July 15, 2016 By Oumar Farouk Sesay
From the many anthologies of wounded verses, bleeding prose, and scared canvases scaring the post war literary landscape of Sierra Leone, comes a writer called Jedida Adlyn Olayinka Johnson with her 173 pages Novel titled; Youthful Yearnings, published by SLWS in 2015.The novel follows in the tradition of Erich Maria Romargue’s classic; All Quite in the Western Front , Elechi Amadi’s Sunset in Biafra, and many other literary works born from the wasteland of conflict, with an authorial intent; deprive violence the arrogance of having the last word in conflict.
John Paul Lederach, in his book The Moral Imagination, suggests that the greatest lie that violence seeks to impose is that it inhabits a wasteland where nothing else can grow. He says, “Artists shatter that lie, for they live in barrenness as if new life, birth, is always possible.”
The maiden novel of this young medical student deals a deadly blow on the lie left behind by the eleven years war of the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone. It tells a story of love exhumed from the enlarged tomb that was Sierra Leone during that lost decade. The struggle of Alhaji and his family to survive the onslaught is the driving force of the narrative.
A somber mood veils the Novel like the Burga on the protagonist of Yasmina Khadra’s; The Swallows of Kabul, and it is evident from the very first lines;
“Silence hung over us like death, and indeed death was among us it was like a snake lashing out and striking us and from which there was no escape” (p1)
From those opening lines Jedidah grabs the readers from the lapels of their soul and lures them to the depth of human suffering, loss, despair and hope which characterizes the lives of the Mansaray family.
At first, it was their beloved little sister who dies for lack of medication while they were siege by the Rebels in their panbodi house, and then followed by the dad, then the mother and excruciatingly the two siblings. Alhaji’s only family is a young girl; Claire she brings home from a displaced camp. The relationship of the two teenagers starts as a compassionate feeling of one human being to another and later evolves to feelings that only art could capture in slides and shades very much like those in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
The author takes Alhaji, from pure innocence to a branded rebel, rapist and killer through pathways of drugs, hate, despair, love and finally migration to America. Jadidah’s novel reads like a thriller spilling the ills of war and the thrills of love in doses that leaves the reader wanting more. The narrative glides on fast paced events interspersed with smooth scene transition only a brilliant writer like Jedida could conjure.
Alhaji and Claire were left alone in the forest after the rebels massacre their entire family. They live on their wit and instinct brushing with death on a daily basis before Alhaji surrenders to the rebels in order to earn freedom for Claire in a manner akin to the supreme sacrifice of Christ.
Claire leaves for America. Alhaji becomes a captive. The anatomy of the narrative changes to a diary entry, replete with flash backs as scenic as images in silver screen. The lives of the two lovers streak through the screen lashing the imagination of the reader with every stroke. The author uses simple yet harrowing language enhanced with emotions to transport the reader to the depth of the forest and into the trenches of the soul of the protagonist. His turmoil after the killing of his first victims plunges him in a lady Macbeth like dilemma cut straight from King Duncan assassination scene.
“I stared at my hands .I could almost see the blood that stained them. I felt an irresistible urge to wash them, but why taunt my already tormented soul.”p123
Alhaji’s forceful initiation into the RUF fold which comes in the form of the acronym of the rebels branded on his four head completes his circle of ruin and alienation from the society. The branding makes him a captive even when he tries to escape he is not accepted by the society. Witness these lines; “I could not be helped by anyone. I have a scar that tries, convicts, sentences me before I have even spoken. I made my way back to the camp “(p116)
The triumph of the human spirit in adversity comes in form of reunion between the two lovers thus shattering the lie violence seeks to impose in conflicts.
For a writer who experienced the war as a child, to have woven a story as moving as Youthful yearnings, within six months while observing a break from her college work imposed by the EBOLA outbreak speaks volumes.
For those who wonder about the future of the Sierra Leone novel after Lucinda Hunter, Aminata Fofana, Syl Cheney Coker and Gbanabom Hallowell are gone, should wonder no more; Jedida is here to take the flaming torch to a literary future that is so bright, it burns the eyes.