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Sierra Leone followed the path of a number of African nations newly freed from colonialism. A brief period of post-independence promise dissolved into one-party rule, military coups and, finally, civil war. Tens of thousands lost their lives in Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war in the 1990s. Rebel forces became notorious for recruiting child soldiers and hacking off the limbs of villagers to gain their compliance. A new novel set mostly in post-war Sierra Leone explores how ordinary people survive the painful memory of war — and learn to reclaim the memory of love.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. We hear of war and conflict in far off places and barely understand more than what fits into a headline. Journalist and novelist Aminatta Forna had a very different experience. She spent her early childhood in Sierra Leone where her activist father was executed by a corrupt government when she was 11.
MS. DIANE REHMA decade of civil war followed. Now, in a new novel, she focuses not on the brutality of the war, but how the resilience of love allowed people to survive it. The book is titled, "The Memory of Love," and Aminatta Forna joins me in the studio. We do welcome your calls, 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, Do join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to you, it's such a pleasure to have you here.
MS. AMINATTA FORNAThank you very much, Diane.
REHMFirst off, I have to say, this is really quite a moving book taking us through memories of people who have been in the midst of a world that we do not know, for the most part. You have such an interesting background. Tell us about your childhood.
FORNAWell, I had, yes, an unusual childhood by most standards. I was born in Scotland to a Scottish mother and a father from Sierra Leone. My father was a medical student. He was in Scotland studying and he met my mother. They fell in love and had three children.
FORNAMy father is -- was one of what Wole Soyinka the, great Nigerian novelist, has called the Renaissance Generation and they were young men and women who were picked, given scholarships in the 1960s to go and study abroad from a range of African countries that were going to become independent. And the idea which was an idea from the former colonial power, Britain, was really to try to create a middle class, a professional class that was going to lead these countries into a new horizon.
FORNASo he was one of them. Actually, I've spent many years explaining my unusual background and then giving people the picture. Now, I am able to say for the first time ever, there is somebody here who is much better known than I who has a very similar background and that is Barack Obama.
FORNAHis father was one of the Renaissance Generation and that's how he came to the United States.
REHMAnd of course, you wrote about your father in your memoir. You have in this novel revisited that period of political turmoil and even around the time of his death. I wonder why you wanted to do that?
FORNAWell, I had grown up in a world of silence. You know, I had grown up not being able to talk about the events that happened in our family, not fully understanding them, either. Sierra Leone and any country where people are living under a dictatorship, voices are repressed, stories are repressed, all of these things are repressed. It was very much like -- actually, when I went back and I was researching it and I came across old documents from the era. It was very much like the Stasi in Eastern Germany. We had people spying on us all the time.
FORNAI mean, I found out, for example, that one of our drivers was a spy, people in our household were spies, so there was this silence. It was a political silence, a silence of fear and repression. So I think that the greatest motivation for me in writing about my father's life and death was the breaking of that silence. That would be the first thing. But also, I think to give some voice to a generation who were deeply, deeply disappointed and betrayed.
FORNAYou know, all of them went back to their country full of hope. They dedicated everything that they had, you know, to this spirit of renewal and independence and they were betrayed and they were disappointed and I didn't want to let their stories pass unmarked.
REHMWould you read for us from the beginning of the novel? Because what you're doing is beginning in the present, but going to the past.
FORNAYes. There is, the man Elias Cole is telling his story to someone who is an arrival in the country. "On the iron-framed bed a single, scant sheet has molded itself into the form of the human beneath. On top of the bedside cabinet, a small pile of spiral bound notebooks sits alongside a vase of flowers bright-colored and plastic. The notebooks are worn from handling, the leaves rippled with damp. In the atmosphere of the room, the memories of a man float and form."
FORNAThe man in the bed is telling a story. His name is Elias Cole. Adrian listens. He is new here. Elias Cole says, I heard a song one morning as I walked to college. It came to me across the radio playing on a stool as I passed. A song from faraway about a lost love, at least so I imagined. I didn't understand the words, only the melody, but in the low notes, I could hear the loss this man had suffered. And in the high notes, I understood, too, that it was a song about something that could never be.
