Mama Kadie returns to her village, not sure what to expect, what has remained from its pre-war existence. Who is still there or has come back like she is doing now. The traumas, the losses and devastation of the war still on her mind, she walks barefoot on the local soil, smells the scents of the land and watches and listens for every sound in the bushes. What will life have in store for her?
The opening pages of Ishmael Beah’s debut novel, Radiance of Tomorrow, are achingly beautiful; his voice is gentle and affecting. His deep emotional connection to the land and the people is palpable in what he describes so colourfully. Following international acclaim with his memoir, A Long Way Gone, which recounts the story of a child soldier in Sierra Leone, his new book fictionalized the return of survivors to their community, following their emotionally demanding and difficult path into their recovery from the brutal war and its many losses in life and livelihood. There is hope – radiance – for a better future but there are also many sacrifices to make: forgiving is not forgetting; rebuilding on ruins, literally, on the bones of loved ones is probably one of the most haunting challenges. Transposing the facts and realities of the aftermath of the Sierra Leonean war into a fictional framework carries its own challenges. At the same time, it gives the author a greater freedom of expression for exploring the personal tragedies and efforts at recovery. Benefiting from his mother tongue’s rich figurative language, Mende, Beah also conveys to us something of the soul of his cultural home and way of thinking. In his language there is a deep connection between land, nature, cosmos and people that speaks through his wording and that also characterizes his in depth developed protagonists.
The first person Mama Kadie meets as she walks along the central paths of the village is Pa Moiwa, who is resting on a log in the village square. Much time will be needed to absorb the enormity of what has happened, evidence of violence and death is visible everywhere. Pa Moiwa slowly turns around on hearing the voice of his old friend: his only question is “how she had brought her spirit into town and which route she had taken.” “… I walked the path, as that is the way in my heart.” There will be many days for them to carefully and gently peel away the layers of their soul that have hidden their experiences of the recent past. “They laughed, both knowing that part of the old ways remained, though they were fragile. At the end of their laughter, words were exchanged, briefly, leaving many things unsaid for another day that continued to be another and yet another…”
Every day more people arrive: returning displaced locals and desperate refugees from other parts of the country where survival is even more precarious. Mama Kadie, Pa Moiwa and, later, Pa Kainesi play a central role in the community, respected by everybody as the “elders”. Young and old sit together in the village centre after a day’s struggle to repair houses, fetch water and find food to cook; the elders are telling stories of the past with the children listening attentively: “It isn’t about knowing the most stories, child. It is about carrying the ones that are most important and passing them along [from one generation to the next]….” Meanwhile, the younger adults sit apart working on plans how to find work and supplies to care for their families, among them Bockarie and Benjamin, both teachers, who will do everything in their power to ensure a brighter future for their children and others in the community.
Among the returnees are several former child soldiers and lost orphans who prefer to stay at a distance from the villagers but form an important component in the rebuilding of the village as all are coping with the emotional scars of their and the villagers’ recent experiences. They form a small community of their own, led by the enigmatic “Colonel”, a shadowy silent figure, who, nonetheless, finds ways to express his growing allegiance to his protégés and the villagers in unexpected ways. Beah singles out Ernest, a quiet young man who, discovering a family of victims of his brutality, has to confront his guilt and embark on the slow road to atonement.
There is a moment of almost idyllic peace in the community, but as is often the case in real life… it is the calm ahead of the storm. And the storm comes in the form of huge trucks and machinery and shouting people who appear to come from another world… The small mining company that had operated in the area before the war has come back with ambitious new owners and investors, who, with little regard to the needs and traditions of the villages nearby, take over the precious farmland and water resources for an ever expanding open-pit mining operation. The company, endorsed by the provincial politicians, is dividing the community physically and emotionally. Their behaviour provokes not only the elders. They bring the worst of city life into this remote region of the country. On the other hand they become the only employer in the villages around. Conflicts are unavoidable and there can only be few winners.
Ishmael Beah’s Radiance of Tomorrow is a powerful novel and beautifully written, absorbing and engaging at many levels. His central characters stay in your mind long after you closed the book. He succeeds in telling a story that balances humanity and grace on the one hand with the harsh reality of life in a country that has come out of a brutal civil war and is faced with a devastated economy. Traditional ways of life are challenged and as readers we can only hope that the wisdom of the elders can continue in the mind of the younger generations and that they will learn from the many stories their culture and communities have to offer.