By Fatoumata Nabie Fofana
Publisher: Adelaide Books
244 Fifth Avenue Suit D27
New York, NY 10001
Reviewed by Nvasekie N. Konneh
The life we live, where we live, those we interact with on the daily basis are all stories by themselves. The more we live, the more stories there are about us or others we interact with. In this case, everyone has stories to tell, either orally or literarily. On one occasion or another, many of our stories are told orally to our friends and relatives. The oral stories take different dimensions when we decide to transport them or commit them to the pages of books. On that note, enters Fatoumata Fofana’s new novel, Sadjio, a ground breaking literary tour de force that captures the experience and culture of a Dioula family in a fictional country called Pepper Coast. For those familiar with our history, you will understand that Pepper Coast was once the name the Europeans gave to the territories that came to be known as Liberia. There are plenty places in the novel with fictional names but for someone familiar with the history and geography of Pepper Coast and some of the countries around it, he or she will be able to tell which country bears such fictional names.
While they lived in Southeastern part of Pepper Coast, then came the war that caused the family to wander like nomads between Pepper Coast, Queens, Sierra Leone, and the Ivory Coast. While countries are given fictional names, exceptions are made for Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone. The writer only took the liberty in calling Liberia Pepper Coast, Guinea, Queens and Ghana, Gold Coast, its colonial name before President Kwame Nkrumah renamed it, Ghana, after independence fron the British colonial rule in 1957.
For example, there is a country called Queens and one may assume that to be Guinea. Similarly, for those familiar with the geography of Liberia and based how much you know about the author and her origin of birth, you can easily assume that fictional places like Djinnadou, Lanaya and Kan’neh Louma are located in the southeastern part of the real country called Liberia. While most Liberian Mandingoes live in Lofa, Nimba, Bong, and Montserrado, there are many that also lived in Southeastern counties like Grand Gedeh, Sinoe, Maryland, and River Gee. This novel, an autobiographic novel indeed, represents that southeastern experience with a fictional twist. This indeed makes glaring the fact that wherever a person is born and raised is where he or she is from. And less I forgot, if you don’t see the word, Africa, it’s Sub Sahara in this novel.
The fictional characterization is not limited to the names of various countries and places; it is also extended to the various warring factions and their leaders. The main rebel leader is called CT and his rebel movement is called “Jarsa,” a Mandingo word for “Whatever” or regardless. Since Sadjio had a cross cultural upbringing between Pepper Coast and Ivory Coast, her language is influenced by both the Mandingo and English in Pepper Coast and the French and Dioula in Cote D’Ivoire. What is Mandingo in Liberia is Dioula in Cote D’Ivoire. So words and phrases from these languages as used frequently to describe people and places by Sadjio. Here is one passage from the book that exemplifies such characterization: “As the war raged, several factional groups were formed along tribal lines to protect themselves against real or perceived enemies.” Examples are ULIMO K, a Dioula based faction and ULIMO J, a Guere based rebel group.
With the geography fully explained, let’s proceed with further excavating the complex stories captured in this groundbreaking novel. For those who may ask what makes this different from any other book about women and their experience, my answer is that this is the first time the Dioula or the Mandingoes from Liberia, especially from this area have had their life experience or culture fully documented in any book form, much less a novel. So for us in this case, it’s a groundbreaking literary effort. This is the story of our grandmothers, mothers, sisters, nieces and cousins who sometimes endure much difficulty in marital relationship but remain in such relationship to maintain the family’s honor.
The stories are told through the voice of a third person narrator with Sadjio as the lead character. The novel challenges our African tradition with regard to how girls or women are raised and treated. It’s a challenge to early marriages, spousal abuses, child neglect, sexual exploitation, and our notion that schools are not for girls, only for the boys. In such a patriarchal society, young girls are only raised to be housewives, without giving them the opportunity for professional growth and development through education. Against this age old tradition is the determination of a young girl who will overcome all of these challenges by going to school. She sees school as the only viable option to the challenges women face. She sees school as the only means to better her life for tomorrow. While it’s her story, it’s also the stories of her mother who is determined to support her daughter through thick and thin in her efforts to be educated. It’s the stories of the bond between the young lady and her mother that wherever she goes, her mother is on her mind. Though it may be a story about one single individual and those she comes in contact with, it’s a universal story as well. Even though many of us may find ourselves in the “modern world” today, there are people, especially women, who are still subjected to Sadjio’s experience of yesterday.
