Sierra Leone Literature: History, Hindrances, Hopes


By Mohamed Gibril Sesay

Literature is often seen as referring to the written-word, and sometimes, further tightened to mean the scripted-word of the creative type, and again tweaked to be perceived as the printed-word of the fictional creative type –novels, short stories, poetry, drama. Our discussion of Sierra Leonean Literature dances to these understandings, and to the various tweaking of the chords, that we may render sounds that hearken to our varied experiences of the written and the read-word, and perhaps the listened-to word, perhaps more.

The very name of this land of ours –Sierra Leone – was the result of a fictional account of roaring lions in the flash-flooding terrain of the place where the capital Freetown is located today. The establishment of Freetown itself was premised on some almost fantastical account of the terrain sent by botanist and insect specialist Henry Smeathman, who talked of rich soils, great vegetation and game. But the insect-man did not adequately admonish about mosquitoes that would so torment Europeans that they called the place The Whiteman’s Grave.

Sierra Leone lies on the west coast of The Atlantic Ocean

It may be wise to see the written-word, or the read-word as but the visible tip of some underlying creative narrative forms. This distinction is useful – that between the spoken word, the written-word and the read-word. Else the story of Sierra Leone literature may miss out on some of its underpins: the oral narrative forms, dramatic renditions and performance. These underpins are largely communal, instant and performative means of getting all to imbibe the wisdom and norms of the land through storytelling, proverbs, and songs – and many times the songs are means of easing the burden of work or grief, or even of existence. One is reminded of the work songs on farms, and the funereal songs, and the dance-dirges of Baiti performers amongst the Themne. But throughout history, especially as the contact between Sierra Leone and Europe got very intense, many of these narrative forms would face threats of extinction.

But many would survive, sometimes even across the oceans and through time, as when Mende funeral songs passed on from generation to generation, and would be utilized by descendants of the enslaved in America to trace their ancestral village to Sierra Leone.

Some particular ways in which the peoples of the territories now known as Sierra Leone experienced the European contact would create situations that inhibited translations of the oral, the spoken and the performative into textual forms. Take, for instance, the language, Krio. This prime creation of that encounter would be disparaged, and seen as unworthy as a carrier of textual renditions. In fact, it was even perceived as inhibiting the fuller utilization of English to convey the country’s experience. Languages that predated the establishment of Sierra Leone – Themne, Mende, Limba, Loko, Koranko, Kono, Kissi, Sherbro and others – would fare worse. Thus literature as text, as written words, as read-words, would have some hard birthing in the country, extended gestational trimesters, long periods between birth of one creative book and another. And these births were often unheralded. Or where heralded, unloved. Or where loved, short lived and forgotten too soon in the country. This would be the fate of the plays and poetry of Gladys Caseley-Hayford, and of Robert Wellesley Cole’s Kossoh Town Boy and of Farid Raymond Anthony’s Sawpit Boy. And of the immediate post independence works of Abioseh Nicol, and Sarif Easmon, and then Yulisa Maddy’s  No Past, No Present, No Future; and though less so, but also the general fate of the poetry of Syl Cheney Coker, and even his award winning novel, The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar, and of the novels of Yema Lucilda Hunter, including Road To Freedom which conversations she creatively rendered in a sort of proto-Krio, or Krio as it would have been in the early Freetown era that she depicted.

Sierra Leone has had both famous and notorious renditions of its stories by Westerners. Western Christendom’s most popular hymn – Amazing Grace was the result of the slaver John Newton’s experience in Sierra Leone; British Second World War spy and renowned novelist Graham Greene would write his novel, Heart of the Matter in the now burnt down City Hotel in Freetown in the three years he spent in the country during what older Sierra Leoneans called “Hitler War.” But then there are the narratives of the notorious about Sierra Leone, Paul Richard’s Fighting For the Rain Forest, Kaplan’s The Coming Anarchy and the film Blood Diamond starred by Leonardo DiCaprio.

Hollywood has been an active participant in formulating Western narratives of the notorious about Sierra Leone.

There would be pushbacks by Sierra Leoneans against these screaming stories. This was the mid 1990s, at the height of the rebel war when Yusuf Bangura, Ibrahim Abdullah, Ismail Rashid, Lans Gberie and others would push forward multi-dimensional renditions of Sierra Leone’s contemporary scene. Theirs were not novels or poetry or drama, but historical and social science perspectives on the war that convulsed the land in the ultimate decade of the twentieth century.

