I did disappearing acts all the time as a child, and would unintentionally throw my family into a frenzy.
“Where is she? Where is she? Where did we leave her this time?” my mother would yell at no one in particular, yet everyone would be nervously alert.
A moment of sheer panic would follow.
George, my favorite cousin, would bellow from downstairs, “I think I left her behind at our house.”
“Fatmata said she was taking her to Grandma’s”, my sister would chime in.
A vague ‘confirmation’ of where I might be would follow, and everyone would breathe a sigh of relief and go back to business as usual.
I was usually in the same place, though. There was a tiny study in my childhood home filled with rusty cartons of old books from my parents’ college days. This room carried a smell of its own-a mildewed odor that reeked of buried philosophies and forgotten facts. Before the civil war in Sierra Leone changed the course of my life, this was my little haven.
This room had a mahogany cupboard which housed all my storybooks as well; the Jane and Peter series, The Wind in the Willows, Thomas the Tank Engine, Postman Pat and much more. I would sit in a little nook near the cupboard and pore over pages and pages of pictures and words, as I empathized with Rapunzel, all cooped up in a castle, and requested to have a teddy bear that looked just like Pooh, complete with a red shirt.
On January 6th, 1999, everything changed. I remember that we had woken up that morning to loud gunshots, and no one had dared to go outside. Now, my mother tells me “we thought that a group of armed robbers had taken over the neighborhood”. Fear gripped our hearts as the cacophony of gunshots and piercing screams filled the air. There were said to be rebel forces
There were “collaborators” in our neighborhood, so my family thought it wise to escape to our aunt’s house nearby at Circular Road in the central part of Freetown during a moment of calm. There, we hid in the basement, eating the little food we could find and keeping our voices very low. The next day, my aunt gathered us all to pray and I remember pleading with God “Oh Lord, I pray that the war will be over by Saturday”. I was only five years old, and in my innocence, I believed that the rebels were good people at heart, who had been overcome by temporary evil, and that God’s angels would soften their hearts by the weekend.
The rebel war in a Sierra Leone was a result of the merging of all the ingredients that were ripe for a catastrophe: A corrupt government long crippled by instability and coups, weak leadership that neglected the demands of citizens, and a fractured society that had followed the low moral standards of poor leadership. Sierra Leone was exploited from both outside and within, and it was only a matter of time before the small struggling nation imploded. An ongoing war that had started around the Sierra Leone- Liberia border in 1991, reached Freetown, the capital city, in 1999.
The war raged on in Freetown and the inexplicable brutality of the rebels grew worse each day. Finally, my parents decided that the only way to escape the brutality was to escape the country. After leaving my Aunt’s house, we moved to the second port of safety to my grandmother’s house at Tengbeh Town, where we could enter the UN/ECOMOG controlled zone, before finding our way out of the country. Alpha jets circled overhead and black SUVs flew past. Men with red bandanas and AK 47 rifles stood silently on the back of these trucks, black sunglasses which masked their cowardice and hid their bloodthirsty fixation for human life, as they watched civilians timidly scurry past them.
Around the end of June, we fled for The Gambia to resettle as refugees. I tried to not think about the war. It was buried deeply into my subconscious and would only show up on the shores of my dreams occasionally. I tried to find ways to escape and forget, and I soon settled on my old love-reading. At first, I would go to the national library in Banjul every Friday after school and wait for my sister to pick me up after the school shift ended. I strolled from shelf to shelf in the children’s section, soaking up the smell of untouched and unopened pages, absorbing the ecstasy of expectation that I would be taking home a new world with me, a new adventure.
When Fridays were no longer enough, I started going to the library every Saturday morning. I would take a bus from Bakau to Banjul and sit in the library for five hours, lost in all sorts of stories. I envisioned how I could mesh my reality with those other worlds, to make my life more bearable, fancier, to somehow soften the shock of how the war had scarred my innocence and savor the possibility that the world really harbored some good and compassion and kindness. Stories such as Heidi, Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, and Charlotte’s Web gave me hope after the horrors I had seen. These stories taught me that there was evil, but that there was also so much good and that the gray areas were to be expected daily. They gave my life a new meaning and will to live and defy hardship. In Mary Poppins and Matilda, I found the joy of humor and the power of magic. Reading was escapism, stories were an alternate reality I longed for; home, peace , joy.
I tried several times to sneak over to the adult’s section of the library, so I could read about the “grown-ups”, but the stern-faced librarian seemed to have the supernatural ability to sniff me out, and she would always glare me away. At around 3:00 pm, just before closing time, I would leave the library with two books that I had borrowed, with the promise of voraciously satisfying my ravenous curiosity, to return the next week for a fresh take.
The Secret Garden, Box Car Children, and The BFG – all these stories formed a strong foundation for my imagination. My mind always whirred with the images and sounds from what I had read, and I too started creating little worlds of my own. I started writing stories. I would buy cheap exercise books and write stories about young girls like me, who wanted to escape a certain world and help create their own realities, free from bondage and borders. Little girls whose families and foundations had not been fractured.
When I wrote stories, I fashioned them for myself. I harnessed a power that was taken from me, I gave myself dignity that I had been robbed off. And since then, I have never stopped seeking stories. My curiosity has become more of a necessary trait- I must find out, I must seek, I must know. And years after the war ended, when I returned to Freetown, stories were not just about escapism, they were also about building knowledge, and expanding my mind. And thanks to that tiny dusty room in Freetown where my love for reading started, I have pushed myself to question ideas, travel to new places, and seek fresh stories, all in the quest for the trajectory of my story.
As Dr. Seuss aptly says
“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go”.
originally published in Patriotic Vanguard