run low on stocks, food and water. When finally the winds took pity on her, they blew her south-east towards the coast, where the captain sighted a series of natural harbours and weighed anchor. The sailors, stooped with hunger, curly haired from scurvy, rowed ashore, dragged themselves through shallow water and on up the sand where they entered the shade of the trees. And there they stood and gazed about themselves in disbelief. Imagine! Dangling in front of their faces: succulent mangoes, bursts of starfruit, avocados the size of a man's head. While from the ends of their elegant stalks pineapples nodded encouragingly, sweet potatoes and yams peeped from the earth, and great hands of bananas reached down to them. The sailors thought they had found no less a place than the Garden of Eden.

And for a time that's what Europeans thought Africa was. Paradise.

The last time I thought about that story was a week after the letter came. By then I had left London—the city I now call home—to retrace the letter's route to the place from where it had come and beyond. I was standing in a forest just like the one the sailors had stumbled into. And I remembered how in the early morning I used to watch my grandmothers, my grandfather's wives, leave their houses and make their way, down the same path upon which I was standing, towards their gardens. One by one each woman parted from her companions and went to her own plot, whose boundaries were marked by an abandoned termite hill, a fallen tree, and upright boulder. There, among the giant irokos, the sapeles and the silk-cotton trees of the forest, she tended the guavas, pawpaws and roseapples she had planted there. Then she weeded her yams and cassava where they grew in the soft, dark earth and watered the pineapple plant that marked the centre of her plot.

I thought of the sailors' story. And for a long time, I thought it was just that. A story. About how Europeans discovered us and we stopped being a blank space on a map. But months later, after the letter arrived and I traced its arc and came to land with a soft thud in an enchanted forest, and after I had listened to all the stories contained in this book and written them down for you, that one story came back to me. And I realised the story was really about something else. It was about different ways of seeing. The sailors were blind to the signs, incapable of seeing the pattern or logic, just because it was different to their own. And the African way of seeing: arcane, invisible yet visible, apparent to those who belong.

The sailors saw what they took to be nature's abundance and stole from the women's gardens. They thought they had found Eden, and perhaps they had. But it was an Eden created not by the hand of God, but the hands of women.

The letter that brought me back to Africa came from my cousin Alpha. I didn't recognise his hand on the envelope: he had never written to me before. Alpha had once been a teacher, but in those changed days he made his living composing letters for other people. People who took their place opposite him one by one, clutching a scrap of paper bearing the address of an overseas relative or else the business card of some European traveller, unwittingly exchanged in a moment of good humour for a lifetime of another person's hopes. Alpha conveyed greetings, prayed for the recipient's health, invoked the memory of the dead, and wrote hereby merely to inform them of the sender's situation, the dislocations and hardships of the war. Sought their help in solving their many difficulties. By God's grace. Thanking them in advance.

And then he swivelled the letter around to face his customer, for their perusal and signature. They nodded, feigning comprehension. And signed with a knitted brow and a wobbling hand the letters of their name learned by heart. Or else they pushed a thumb on to the opened ink pad, and left a purple thumbprint like a flower on the bottom of the page.

My own letter was written on a single side of paper taken from a school exercise book. No crossing out, no misspellings—suggesting it had been drafted beforehand and carefully copied out. Alpha's signature was at the bottom of the page. Alpha Kholifa, plainly executed without flourishes, a simply statement. He used our grandfather's name, the same as mine, so there could be no mistake. The other thing I noticed, only after I had read the letter through, was the absence of a post-office box address. Knowingly, he had denied me the opportunity to write back with ready excuses, to enclose a cheque bloated with guilty zeros.

The letter contained not a single request or plea. The sum of it was held within two short sentences.

'The coffee plantation at Rofathane is yours. It is there.'

O yi di. In our language: it is there. Alpha had written to me in English, but the words, the sensibility, was African. In our country a person might enquire of another after the health of a third. And the respondent, wishing to convey that the individual was less than well, requiring the help of God or man, might reply: 'O yi di.' He is there. She is there. The coffee plantation at Rofathane is yours. It is there.