But there had been other pushbacks against certain Eurocentric ways of looking at Sierra Leone stories in the pre-war period. This could be seen in the works of Arthur Abraham on Mende Chieftaincies and Magbaily Fyle on the Sulima-Yalunka Kingdom. In doing this they were picking up some not-so-often-talked-about facts about Sierra Leoneans taking charge in the telling of their stories, as could be seen in Edward Wilmont Blyden’s Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race.

One often hears that Sierra Leoneans don’t write. Or that Sierra Leone is a wasteland, as far as the scripted-word is concerned. But when I look into the history of the country, I see a lot of writing by Sierra Leoneans; writings about how they felt, writings to protest certain trends. And newspapers were for long the carriers of these writings. The first newspapers were started almost as soon as Freetown was established. Since, hundreds of newspapers had been founded. But hundreds had also floundered. Sierra Leone has for long been a graveyard of newspapers.  But that graveyard has been like some badly kept necropolis – collapsed gravestones, flattened out tombs, so much so that people don’t even know that the cemeteries exist; so much so that newer generations felt not much had come before them, that there were no worthy ancestors in their line of writing. Throughout our history, newer writers, be they journalists, poets, short story writers, or dramatists felt like they were starting anew – like there were no shoulders of giants for them to stand on, or measure ourselves against, or even fight – like there is no past, or no history of the text that could provide some of the contextual backdrop for the writing life.

The Sierra Leone Daily Mail was one of the oldest newspaper s in colonial Sierra Leone.

Some nuance: there had been a few fights amongst Sierra Leonean writers of the country’s history. There was one between Ibrahim Abdullah and Professor Akintola Wyse over the latter’s interpretations of Sierra Leone history. There was also the stance by Gibril Cole against a Freetown historiography that was too very silent over the contributions of the Oku or Muslim Krios to the city’s story; and there was also the narrative of Joseph Bangura lambasting the marginalization of Themne in the city’s historical narrations; and there was also Fatu Taqi’s thesis on the untold stories of Muslim women contributions to the story of Islam in the city; and also the writings of Alusine Jalloh telling the stories of fula contributions to the politics and trade of the country.  But then these arguments stemmed from the academic nature of these discourses, which often required an understanding, review or critique of some extant literature.

Generally, however, Sierra Leone has not done very well acknowledging its rich oral traditions and wisdom in its textual forms, and it has also not done well in passing on its textual wisdom unto newer generations. There is little knowledge of Sierra Leone’s creative or other archives. And the war created big disruptions in whatever archival connections that existed between generations. I’m talking metaphorically here to draw attention to one of our challenges. But one could also notice a less metaphorical account of the discontinuity in the loss of the country’s bureaucratic records on chieftaincy and other traditions when the Treasury Building where they were located was burnt down as rebels entered Freetown in 1998, or the arson of the sound archives of the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service at New England, or the balding dandruffy state of the once hirsute national archives at Kennedy Building, Mount Aureol, or the challenging circumstance of the once stolid Sierra Leone Collection at the Fourah Bay College Library housing graduate dissertations, articles, and other scholarship on the Sierra Leone condition, or the bonfire of records and books at Njala University during the war, or as I learnt during the course of writing this essay, the fact that most of the papers of the Sierra Leonean pan Africanist, Edward Blyden are not in Sierra Leone, but in Ghana.

It seems as if, post independence, every decade has its own bobbling artistic genre. The 1970s was a decade of live band expression -Super Combo, Afro National, Sabanoh, Bunnymack and the Soundcasters and many others. The 1980s was an era of drama (and, well, ‘discorama’). The outstanding dramatist of the era included John Kolosa Kargbo, Raymond De Souza George, Toni French, Akmid Bakarr Mansaray, Charlie Hafner, Julius Spencer, John Solo Fofana, Syl Johnson, Mohamed Bangura, Omar Farouk Sesay, Dele Charley, Shefumi Garber, Kashor Woode, Fredrick Borbor James, and Mohamed Bobson Kamara. Notable plays included Let Me die Alone, Big Berrin, Yokon, Poyotong Wahala, Blood of a Stranger, Indictment of a Nation, Tragedy of a Nation, Borbor Lehf, Cry of the Country Virgin, Got Sef Kin Swet, and Cry for Justice. Quite a number of these plays discussed the tightening political situations in the country, but many including Titi Shayn Shayn, Sugar Daddy Na Case, Yu Hol Di Ring, Mami Sweh, Material Love, Victim of Love, Playboy Trobul, Abandoned Child and Way di Cup Ful were portrayals of the social scenes and sins of the era. Some were what I would call the interrogative plays posing questions in their very titles about emerging norms and moralities – moden law en fadenlaw oodat bad? Tiff man en witchman oose wan bad? And such screaming titles as Wara, The Life and Times of a Koro.

