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Aminatta Forna

 ... memoirist and reporter. Daughter of an early Sierra Leone cabinet minister, then political prisoner then martyr, and a Scottish mother, the adult Ms. Forna went looking for the truth about her own life and her father's death in 1974. Telling her family's story, she also sketches the world in and of post-colonial Africa in The Devil That Danced on the Water. Ms. Forna now lives in London and returns often to her native Sierra Leone, where she and her family are starting a school.


Africa is making genuine strides toward democracy, Aminatta Forna feels confident. What she worries about are Western democracies where she sees complacency and distractions presenting real and present dangers.

Aminatta Forna reconstructed her own history, that of her family and of her nation, while deconstructing dictatorships and how they arise in her memoir, The Devil That Danced on the Water. With roots in both Scotland and Sierra Leone, Ms. Forna now lives in London and works for the BBC.

Westerners are neglecting to police their own governments, Ms. Forna observes. That vigilance, she asserts, is a personal responsibility, recalling what happened in Nazi Germany -- enough good people did nothing and allowed the wrong kinds of people to take power in their country. She urges us to learn from Sierra Leone’s mistakes, the ways Siaka Stevens created his autocracy -- bending election results, emasculating the judiciary, using thugs and brute force to subdue opposition, finding outside sources of revenue.

Aminatta Forna believes the momentous times into which she was born textured and shaped her life, as she is confident they do everyone with that experience. She and Sierra Leone grew up together. In the early 1970s, her father, Mohammed Forna, stepped down as Minister of Finance, publicly warned his countrymen the looming one party rule would be a disaster and was executed for his efforts by Sierra Leone’s strongman, Siaka Stevens.

The West African proverb “No Condition Is Permanent” is particularly fitting for Ms. Forna’s family and for Sierra Leone in the 1960s and ‘70s -- unexpected changes driven by geography, climate, disease and the vagaries of circumstance. For Ms. Forna, it meant 8 or 9 homes by the time she was six, in several different countries, with several different parents. For Sierra Leone, she says, it meant a loss of faith by Africans in Africa’s own institutions, being preyed upon by people like Shiaka Stevens who subverted foreign systems to their own ends.

But Aminatta Forna’s family had one constant in this stormy time. A strong set of values. It took both Aminatta and Sierra Leone decades to come to appreciate those values. She found them in adult reflection. Sierra Leone heard Mohammed Forna’s voice anew when his long-secret final document -- warning of the looming threat of anarchy and chaos under one-party rule -- was published in the 1990s.

Mohammed Forna was confident that if people could see and understand a problem, they would fix it. His daughter shares his optimism, taking heart is a continuing process which she sees as an emerging Africa. She knows people, like her father, will be lost along the way. But she is determined that their voices must not be allowed to die. Africa, she says, has a long way to go, but is on the right path. Getting there, she learned from her father, will depend on good people being true to their consciences.

[This Program was recorded February 11, 2003, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]

Conversation 1

Aminatta Forna tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell how the African proverb "No Condition is Permanent" applied to her Africa. The one thing permanent in her childhood, she recalls, were her family's values, which she articulates.

Conversation 1 RealAudio7:06

Conversation 2

Describing her memoir as a deconstruction of dictatorship and how it arises, Ms. Forna draws similarities between Sierra Leone’s experience and current autocracies which begin when the judiciary is emasculated, revenue is diverted, brute force is used and election results are bent. She compares early stages of democracy in Africa and in Europe. She recalls how the Cold War impacted developing nations, including her native Sierra Leone. She reflects on her growing comprehension of what happened in Nazi Germany when enough good men do nothing, then adds thugs to the mix. She summarizes the need for people in democratic nations constantly to police their own government.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:52

Conversation 3

A discussion of ways people can enhance the democratic experience gives way to similarities between Ms. Forna’s mother’s Scotland and her father’s Sierra Leon. She explains why she and her sister feel being biracial is a distinct advantage in the emerging global culture. Ms. Forna demonstrates the many ways in which her two (externally different) grandfathers were remarkably similar. She summarizes the worldview of her father, Mohammed Forna, with personal as well as political examples.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:13

Conversation 4

Education’s central role in Aminatta Forna’s father's life provides a window for considering education’s importance in the mid-20th century and today. The costs as well as the benefits of Africans learning Western ways are both discussed. Ms. Forna tells the story of how she and her family have come to build a school in their ancestral village in Sierra Leone. She gives a vivid example of how well this village continues to “work,” in contrast to the devastating results of the chaos of the “new kind of war” Sierra Leone experienced -- really a massive crime wave. She describes the essential tragedy in what she describes as her beautiful, wonderful country.

Conversation 1 RealAudio12:02

 Conversation 5

There are really good people in Africa whose voices are not being heard or who are being silenced, Ms. Forna declares. She compares oppression in South America to oppression in today’s Africa. She tells the story of how the play, “A Raisin in the Sun” helped explain her father’s perspective to her. She describes the process she sees taking place in Africa which she is certain is making real, if halting, progress toward democracy. She tells the story of how her father’s vision was rekindled twenty years after his politically-motivated execution. Recalling her father having quoted Alexander Pope to her as a youngster, Ms. Forna concludes that what her father wanted her to internalize was: to live by your conscience alone is to be true to yourself.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:37

Conversation 6

Describing the process by which her book took form and direction, Ms. Forna compares her own life experience to that of anyone who lives through momentous times.

Conversation 1 RealAudio4:17


It is an honor to share the story of Mohammed Forna, who lived a life based on Principle, as it is a pleasure to become acquainted with his gifted daughter, who carries on the family commitment to genuine Values.

Mohammed Forna’s prophetic advice for and gift to his young daughter came from the poet,
Alexander Pope:
Honor and shame from no condition rise.

Additional Links:

The Devil that Danced on the Water was published by Atlantic Monthly Press, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

Our second program with Ms. Forna focused on Ancestor Stones, a fictionalized recounting of the stories and beliefs of the women in the villages from which her family came, and on the educational and economic work she's doing there.

There's much more information about her writing and her work in Sierra Leon on her website.

Ms. Forna won the 2007 Hurston/Wright Prize for Debut Fiction for Ancestor Stones.

Alexandra Fuller has written two luminous memoirs of colonialism and its effects on Africa.

Barney Pityana was on the side opposing apartheid in South Africa.

Irish republican Gerry Adams talks of the colonialism which he says still exists in Europe.

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