Reading Sierra Leone: The Memory of Love

book

The Memory of Love

Where? Freetown, Sierra Leone

When? 1960s-1990s

Who? Kai, Adrian and Elias

The Memory of Love is a moving tale of how individuals and nations try to overcome heartbreak and trauma. It is perfectly representative of how reading novels set in foreign countries can enhance our understanding and unlock our common humanity to connect with our fellow Africans.

This is at the heart of Me in Mzansi’s Reading Africa project, which aims to promote pan-Africanism through reading novels from various African countries. Books are a wonderful way to promote inter-cultural understanding which is at the heart of pan-Africanism. The Memory of Love was written by Aminatta Forna, the award-winning author of five books. As the child of a Scottish mother and a Sierra Leonean father who spent periods of her childhood in Iran, Thailand and Zambia, Forna’s life itself also embodies the value of cross-cultural integration.

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    The novel is a melting pot of cultures and personalities.

The Memory of Love is heavily rooted in the civil unrest of the 1960s in Sierra Leone and the aftermath of the civil war (which ran from 1991 to 2002). The story plays out around harrowing brutality: traumatic memories of loss and a country full of amputees.  The Memory of Love positions itself in a context of a nation locked in survival mode where pleasures are only a few moments, not instantaneously on hand.

In The Memory of Love Adrian, Elias and Kai are also grappling with their pasts. Elias must face the dubious choices he made to satisfy his passion for a widow in the 1906s. Kai, a surgeon, harks back to his love for Nenebah and, in the moving passage from which the novel takes its name, compares his heartbreak to the loss of a limb. Adrian reflects on his childhood and broken family, pondering his future as a foreigner in Sierra Leone. Gradually, the characters’ relationships to each other and their seemingly insignificant roles in national politics are revealed to create a narrative of betrayal, pain and trauma, and how these can be survived.

“You had to be a coward to survive”

– Mamakay, The Memory of Love

This is a plot based on changing relationships against the backdrop of an entire nation struggling with the burden of memory and conscience. The military opposition, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), carried out various atrocities against civilians, most notably amputations and the recruitment of child soldiers. Under threat of such brutality, citizens were confronted with terrible choices about their survival.   As Mamakay, a young woman with a complicated history, bitterly states, “Courage is not what it took to survive…You had to be a coward to survive.”  In response to their cowardice, Mamakay remarks that “it’s as though the entire nation are sworn to some terrible secret. So they elect muteness, the only way of complying and resisting at the same time.” Mamakay’s remarks speak to the theme of collective memory and trauma that the novel grapples with.

The way in which a national mindset is embodied by individual citizens is a universal theme. I read once in a travel guide that South Africans are “assertive”. For me, the assertiveness can be traced back to the human rights violations of the past and a determination to never return to that. Aminatta Forna’s novel has also engaged me to think about conflict in Africa and how to we deal with the memory of pain. In South Africa, the violence of Apartheid is a wound even to those who did not live through it. This is due, no doubt, to the socio-economic legacy of that regime. However, it does also relate to this idea of collective memory and trauma. As a child, my grandmother would talk of Apartheid and of her pain. Even though I had not experienced it first-hand, her pain was my pain. This is why how we understand Apartheid is so much more emotionally-fraught than just as a cause of socio-economic issues. The Memory of Love is a testament to how our national past is really very personal.

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Sierra Leone is a small West African country with a rich, tragic history.      Image: TUBS [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

One of the great benefits of reading is that it can introduce us to new worlds and new interests. Before reading The Memory of Love, all I knew about Sierra Leone was that it existed. The novel may not provide an obvious profile or history of Sierra Leone but it does recreate an atmosphere that you can relate to and that makes you wonder more. Often, you may even go and find answers!

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    Freetown is a coastal capital with some beautiful beaches. Image: Erik Cleves Kristensen [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

Kai often relaxes on the beach in Freetown. So Sierra Leone is a coastal country. Is the seashore pretty, like Cape Town’s or is it gritty? Is it now a tourist destination like Cape Town? Well, it’s not as renowned as the Mother City but Lonely Planet, publisher of top travel guides, praises it as “West Africa’s secret beach destination“. That’s just it: it’s a secret because we didn’t know.

Why are there so many amputees in the book? In an operation of terror, the RUF carried out between two and four thousand amputations on children alone. Photographs of amputees became iconic of the civil war and sparked international intervention. Perhaps Aidan, the British psychologist who comes to “help”, was moved by one of those photos.

This is just some of the information that I learned through reading The Memory of Love and Googling what I found interesting or confusing. Through this novel, I’ve not only related to people suffering tragedies I could not have otherwise imagined; I’ve also learned about how the people of Sierra Leone opted to deal with a terrible past and how difficult countries besides South Africa find it to move forward. The resilience of Sierra Leoneans like Kai and Nenebah is an inspiring example that we can take courage, solidarity and hope from.

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