FORNAI had not wept in years, but I did there and then on the side of a dusty street surrounded by strangers. The melody stayed with me for years. This is how it is when you glimpse a woman for the first time, a woman you know you could love. People are wrong when they talk of love at first sight. It's neither love nor lust, no. As she walks away from you, what you feel is loss, a premonition of loss. I never thought I would hear the tune again. Then a month, or perhaps it was two months ago, as I sat alone in the room in my house that serves as a study, the window was open and through it faintly, I heard someone whistling the tune and singing pieces from the refrain, a woman's voice.
FORNAThe very same tune from those years ago, I shouted for Papagalli (sp?) who for once came on the first call. I sent him down into the street to find whoever was whistling. He seemed to be gone forever and all the time I waited. What could I do but sit and listen to my heart keeping time with my impatience?
FORNAThe person Papagalli brought to me was a builder, a fuller dressed in torn trousers, bare of chest and covered in cement dust which reminded me of funeral ashes. Papagalli ushered him off the carpets, but I called him close again. I asked him to sing and he did some other tune. I wouldn't have put it past Papagalli to have called the first person he saw from the gate. I hummed a few of the notes as I remembered them. And then the man in front of me sang and there was the tune in his voice, girlish and high.
FORNAAfter he had sung for me, I asked him to tell me the meaning of the words. The song was indeed about loss, but not of a woman. In the song, a young man longed for a time past, the time he'd only heard about in the words of those who had lived it, a time of hope and dreams. He was singing of the life lost to him because it has been his misfortune to be born much later when the world was already a different place."
REHMAminatta Forna, she is reading from her new novel, "The Memory of Love." She's formerly a reporter with the BBC, author of the memoir, "The Devil That Danced on the Water," and the novel, "Ancestor Stones." In 2007, Vanity Fair named her as one of Africa's most promising new writers. You can join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to email@example.com. Feel free to join us on Facebook or Twitter. You said you were born in Scotland. Your mother and father divorced when you were six?
FORNAFour or five.
REHMFour or five, so you were going back and forth?
FORNAI went back and forth a lot during my childhood, yes. But in fact, I spent most of my childhood, other than when he was in prison, with my father. It was my father who raised me in Sierra Leone until he was killed when I was 11.
REHMWhy was he in imprisoned?
FORNAHe was a prisoner of conscience. In fact, he was an amnesty prisoner of conscience for several years between 1970 and '73. He had defied the president. He had fought a political campaign against a one-party state alongside a man who became prime minister and then president of Sierra Leone. And that very person, the person that he'd fought to put into power, did exactly the same thing, tried to, and eventually would succeed in introducing a one-party state.
FORNAAnd my father was one of the -- well, there were three members of the cabinet who resigned immediately and my father was one of them. They set up a political party, a party of opposition, and it was outlawed almost overnight. And my father was imprisoned. That was when I was six years old. My brother and sister and I, with my stepmother, fled to Britain so I spent some time growing up in London as well. We were in exile.
REHMDid you go back to Sierra Leone after that point?
FORNAI went back after he was released, which was in 1974, and then he was re-arrested -- sorry, in '73, he was released and he was re-arrested in '74 and after that, we would never see him again.
REHMHow were you told of his death?
FORNAI was told when I was -- well, we knew something was happening, but my step mom and everybody around us did their best to hide us, hide the worst of it from us. I was told that he had died shortly afterwards and I think that when -- it was my guardian in Britain who told me. I think that he imagined that I must -- we must all have worked out the nature of my father's death, but I was 11 and I hadn't worked it out and so I asked him, asked this man how my father had died and I think because he was, you know, at loss for words, he told me a lie. He told me a lie to save my feelings and he told me that my father died of an illness.
REHMAminatta Forna, the book is, "The Memory of Love."
REHMThere are so many memorable characters in "The Memory of Love" by Aminatta Forna, one of whom is the man who begins the book by telling his story, Elias Cole. Who is he? Tell us about him.
