Caryl Phillips - Official Web Site

"Distant Voices"

Civil war devastated Sierra Leone in the 1990s, and today it is the poorest country in the world. Caryl Phillips travels to the capital, Freetown, and meets the writers struggling to make a living there, to record past events, and to understand how they might contribute to the future. (The Guardian, July 19, 2003)

This is no ordinary rain. The sky has opened and the rain has transformed the streets into small rivers, bringing what commercial life there is in Freetown to an abrupt halt. Mike Butscher and I braved the deluge to reach this restaurant, but having finished our meal and a second beer, we simply stare out of the window and resign ourselves to being temporarily marooned.

The restaurant is called Stop Press. It is a favourite hang-out for local writers, journalists and any foreign press personnel passing through Sierra Leone. Butscher is the secretary of the local branch of PEN, the international writers' organisation. We sit and watch a skeletal dog, its sores red raw, wander in off the street and take up residence under a table so that it too may shelter from the rain. It is going to be a long afternoon.

Butscher raises his hand and politely declines my offer of a third beer.

"You were asking about the war," he says.

I nod. I had been quizzing him about how Sierra Leonean writers were addressing the horrors of their recent history. More to the point, I hoped Butscher might enlighten me as to what role he imagined writers might play in a country whose average annual income is a mere US$470 per person, and in which life expectancy is 34.5 years (UN Human Development Report, 2003). Since my arrival in Sierra Leone I have been wondering about the relevance of writing in a nation whose social and economic infrastructure appears to be permanently close to collapse. So far, Butscher has said precious little about the war or about writing, but he now appears to be ready to talk.

"I remember one morning looking out of my window. I was on the second floor of my guest house. In the street below, the rebels had captured three Nigerian soldiers. They had tied their elbows behind their backs and the Nigerians were pleading for their lives. Right there, with me watching, the rebels began to slit these men's throats as though they were slaughtering animals. The final Nigerian soldier was trembling with fear, but a rebel simply whispered, 'Do not worry, it will soon be over.' And then he held him and quickly cut open his neck."

Mike's narrative grinds to a halt. The rain, however, shows no sign of abating.

Freetown can be a dangerous place. Graham Greene's 1948 classic, The Heart of the Matter , is set in Freetown and draws on Greene's experiences as a British intelligence officer during the second world war. The novel's main character, Scobie, wanders down to the seafront after nightfall. He passes scuffling rats and then asks two policemen if they have seen anything worth reporting.

"'No, sah,' is their firm response. He knew they were lying: they would never go alone to that end of the wharf, the playground of the human rats, unless they had a white officer to guard them. The rats were cowards but dangerous—boys of 16 or so, armed with razors or bits of broken bottle, they swarmed in groups around the warehouses, pilfering if they found an easily opened case, settling like flies around any drunken sailor who stumbled their way, occasionally slashing a policeman who had made himself unpopular with one of their innumerable relatives."

Modern-day Freetown remains populated by scuffling rats. Open drains, heaps of rotting garbage, and a crippled sewer system ensure that after dark the rats emerge and scurry in all directions. But Greene's human rats rarely left Freetown. If they did it was to join the rebels in the south of the country and to reappear in the capital as bloodthirsty, drug-crazed, teenage killers. The atrocities perpetrated by the rebel army during the recent civil war make Greene's "wharf rats" look like benign humanitarians.

Sierra Leone, on the west coast of Africa, is almost half the size of Scotland. In the 15th century, Portuguese traders named the region "Serra Lyoa" because of the wild, leonine-shaped mountains of the coastal peninsula, which protrudes into the Atlantic. Over the years the name became corrupted to Sierra Leone by countless European visitors, who were pleased to discover a sheltered place where they might drop anchor on an otherwise rocky and surf-bound coast. The English slave trader, Sir John Hawkins, visited three times in the 1560s, and Sir Francis Drake watered his ships in Sierra Leone on his voyage around the world. However, despite frequent contact with the coast and the local people, there was no attempt by the Europeans to establish a town or any permanent settlement.

In 1785, the British government realised it would have to find some way to relieve the overcrowded prisons, and it was suggested that transporting convicts to Sierra Leone might be a possible solution. Arguments against this plan were aired in parliament, where the case was made that Sierra Leone's climate would prove fatal to a white man's constitution. As a result, the "healthier" climate of Botany Bay was decided upon. But late 18th-century Britain was faced with another pressing social "problem". "Black cargo", in the form of human beings, although transported westwards from Africa and across the Atlantic Ocean, had a disturbing habit of finding its way back to the "free" streets of London.

