This deeply engaging book, written by Aminatta Forna, born to a white Scottish mother and a black Sierra Leonian father in the early 1960s in Aberdeen, Scotland, at a time when interracial marriages were frowned upon or outlawed in many places, depicts a determined daughter's quest to clear her father's name of trumped-up charges leveled against the latter by the ruling Sierra Leonian government of the late 1960s and early 1970s, headed by the dictator Siaka Stevens.
Dr. Mohamed Forna, Aminatta's father, had trained in Scotland as a medical doctor, only to return to his native Sierra Leone to find that even medical practice was not free from the debilitating tentacles of African politics. Discouraged by what he saw as a dirty political environment in Sierra Leone, where a friend could become a foe and a foe a friend overnight, where backstabbing was the order of the day, and where the leaders were so corrupt that the nation had no long-term prospects of becoming an economically independent nation, Mohamed Forna traded his white coat for a political suit, rising to the office of finance minister, before a jealous and duplicitous Siaka Stevens and his henchmen arrested him on trumped-up charges, leading to Forna's eventual execution on July 19, 1975.
This book rightly captures the dangers of running for office in most African states; epitomizes the nature, until recently, of despotism in Africa; and depicts the brutalities that are rife among African politicians, each trying to outmaneuver his opponents in order to either hold on to power or get to the pinnacle of power. But, most importantly, Aminatta Forna takes the brave step of setting the records straight in a country – and a continent – where the “correct” version of a political story is told mainly by leaders who have access to all the AK 47s, bazookas and sub-machine guns. Siaka Stevens' administration, undoubtedly, was a microcosm of the merciless winds of megalomania, tyranny and vindictiveness that would sweep aside pluralism and divergence of opinions in many newly independent nation-states in Africa at the time.
Aminatta Forna's courageous effort is a blueprint for all those whose lives have been torpedoed by events beyond their control in African politics: the senseless murders of well-intentioned parents and other relatives by rapacious and intolerant leaders; the myriad of brutalities unleashed against political opponents by those bent on suppressing opposing views at all costs, which simply increased after the dissipation of the vestiges of colonialism; and the brainless, interminable coups that gradually eroded any measure of respectability garnered by fledgling democracies across the continent – the classic case of the one-step-forward-two-steps-backward syndrome.
Of the compendium of memorable lines found in the book, the one that stood out for me was when Aminatta Forna told her readers that her father had a great sense of humor, encapsulated in a story that he once told Aminatta and her two older siblings. It was the story of a man who was about to be honored for his many accomplishments. Sure enough, as soon as his wife heard about the impending event, she began to badger him to make sure that her name was included on the official list of his milestones. For a while he ignored her, but when he could no longer take the aggravation, he turned toward her and said matter-of-factly (and I am paraphrasing here): I was asked to list the milestones in my life, not the millstones, my dear.
I highly recommend this book!
The writer, Daniel K. Pryce, holds a master's degree in public administration from George Mason University, U.S.A. He is a member of the national honor society for public affairs and administration in the U.S.A. He can be reached at [email protected]