Aminatta Forna has been many things; a student of law, journalist, activist, documentary filmmaker and most recently an award-winning writer. Her mixed parentage; her father being African and mother Scottish, has endowed her with impressive looks, one glance tells you she’s a driven and motivated individual-- quite fitting for someone who is considered the voice of a nation.
Aminatta grew up during troubled times in Sierra Leone, Africa. Emerging from the Colonial era, the country was off to a tremulous start with a civil war threatening to break loose at any time. Of all the brutalities transpiring around her, the worst was surely when her father— Mohamed Forna, a physician turned politician was hanged when she was 11 years old. Surprisingly, Aminatta, a Commonwealth Prize winning author, says she does not believe her childhood was traumatic.
“I don’t think of my childhood as traumatic really,” she explains. “I think that my childhood had painful experiences- there was loss, there was pain, there was grief but I’m rather of the view that what happened to me was not unusual in the world that I came from. I was surrounded by people who had suffered great loss. So I’m always quite careful to put it into that context as opposed to in a Western context where life is so much simpler.” That’s one of the reasons she chose to write her first novel; The Devil that Danced on Water.
|Aminata: A bold writer who has inspired a new audience of readers in Sri Lanka.
The Devil that Danced on Water was in fact based on her father’s experiences and the civil unrest during her early years. Sharing why she chose to write about those painful events, she leans her clearly over six feet frame against her seat and pauses in thought before responding, “I’ve long thought of it, as a journalist I’ve written other people’s stories and covered lots of conflicts and events but I’ve never written my own and it was really the war that prompted me to write The Devil that Danced on Water.”
There was also a more personal reason that compelled Aminatta to return to those events of her past and compile a novel about it; that would later take a nation by storm, inspiring its people to think about their history and question events. “It was partly because I finally saw the bigger picture in what my father had been involved in. And how the loss of his life and the other people who fought with him had resulted in what became of our country taken by ruthless politicians to run it to the ground.”
The seemingly uncontainable corruption that was to come; oppression, murder and various atrocities, was what her father had lost his life trying to prevent. “I suddenly realised there was this man who I was very proud of, who had this foresight. And one of the things that really prompted me, what gave me that absolute picture, was the discovery of a letter he had written on the eve of his execution, which absolutely identified all the steps to war and he foresaw the possibility of war and that was 25 years ahead of the civil war,” she adds, her husky voice dropping as she speaks in admiration of her father. “So I saw the bigger picture and I felt that this was a story for my family, for Sierra Leone. It really had to be told.”
In Sierra Leone her book was received with much enthusiasm. “If they have a problem with it, no one has dared to tell me,” she laughs. “There are a lot of people who were part of the oppression, either actively or tacitly. But in South Africa, like they say, can you find anyone who supported apartheid now? They all claim to be on the other side. I named everyone who was part of a particular conspiracy so of course they are not happy but the overall response from the people I’ve come across is absolutely- ‘thank God it was said’. And particularly for my generation I think most of the facts of those events were hidden. So when I gave talks those places were packed- there were people standing by the windows waiting to hear it because of this silence that had reigned for thirty years.”
The 30-year war in Sierra Leone was similar to the 30-year war that bedevilled Sri Lanka till recently. While the reasons for war were quite apart, Sri Lanka torn in an ethnic conflict and Sierra Leone grappling with dispossession, what came about and the problems that were faced during and after the war makes The Devil that Danced on Water a timely and relevant book for Sri Lankan readers.
Agreeing that Sri Lankan readers would be able to relate to the characters and situations in her books, Aminatta says that The Memory of Love would probably be more relevant. It focuses on the emotions and behaviour of her characters rather than the war that rages around them.
“The ground politics is not in my stories, it’s about how people respond to situations and that is the similarity. Victim, perpetrator, bystander- one of the main characters in The Memory of Love is very much a bystander. He didn’t act, I would say he avoided his responsibility though it’s really up to the reader to decide,” she says. “I created him especially that the reader would sympathize with him and that they would go along him and then at the point where he’s almost becoming complicit, the reader would have to make a judgment as to where would they stop and where would they take a stand.”