He did not ask me to come back. He willed it.

The letter finished in the conventional manner. Alpha enquired after my husband, whom he had met once, the last time I went back. We had taken the children, to be seen and admired by family and friends, though they—the children, that is—were too small then to have any memory of the visit. I remember my aunts called my husband the Portuguese One, the potho, which had become my people's word for any European. After those sailors who landed and kept coming back. Named the country. Set up trading posts. Bred bronze-coloured Pedros and Marias. And disappeared leaving scattered words as remnants of their stay. Oporto. Porto. Potho. The tip of the tongue pushed against the back of the teeth, a soft sound. Over the years the word had moulded itself to the shape of an African mouth. It did not matter to them—my aunts—that my husband was, in fact, a Scot.

The morning after the letter arrived I woke to a feeling, which I mistook at first for the chill that follows the end of a warm dream. A sense of apprehension, of an undertaking ahead. Every year for years I had told my Aunt Serah I was coming home. But every year Aunt Serah told me to wait. 'Come at Christmas. When things have settled down.' I knew I had left it long enough. A spectator, I had watched on my television screen images of my country bloodied and bruised. The burned out façade of the department store where we bought mango ice cream on Saturdays. Corpses rolling in the surf of the beach where we picnicked on Sundays, where I rolled for hours in those very waves. A father with his two sons dodging sniper bullets on a street I travelled every Monday morning on my way to school. Peace had been declared and yet the war was far from over. It was like witnessing, from a distance, somebody you know being set upon by thieves in the street. And afterwards, seeing them stagger, still punch drunk, hands outstretched as they fumble for their scattered possessions. Or else, shocked into stillness, gazing around themselves as if in wonder, searching for comfort in the faces of strangers.

What would you do? You would go to them.

I sat up and shook my husband's shoulder—my Portuguese Scottish husband—and I told him I was going away for a while.

And so there I was, standing in the forest among the women's gardens, remembering my grandmothers. Beyond the trees their daughters were waiting for me. Four aunts. Asana, daughter of Ya Namina, my grandfather's senior wife: a magnificent hauteur flowed like river water from the mother's veins through the daughter's. Gentle Mary, from whom foolish children ran in fright, but who braided my hair, cared for me like I was her own and talked of the sea and the stars. Hawa, whose face wore the same expression I remembered from my childhood—of disappointment already foretold. Not even a smile to greet me. Enough of her. And Serah, belly sister of my father, who spoke to me in a way no other adult ever had—as though I might one day become her equal.

They were the ones whose presence filled the background to my childhood. Not my only aunts, by any means, rather my husbandless aunts. Asana, widow. Mary, spinster. Serah, divorcee. The fate of Hawa's husband had never been quite clear, it remained something of a mystery. I had heard some of their stories before, though I didn't remember who had told me or when. As a child I had spent my evenings at home doing schoolwork, or trying to get a picture on the black and white TV, as a teenager I'd lain in my room fiddling with my yellow transistor radio, waiting for my favourite tunes. Without men of their own to occupy them these four aunts had always been frequent visitors to my father's house until he left to take up a series of appointments overseas and I followed in his slipstream to university.

Coming back, I thought about my aunts and all the things that had never been spoken. And I saw them for what they were, the mirror image of the things that go unsaid: all the things that go unasked.

The stories gathered here belong to them, though now they belong to me too, given to me to do with as I wish. Just as they gave me their father's coffee plantation. Stories that started in one place and ended in another. Worn smooth and polished as pebbles from countless retellings. So that afterwards I thought maybe they had been planning it, waiting to tell me for a long time.

