Vanguard  with 

Hassan Baraka’s myth-exploding and politically explosive novels

 - Sunday 20 May 2012.

Book Review

By Sekou Daouda Bangoura, New Jersey, USA.

In his appeal to African writers to move beyond the usual praise-singing and glorification of our African Culture to a more critical look at our present situation in Africa, famous and internationally acclaimed Nigerian poet, playwright, novelist, and winner of the 1986 Nobel prize for literature Wole Soyinka wrote: “The Tiger shouldn’t have to go on proclaiming its tigritude.” Having learned so much about the banal ravages of colonialism, especially from French Speaking African writers like Ferdinand Oyono and Leopold Sedar Senghor, who were very unrelenting in their condemnation and denunciation of colonial rule, the Nobel Laureate for Literature called for a paradigm shift. Instead of continuing to point an accusing finger at former colonial masters for our underdevelopment in Africa; instead of talking glowingly about our great African past before the advent of Colonialism, instead of making a whole lot of noise about our African personality, let us look at our countries after independence, and let us ask ourselves: what have we done to right the wrongs of the past? Instead of involving in more political trickery, let us honestly talk about the problems that we have created since independence – the troika of corruption, tribalism and incompetence that has become anathema to progress on the continent.

Among the writers that have emerged in Sierra Leone since Independence in 1961, no one has answered to Soyinka’s call to address the problems facing Africa today as Hassan Baraka, pictured, a successful business entrepreneur who runs a Merry Maids Franchise in Maryland. His debut novel, A Woman of Conscience, set against the backdrop of Political chicanery in Rocontha (an imaginary state in Africa), is an indictment against avaricious African politicians whose only reason for being in politics is for personal aggrandizement. Baraka lashes at all those politicians and their cohorts who loot the national treasury with reckless abandon, and all those politicians who use all forms of illegal methods to stay in power indefinitely. He exposes the arrogance of power, the foul-play, thuggery and savagery characterizing the politics of many African countries.

Even though half-baked politicians bear the largest portion of the blame for the culture of corruption that has plagued Rokontha since Independence, Baraka also directs the blame on the so-called intellectuals who instead of effecting a change for the better, have either compromised or contributed greatly to that cancerous disease of corruption that has been eating away the very fabric of our African Society. In a bid to benefit from the corrupt status quo, these intellectuals hop from one political party to another; they change political colors like a Chameleon changes its color to suit its surrounding environment. They even serve under the worst military regimes. What is most annoying is that some even have the brazen audacity to justify why they serve in regimes that are not constitutionally formed. Realizing the magnitude of the problem facing Rocontha (the corrupt status quo), Baraka admits, “There is no easy solution” since virtually everyone is in it for what he or she can get out of it: the politician, the civil servant, the police officer, the university professor, and the ordinary office messenger.

Sierra Leoneans and other Africans reading A Woman of Conscience can easily relate to what is being portrayed by Baraka – the shameless display of ill-gotten wealth by politicians, the total disregard for the Rule of Law and the naked violation of human rights. But amid the hovering cloud of darkness, the mist of sorrow and the fog of death, Baraka is optimistic that things will change for the better. He fervently believes that successful Africans in the Diaspora can make a big difference in effecting a change for the better; in ameliorating the plight of the majority of Africans that have been suffering under the rule of their African brothers. This point is underscored by the role played by Abigel, Imago and Salifu in the novel. With the help of Mrs. Robinson, who has proved to be an effective voice for the voiceless in Rocontha, they were able to usher in a new government of the people, by the people and for the people in Rocontha, headed by Imago. For Baraka, “the Diaspora should be seen as an agent of change; as an engine of economic growth in Africa.” There is, undoubtedly, hope for a better tomorrow!

This picture of hope, this picture of a better tomorrow is vividly painted in Baraka’s second novel, Leaves from the Calabash - a novel that traces the path of Hawa in the tiny West African country of Rocontha. At an early age, Hawa was caught between the powerful forces of Western influence and the magical power of her culture and traditions including alternative medicine. Leaves from the Calabash, which presents a compelling case for Alternative Medicine in Africa to meet the needs of the majority who cannot afford the high cost of modern medicine, also takes a swipe at politicians - how in their senseless bid to amass wealth are willing, not only to destroy what is of great benefit to the people, but also stifle individual initiative.

Baraka catalogues the devastating and catastrophic consequences of the closure of the Diaco Iron Ore Mining Company on the people of Ropaitfu. He examines Good versus Evil; the forces of progress and development versus the forces of stagnation and retrogression. “Truth and Justice may be delayed, but not denied,” Baraka points out in his riveting novel. In the end, in the final analysis, Truth and Justice will prevail, while the forces of evil are destroyed. While Hawa and the Minister of Health Hon. Hafsatu represent the forces of progress, Santana and Hon. Yakumba represent the forces of evil in society - they represent the nation wreckers and the enemies of progress. The Clinic for Alternative Medicine that was eventually established by Hawa after studying medicine in the United States of America is not just an answer to the high cost of modern medicine in Africa; it is a symbol of the hopes and aspirations of the ordinary people. It exemplifies the determination of Women to have their voices heard in the decision making process. It is a testament to the struggles of Women for equality. The successful completion of the clinic and the immense benefits it brings to ordinary people, as well as the few who tried to thwart the idea of alternative medicine because of greed, makes a strong case that, given the chance, women can do far much better to improve the plight of the ordinary people who for far too long have been marginalized by the corrupt status quo.

Taking full cognizance of the failed regimes in Africa headed and dominated by men since Independence (from one party authoritarian rule to military dictatorship) Baraka is making a strong case for women to take the lead. For the myriad of problems plaguing African countries today, hope, he believes, lies in the Women who are beginning to take center stage in politics. In Sierra Leone we have seen the pivotal role played by the women to bring an end to the rebel war; in convening Bintumani I and Bintumani II that compelled the uniformed buzzards to relinquish power and allow Sierra Leoneans to have a democratically elected government. We have seen how one woman, Christiana Thorpe, during the 2007 General Election was able to bring an end to the massive vote rigging that has been going on in Sierra Leone. There is now talk about 50/50 to encourage more women to run for public office and to take a leadership role. For a transformational leader like Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma, “the women should no longer be relegated to the political backburner; they should stand side by side with the men in the ongoing effort to build a better Sierra Leone.”

Gripping and fascinating, Hassan Baraka’s novels are of contemporary relevance. They mirror the difficulties and perplexities plaguing most African countries after independence. There is a whole lot to learn about African Societies before the advent of Europeans in Leaves from the Calabash. The novel gives an insight into African culture, tradition, and beliefs. Baraka, in his narration of past events, demonstrates a clear understanding of History. For the curious mind, there is a lot to learn about pre-colonial political institutions, the colonial experience and post-colonial era in Africa. Anyone interested in understanding about contemporary African political history should read both A Woman of Conscience and Leaves from the Calabash by Hassan Baraka. Born in Lunsar in the northern region of Sierra Leone, Hassan Baraka was educated at the Kolenten Secondary School, Kambia and the Magburaka Boys’ Secondary School and he later went to Milton Margai Teachers College. After a brief stint as a teacher, following his graduation from Milton Margai Teachers College, he left Sierra Leone for further studies in the former Soviet Union. He graduated with a Masters of Science with honors degree from Tashkent Agricultural Institute. Upon his return home to Sierra Leone he worked briefly as a banker and later immigrated to the United States of America. Hassan, who resides in Maryland, is married to Isatu and they are blessed with three children. He can be reached at 301-351-0329.