FORNAWell, Elias Cole is a university professor and he is the main character in the book. He is a man who becomes besoughted with the wife of one of his colleagues. The colleague in question is a man called Julius Kamera (sp?), a very energetic charismatic engaging man who Elias rather envies. Elias envies Julius and he is in love with Safia (sp?) and gradually, he envagles his way in their lives.
REHMIt's interesting because he sees her, he's stunned by her somehow. Not just her beauty, but the way she is. He watches her put her hand on her husband's arm. He is invited to dinner at their home. He watches, watches so carefully and does manage to find his way into their lives, but it's a difficult relationship. Why is that?
FORNAJulius believes in something and so does Safia. And they are surrounded by people who are like them. You know, they are that Renaissance Generation. They believe in the future, they believe in building something. Elias isn't really like them. Elias is somebody who looks after number one far more. He's also -- he describes himself as the kind of person whose face you don't remember. So he doesn't have any of those qualities about him. Actually, underneath it, Elias is probably a little bit of a coward, but he does -- he's conflicted because he's very attracted to these people. He really wants to be like them and what makes the relationship so tense is that desire that he has and, in fact, whether he will ever be fully accepted as being one of them.
REHMAnd does Safia somehow take pity on him? Is that why she offers him a ride, she goes shopping with him? There are a number of scenes early in the relationship where she seems to extend kindness.
FORNAWell, in fact, Elias manipulates her into all of these acts of kindness. So he finds her at her tailor one day. He goes in and pretends that he's picking up a suit or something. He pretends he knows her husband better than he does and passes on a message -- a nonexistent message, but something that wouldn't be uncovered. So Elias actually fools both Safia and Julius into believing that he's more friend than he really is. And Julius is the kind of person -- Julius is open and generous and he'll let anybody into his house, so it's quite easy for Elias to get in there.
REHMAnd now tell us about Adrian, to whom Elias is telling this story.
FORNAWell, Adrian is a psychologist, a British psychologist. In fact, he appeared in my last book, "Ancestor Stones," in the final story with one of the characters. And he's listening to her experience of the invasion of Freetown. And this character never quite let me go. You know, I created him for one short story, but he never quite let me go. He was new in the country. He didn't understand the things that had happened. He'd never experienced anything like that. He was trying to apply a Western discipline to not only a postwar situation, but also an African situation -- West African situation. And he fascinated me.
FORNASo I brought him back, actually, one day. I already had the character of Elias in my mind. And I thought, well, actually, it would be useful to have Elias talk to somebody who's in the position, perhaps that the reader is in, of having to interpret what Elias is saying. Having to decide whether Elias is a truth teller or a liar, so Adrian is a visitor to that country and he's also us, he's the reader.
REHMYou're careful neither to make Elias too sympathetic or too underhanded.
FORNAI worked quite hard on the character of Elias (laugh). I mean, actually, I'll tell you something, Diane. He was -- this whole book could've been set in Argentina. The exact moment when I had the idea for the character of Elias Cole came when I was telling an Argentinean friend of mine who had grown up throughout the Dirty War of the 1970s. I was telling her about my father. I was just -- I was going to embark on, "The Devil That Danced on the Water," so we're going back a number of years now. And she told me a story in return. She said that she grew up in the Dirty War and that in the years after the war -- in the decades after the war, she and her family had come to look at her father with new eyes and asks themselves the question, how did you survive?
FORNAShe said her father had never been to prison. People around them had disappeared, been persecuted, fled. Even people she was at school with, a boy she had a crush on, he and his whole family disappeared. And she said, I had to ask myself the question at some point, how could it be that you are so successful? So she said this unspoken question was causing the whole family almost to implode.
FORNAAnd that is where the idea of Elias Cole came from, that this would be a character -- now, she loved her father, of course she did, but she was having to judge him. And so I wanted Elias Cole to be that kind of person that you have to decide at what point has Elias Cole gone too far for you? You know, at what point can you sympathize with him, feel that you might do the same things, hesitate to judge him? And is there a point where you feel now Elias Cole has gone too far or does that point never come?