This is one passage from the book that clearly shows Sadjio’s rebellious attitude about this male dominated culture that marginalizes women: “The traditional social carpet had for centuries, been used as cover for wife battery in many parts of Pepper Coast and elsewhere in Sub Sahara.” Accordingly, in such a society, the only right the woman has is to “remain silent” in the face of abuse of all kinds. It’s not surprising that this happened or is still happening in Pepper Coast because “throughout history, women have been subjected to the whims and brutality of their husbands.”
The three most frequently mentioned characters in the book are Sadjio, her mother Hadjala, and her aunt, Ida, her mother’s little sister. Both Sadjio and her mother are heroines of the book because of her determination to go-to school and Hadjalah’s never ending support for her education. From the beginning, one would feel sorry for Ida because of the name calling, insults and abuses she suffered at the hands of her husband’s family for not bearing a child. While she deserves the sympathy for the torment she experienced from Imran’s family, the devil took over her and she became the main abuser of the little girl, Sadjio who is sent to her care after she and husband moved to Ducor, the capital of Pepper Coast. One keeps reading all the way to the end hoping that Ida would redeem herself so that our sympathy for her would be restored but to no avail. It seems to be like a transferred aggression, treating someone the way you were treated by another person. Being a victim of spousal abuse, Ida is not able to be kind to a minor left in her care.
In Pepper Coast and in many neighboring countries, it is customary to see young girls selling on the streets to “feed the family.” Sadjio was one of those young street sellers but she did so with a sense of purpose and determination. While she sold in the market places in Man, and Fortesville in Cote D’ivoire, she never one day lose the desire for book learning. She was determined to keep pushing on through despite her circumstances. This proves an adage that once you know where you are going and you are determined to get there, nothing can hold you back. You have to do what you have to do to get to your destination. That determination, that courage of not giving up the hope of reaching her final destination keeps Sadjio going day in day out. No obstacle was big enough to stop her train. She was propositioned for an older man to advantage of her at a very vulnerable age but she fought to not be a victim. If most of our young men and women on the streets can read Sadjio’s story, they will not allow their circumstances to hold them back.
As many people sought refuge at the Freeport of Ducor, many of them succumbed to diseases such as Cholera epidemic. Sadjio was just ten years old when her five year old sister fell victim to such epidemic. With their parents not being around, she was the only one there to protect her. As such an innocent child, she did not know the difference between a sleeping or a dead person. When her little sister was already dead, in her little mind, Sadjio thought she was sleeping. When she is buried, Sadjio constantly visits the grave, perhaps thinking that her little sister would miraculously emerge from the grave to rejoin her.
For a long time, Sadjio only cared about school. Like a journey she started and won’t stop until she sees the end of it. At the point when she fell in love, it was not with a Mamadee, or Kamara but a Jake. They say love triumphs over religion and ethnicity. The love between Sadjio and Jake defies what many in Pepper Coast would think about, romantic relationship between the Mandingo girls and non-Mandingo men. One often hear the complaints from many Liberian men that while “Mandingo men love to other Liberian women, they don’t allow non-Mandingo men to love to their daughters.” If you grow up in Liberia, you hear this a lot. Sadjio crossed that boundary when she felt romantic about Michael who she described as being “smartly attired, with absolutely zero embarrassing gap in his clothing. His light- blue and greyish mud cloth shirt blended perfectly with his sky blue cloth pants that were complimented with a neatly with a neatly polished pairs of Black Versace shoes. He looked sophisticated, fashionably, bold and classy.” Michael tried his luck but failed to entice her with his charm. It was after that encounter with Michael that real love happened to Sadjio. It was Jake who proposed to her by simply saying, “Can you be my girlfriend?” While Jake fell in love with her, his father proposed to her for his other son, Ben. It was for Jake her heart melts for. They could have gotten married but her religion of Islam was an “issue of great concern” for his family, especially his mother. “What would the kids become? Christians? Muslims?” She asks such questions. Those questions became the point beyond which there could be no advancement in the relationship between Sadjio and Jake. Maybe they could have been Romeo and Juliet but that was not to be as Sadjio had to move on because she didn’t want to have a child out of wedlock.
For anyone interested in reading a novel that is rich in good diction and our traditional cultures with all its good and flaws, I will recommend this book for you. You may learn some things you didn’t know before.
About the author: Nvasekie Konneh is a nine year veteran of the US Navy. He’s a Liberian writer and author of the collections of poetry, “Going to War for America,” The Love of Liberty Brought Us Together, and the memoir of the Liberian civil war, “The Land of My Father’s Birth.” He can be reached at Konnlove@aol.com, email@example.com or 267-826-3952.