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the Stories of Existence

Aminatta Forna

     ... Aminatta Forna, writer. In her prize-winning memoir, The Devil That Danced on the Water, Ms. Forna focused on her African-Scottish family. Now turning to fiction, Ms. Forna gives voice to Sierra Leone's African women in her novel Ancestor Stones, resurrecting ancient African culture and stories. A former BBC reporter, Ms. Forna is now a full time writer, sharing her time between London her native Sierra Leone, where she and her father's family have created a school and a cashew plantation.


Africa's women rarely are heard in the West. To give these women voice, Aminatta Forna strides two cultures -- her father's Sierra Leone and her mother's Scotland -- resurrecting women's stories drawn from the deep West African well of what Ms. Forna calls the joys of oral history.

Ms. Forna was already known to BBC viewers when she introduced herself to readers with a memoir of her family, deeply intertwined with Sierra Leone's troubled history. In the process, the richness and depth of Sierra Leone's past captivated Ms. Forna. From that interest, both she and her extended family have been rescuing an ancient way of life from the intrusions of colonialism. And it all began with listening.

African culture, it turns out, is much more open to the idea of strong women than is the West, Ms. Forna declares unequivocally. It's a relief to be allowed to be oneself, she says, delighted that she does not have to temper herself when she is in Sierra Leone nearly as much as she does in Europe.

First, the successful memoir resulted in Ms. Forna and her grandfather's village joining forces to build a school which has now had its first graduation. Then, while expanding her writerly reach into fiction, based on stories she has collected mostly from older women, art and life began to merge. By the end of what became Ancestor Stones, Ms. Forna and her Temne family were reclaiming her grandfather's plantation from the forest, now producing cashews instead of coffee.

So what is it that Aminatta Forna has heard with all of her listening? People's similarities far outweigh our differences, she has concluded after a lifetime living amidst two very different cultures. And yet, stories of those things which are different can seem very different indeed to Westerners...stories of freedoms seldom found in the West, like women who can -- and do -- elect to become men. And vice versa. Or a woman's right, after her husband's death, to become a "praying wife" and choose, if she'd like, to marry another woman.

Or consider this. In Temne culture (her father's people), a man cannot divorce his wife on grounds of adultery, though he can if she does not perform her wifely duties well around the house. Further, when a wife takes a lover, the husband is expected to look the other way, the wife to be discrete, and everyone understands that any child is considered the husband's.

And what of the stones which Ms. Forna immortalizes in her fiction's title story? They once linked the women of Sierra Leone to their mothers and their mothers' mothers' mothers. So what happens when a husband, newly converted to Islam, throwing those stones away? It's painfully easy to guess.

Of the many challenges emerging from Ms. Forna's beautiful, poignant, devastating and important stories, she considers the most important one that which she and her father's village are addressing together:  People breaking the colonial mentality (in exactly the way that Frans Fanon meant it, she says) that results from taking away a person's and a people's ability to self-determine.


[This Program was recorded September 25, 2006, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]

Conversation 1

The joy of oral history is what allowed Aminatta Forna to recreate her stories grounded in her Sierra Leone family, she tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell.  She remembers the origins of her fascination.

Conversation 1 RealAudio6:32

Conversation 2

Comparing the experience of her family across generations and cultures -- Scotland and Sierra Leone -- Ms. Forna explains why it is important to her that the Western world have access to voices seldom heard, then shows how she used what she learned from the women of Sierra Leone in her fiction, contrasting Western stereotypes along the way. In the long term, she believes Africa will swallow up the calamity that was colonialism, exploring the power of everyday stories.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:19

Conversation 3

The most devastating impact of colonialism was taking away people’s sense of self worth, Ms. Forna says, illustrating with a series of stories the magnitude of changes imposed on people. The effects of poverty have been greater than those of gender, she proposes, and expands. She offers a more sophisticated look at women's societies that is usually presented in the West, including better ways to challenge the practice of cliterodectomy.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:40

Conversation 4

The "Gods of Africa" enter the conversation, along with devastating effects that often accompanied "pagan baby" programs. Ms. Forna tells how the Sierra Leonese saw the arrival of the first Europeans, as embodied in their stories, outlining the radical differences in how the 2 cultures perceived each other.  Ms. Forna insists people's similarities far exceed our differences, having described both her own and others' experiences of being bi-cultural and how they has changed over time.  She expands, again comparing the two sides of her own family.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:49

 Conversation 5

Her African culture is vastly more open to the idea of strong women, Ms. Forna shows. She tells startling stories that contrast the ways gender roles are approached in Sierra Leone and in Western culture.  Similarly great surprises await when she contrasts ideas that shape marriage, divorce and family in the two cultures. The power of stories is again explored.

Conversation 1 RealAudio9:33

Conversation 6

Ms. Forna tells how she and her African grandfather's village -- totally illiterate on her arrival -- have worked together to build a school which is now celebrating its first graduations. Together, they are now embarked on revitalizing her grandfather's plantation, she says, with current stories of effective, on-the-ground challenges to lingering colonialist poison. She concludes with her own story of art and life imitating each other.

Conversation 1 RealAudio7:29


We have great admiration for Ms. Forna and her Temne family as they work toward the creation of their own Eden, one day at a time. We wish them the very best of good fortune, hopeful that whichever "gods of Africa" they embrace, they will find the courage and endurance to flourish. We particularly thank Ms. Forna for her generous spirit in sharing both parts of her bi-cultural heritage with the rest of us.

Additional Links:

Ancestor Stones and The Devil that Danced on the Water are both published by Atlantic Monthly Press, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

Our initial program with Ms. Forna focused on the story of her father Mohammed Forna who was executed for opposing tyranny and kleptocracy in Sierra Leon.

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

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

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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