REHMBut by contrast, you have your father, who did make the ultimate sacrifice, as it were, thinking of his principles, thinking of what he believed his country could be.
FORNAAnd I've had to think about it very deeply because, you know, we did pay the price. And all the time I was writing, "The Devil That Danced on the Water," and researching that true story, people were saying to me, it was a shame your father got involved. It's a shame he did that. And I kept thinking, but how can you say that? Surely that's what everybody should have done. And if everybody had, this would be a completely different country. So writing "Memory of Love" was about exploring that other side of the people who do nothing. And at what point doing nothing turns you into being complicate with something.
FORNAI had a conversation with a woman in Sierra Leone, and a wonderful woman, and doing great things herself to try to help the country. But I had interviewed her parents for the book about my father. And when it transpired that they had never stood up to what happened, she was very angry and ashamed and she confronted her father and he said to her, well, I had five children. How could I? I couldn't do anything else. And I said to her, but my father would've said the same thing, because I had children.
FORNASo, you know, these are the questions and they're not easy ones, but these are the questions. And I do feel that although we paid that price -- you know, I'm reminded of what Bishop Desmond Tutu said on a program I was watching a few months ago. When the situation in South Africa, when they first began to stand up to apartheid -- to the Apartheid Regime and his family began to get targeted, he said to his wife, do you want me to carry on with this? I can stop at any time. You know, just say it and I'll stop because I don't want you and the children to be in danger. You know, they could send me to Robben Island and then you'll be on your own. And she turned to him and she said, I would rather the man I was married to was in prison on Robben Island than was the kind of man who didn't stand up to these things. So, you know, (laugh)...
REHMYou're (word?) in this book. What about the moon landing that you write into this book? What does it symbolize in "The Memory of Love?"
FORNAWell, the moon landing, which, I mean, I couldn't remember at all and I was just simply far too young and I eventually tracked down the day. I managed to pinpoint the day in my memory 'cause certain things were happing in my family. And the only significant thing about that day to me was that I ate my first strawberry.
FORNAI got strawberries while the rest of the world was watching this amazing thing I was three years old and fascinated -- four years old and fascinated by a strawberry. But I -- you know, when you (word?) your book you look at the whole context of when these things are taking place. And one of the important things, of course, is to put it into a wider international context. And, of course, 1969, the events of "The Memory of Love" is also the events of the moon landing.
FORNAAnd this really struck me as a wonderful synchronicity because that was a moment where there was a race between two great powers where one won. It meant different things to different people. To some people, it was about politics and some people, it was about communism. For some people, it was about science and exploration and technology. And it seemed to me to put this group of people in "The Memory of Love," this small group in Sierra Leone and they could pin many of their hopes onto it. And of course, for Julius, who was an engineer, it was the dream of flight.
FORNASo the moon landing, you know, had all kinds of wonderful residences. And I spoke to a lot of people from different parts of the world about their recollections of the moon landing. Most of them didn't see it on television, of course. They heard it on the radio, but there's a particular scene in the book where actors are enacting what the astronauts are doing. So there's a tiny screen and then astronauts dressed in silver foil -- or actors dressed in silver foil are in slow motion reenacting all of these movements. And that is something that did happen when I was doing my research. Somebody said that's what they saw to show the person on the street what the moonwalk looked like.
REHMThere is a very interesting character in the book. Agnes. And she is apparently a homeless woman who wanders the streets and Adrian sees her. Tell us about Agnes.
FORNAAgnes is a woman who suffers from something called fugue. It's a psychological condition where you go into a dissociative state. You don't know where you are or what you're doing, but you walk, you wander.
REHMLet me spell that for our listeners, F-U-G-U-E.
FORNAThat's correct, fugue.
