Whenever my grandfather arrived he seemed to materialize out of nowhere. Although I’m sure he must have carried his clothes in a bundle, he never appeared to have anything resembling luggage. And when he walked into the compound there was no evidence of the means of transportation he had taken, no bush taxi disappearing in a whirl of dust, no car or bus. Not even a bicycle. He looked as though he had just come from the end of the road instead of Magburaka, where he lived, a whole day’s travel away. By necessity, since there were no telephones and no mail service to speak of, he arrived unannounced and would stay for a few days or sometimes a few weeks.
[. . .]
Pa Roke wore mukay, pointed leather shoes, that men used as slippers with the back trodden down. He would slip them off and cross his bare feet at the ankle. Likewise my father took off his sandals. This signaled the beginning of their sessions. They talked for hours together in Temne, who knows what about, since I couldn’t understand a word they said. (pp. 50-51)Some books just take you away, out of your day-to-day world and into a world of different colours and events than anything you know. Even though the subject matter is difficult, The Devil That Danced on the Water: A Daughter’s Quest by Aminatta Forna was one of those books for me. Forna tells the true story of her father, Mohamed Sorie Forna, who was executed in 1974 in his native Sierra Leone. He was a prominent former Minister of Finance of the country, part of its first democratically elected, post-independence government in the late sixties. Forna was 10 when she lost her father, and much of the book is devoted to her vivid memories of him before he was taken as well as of her childhood in Africa (mostly in Sierra Leone) and Great Britain (mostly in Scotland).
The book goes back and forth in space and time, but Sierra Leone is its real anchor, and the stories of Forna’s life there are the ones that really felt like they transported me to a different, yet not alien, reality. I loved the scene where Forna and Milik, the cook, discuss storytelling and conventions of storytelling (morals of the story are quite different in African stories), and when Forna can’t figure out why the story Milik has just told doesn’t meet with her European sensibilities, he says, by way of ending the conversation: “You wouldn’t go back to find a devil. Just like you wouldn’t buy a dead chicken.” Some months later, Aminatta tells her grandmother in Scotland she shouldn’t buy dead chickens, and her grandmother, a little startled, asks, “Whatever makes you say that, dearie? You don’t think I’m going to kill it myself, do you?” (pp. 134-135). The cultural reference points are so different that it makes perfect sense not to buy a dead chicken in Sierra Leone, but what else would you do in Aberdeen? Because Sierra Leone is her homeland, Forna doesn’t turn it into exotica, neither romanticizing it nor condescending to it in any way.
The story itself is multi-layered. It’s a political story, of a man who was a doctor and became a politician for all the right reasons, who was eventually executed by the very prime minister who made him part of the government. It’s a personal story, of a girl whose father was taken from her without explanation and without his resistance, a child whose life already included being part of three different family configurations—along with her two siblings, she lived with her parents while they were together, then with her mother in Scotland, and then with her father and stepmother in Freetown, Sierra Leone. It’s a story about culture, about multi-generational, non-nuclear, sometimes polygamist family structures, and the Africa of ordinary people. And finally, it’s a story of government corruption, the whys and wherefores of the execution of 15 men, the botched trial, the motivations of those who lied and created lies to serve their own purposes.
The one aspect that detracted from my enjoyment of this book was when Forna applies her journalist’s dedication to tracking down all those involved in her father’s trial. I just could not keep track of the many many witnesses she interviewed, nor of their exact relationship to the story. I sympathized with her need to be thorough and her need for a moral evaluation of the players (what did they do, and were they sorry about it?), but at a certain point I just couldn’t follow them all anymore.
I wondered if I would even be able to read this book, because the mere words Sierra Leone inspire a shudder in me, given my knowledge of the recent atrocities during the civil war in that country. However, I actually think my capacity to read about such events has been increased by reading The Devil That Danced, and I’m not sure there’s an entirely rational reason why, other than the opening of the heart that happened to me while reading this book. For one thing, I now feel like I care about this country in a different way, and for another, Forna’s description of her trip back to Sierra Leone during the war and of a couple she met then who are both war amputees made the horrors of war come down to a more individual, more compassionate level.
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