Looking Back On The Path Of The Literary Arts In Sierra Leone

Looking Back On The Path Of The Literary Arts In Sierra Leone

To start examining the topic requires defining and understanding the key terms. Of course the phrase “looking back” implies recollecting and reflecting on what has gone on in the past and in our specific case this is confined to what has gone on in the past of the literary arts scene in Sierra Leone which is the former British colony in the West coast of Africa, surrounded by Guinea, Conakry and Liberia which became independent on 27th April 1961.

The word “ART” in The Oxford Dictionaries has been defined as follows:

1. The production of something beautiful, or the skill and ability in such work.

2. Works such as paintings, sculptures produced by skill. Creative activities such as paintings, theatre and story or poetry writings.

3. Skill applied to design, representation or imaginative creation.

4. The conscious use of skilled imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects.

These then suggest that the broad gamut of art covers music, cinema, photography, painting, theatre, dance, literature and architecture.

This article, for reasons of space, has been limited to the literary arts. I will as the situation demands be making passing references to other aspects of the arts as we go along.

Literature itself is a central art. It is of course the finer material of theatre and sometimes of dance, more so ballet. It is also related to those performing arts in the sense that it also recaptures the dramatic representation of action or slices of life, albeit through the written mode. But depending on the skill of the presentation such representation resonates with life almost as if it were a dramatic recreation or even the very real situation itself. It also captures what the visual arts capture through not the brush of a painter or the camera of the photographer but through its presentation through a carefully selected arranged sequence of words, which convey a vivid and accurate image of that picture.

Through words then, a literary writer recaptures the visual images of a painter or photographer in the written mode. Through the reader’s skills in unraveling the mental images, unveiling of the symbols hidden behind language through mental images, he gets the visual representation of reality that words carry. The rhythm is most prominent in poetry, particularly in drama. This should not suggest that rhythm could not be found in novels and short stories. We all know how deep an ingredient, music and dance is in African drama which the late Dele Charley, John Kolosa Kargbo, Yulisa Amadu Maddy, Raymond De Souza-George and Charley Haffner, often exemplify in their performances.

I intend to look at the literary scene as it was before independence in 1961. Literature was then seen largely through the medium of newspapers of which the famous Sierra Leone Weekly News was the most prominent. It was almost like a literary journal, though printed in the form of a newspaper. Sawyer’s Bookshop at Water Street also played a vital role as not only making wide selections of literary works from the Western world available, but in also publishing small pamphlets and little books from time to time.

At that time clubs flourished and many of them had literary activities as part of their program. Clubs like the City Literary Institute and Greenfield Club organized lectures and dramatic shows. The Greenfield Club was aimed particularly at promoting literary activities. The Eccentric Society (a Multiracial group) organized periodic “mind-uplifting concerts. However many of these clubs were short lived. According to historical analysts this was due to the majority of Krios lacking interest in self-improvement and disunity within the ranks of the upper level of Freetown society. This was limited to a few hundred people from whose ranks many of the other clubs drew their membership. With this sort of close-knitted society, personal disagreements were easily brought into these societies thus disrupting their harmony and causing their break up.

It could then be deduced that literary activities then were more or less of an academic and philosophical or religious nature. Seldom were genuine literary efforts displayed. Such a scenario was transferred to the production of books. Many of the books have been more of textbooks or dissertations. One of the first written works by a Sierra Leonean in 1865 reflected this concern. It was the work of the medico James Africanus Horton on West African Political Economy of British West Africa. His second book three years later in 1868 was West African Countries and People, British and Native. This was like many of the other works published in London. There is also A.B.C. Sibthorpe’s monumental historical work on Freetown.

Few creative works during this period were produced by creative writers like Adelaide Casely-Hayford and Gladys Casely-Hayford. Gladys Casely-Hayford was perhaps the best-known from this period. Some of her poems and stories have appeared in American and British publications and are still been included in recent anthologies compiled in the West. One of her poems which she published in a small book of poetry, Take Am So in Freetown in 1948 is written in the country’s lingua franca, krio.

The Educationist Mrs. Adelaide Casely-Hayford (nee Smith) wrote stories following the traditions of Ghanaian writers like Efua Sutherland and Ama Ata Aidoo. The most popular of these is “Mister Courifer” which is part of Paul Geoffrey Edward’s anthology for schools which was widely used in Freetown schools in the early 60s.,West African Narrative This concern for culture is even seen in her work in the educational field. According to historian, Akintola Wyse, after studying in England and Germany and returning home she was so appalled by the system of education for women that she devoted her whole life to introducing a system that gave an important place to African customs, arts and crafts amongst others.

Another poet published during that period was Crispin George whose collection of poems titled Precious Gems was published by a well known vanity publishing outlet, Arthur Stockwell in 1952.

A most important name in Sierra Leone Literature is the broadcaster Thomas Decker. His importance is not only because he spans both the colonial and independence periods, but because his pioneering work in propagating the wider use of Krio for literary purposes was what generated the flowering of Krio plays intensified by Dele Charley, Raymond De Souza George, Esther Taylor-Pearce, Lawrence Kweku-Woode amongst many others. He is seen as the principal poet in Krio on to the mid 50’s. Some of them were published in the mid 60’s in the Sierra Leone Language Review and Sierra Leone Studies. He also came out with Krio adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays like Julius Caesar.