The challenge may be to reclaim these titles, to put them into books, turn them into written works as means of ensuring reflection, outside the performances, of what they contain, much like many now experience the insights of Shakespeare through text without ever watching the plays staged.The aim is to build continuity. Lack of continuity, that’s a problem with Sierra Leone literature. Perhaps even a problem with wider Sierra Leone society — people thinking they are starting anew, a nation of starters or perhaps re-starters, too quick to forget earlier achievements, or just having some non-committal ephemeral knowledge of them, transforming into a precarity what was, what is, and what will be; almost akin to Pat Maddy’s novel’s screaming title:  No Past, No Present, No Future – from the family business, to public institutions, to music, to literature, to even education, never mind the vaulted talk of Fourah Bay College as some historical lodestar of education in Africa.

Generations of writers, as already noted, and as I reiterate because of its importance, look cut off from, rather than cut out of preceding generations. The generations often think they are starting anew, doing stuff that others had never done; it is secession, albeit many times unknowingly, rather than succession. There are little or no reflections on the works of earlier writers by later writers and artists. There is poor pondering on the paintings of Olayinka Bunny-Nicol and Hassan Bangura. There is non-availability of the works of Sarif Easmon, Yulisa Maddy, Cheney Coker, Kolosa Kargbo and Yema Lucilda Hunter in discourses of the newer generations of Sierra Leonean writers. Generations of Sierra Leoneans are not experiencing Sierra Leonean modes of narrating through text as art, as literature, as unique creative forms. The aim here then is to remind, with a barrage of names and creations, that perchance, conversations are enriched.

Edward Wilmont Blyden’s Christanity, Islam and the Negro Race

The great Columbian novelist, Gabriel Marquez wrote that “the end of all literature is the dustbin.” Agreed. But maybe, we have been consigning ours too soon to the dustbin. So, the aim is, peradventure, we could get some of the forgotten out of the amnesiac dump, perhaps, to recycle, perchance, to transform to some biomass to feed into some of the grids of our artistic and other efforts, perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

Forums for literature, for its texts and performances, are also about physical spaces – the theatre, the library, the bookshop, the meeting place, the village square, even the junction, even so the street. Times were when these spaces were promising. The village square? The city junction? The fields and empty city lots? These were places of great performance, of storytellers, and of masquerades sacred or less so, and of the folk musician. Performances in these spaces, I submit, could well be seen as the first drafts of literature, which communities often revised and edited over and over again. Writers could do well by not ignoring these first drafts, could do well by reflecting on them – and perhaps the circle of creativity could loop upwards, towards the fact that strands of modern literature are now tending towards the multi-media of text and performance. Bookshops? Provincial bookshops, Fourah Bay College Bookshop, Njala University Bookshop, Southern Bookshop, The Diocesan Bookshop, Ahmadiyya Bookshop; but these would go under, their functions taken over by streets of textbook and secondhand book sellers, sometimes hawking pirated texts faded by too much photocopying. Libraries? Institutional atrophy set in, despite the best efforts of some dedicated librarians. School libraries closed, college libraries became museums of books that that had not been read for generations because they were too ancient, brittle or useless. The theatre? There was British Council, first at the base of Tower Hill where the Ministry of Defence now stands; and there was also Wilberforce Memorial Hall, both places where Gladys Caseley-Hayford in her heydays staged plays and concerts. The Wilberforce Memorial Hall would burn down. The British Council would be relocated to where it presently stands. And it would continue to provide valuable space, but with some hint of foreignness, too stern, very formalized. Mary Kingsley Theatre, FBC – good but small, and soon taking its exit because its cast of chairs and lights and other props became broken, unfit for many plays.  And then the Freetown City Hall, located where the Wilberforce Memorial Hall once was, came to the rescue. The mid 1980s it was. Theatre frenzy gripped the nation. At its height, the City Hall was packed full Thursdays through Sundays. And then the curtain fell. Political rivalries within the council – and the Chairman, Committee of Management ruled that the City Hall was not for theatre. The playwrights and directors scrambled all over to push their trade. But it petered out.

