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The Dreamer at the Hodgepodge Junction

March 29, 2016  By Lansana Gberie

(A review of Ahmed Koroma’s Along the Odokoko River Sierra Leonean Writers Series, 2016)

Midway through Along the Odokoko River, Ahmed Koroma’s second collection of poems, the eye of the poet lingers on an unnamed character, a solitary figure cuddling a bottle of beer and dragging through the motion of a drink:

The one he nurses all day long

As the merengue music belches through

The bug infested wooden speaker

The poet is not laying it on. The scene accurately evokes the dereliction of an African urban sprawl, but the poet is very specific: his memory is running back to his neighbourhood in east-end (or isten) Freetown, in an area “where four roads meet” (the title of the poem). He does, in fact, lay it on here. For it turns out that this junction is far from being an entirely proletarian (or lumpen proletarian) redoubt: the sort of place a denizen might tolerate for its egalitarian uniformity. The poet notices, though the solitary drinker lulled into near-trance by the bug-invested loudspeaker blaring a famous Congolese song may not have, some of the representatives of the oppressor class nursing their drinks as well. For:

This is our hodgepodge junction

…………………………….

Where many souls convene

A bright spot in a dark town

A rendezvous for the dejected

And the powerbrokers as well

Still, the tone remains affectionate: the poet is determined not to mar the fond memories with class bitterness. These are, after-all, recollections, mostly, of innocent childhood memories; and the poet’s political consciousness is not at its most acute. His sensitivities, in fact, are romantic, sometimes almost jejune. How can one, for example, remember with great fondness idling by a dirty river which offers no prospect of a bilharzia-free swim, or of fishing? The Odokoko is not one of the great sights or waterways that may inspire any epic; but in comfortable middle age, the poet looks back to those idle days by its pungent-smelling riverbank as an opportunity for meditation, as well as a measure of the great freedom he enjoyed in childhood – uninhibited, an unconscious preparation for the poet that he has become. But what he is remembering is more or less a dream, now conveniently meshed up with lived experience:

So as I breathe colorless pungent air,

Sliding down slippery rocks

Head first, and tumbling into the spring

My spirit floats in this trance

My soulfulness flanking on nirvana

Dreams

The escape route into passive space

Which I prefer to my waking days

Along the riverbanks

Koroma is almost unique among Sierra Leone’s bourgeoning poets for celebrating the gritty east-end of Freetown as a literary project. This is not the Freetown we know or think we knew; this is not the Freetown of the large Anglican Cathedral, the Cotton Tree, Fourah Bay College on Mount Aureol, the Hill Station of charming decaying prefabricated houses from the famous English store Harrods – the Freetown that Graham Greene, fresh from England in the early 1930s, recognized as “home away from home.” It is far from being the somewhat somnolent Freetown of Gladys Casely-Hayford, who wrote of it in the 1920s thus: “Freetown, when God made thee, He made thy soil alone/…’This is my gem!’ God whispered, ‘this shall be/To me a jewel in blue turquoise set’/…There, tranquilly lies Freetown, even yet/Then God crouched, lion-like, each mighty hill/Silent, they keep their watch o’er Freetown still.” Koroma’s Freetown has had its cultural icons, of course – Dr. Oloh, Ebenezer Calendar; we see this Freetown from a somewhat Olympian height in Robert Wellesley Cole’s 1960 memoirs Kossoh Town Boy; but only in Amadu Pat Maddy’s 1973 novel No Past, No Present, No Future (Heinemann) do we get a good glimpse of it.