It is difficult to account for all of the creative works published then as many appeared in varying media, newspapers, magazines and journals locally as well as abroad.

Abioseh Nicol’s short stories had achieved renown internationally, appearing in British Literary journals and anthologies. Some of these formed part of his two well known short story collections Two African Tales and The Truly Married Woman and other Stories all published by Cambridge University Press.

This colonial period was marked by little publication of creative works in book form. But with the onset of independence and the publication of Robert Wellesley Cole’s autobiographical work Kossoh Town Boy by Cambridge University Press more works in book form were published.

The plays of Raymond Sarif Easmon. Dear Parent and Ogre, The New Patriot and his novel The Burnt Out Marriage profited from this.

Dr. William Conton’s work, The African was a breakthrough for the Sierra Leone novel. It was almost like our own. Things Fall Apart. Like Things Fall Apart, The African was first published in London. American editions appeared the same year. It was published in 1960 with another edition following a year after. It was reprinted in Great Britain in 1964. Translations of it have been made into Arabic, Hungarian and Russian. EkundayoRowe also had his collection of stories. No Seed For The Soil, self- published in book form.

Later, new names like Yulisa Amadu Maddy, Muctarr Mustapha, Wilfred Taylor, Delphine King and Syl Cheney-Coker all broke out into print in various forms.

From the 70’s onwards more new writers emerged. Yema Lucilda Hunter’s novel Road to Freedom was published in Nigeria by a Sierra Leonean publishing outfit, African Universities Press A.U.P. She has recently published another novel titled Bitter Sweet. Prince Dowu Palmer’s novel The Mocking Stones was published by Longmans in 1982 in their Drumbeat series. The same publisher had a year earlier published Raymond Sarif Easmon’s The Feud and other stories. This period is also characterized by the aggressive promotion of Macmillan publishers in Sierra Leone. They have already three novels from Sierra Leone in their Pacesetter series. This includes two young writers, the journalist and teacher Edison Yongai who came outwith Who killed Mohta and the insurance manager, OsmanConteh, with Double Trouble. From abroad also news of the publication of Yayah Swarray’s plays was received. His worksinclude ‘De Wol Do for Fraide.‘ Other writers, notably, Talabi Aisie Lucan, Melville Stuart, Marilyn Awoonor- Renner, Winston Forde and Clifford N. Fyfe channeled their creative energies into producing children’s literature many of which were published by Evans.

After independence a few newspapers and other magazines of schools, colleges and churches carried limited quantity of creative writing. The Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service which was then in the creative hands of the late John Akar, a writer himself, gave much outlet for creativity, whether literary, or performing. SLBS indeed gave prominence to artists like Ebenezer Calendar, Allie Ganda and the Rokel River Boys. There was also a regular short story program in some radio programming quarter. This featured the short stories of young as well as older Sierra Leoneans including two stories of mine. In addition, there were book review programs. The children’s half hour programs in English as well as the national languages were opportunities for the airing and dissemination of the rich folklore of the country. Indeed many of us who had no grandmother at home spinning such rich and interesting yarns for us, the story telling line on SLBS indeed filled in a yawning gap in our social and cultural education.

With independence also there were many newspapers including the Daily Mail which was then a truly daily paper that gave much space to creative writing, short stories as well as stories for children in the children’s corner. There were also regular publications of book reviews as well as some attention given to other artistic activities such as dramatic performances and musical concerts.

But unfortunately today the literary arts no longer receives as much attention as before in the press. The pressmen themselves complain of paucity of space which limits their publication to just political social and economic news. The Daily Mailitself had plummeted to an all time low in which it could no longer be safely termed a weekly or bi-weekly. It too is in dire shortage of space. But today it has finally gone silent. The New Citizen gives some space to the serialized stories of it’s Managing Director and proprietor, I.B. Kargbo.

A commendable trend started in the 70’s with the interest shown by a Swedish Linguist Nevillle Shrimpton in the emerging plays in krio of young as well as older playwrights. Thomas Decker’s translation of Julius Caesar was happily one of the plays he published. Also published in the Shrimpton series have been Lawrence Kweku Woode’s (God pas Konsibul) Raymond De Souza George’s (Bohbohlef) Dele Charley’s (Fatmata, Petikot Korner) and Esther Taylor Pearce’s (Bad Man Pas Emti Os).

There were occasional breakthroughs when Sierra Leonean young writers were published in journals and magazines abroad. A notable medium outside which featured short stories regularly was WEST AFRICA Magazine. Stories of younger writers like Peter Karefa-Smart and Brima Rogers have appeared there. Yet another of Rogers’ stories was broadcast on the BBC’s Short Story programme on World Service. And a lady writer won the short story competition organized by the BBC African Service followed by Mohamed Sheriff who has in addition won several playwrighting contests organized by the B.B.C. His name seems like one to be watched as he has demonstrated consistently strong signs of promise. He has published three works already including a play, Sorie Clever, another play The Crook and the Fools and a novella titled Secret Fear, which was co-winner of the ECOWAS prize for excellence in literature. Macmillan Publishers published it in the McTracks series in 1997.

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