FORNAAnd so she's constantly roaming and Adrian, she -- she comes to see Adrian at one point -- was brought to see Adrian and then she disappears again and he's always looking for you. Throughout the book he searches for, finds and loses Agnes. This condition, fugue, I actually had noticed that people in a lot of -- well, certainly West African countries, so and maybe some of the other African countries, I don't know, did this. I noticed that women in my village and family would sometimes -- not actually not in a dissociative state, but they would step out of their lives and they would go for a long walk and it was almost like it was a self-healing thing where they just had to step out of it all too much. They just had to step out like going to the spa for a weekend or something. They would go on a long walk and then come back and pick up their life again.
FORNAAnd I found it quite fascinating 'cause I'd never seen that in any other culture. Now, Agnes, of course, has a psychological condition...
REHMHas a problem, yes.
FORNA...which is prompted by something that has happened in her family. She -- her husband has been killed, she has been a refugee, found her way back and found her daughter. And in the village where Agnes once lived with her family and her husband, there was her daughter living in the same house with the man who killed her husband.
REHMAminatta Forna and we're talking about her new book, "The Memory of Love." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Aminatta, we have many callers. Let's open the phones now, 800-433-8850. First to Samuel in Prince George's County, Md. Good morning to you, Samuel.
SAMUELGood morning, Ms. Diane. Nice talking to you. I'm so happy to talk to you. How you doing?
REHMI'm fine, thank you. Go right ahead.
SAMUELI'm from Sierra Leone and I lived through the war and I understand our guest Ms. Aminatta's father was way, way back. I don't remember him, but I remember 'cause I grew up in Sierra Leone around the '90s when the war was actually there. And because of that, that's why I'm in America today. But my question that I was gonna ask was -- 'cause her father went to Europe to study and go back to Sierra Leone, which is my aim and I feel like every young Sierrean been through the war getting some type of education outside Sierra Leone should be able to take it back home.
SAMUELBut I was just trying to see how was her father received coming from a western world going back there trying to educate people to try to change people's idea of how the system might work better if we just don't do it the same old way. 'Cause my mother always scared about something like that. I'm a political science student and I always tell her I wanna go back and try to run for office or something like that. She's always scared that I might get hurt or...
REHMI understand perfectly.
FORNAWell, it's great to hear you want to go back and help and I also understand your mother's concerns about the idea of you running for political office in Sierra Leone. My father, well, he was away for quite a long time, of course. He was studying medicine, so by the time he went back, you know, a good eight or nine years had passed. And from all accounts of people who were part of that generation, they did find it quite hard to fit back in. They had new ideas, new ways of thinking. They did find it quite hard.
FORNAOn the other hand, they were able to make great changes. And I see -- I go back to Sierra Leone a lot. I'm there twice a year. I've got various projects of my own that I run just like you, because I want to do something for the country. Outside the sphere of politics, there are so many ways in which you can help. You know, education, medicine, sanitation. There are so many ways to help. And I think that Sierra Leone is open to these kinds of ideas much more so than it was in the past. People don't want to repeat the mistakes of the past. They really are open to a new way of doing things.
REHMYou really believe that, that they are welcoming to those who come with new ideas, fresh ideas?
FORNAWell, my experience has certainly been. I do a lot of work with my family village. We've built a school there, dug a new well, refitted the old well, done some work with malaria, anti-malarial -- sorry, malarial prevention and now maternal health. And I have found it absolutely extraordinary how with each new project, I have really been able to take a backseat and just say, okay, what is it you want next? And this time around, it was to help -- or reduce the maternal and infant death rate. And so I brought in somebody to give seminars on maternal healthcare. I've been able to step back. The young men of the village have come forward, started to build the health center, the women have taken part. I'm just on the ride.
REHMNovelist and activist Aminatta Forna, her new book is titled, "The Memory of Love."
REHMWelcome back. We'll go back to the phones now to Manchester, N.H. Good morning, Ben, you're on the air.
BENGood morning, Diane.
REHMGood morning, sir.
BENYou're such a darling. I don't even know where I'm going to start, but it's so beautiful, that I mean, I don't even -- I can't -- I don't have the words to say this, but the question I have for your guest is this. It looks like, in Africa, the best people -- I mean, the best people that talk about Africa are the ones who are in Diaspora and what's the problem? Can't we have people from Africa talking into the -- you know, the rest of the world, telling the rest of the world about Africa that aren't (word?) from the Diaspora?