The Freetown of the Odokoko River is largely non-Creole (or non-Christian Creole): that area is dominated by Muslims, and its inhabitants can be described either as Aku Creole or – as a large number would prefer – by their various indigenous affiliations, Temne especially. The small coastal area of Freetown, beginning as a British settlement in 1787 and then a colony since 1808, had previously been Temne territory, had been “bought” from King Naimbana and, though an ethnic stew, remained for all appearances culturally dominated by Anglicised Creoles. However, the vibrant east-end of the city tended to have successfully resisted this cultural dominance, and chiefly because of Islam: Muslim societies have been politically dominated by Christian countries but none, to my knowledge, has been culturally transformed into Christian societies: the same is true conversely, with perhaps Albania the only exception – which merely proves the rule. (If only this hard lesson from history had been absorbed by the likes of George W Bush!)

We get a glimpse of this defiant cultural assertion in “Revelation”, one of the poems in this collection. It comes after “Easter”: about that quintessential Christian moment which – partly because it is official holiday, partly because it is somewhat chic in the city overall, and always a measure of the relaxed or tolerant religious atmosphere of the country – is joyously celebrated, even by Muslims in Freetown’s east-end. The poet remembers how

We had wished for this in our restless slumber

After we killed Judas a million times over

So as we watch our kites dangle in the air

Boundlessly, tailless, as they drift away slowly

From the riverbank where we jubilantly cheer

In “Revelation,” however, the poet makes his religious preference defiantly clear. We would “choose to read the apostle’s creed” alright, he writes, and “with trepidation when we ponder/About the apocalypse, of the after world.” But

As we remain loyal to this part of town

…………………………………………

Anticipating the adhan call from the minaret

Before performing a hurried alwala

All that playfulness and fantasizing end after the Muslim call to prayer: the poet quickly performs an ablution – the ritual washing of hands, feet, ears and face: remarkable that a ritual that derived from the exigency of an antique desert environment is so seductive at this junction by the riverside – and then hurries to a mosque. Remarkable also that the fun of Christian festivities – the flying of kites, the poetic motion of ‘killing’ Judas – is so instantly rendered nugatory to this sensitive boy by the more austere alwala.

Several of the poems in this collection carry this mordantly religious trope: the old local vanity about an easy religious atmosphere and tolerance. And in all Islam’s appeal is supreme. The poet, clearly proud of his religious commitment, is no amateur exegete; and he makes no attempt to explain this extraordinary appeal of Islam in a settlement that had been created by, above all, Christian humanitarian evangelists. But in the poem “Offering”, we begin to see an aspect of this appeal in practice:

This is the day the town healer howls all day

When we gather around him with clasped hands

Crossed legs across a large cotton sheet

Staring at copper coins shiny on top of kola nuts

Awaiting his supplication on behalf of a sick child

We gaze at rice bowls and buried steaming soup

A concatenation of thoughts, a laughter betrayed

Because we are told to shut our little eyes

And silently recite Surat al ikhlas seven times

Lest Shai’tan snatches away our little hearts

The healer hums a tune and performs exorcism

Over and over again with a mirror in his hand

So what do we gain from going round in circles

And singing canticles and hymns in the churchyards?

What do we see when we are so blindfolded?

We cheer in jubilation when the sick child smiles

The riverbanks of the Odokoko really do produce wonders!

In his previous, more overtly political, collection, Of Flour and Tears (2012) Koroma casts a somewhat critical gaze on the role of religion in his country’s meltdown in the recent past. The after-effects of the war are present in Odokoko River, but it is a largely muted presence, a footnoted reference to the uneven struggle to rebuild after the war 

The relic of the war remains with us

So we whitewash the bloodstained walls

And paint over the scars from the wound

But scavenge around looking for food

And he warns ominously:

The unpreparedness for the next fight

The one that wilts the blossom flowers

And slowly reveals the patched cracks

Catapulting all of us back to our very past

This new collection is issued by Sierra Leonean Writers’ Series; and the publisher made the wise decision of including the poems of Of Flour and Tears (previously issued by another publisher) therein. Together, it makes a formidable cultural milestone.

Next time this reviewer, a stranger to the east-end, is in Freetown, he will be carrying Along the Odokoko River in a rucksack as he retires from a walk on the riverbank for a drink at the junction of four roads.