That day I walked away from the waiting women, into the trees and towards the water: the same river that further on curled around the houses, so the village lay within its embrace like a woman in the crook of her lover's arm. Either side of the path the shadows huddled. Sharp grasses reached out to scratch my bare ankles. A caterpillar descended on an invisible filament to twirl in front of my face, as if surveying me from every angle before hoisting itself upwards through the air. A sucker smeared my face with something sticky and unknown. I paused to wipe my cheek in front of a tall tree with waxy, elliptical leaves. Along the branches hung sleeping bats, like hundreds of swaddled babies. As I watched, a single bat shifted, unfurled a wing and enfolded its body ever more tightly. For a moment a single eye gleamed at me from within the darkness.

Here and there scarlet berries danced against the green. I reached through the cobwebs, careful of the stinging tree-ants, and plucked a pair. I pressed a fingernail into the flesh of a berry and held it to my nose. Coffee. The lost groves. All this had once been great avenues of trees.

And for a moment I found myself in a place that was neither the past nor the present, neither real nor unreal. Rothoron, my aunts called it. Probably you have been there yourself, whoever you are and wherever in the world you are reading this. Rothoron, the gossamer bridge suspended between sleep and wakefulness.

In that place, for a moment, I heard them. I believe I did. A child's laugh, teasing and triumphant, crowning some moment of glory over a friend. The sound of feet, of bare soles, flat African feet pat-patting the earth. A humming—of women singing as they worked. But then again, perhaps it was just the call of a crane flying overhead, the flapping of wings and the drone of the insects in the forest. I stood still, straining for the sound of their voices, but the layers of years in between us were too many.

I passed through the ruined groves of the coffee plantation that by then was mine. Not in law, not by rights. Customary law would probably deem it to belong to Alpha, Asana's son. But it was mine if I wished, simply because I was the last person with the power to do anything with it.

Down by the water, under the gaze of a solitary kingfisher, a group of boys were bathing. At the sight of me they stopped their play in order better to observe my progress, which they did with solemn expressions, kwashiorkor bellies puffed out in front of them like pompous old men, sniffing airily through snot-encrusted nostrils. I smiled. And when they smiled back, which they did suddenly, they displayed rows of perfect teeth. One boy leaned with his arm across his brother's shoulder, his eyes reclining crescents above his grin, and on the helix of his ear the cartilage formed a small point in exactly the same place as it does on my son's ear. I had bent and kissed that very place as he lay sleeping next to his sister, before I left to catch my early morning flight.

And later, inside my grandfather's house, I pushed open the shutters of a window, finely latticed with woodworm. The plaster of the window sill was flaking, like dried skin. The clay beneath was reddish, tender looking. In the empty room stood the tangled metal wreck of what was once a four-poster bed. I remembered how it was when my grandfather lived and I came here as a child on visits from the city on the coast where my father worked. Then I sat bewildered and terrified before him, until somebody—a grandmother, an aunt—picked me up and carried me away. It was only the fact that my father was the most successful of his sons, though still only the younger son of a junior wife, that made him deign to have me in his presence at all.

In the corner a stack of chests once stood, of ascending size from top to bottom. Gone now. Fleetingly I imagined the treasures I might have found inside. Pieces of faded indigo fabric. Embroidered gowns crackling with ancient starch. Letters on onion-skin parchment. Leather-bound journals. Memories rendered into words. But, no. For here the past survives in the scent of a coffee bean, a person's history is captured in the shape of an ear, and those most precious memories are hidden in the safest place of all. Safe from the fire or floods or war. In stories. Stories remembered, until they are ready to be told. Or perhaps simply ready to be heard.

And it is women's work, this guarding of stories, like the tending of gardens. And as I go out to them, my aunts, silhouetted where they sit in the silver light of early dusk, I remember the women returning home at nightfall from the plots among the trees.

And I wonder what they would think if they came here now, those hapless port drinkers. Of all the glorious gifts the forest had to offer—fresh coffee.

From Aminatta Forna's novel Ancestor Stones published by Atlantic Monthly Press. Paperback edition to be published by Grove Press, August 2007.

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