FORNAI know many wonderful people all over the African continent doing marvelous things and I, too, wish that they were given a voice. I think that those of us in the Diaspora who, you know, simply have access to the Western media -- I mean, I was a journalist at the BBC for 10 years and then I became a writer. We've found ourselves in the position of becoming effectively spokespeople for the continent, but there certainly are, in my experience, millions of wonderful people on that continent doing wonderful things and it's about trying to elevate their voices out of -- out -- you know, out of that continent.
FORNASo I do act as a spokesperson for them, I do try to highlight what they're doing. Not everybody brilliant is outside Africa, there are brilliant and wonderful people inside Africa, but until crews go out there and make more documentaries or, you know, we have radio shows being hosted (laugh). Maybe Diane will go over and do one with her free time. It's hard to get to hear their voices, very hard.
REHMThank you for calling, Ben. I know that many in Sierra Leone suffered physically during the war. What about the psychological wounds? How do those resonate perhaps even today?
FORNAPeople are traumatized by war and I think one of the best ways of helping them to overcome war is helping them to get their lives back together. I mean, certainly one of the themes of the book is what works. You know, what works and what doesn't work. Do they really -- do they need hours of therapy (laugh) or, you know, which one of the characters believes in African psychiatrists? Do they actually need their lives back? What they want is to be able to love, have families, raise children, look after themselves. So that is the -- that's the fastest practical solution.
FORNANow, of course, we are some years away from the war and people are -- you know, there's a whole new generation come up who are less directly affected by the war, but I see it even in my tiny village. One of my cousins suffers from terrible Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He cannot tolerate the presence of a foreigner, an outsider in the village because they were raided so many times by the rebels and the women raped and the men killed that every time I turn up, every time he sees my vehicle turn up, because he doesn't know who it is, he will flee into the forest and not come back until he's been assured that it's safe, so, you know, and we're now, you know, more than 10 years on from those events.
FORNASo it has an enduring affect. But what is also quite wonderful is the way that everybody in that community supports him. You know, someone takes over looking after his kids, someone takes him food while he makes himself feel safe in his place and actually, that's exactly what would happen if he was, you know, under the care of a therapist in Europe. It's about making yourself feel safe in Europe or America.
REHMHow safe do you feel when you go back to Sierra Leone, the tiny village you live in?
FORNAPhysically safe? You know, Diane, it's a funny thing and I hope you believe me because hardly anybody ever does. As a woman driving alone -- and I drive many hours of country to go to the -- to my family village. I would rather break down in Sierra Leone than I would where I live in Britain. I would be absolutely 100 percent confident and it has happened to me. I have broken down, you know, with a big -- with a four-wheel drive that I can't change the tires on very easily. And within moments, people are just round, you know...
FORNAYeah, helping, so I feel perfectly safe there and always have, you know, apart from -- I mean, war is war and what's quite fascinating is -- difficult for people to understand is how safe we felt there before the war. You know, how safe -- we never thought it was going to happen to us.
REHMYou see, that's the issue and your cousin running into the forest exemplifies the issue of trust and not trust. And our first caller, his mother is worried, she doesn't trust. You perhaps trusted too much.
FORNACertainly in the 1970s, I think we all trusted to much, but I think it's a condition not just of Sierra Leone or any country in Africa, those countries around Sierra Leone that had parallel problems. Just before I flew out to the states, I was talking to a friend of mine from Croatia and I said to him, did you ever believe it would happen to you? And he said, no, we never believed that we were capable of it. So it is there in every country and he told me about the writer, Evo Andrich (sp?), who's a Croatian writer Nobel Prize winner. And Andrich wrote an essay called "Letter To a Friend" and he wrote about how one has to be careful because the hate is always in a society. You know, we are not above hate and if it's stoked...
REHMAnd that -- and that is part of what you write about in this book, that it is in each of us, the potential is always there.
REHMAnd it makes for very, very important reading. To Greensboro, N.C. Good morning, Albert.