Fourth Bay College Library is one of the few institutional libraries available in Sierra Leone.

A few years down the line, some Sesay Brothers long involved in theatre would repurpose the Roxy Cinema at Walpole Street and renamed it Liberty Hall in 1993 in an effort to re-capture the glory days of the City Hall. Some successes. But gory days were upon the nation. The war and its theatre of the macabre, the absurd and evil creativity snuffed life out of it. There had since been talk of building a national theatre. But the challenge is, as in so many things, that of sustaining implementational creativity. It is about, as the poet Fayia Sellu put it, hardware matters, about the architecture for cultural production. An aim then, may be, is getting state support – policy, legislation, and more – that promotes public and private capitalization of the nation’s literary and other cultural products. Perhaps a National Commission on the Arts, work on which had commenced but got stalled; perhaps unblocking the hindrances to the construction of a national theatre; perhaps support to emerging publishers of the text. Perhaps more: the collection of the musical notes and research papers of the composer and scholar of African languages, Professor Nicholas Ballanta, and of the songs of Ebenezer Calendar and Amy Kallon, and of Salia Koroma’s, and Saidu Kondi’s, perhaps newer editions of Professor Eldred Jones’ Krio Dictionary, perhaps the collection of country’s folklore and proverbs. This year, Yamba Thulla published an insightful study of the folklore of the Themne – such reflections could be supported for all the various ethnicities.

In the 1990s, poets pushed themselves forward – a process crystallized by the founding of the Falui Poetry Society, under whose aegis poets would organize well attended poetry evenings. Later many of the poems would be anthologized as Songs That Pour the Heart by Mohamed Gibril Sesay and Moses Kainwo. The poems of that decade and subsequent years included Tatafway Tumoe’s easy to read poems about loss, war, abortion and love, Sydnella Shooter’s trident renditions of tragedies, Bridgette James’ poems about the everyday, Ambrose Massaquoi’s reflections on the personal moral depravities of the times, Gbanabom Hallowell’s labyrinthine metaphors of our convoluted circumstances, Musu Sandy’s sagely reflections in her short poems, Oumar Farouk’s haunting alliterations of loss, Abu Noah’s forceful poems, Ahmed Koroma’s nostalgia about lost worlds and in this very year Kayode Robbin Coker’s reflections on the contours of our hopes and impediments.

The 1990s and 2000s were eras of gushing forth of Sierra Leonean writings from the faucets of different genres and sub genres, both within the country and in the diaspora, and whatever spaces in between. The pushback on certain inauthentic renditions of the Sierra Leone story were mainly done by Sierra Leoneans in the diaspora. While the pushback was led by non-fiction writers, more stories would be told by Sierra Leonean poets, novelists and short story writers. These writings included the poems of Ahmed Koroma and the sagely insights of Lemuel Johnson on Leonenet, the memoirs and novels of Aminata Forna, the novel, Moses, Citizen and Me by Delia Jarret Macauley, the poetry of Sheikh Umarr Kamara, the literary criticisms and novels of Eustace Palmer, the autobiographical reflection of life in the diaspora in Germany by Osman Alimamy Sankoh, and in China by Abdul B Kamara, the memoirs and novels of Ishmael Beah, and the short fiction of Pede Hollist. Within the country, Mohamed Sheriff of Pampana Communications and Charlie Haffner of Freetong Players would be at the fore of creating community plays to promote messages of peace, reconciliation and the emerging democracy.

The Freetong Players have maintained the tradition of public performance in Sierra Leone.

And there was also the creative journalism of Olu Gordon as could be seen in his satirical portrayal of a country called Leonebanon and his hymns and QEDs in the Peep column of For Di People Newspaper and later the Peep Magazine. Also within the boundaries of creative journalism, but less urgent than Olu Gordon’s, and using colonial scenes and characters to reflect on emerging issues was the Last Word Column of the New Citizen Newspaper by Ibrahim Ben Kargbo. And the country would also be treated to other satirical columns in such newspapers, amongst others, as the New Shaft and Standard Times.

