Posts Tagged ‘biography’

A tale of betrayal

January 11, 2012

A must-read called The devil that danced on the water, written by Aminatta Forna.


A girl grows up in a family. Her father is a doctor from West Africa, Sierra Leone to be precise. Her mother is from Scotland, born and raised in a rigorously regimented home. They met when he was an overseas student and got married, quite against the wishes of the girl’s Scottish grandfather. They start a family and move to Sierra Leone, where he starts a clinic in a remote part of the country that has been deprived of medical services. The move to West Africa does of course also mean that the Fornas are immediately immersed into the elaborate and complicated fabric of African family life.

That is, in and of itself, already a fairly remarkable story. Most peoples’ lives do not reach much beyond village, neighbourhood or province – let alone country. But then, Dr Mohamed Forna, father to Aminatta Forna who wrote this family biography, decides to get drawn into politics. And everything changes.

It was the time of the advent of Siaka Stevens and his All People Congress (APC), a cause that Mohamed Forna supported, at considerable risk to himself. But the greatest risk did not come from his political adversaries. It came from the man he supported and who then turned against him. Many believe that it was Siaka Stevens who pushed Sierra Leone into the abyss from which it is falteringly emerging. Stevens also killed one of Sierra Leone’s most gifted politicians, Aminatta Forna’s father.

The devil that danced on the water is a wonderful and terrifying book that homes in on two aspects of the author’s life. The first, and most obvious, is how active politics devastated family life. (The only other impact that can be regarded in a similar way is a disintegrating marriage, followed by divorce. That happened too, by the way.)

Early on, she describes the way her father is taken away from home by two menacing state security officers who are also expert torturers. The separation is final. He has been charged with treason – falsely, as she finds out later. She will not see him alive again. The book details how little by little the fabric of family life is torn apart by threats, arbitrary detentions, hasty flights to Britain when things get too dangerous – up until that fateful moment returns and Mohamed Forna is taken away to his death, after a show trial.

The second thread of the book is related to that treason trial. Aminatta Forna wants to find out how and why her father was betrayed. Because the whole treason accusation and the trial that followed were a farce from start to finish. It was clearly designed to silence a man who had briefly shone as a political star but who had his fill of altercations with an increasingly predatory Sierra Leonean political elite.

Ms Forna does not find all the answers but she has an explanation for the betrayal. She calls it: moral vacuum. That is the environment in which lives mean nothing, words can be retracted at will and bent judges can be relied upon to return a verdict that will be pleasing to their political masters. It was the environment Siaka Stevens created and Mohamed Forna fought against.

Although she was small when all this was happening, Aminatta Forna relives the events closely. But here is what makes the book so poignant: the style is precise, the observations and descriptions very detailed; the prose has an almost detached feel to it. So when the anger comes through, as it does, it is all the more striking. There is anger at the people who betrayed her father but also at the way he held on to his belief that the mighty inside Sierra Leone state system were basically decent and trustworthy and that they would just leave him alone to run his private affairs – even when almost everyone told him otherwise. There is disappointment at the way her country has turned out but also a little hope that one day, maybe, things will go the way her father had imagined them.