Ships' captains, planters and military men returning to Britain would often bring back their black "domestics"; not only did they provide a source of cheap and easily exploitable labour, they also conferred status on their owners. Soon there were large numbers of black people on the streets of London and the question of how to solve this "problem" once again turned people's attention towards Sierra Leone. This time there were few questions asked about the injurious climate. On April 8 1787, 411 people, the majority of them black men (although among them were 70 white prostitutes), set sail for Sierra Leone. Within three weeks of their arrival on May 14, more than a third were dead, having been ravaged by fever and dysentery and having had to withstand rains heavier than any they had ever seen or imagined.

During the next few years the colony was replenished with free black people from Nova Scotia, many of whom had fought for the British in the American war of independence, and Maroons from Jamaica, who were the descendants of slaves taken from the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana). In 1792, the settlement of Freetown was established, and by 1808 Sierra Leone had become a British crown colony. In 1827, Fourah Bay College was established, the first university in sub-Saharan Africa, and its degrees were recognised by Durham University. It appeared that the colony's future was now assured. In 1961, Sierra Leone became a sovereign and independent state, but by 1967 the prime minister was planning to establish one-party rule and so the army stepped in and seized power. Thereafter began the sadly familiar African post-independence descent into corruption, coups, counter-coups, rigged elections, spontaneous upsurges of violence, and finally civil war.

In 1990, 80,000 Liberian refugees flooded across the border into Sierra Leone in a bid to escape their own civil war. They were soon followed by a rebel army—the Revolutionary United Front (RUF)—under the leadership of a Sierra Leonean former corporal, Foday Sankoh. Their target was the lucrative diamond-mining region in the east, which would not only provide them with personal wealth, but facilitate the purchase of arms. However, it was the tactics of the rebels that marked this out as a war of unspeakable brutality. They recruited criminals, drug addicts and thieves, but they also targeted impressionable and frightened children, some as young as seven. They forced these children to take drugs, and then maim their "enemies" by crudely amputating legs, arms, hands, feet, even lips, ears and noses. These child soldiers also raped and killed.

In 1997, dismayed and disillusioned, and having seen tens of thousands of people slaughtered, the Sierra Leonean army mutinied and brokered a deal with the rebels. Sadly, far from stabilising the situation, the conflict only escalated. In the countryside, the amputations, killings and raping continued at an alarming pace as the drug-crazed rebels ran amok. The names of the rebel offensives spoke for themselves. "Operation Burn House" gave rise to "Operation Pay Yourself", which in turn led to "Operation No Living Thing" and so on. The low point came on January 6 1999, when the rebels entered Freetown and began razing the city. In a hellish two-week period, thousands suffered amputation, and more than 6,000 were killed. Eventually the rebel forces were driven out of Freetown and some semblance of order restored. Today, more than 13,000 United Nations troops are still in Sierra Leone, keeping the peace, and helping to maintain a country that, according to United Nations statistics, is officially the poorest on earth.

The next day the rain has eased up, and Butscher and I are able to meet at Stop Press and this time sit outside. Butscher seems a little more relaxed, and so I ask him if I can show him some poetry I found on the internet. The writer, Solomon Daniel Kamara, is a Sierra Leonean studying for a Masters in Divinity in Massachusetts, and his work seems similar in form and subject-matter to much of the poetry I have read by Sierra Leonean exiles. I suggest to Butscher that the writing of the exiles contrasts sharply with the silence and evasion that seem to characterise writers within Sierra Leone. I ask again about the role of the writer in a country like Sierra Leone, but Butscher smiles enigmatically and takes the first poem from me—"Butchery of the Innocent Child":

And tomorrow the cock will crow

But then the blood will start to flow.

A six-year-old girl, with tear-filled eyes

Pleading with captors who were never nice

As they with a broken beer bottle begin to cut

Her tender young hand, for what she knew not

"Papa! Wuna sorry for me! Nor cut me han!!"

Butscher takes a second poem from me, "Millennial Hypocrisy":

To Kosovo they went in haste

But Sierra Leone they leave to waste

The world cried to see white refugees

But did they cry to see black amputees?

I try to read Butscher's face, but he gives nothing away. "Perhaps it's easier," I suggest, "to write from abroad with some distance." He says nothing, and I dig myself deeper. "Are people here in Sierra Leone too traumatised by these experiences to write about them?" Butscher looks up at me.

"It is hard to put things on the internet when you do not have access to a computer. Writers in this country need everything for we have nothing. We have no bookshops, no publishers, no proper newspapers or broadcasting. We are crippled. In America or England they have pens, paper, books, magazines and people who can afford to read and write. Here, of course we think about the war all the time. All the time. My best friend is an amputee now and I cannot bear to see him. Sometimes I just cross the street if I see him coming. I want to write about this. All of us want to write. But we need materials. And then if we write it here, who will read it?"