Performance poetry would create its own small niche, often poetry evenings by the Falui Poetry Society, and the staging of one of the biggest poetry performances called Poets Live at the British Council, the result of collaboration between Pampana Communications, Falui Poetry Society and the British Council. Sierra Leonean Music would also stage a comeback in the mid 2000s, led by Jimmy Bangura, Emerson Bockarie and others developing new moral discourses and words for the situations in the country. The Ballanta Academy would inaugurate formal classes in music, and the indefatigable efforts of Kitty Fadlu Deen would continue, including her authoring of a very informative book, Milo and All That Jazz: The Golden Era of Sierra Leone Music.

And there were also the films. Amongst the inaugural attempts at feature films were the titles  The Betrayal of Africa written by Akmid Bakarr and directed by Pat Maddy, and Premier Media’s Off To America written by Esme James and directed by Julius Spencer. Another pivotal moment was the Scriptnet film project that produced six film scripts that were made into six short films which are still among the best films Sierra Leone has produced. They included Scars written and directed by John Solo Fofana, Toy Gun written and directed by Munda Pangu,  The King of Stalls, written and directed by Jonathan Bundu, A Hole in the Wall written by MG Sesay and directed by Sarah King, Victims written and directed by Mohamed Sheriff, and The Outcasts written and directed by Brian James. Greater popularization of Sierra Leonean films would, however, be ensured by such notable persons as Desmond Finney and Jimmy Bangura. A number of film companies and organizations have since been formed, producing feature films in Freetown, Bo, Kenema and Makeni.

A large number of the films look amateurish, and sometimes feel like poor copies or palimpsests of foreign narrative arcs and aesthetics, just as it is the case with sizable numbers of the plays, novels, poetry and emerging songs. It is as if, lacking conversations with the history of their genres in the land, they pick up whatever flotsam comes in from foreign shores. But hey, is literature not also about the debris and the amazing, about the good, the bogey and the foggy, both in terms of the themes it handles and also in terms of the very form and construction of the works themselves? I know, the aim is to get at the better renditions, the waw telling, so let the efforts continue.

Many forums that would be catalysts for Sierra Leonean writings emerged. The two Leonenet forums would be meeting places for non-fiction renditions of the Sierra Leonean situation. Falui Poetry Society, coordinated by its inaugural president Moses Kainwo and Secretary General Gbanabom Hallowell, was the leading forum for poetry discussions, workshops and readings. The Sierra Leone Writers Forum would become an online meeting place and catalyst for the publication of several anthologies, short stories and novels by the Sierra Leone Writers Series. And also the Sierra Leone chapter of Pen International, which revivification efforts were led by Mike Butscher and further sustained by Mohamed Sheriff and Nathaniel Pearce. Pen Sierra Leone would soon find a niche for promoting the writing of literature for children.

But the country has historically been struggling to sustain forums for public outing of its creative and other texts. The People Educational Association and Sierra Leone Adult Education Association would struggle to sustain the publication of folk literature and other works. Lekon Publishers could not continue its work. Thus many authors would seek the self-publishing routes, or establish mechanisms for publishing that had great difficulties sustaining themselves. Some publications of several Sierra Leonean authors followed that route, including Farid Anthony, Abdul Karim Koroma, Arthur Abraham, CP Foray and JAD Alie. And also the political scientist Abu Bakarr Hassan Kargbo putting in book-length form his thoughts on governance, and the process engineer Chris Squire writing about the ill-fate of the nation, and the theologian Leslie Shyllon writing about the emergence of Christianity in the country. The ebullient ex-serviceman Abu Noah would establish Mount Everest Publishers to get his collection of poems out to the public. Many otherwise fine creations  – from school texts, to folktales and poems could only see light of day as badly printed pamphlets. In the last ten years, a number of publishing outfits would emerge, the most successful being the Sierra Leone Writers Series (SLWS) published by Professor Osman Alimamy Sankoh (Mallam O).

The Sierra Leone Writers Series has published the largest collection of Sierra Leonean literature in recent years.