Another striking similarity between the war in the two developing nations- Sierra Leone and Sri Lanka is the aid that has surged in from developed nations. As many have questioned the authenticity of NGOs and other aid organisations in Sri Lanka and if they are of any actual benefit Sierra Leone ponders the same questions. Aminatta has her mind made up. She distrusts NGOs and feels that they hinder progress. “I think aid is a complete misnomer actually. I’ve watched a billion pounds of aid being poured into Sierra Leone at one point. I saw that it was completely doomed to failure and a lot of people saw that. There’s been a lot of anger in the community about how aid is used,” she says with conviction.
Aminatta elaborates saying that the purpose of aid is mostly about control and influence. “In Sierra Leone we actually saw a president campaigning on his ability to get the aid dollar. Now what is he giving in return for that aid dollar? He’s probably giving a lot of influence. He’s probably giving a lot of mineral rights as well.” She goes on to say that if the West had any real interest
in helping countries- not only Africa, they would open up their trade, however they strictly would not consider it.
“They keep their trade barriers in place and they carry out their charity and I read this- an environmentalist said about carbon offsetting, it’s like giving money to a charity for animals so you can go on kicking your dog, and that’s exactly what I think aid is. It’s the inequality of developing countries compared to the developing countries through every one of the big institutions.” Stressing her point she adds, “Instead they create projects that are not very well thought through, the projects in Sierra Leone all collapsed and everyone knew they were going to.”
Aminatta is riled up, she leans forward explaining why she has no faith in such aid organisations. “I went around the country while carrying out research, I asked everybody I spoke to a question. This included ordinary people, professional people, street people, some guys who were gang members, a working prostitute, a minister, I said can you point to a single aid project that has worked for Sierra Leone and they all said—no.”
NGOs don’t care if they don’t achieve anything, she goes on. They receive fantastic salaries, run projects that are poorly planned and aren’t sustainable. “Do you know that most aid dollars are not spent in the country, they are spent in the donor country? Jeffrey Sachs, the American economist has put the figure on it; for every dollar that America gives as aid how many do you think reach Africa?
3 cents reach Africa! Of the 97% where do you think it goes? American consultants. So actually it’s just all about creating jobs for Americans. Look at how many NGOs there are, and how they employ their staff that are Western and local. So actually it’s an industry that is feeding the west. I wish Africans would just say ‘no’ really and that they would just get together and find the big agency and institutions- like IMF and World Bank.”
Her disillusionment awoke the activist in Aminatta. Taking her own initiative to help her country, she started her own sustainable project focused on education that is expanding and coasting along with positive outcomes. “Education!” she exclaims, “that’s where the country has to put its resources. Sri Lanka has a reasonable middle class; we really don’t have an educated middle class to do those jobs. We need to create some sense of national responsibility.
I run a project myself in a village- a multilayered project that started with schools, gone into healthcare and sanitation. We’ve run this programme for 10 years now and everything works. Because I knew they had what it took to help themselves and gave them that opportunity. What they had lost was self-confidence.
They had been so used to somebody, some NGO or government official telling them how to do things that they completely lost confidence, not the ability, but the confidence in knowing that their systems worked.”
Education is certainly a burning need in Sierra Leone which shows in the country’s low literacy rate. While the statistics have chalked their literacy rate up to 30%, Aminatta says that ‘functional literacy’—which is the ability to read a book as opposed to only a street sign, she’d put her bottom dollar on it being a mere 10%.
What’s fascinating about this is that for a country with a low rate of literacy, Aminatta’s books are in high demand. Describing how the book caught the interest of the people she says it was the BBC Book of the Week and many got the opportunity to listen to it on radio. Her books have also reached the people through readings. A literate person would hold readings at their house for audiences that would come each day to hear a chapter being read.
“We’ve got only one bookshop; someone from in the diaspora who set it up to encourage reading but we do have libraries and there’s a British Council. I gave 50 copies to the different libraries and I was told by the British Council that each book had a waiting list of 50 people. So that’s as much penetration as you could hope for.”
That said, her novels have reached an even greater audience. Winning the Commonwealth Prize has created international interest in her books; and the HSBC Galle Literary Festival 2012 certainly sparked an interest here in Sri Lanka, where prior to the festival little was known of Aminatta. That’s one more country added to Aminatta’s list of those she’s inspired. The strong bold writer proves that you don’t have to be a politician to influence a nation; her powerful words have just as much potential to inspire.