ALBERTGood morning, Diane. A great show. I always love your program.
ALBERTThank you so much. I mean, this is rather simple. I'm from Ghana, West Africa.
FORNAA lovely country.
ALBERTAnd I want to really congratulate you on your book and most of this African generation don't get a chance to work for BBC doing (unintelligible) us proud.
FORNAThank you very much.
ALBERTYeah, where is Major Gumon (sp?) ? Because I see he was also among those group who rose up against (unintelligible). Where are all those great guys?
FORNAWell, I mean, the answer is I don't know. I tracked down -- for "The Devil Who Danced on the Water," which was an investigation into those events particularly surrounding my father's execution and those of the 14 other men who died with him. I tracked down everybody that I could find and interviewed them for the book, but the way I backed up every exact person, Major Gumon, for one, I'm not absolutely certain of. And of course, you know, with the war and so much...
FORNA...disruption, yeah. People -- massive refugee populations. I'm not sure where they all are, but if you read the book (laugh), you'll discover where some of them are.
REHMTo Crest in Greenville, Mich. Good morning to you
CRESTGood morning. I'm calling actually as I trudge my way to a world folk literature class. I'm calling because I am an education student, I am just hungry to read this book, but I want to know what things has your guest read? Who influenced her father to become an activist? Because I'd like to know what things I should be sharing in a public high school to get American kids to see beyond the borders. And I'll take my answer off the air.
FORNAWell, my father's reading -- he actually wasn't a great reader (laugh), I have to confess. You know, he was a scientist, primarily he was a medical student and -- but I do remember looking through some of the books that he left behind and there was some Shakarivera (sp?) in there. My mother kept saying, well, he wasn't a communist, but, you know, he was inspired by some of the ideas in there. But the people that he would have been influenced by, I think, at that time would have been writers like Ngugi Wa Thiongo from Kenya. He's Kenya's great writer and he wrote "Petals of Blood" was one of his best known books. Ngugi was part of that same generation.
FORNAWole Soyinka was also part of the same generation and it was really about looking at what Africa could be -- you know, where Africa had come from and what Africa could be, so I mean, as I said, my father wasn't a great reader and he did read quite a lot of political tracts that I probably wouldn't open, but those would've been the writers, those were his contemporaries and would've been the ones whose ideas were being discussed.
REHMAnd here is someone here in Washington, D.C., Moinina (sp?). I gather you knew Aminatta's father.
MOININAOh, yes, thank you very much, Diane. I'm a first time caller, but long time listener.
MOININAI'm very proud of Aminatta. I read her first book. I don't know whether that was your first book, but the book about her dad.
FORNAYes, it was.
MOININAAnd I knew -- yes. I was about 20 or 25 years old when her father was executed. Her father was one of the bright stars of Sierra Leone. Very smart, very intelligent. He went to (word?) school with my brother and my brother used to tell me a lot about how brilliant he was. In fact, the record he left in (word?) school, nobody ever broke it.
FORNAThat's true, (laugh) that's true.
MOININABut my surprise is as educated as he was, he joined the wrong person in politics, Siaka Stevens. We all knew Siaka Stevens was a brute, very ruthless. He was not educated. All he wanted was power and because of him, Sierra Leone has gone down today because he declared one fascist system and everything went bad in the country. The good people left, the country was just left empty. So I'm really surprised that this father, Aminatta's father, joined the wrong person. Just...
FORNALet me just say, that is, of course, with the wonderful benefit of hindsight, which is 20/20 vision (laugh). I mean, Siaka Stevens wasn't a brute at that stage. It's also true, though, you do -- you make a reasonable point and one I've asked myself and the answer is this, that the country was being taken by Albert Margai along the road to a one party state so fast that the young men, like my father, and women, but mostly men who decided to get involved joined the only other opposition party there was. You know, they didn't have time to start a new party, they had to move on. They had to end Margai's attempt to bring in a one-party state. So it was -- it is the real politic and they thought that they could control Stevens and nobody thought that he was going to be able to take power in that way. It was a mistake.