We leave Stop Press and walk along the deeply cratered Wallace Johnson Street. We pass the burned-out government buildings that the rebels torched in 1999 when they entered Freetown. The streets are slick with mud, and puddled with small lakes from the rains. I chase after Butscher, careful to step in his footprints, and then he turns suddenly up a very narrow alleyway. A channel of water cascades down the centre of the alley towards us and so we walk duck-like with one foot on either side of the stream. Butscher tucks his briefcase up into his armpit, and then using two hands to unlock the door he barges it open with his shoulder. We enter a box-like room that has the feel of a tiny waiting room. A fluorescent light strip hangs unconvincingly on the wooden wall, an illuminated exclamation point. There is a wooden bench, a desk on top of which sits an ancient bakelite telephone, and a small anteroom with space enough for a second desk, two chairs, a fan, and a small trestle table upon which Butscher has neatly displayed a range of PEN pamphlets, old and faded copies of foreign magazines, and application forms for those who wish to join the organisation.

I sit with Butscher in the anteroom, and almost immediately the rain begins again. It clatters against the galvanised iron roof just above our heads. Butscher raises his voice.

"So, this is where I work, although I have no stipend or anything. I am trying to raise some funds so that we can pay the rent and get some supplies and expand a little."

I sense him following my eyes as I look around and try to take in what is before me. Were I stuck in an English allotment shed on a wet Sunday afternoon, this would make sense. To be in the national headquarters of an internationally respected writers' organisation only drives home the stupidity of my having pestered Butscher as to why there was not more writing from Sierra Leone available to "us". That he has managed to found a chapter of PEN here in Freetown, find premises, paint and furnish this room-and-a-half, arrange some magazines and put a lock on the door is beginning to look heroic. Butscher picks up a thin sheaf of papers from his desk and hands them to me.

"Please, for you to look at."

I glance at the title. "Mike Butscher's War Diary."

"Perhaps, after you have met some of our writers, you will have time to scrutinise this."

Osman Conteh is a stocky man built like a good middleweight boxer. He meets me exactly on time outside the British Council library. We are high on Tower Hill, with an unrestricted view across Freetown below and the estuary and Atlantic Ocean in the distance. We find an empty room. A dozen chairs are arranged around a large wooden table, and Conteh carefully puts his briefcase on the chair next to the one he sits on. He looks as though he is ready to talk. In fact, he does not wait for a question.

"At first I did not know how to contact publishers, but I wanted to write. Then somebody told me that Macmillan had an office here from which they distributed educational books, so I asked them what to do. They said if you write a book give it to us then we will send it to London, and they will tell you whether the book is suitable."

At this point Conteh nervously touches his briefcase. "What happened is this. I sent it and they sent it back and said that it was absolutely not suitable for publication for I had too many author intrusions. And so I thought I should read some books on how to write and I managed to find some books. Eventually Double Trouble was published in 1991. It concerns the kidnapping of children for ritual murder. This was followed by two other novels, and my present one, Unanswered Cries."

I hand Conteh a copy of his own book, having brought two copies with me from London. The book addresses the issue of female circumcision, and it won the 2002 Macmillan Writer's Prize for Africa, Children's Literature Award. I had been led to believe it would be difficult to find the novel in Sierra Leone, but I had not realised just how difficult. Aside from a small church bookshop specialising in Christian material, there are no bookshops in the country.

Conteh thanks me, and then explains that even if the book were for sale, the price would be 10,000 Leones (about £3), which places it beyond the pocket of most of the population. His face begins to cloud as he gently fingers the copy of his own book. "Sometimes I think the only way to become a proper writer is to go abroad. People read you and you can get paid. When I was starting to write, I read books by the Sierra Leonean writer Yulisa Amadu Maddy and I wanted to be like him. His novel, No Past, No Present, No Future , was a book that I enjoyed. But he is abroad."

Actually, I had met "Pat" Maddy the previous day in Stop Press. In his late 60s now and somewhat frail, he held out his hand and I stared at his red, green and gold "Jamaican" hat. Sliding easily from local Krio to Jamaican creole he laughed. "Wha' you look 'pon, bway?" Maddy has been jailed, detained and harassed many times by Sierra Leonean and Nigerian authorities, but he has recently returned from the United States to mount a production of one of his plays. He was in a hurry to get to rehearsals. "Welcome to Sierra Leone," he said. Then he began to move off. "It's a beautiful country. I wish I could say the same about the people."

