Literary Zone

Book Review: The Wind Within: A Novel

28 September 2006 at 08:02 | 540 views

Review of The Wind Within: A Novel by Rachel Cecilia Jillo Massaquoi (New York: iUniverse, Inc., 2004; 189 pages,
$14.95.

By Lansana Gberie.

The blurb on the enchanting jacket of this novel, Rachel Cecilia Jillo Massaquoi’s first, describes it - in a masterpiece of understatement - as portraying “some African traditions and cultural practices, particularly among the Mende of Sierra Leone...It also touches on the brutal rebel war that engulfed Sierra Leone for ten years.”

The book is indeed a work of fiction, not anthropology or political reporting, and the story is told through Kenye, a young woman of unusual sensitivity and luck. But in creating a character whose trajectory is so intimately shaped by the recent experience of brutal warfare in her country, and which also reflects the powerful influences of the strong cultural practices of her rural background, Massaquoi’s book offers something rare: a work of fiction which can be enjoyed both for its intriguing story and for its insightful exploration of the cultural life of a beautifully-ordered, if by no means perfect, community.

Perhaps more than this, it presents a powerful illumination of the travails of vulnerable people, women and children, in her country during its decade of bloodbath, while at the same time showing the deep bonds of affection among people which ensured society’s resilience amidst great distress.

Kenye is born to a respectable family in a village in eastern Sierra Leone - the author is exact about geography and even dates. The village is not in any way an insular, ‘tribal’ place - Gbaiima is large, the author writes, by “African standards,” and it has “its own primary school, church, mosque, water wells, and markets.” It also has its Poro and Sande and all the delicate rituals of rural African life. A Westerner would be easily tempted to look for the supposed psychological dualism such a situation - church and mosques and schools side by side with Poro and Sande - might induce, but Massaquoi has no time for such romantic fantasies. This is a society that has quite easily absorbed outside influences while maintaining a sense of itself and its values. Great postcolonial novels tend to explore the collision of cultures and the tragedies and pathos that such a collision produces (one thinks of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, for example).

But while such works are of undoubted merit, one suspects that something is amiss: the fusion or blending of cultures may be less dramatic (because so commonplace), but it is very real indeed.

Kenye is born in a Western-style hospital in Segbwema, but soon after his village celebrates this birth by planting her umbilical cord “near the family house with a kola nut.” This ritual, we learn, “was a message to all that [Kenye] was part of the whole community, both living and dead. She now was a fully fledged member of her community.” I am tempted to report a lot of such (it may well appear) quaint details - one Western anthropologist has regretted, rightly in my view, that the absence of a work of fiction seriously exploring, from the inside, indigenous Sierra Leonean cultures, affects a more rounded understanding of them - but I am constrained by space. Kenye later goes to school, first the primary school in her village, and later to a Catholic mission-run secondary school in Pujehun, in southern Sierra Leone, which is to say, in the other part of the country. While at this school, the rebel war begins, and Kenye is quickly caught up in it.

The horrors of the war have been very well documented, in newspapers, TV documentaries, detailed reports by international rights monitors, and in books. But to see it through the experiences of a young school girl is to get a unique insight into how the war affected ordinary, completely innocent lives. “On the day the rebels entered Pujehun, [Kenye] was with her friends preparing church for the evening Mass,” we read in dread anticipation. “As soon as they heard the gunshots, the three of them escaped into the bush. They spent the night hiding behind a big mango tree and, in the morning, they wandered through the forest. In the forest, they met some people also hiding away from the rebels. They blindly followed...” As they ran, the girls “saw the destruction of infrastructure, dead bodies, and more orphans. The rebels had left behind massacred people, mutilated people, and people raped, assaulted, humiliated and subjected to all sorts of unimaginable atrocities.”

Kenye does not escape: she is captured by the rebels, along with others. As one of the rebels is about to shoot an old man in the group of their captives, Kenye, acting rather impulsively, intervenes, pleading on behalf of the old man. As she looks closely at the rebel, she realizes that he must be someone she knew - and here a conversation ensues which is frightening in its realism. Kenye recognizes the rebel as her former teacher, Narbo. “’My God!’, she murmured. She wanted to call him by name but could not...At one point the rebel pointed a gun at her...’Do I know you?’ [asks the rebel]. ‘I don’t think so, sir,’ she replied in a frightened voice. ‘Good. To you my name is Hungry Lion, because I am fond of eating people...If you ever call me any other name, you will be dead.’” The rebel is obviously high on drugs, and blurts out: “I was in Gbaiima when the first fighters arrived. They killed my wife and two children and forced me to join them...Now I have many women, and now you are my latest.” His wish is not fulfilled, for shortly afterwards, government troops are sighted. The rebels panic and run away. Before that, however, one of them fires his gun. Kenye is hit, but it is not fatal.

Then begins her journey through the bush first to Kenema and then finally, at the intervention of kindly Irish missionaries, to Ireland, where she is properly treated. After that she takes a nursing course, and while living with the Irish family - the Kennedy’s - who had brought her to the country, Moses, son of the Kennedy’s, falls in love with her. They plan to marry, but Kenye insists this has to be done in Sierra Leone. When Kenye returns to Sierra Leone, she finds that her family, displaced by the war, had still not been traced. She mounts a special campaign to find them, and succeeds. Moses and his family arrive, and he and Kenye get married in a simple ceremony. It is a happy ending for Kenye.

The story is neatly told, and its final note of optimism is affecting. Kenye, of course, is very very lucky: the likely fate to have befallen her after her first encounter with the rebels would be kidnap, forced marriage to the rebel commando, a long status as a ‘bush wife’, combat, probably infection with HIV Aids, and death. The Wind Within is reminder that however bleak one’s circumstances, fate can chart a different, more hopeful path; it is a testament to human endurance and the power of love.

Rachel Massaquoi, a Sierra Leonean mother of three who lives with her husband in Kenya, has written a very enriching novel, one that should be widely read in her native Sierra Leone. I would recommend it for secondary schools throughout the country.

[The Wind Within can be bought through Amazon or, in Sierra Leone, at Balmaya Restaurant, Congo Cross, Freetown.]

* Lansana Gberie (photo) is a Sierra Leonean military historian and journalist.

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