REHMI want to ask you about another interest of yours because I share that interest, your love of dogs.
FORNAYes (laugh). I absolutely love dogs, it's true.
REHMYou've written this marvelous essay about the dogs of Sierra Leone. Tell me about them.
FORNAWell, I grew up loving dogs. I actually credit dogs with my sanity because, you know, when all of these things were happening and we didn't know who we could trust, I as a child, always felt that the if nobody else, the family pets gave me...
FORNAExactly. They were -- there was no mutability about them. So I have always had a passion for dogs. Sierra Leone is absolutely -- Freetown -- if you go to Freetown, is just full of street dogs. I mean, they say everywhere.
REHMStreet dogs. They just wander.
FORNAThey just wander, but you can tell a lot about a country, I think, by the way that people treat animals and what you'll see is, more often than not, people slowing down, stopping while the dog lazily gets up, moves out of the way, then the traffic carries on. And people are actually very indulgent of the dogs. I mean, the dogs, of course, are, you know, flea-bitten and underfed, but people are very indulgent and I think you can tell a lot.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Are they ever vicious? Do those dogs ever trouble people?
FORNADo the dogs ever hurt the people?
FORNANo. The dogs are incredibly docile. In fact, actually, what it's interesting -- and you have to look through different eyes. People, of course, in Sierra Leone often live in shanty towns and so -- in the city, so some of the dogs are actually owned. What looks like a stray dog to the Westerner is actually a dog that belongs to somebody and you'll see people going out and feeding them at night. And they belong to the community. There are true strays, of course, and there are problems with rabies, but on the whole, no. The dogs are incredibly, incredibly docile.
REHMIs it true that one day of the year, the commissioner says, everyone who owns a dog, bring that dog into your home. The dogs who are left are taken away.
FORNANo, thank goodness (laugh). Thank goodness. It was muted because there was an idea there, well, we have a problem with too many dogs on the street, but a very wonderful man called Dr. Jallo (sp?), who was the only working private vet working in a private practice in Sierra Leone and a huge dog lover himself stood up for the dogs. Went to the Freetown City Council, stood up for the dogs and said, you cannot kill them, they belong to us. They belong to the people and they belong to us. And just because they don't live in middle class houses doesn't mean we don't owe them a duty of care. So no, that doesn't happen, thank goodness.
REHMHave you ever been bitten by a dog?
FORNAI've been hospitalized by a dog, actually.
REHMWhy? What happened?
FORNAWell, I was four years old and I loved dogs. In fact, the curious thing is I loved dogs before and I loved them afterwards. Somehow, for reasons I can't explain, it didn't make a huge difference to me, although it did put me in the hospital for awhile. It was in Scotland. I was wearing a hat and, you know, dogs can have a funny reaction to people wearing hats because it confuses them.
REHMYes. Yes. Right.
FORNAThey don't understand, you look different and they can't tell why. And it was a dog I knew and it just -- it...
REHMA dog you knew?
FORNAIt was a dog I knew. It was a friend's dog and it reacted badly to the sight of me in the hat. And when I went to pat it, it got defensive, so I was in the hospital for quite awhile. In fact, I had quite a lot of my face (word?).
REHMHe bit your face?
FORNAOh, yes, he went straight for me. I had to have my lip reconstructed and part of my nose.
FORNAI was in the hospital for about a week (laugh), so it does -- but it flies in the face, you know, I suppose...
REHMIt didn't change your attitude.
FORNAIt didn't change my attitude and I've thought about this and I wondered why. And I think it was at the absolute clarity of the dog's reaction. You know, there was nothing confusing about it. And if I had actually trusted how I felt about the dog, it was -- it was bristling. I was too young, I didn't really understand. Knowing what I know now, I realize that that dog was feeling, you know, attacked. But I think it is that about dogs, it is there absolute clarity one way or the other. You know, you know when they love you and you know when they don't (laugh).
REHMWell, I think people reading this book will know immediately that they love this book. Aminatta Forna, thank you for being here.
FORNAThank you very much.
REHMThe book is titled, "The Memory of Love." Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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