The memoir, the autobiographical, and the biographical have been favored genres by a number of Sierra Leonean writers. In the mid twentieth century there was Kossoh Town Boy by R.W. Cole, and in 1980, there was Sawpit Boy by F.R. Anthony. The country’s long term ruler Siaka Stevens would write What Life has Taught Me in the1980s, as would also another President, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah’s Coming Back From the Brink In Sierra Leone in the 2000s, the entrepreneur Musa Khalil Suma’s In and Out of Millions, the medical doctor Bailah Leigh’s Dilemma of Freedom,  and the politician Sama Banya’s Looking Back. Other autobiographies included the literary critic Eldred Jones’ The Freetown Bond, the former child-soldier Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, the novelist Aminata Forna’s The Devil that Danced on the Water, the journalist Sheka Tarawallie’s Pope Francis and the Mabanta Boy, the girl-child empowerment activist Peagie Foday’s Thursday’s Child: My Journey So Far, and the civil servant Umu Tejan Jalloh’s Telling it As It Was. There is also the biography of the first Fourah Bay College graduate and first African Anglican Bishop, Adjai Crowther by Arnold Awoonor-Gordon, of the prominent woman paramount chief Ella Koblo by Talabi Lucan, of the musician, playwright, poet and teacher Gladys Casely-Hayford by her daughter in law, Yema Lucilda Hunter, of the churchman and teacher, Modupe Taylor Pearce by Brian James and Esme James, and of the jurist Livesey Luke by the engineer, poet and artist, Kosonike Koso Thomas.

There is growing interest amongst Sierra Leoneans in writing short stories, as could be seen in anthologies of short stories put together by Gbanabom Hallowell in Leonanthology,  Yamba Thulla and Fatou Taqi’s Contemporary Fireside Stories published by the Sierra Leone Writers Series. But long before that, the Sierra Leonean writing scene would be enlivened by Abioseh Nicol’s short stories, Two African Tales and The Truly Married Woman and Other Stories,  and by the beautiful short stories in Sarif Easmon’s The Feud and Other Stories. There would also be short stories by Brian James in Simple Economics and M.G. Sesay’s Half-man and the Curse of the Ancient Buttocks published by the Caine Prize in 2009, Pede  Hollist’s short story Foreign Aid, Mohamed Sheriff’s award winning story, A Voice in Hell and M.G. Sesay’s short story Monkey Teeth and Mohamed Sheriff’s Sori Clever published by the BBC’s Focus on Africa Magazine. In 2012, Mohamed Combo Kamanda put together a collection of Sierra Leonean Short Stories, The Price and Other Short Stories, and in 2015 Bakarr Mansaray got out his short story collection, A Suitcase Full of Dried Fish.

There has been remarkable flowering of children’s literature in the last ten years. Published titles during the period included Our Bird by Rainy Ansumana, Amidu’s Day Off by Foday Sawi, Yammah and the Tumbeke Project by Nathaniel Pearce, Magic by Allieu Kamara and Tibujang Must Not Come by Mohamed Sheriff. But we must not forget the earlier efforts in previous decades by Talabi Lucan, Osman Pios Conteh and Mohamed Sheriff.

Experiences of war, and the trauma of such catastrophe as Ebola would be major themes in many Sierra Leoneans writings in the new Millennium. Such themes are explored in the novels Landscape of Memories by O. Farouk Sesay, This Side of Nothingness by M.G. Sesay, Redemption Song by Yema Lucilda Hunter,  The Road to Kaibara by Gbanabom Hallowell; Youthful Yearnings by Jedidah Johnson, and many others; and also in the poetry of Sydnella Shooter, Gbanabom Hallowell, and Frederick Borbor James. The Ebola epidemic would feature in the non-fiction work of Chernoh Bah, Aisha Fofana Ibrahim, Ismael Rashid and Ibrahim Bangura, and in several poetry collections. But other themes are also emerging, of love and desire, as could be seen in the writings of Samuella Conteh, in Moses Kainwo’s Ayo, Ayo, Ayo and Other Love Poems, and in the offerings of emerging poets like Celia Thompson, Amara Sesay and Kemurl Fofanah, and the performance poetry of Fatou Wurie and Adeola exploring themes of sexual abuse and women’s liberation.

