The Devil That Danced on the Water by Aminatta Forna
This book has been compared to Wild Swans (for the childhood memories) and to The House of the Spirits (for the dissident political stuff). Quite apart from my personal interest in the subject (I was a Peace Corps teacher in Freetown a few years before the events in this book), I found it a sensitive memoir in which the writer is superb at rendering childhood memories of her parents' two cultures as well as an amazing personal journey during which she uses her investigative journalistism skills to uncover the truth she had never really knew before about her father.
Aminatta Forna was born in Scotland in 1964—Scottish mother and father, a medical student from Sierra Leone. She was the youngest of 3 children born to the couple before they went back to Sierra Leone where Mohamed Forna wanted to use his skills to help his fledgling country. In the first part of the book, Forna tells her story, using primarily her memory—and especially her descriptive language which evokes the child’s level of understanding—as well as bits of information gleaned as an adult—which becomes a device of suspense. She describes her life in a series of homes—9 in her first 6 years, with the continuity that her child’s brain imposed on what might seem damaging chaos. When the family goes back to Sierra Leone her father first works for the main hospital in Freetown, then for the Army and then establishes a clinic in Koindu, an upcountry town in the diamond-mining area. It is there that he gets involved in politics and that the tensions between her parents first becomes apparent. They separate and the children go back to Scotland with their mother, where they live in a caravan while the mother goes to school. The mother later marries a New Zealand diplomat and takes the children to Nigeria where he is stationed. There the children are advised not to mingle with “African children”—racism rearing its ugly head right in their family. Their father takes them back to Freetown to live with him and his new wife in a compound with extended family. She resents the “new mother”, but only at first.
In the meantime, Dr. Forna wins an election but is not allowed to take his seat until one military coup blocks an earlier military coup and returns civilian rule to the winning party. He becomes Minister of Finance, boning up on economics and impressing leaders at IMF and the World Bank. But he’s disillusioned with the prime minister and eventually resigns because of corruption and power-grabbing. He’s involved in the founding of a new opposition party and is quickly jailed as a dissident. The children escape to Britain with the stepmother and go back to Sierra Leone when he’s released and comes to their school to get them. He’s been advised not to return as long as the current prime minister, clearly his enemy, is in power. He ignores that.
In the second part of the book, Aminatta Forna, married and comfortably settled in London, returns to Sierra Leone, in 1999 still in the grip of the revolution that plunged it to last place on the UN register of livable countries with more double amputees than anywhere else in the world. She uses her kills as a journalist to investigate what really happened to her father in 1974, the truth of which is much more difficult to assimilate personally than she expected, but which paints a more complex picture of the relationship between politics and violence in Africa than even an account of the recent revolution. Violence didn’t just start when it spilled over from Liberia. Sierra Leone wasn’t the one ex-British African colony with a real democracy as it seemed when I first arrived in 1964.