In the evening I begin to read "Mike Butscher's War Diary".

January 8, 1999: "... I slipped out of the guesthouse wearing shorts and slippers, with white cloth around my head to make me look like an RUF supporter. The rebels were everywhere but I chose a route through the quieter back streets. The city centre was destroyed and littered with corpses. At the entrance to Connaught Hospital, a rotting pile of corpses emitted an offensive smell. I held my nose and quietly walked through Kroo Bay, Kingtom, and Ascension Town. Finally I reached Congo Town, which is ECOMOG [West African peace-keeping mission] territory. Holding my hands in the air I walked over to some ECOMOG and Sierra Leone army soldiers...

January 11, 1999: "... I crossed a bridge that had been a battleground 24 hours earlier, walking on spent shells with every step. I saw innumerable bodies under the bridge, and vultures hovering overhead. My legs felt shaky, but I tried to be a man as I passed bullet-ridden bodies and vehicles. One corpse had been hit in the head: his brains spilled all over the tarmac..."

January 15, 1999: "... I watched the big trucks dump bodies at the Ascension town cemetery. Five dogs hauled a rebel's body from his grave, growling over their catch."

The next day I hand Mike's diary back to him and thank him for letting me read it. It had made for compulsive, yet depressing, reading.

"You see, I am trying to write about the war in my own way. To turn my experiences into fiction or poetry, this will take time."

Again we are sitting together in the cramped PEN offices, and I ask Butscher about his years in England in the 90s. "In 1990 I could see that Sierra Leone was heading for disaster, and so after some years working in Liberia and Sierra Leone in broadcast journalism, I joined the brain drain. I went to an International Organisation of Journalists conference in France. Rather than return to the massive corruption and turmoil of my country, I decided to go to London for I was fearful of government repression at home. I claimed political asylum in Britain in 1991. Eventually I was refused in 1995 and voluntarily returned to Sierra Leone where the situation was even worse than I could have imagined. But in England I learned a lot about writing and broadcasting, and that is where I first became aware of PEN and other writers' organisations, which help writers who are suffering trauma and oppression. By the time our own war was declared officially over in January 2002, 12 writers had been killed. For a country of our size, with a population of about five million, 12 writers is a lot." He pauses.

"Of course, one dead writer is too many. That is one of the reasons why we have PEN. We have to come together now and as writers we must support each other."

The rain has started again. It is thundering down on the iron roof and flooding under the door and into the office. "It is difficult to be a writer in Sierra Leone, but it is important that we start meeting and talking. Then, if nothing else, we can at least create our own readership and pass our work around."

Back at Stop Press, I am finally able to get Maddy's attention. He holds court, with a word for every passer-by, issuing invitations to some and instructions to others.

"I agree with and support this new PEN initiative, but the young people have to have mentors. They need models, otherwise they cannot succeed."

"And if the models go away to Britain or to the United States?"

He smiles and taps his chest. "I am here. I am trying. The role of the writer in society is a very dynamic one. But in this society it is difficult [because] our civil servants are really civil saboteurs and the country is full of moral and ethical corruption. We have no real writers, and no real interest in writing."

He seems both angry and defeated as he drinks from his bottle of Guinness. I suggest that at least Butscher and the PEN organisation are trying.

Maddy sighs. "We are the same size as Denmark, where they have at least six large publishing houses. We have nothing. We are just not capable of helping each other. And who takes us seriously? Not even ourselves."

On my final morning in Freetown I once again sit with Butscher in his cramped office. The rain has stopped and so there is no need for either of us to raise our voices. As organised as ever, Butscher hands me a piece of paper with a list of equipment the PEN office needs. Computers, printers, copying machine, reference books and stationary are the most expensive items. The total cost is $25,000.

"Sierra Leone used to be called the Athens of Africa for we were the intellectual engine-room of the region. We had the first university. We published books, we were readers, we had a university-educated elite. Returnees from England and America. Former slaves who could read and write. But history has not been kind to us."

Holding Butscher's list in my hand, I ask him if there is any moral justification for spending a sum of this magnitude on making life easier for a small handful of people. While Maddy may think the writer is the social conscience of the country, the country is barely functioning. There is a dire need for basic medical supplies. Butscher thinks for a few moments. I feel guilty that I have put him in this spot, and find myself now wishing that the rain would come clattering down against the iron roof so that we might find it difficult to hear each other and therefore legitimately retreat into silence. But there is no rain.

"In a bad, bad situation like this," says Butscher, "we need to hear from writers. It is writers who remind people who they are and where they come from."