English monopolizes writings by Sierra Leoneans. And even where we have had attempts at writing in other Sierra Leonean languages- as in Majorie Jones and Sheikh Umarr Kamara’s anthology of Krio Poems: Beg Sol Noba Kuk Sup – Latinate orthography dominates. We must, however, note the existence of the Arabic scripts in which many Sierra Leoneans are literate, and that, that script is the orthographic base for writing in Fula. There is now emerging, slowing, but assuredly, writings in Krio. The fluttering could be seen on social media where many write in Krio. This is welcome development, for as could be seen in the reception prominent Krio language poet, Daphne Pratt gets when she reads her poem, writing in Sierra Leonean languages would bring forth fresher voices, and newer ways of textually rendering our experiences. But it must not also be forgotten that English is also ours, like those wax cotton made in Holland have become African attire, and so many other visible and invisible forms from other places that we made ours. The trick is not to allow these to tie us down to narrow ways of looking at ourselves, the trick is not forget the writing life of Gladys Caseley-Hayford, who wrote both in English and Krio, it is about not allowing the use of English to restrict us; but also not jettisoning centuries of experiencing and experimenting with the language to go away, for that also would be limiting.

We may be getting into the field of literary criticism with our assertions above. But literary criticism has renowned precursors in Sierra Leone. One of Africa’s profoundest Shakespearean scholar, Soyinka expert, and literary critic is Sierra Leonean professor Eldred Jones. We also have Eustace Palmer’s seminal books, Introduction to the African Novel and Growth of the African Novel, and the literary insights of Sheikh Umarr Kamara and Lemuel Johnson, and earlier this year Abdulai Walon-Jalloh wrote a book length veritable critique of several contemporary Sierra Leonean literary works.

Sierra Leonean fiction has come a long way, sometimes winning prizes and international accolades along the way – Syl Cheney Coker’s The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar winning the Commonwealth Writers Prize, Olufemi Terry short story Stickfighting Days winning the Caine Prize in 2010, Pete Holist’s short story, Foreign Aid making it to the short list of the Caine Prize in 2013, Mohamed Sheriff’s Novella Secret Fear being co-Winner of the ECOWAS Prize For Excellence In Literature in 1999; Osman Pios Conteh  Unanswered Cries winning a Macmillan Prize for Children literature; Mohamed Sheriff winning BBC’s playwriting prizes  for his radio plays  Just Me and Mama and Spots of the Leopard; and Ishmail Beah, Aminata Forna and others winning international accolades for their writings.

Gbanabom Hallowell’s Leoneanthology is among the recent collection of short story writings published by SLWS.

Despite this, for many Sierra Leonean writers, it feels like they are but toiling in the tailings of telling, sometimes hopeful, like miners in the gambling pits of the diamond fields, perchance they may be lucky to get the gems of being acknowledged. Perhaps the challenge in all this is the very nature of the paper text as media for engagement. Perhaps writing or reading is too personal and private for a sociable people, too taciturn for our voluble communities, too passive for our performance-centric cultures, too consciously individual for a society where creativity is communal and often spontaneous. Perhaps it is because the creation of literature as text is too one sided, too monologue-like, indirect and distant for our culture of direct and instant conversations. The aim, then, could be to make our texts more dynamic, like through book fairs and art festivals, like through village square and town readings, like through getting Sierra Leonean literature in college and school curricula, like through mobile libraries, like though audio books, like through the dynamic screens of the new multi-media. So that, like Gabriel Marquez would say, had he being Sierra Leonean, the literature of the land would not become, too very quickly, wrapping papers for groundnut and akara sellers. The aim is about getting us to not forget to engage efforts, successes and challenges of the writing life in Sierra Leone. Else – father forbid seven times, astafulai – some ephemerality of no past, no present and no future may etch itself, like crab louse, on the nation’s destiny. The hope, simply put is about building conversations amongst and across the generations, texts, contexts, writers, audiences; the challenge would be to sustain these effort, to weave, or unweave to re-weave or perhaps just having glimpses of the varied strands of its genres, media, experimentation, experiences, history, hindrances, hopes.

Mohamed Gibril Sesay is a lecturer in sociology at Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone. This essay was written for the 2019 Sierra Leone National Book Fair held at the 50/50 Headquarters in Tower Hill, Freetown from December 5-7, 2019.




2 thoughts on “Sierra Leone Literature: History, Hindrances, Hopes”

  1. Such a great and nice piece written by Gibril Sesay.
    Really educative from your side Sir. May Allah continue to reserve you for us In Sierra Leone and African in General.

  2. Suricia Conteh

    I learnt quite a lot as an emerging writer myself from the younger generation. Thanks for sharing with us

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *