A review of Ishmael Beah's Radiance Of Tomorrow.
In 2009, around the time that I had just read Sierra Leonean author Ishmael Beah’s first book - a memoir titled A Long Way Gone - I watched a film, Ezra, by Nigerian filmmaker Newton Aduakaa. Both were about child soldiers and provided my first real understanding of what war does to everyday people. Until Radiance of Tomorrow, I had not read any full-length text that delved into life after the war. In spite of being fiction and not a memoir, the novel felt like an extension of A Long Way Gone — a natural follow-up to Beah’s personal experiences that were chronicled therein.
The Sierra Leone Civil War lasted from 1991-2002; leaving tens of thousands of people, both civilian and military, dead. Like wars often do, it left infrastructure, institutions, and systems in complete collapse - although many, including the educational systemb, had already collapsed before the war due to widespread corruption and poor leadership. Though the war lasted just over a decade, the troubles faced by those who experienced them often extended long after the gunshots have died down, and into the process of attempting to rebuild their lives.
Beah’s Radiance of Tomorrow opens with an old woman, Ma Kadie, returning to her village, Imperi, years after she fled from war. As she links up with Pa Moiwa and Pa Kainesi - two other old returnees - in subsequent chapters, the beauty of their memories of Imperi has the reader filled with hope, and anticipating the restoration of the village. Hope for the characters returning weary bodies to the last memory of stability and familiarity, after years of war. Hope for the restoration of this fictional place that has been thoroughly devastated by war — a war that was in no way fictional.
Personal And Collective Trauma
As the characters head back home after the Sierra Leone Civil war, each comes bearing scars - physical and/or emotional - and Imperi is filled with people marked through and through by personal and collective trauma. They return with a desire to rebuild what they can of their lives and go to work doing what they can — farming, reopening the school and selling firewood. There is urgency to rebuilding and recapturing their sense of home and community. Yet, held against their memories of old Imperi, their efforts seem paltry, and one’s heart breaks for the devastation that has left their homes burnt or riddled with bullet holes.
Sila, one of the villagers, has returned with two of his children. All three of them have been amputated at different parts of their arms, and some steps behind, the child soldier responsible for this, Ernest, has followed them to Imperi. Marked by the guilt of his act, he tries what he can to make their lives easier from behind the scenes. Other child soldiers have also returned, and they band together; living under a self-appointed leader, Colonel, who also keeps watch over Imperi.
While they attempt to restore their old ways of communality, all of them, young and old, have to learn ways of navigating their new realities. A young boy holding a machete for cutting firewood inspires terror; an old man tries to find a new way of greeting a younger man who has lost his right hand; people try to avoid awakening others’ memories of loss. Whether in little ways like that or big ones like trying to eke a living again in a poverty-filled land, their daily lives continue to be marked by loss and pain.
Aftermaths Of War
In a Ted Talk, Margaret Bourdeaux cites a landmark study on post-war public health systems, and concludes: “The most dangerous time to be a person living in a conflict-affected state is after the cessation of hostilities.” While her talk focuses on health systems, the devastation of Imperi and the things that lead to post-war deaths in the novel, include yet extend far beyond health care.
After the war comes the vultures. However, in Imperi’s case, the vultures are not birds. They are miners who have secured a long-term lease from the government and proceed to tear up the land, pollute the water, and employ hapless residents in unsafe conditionsc that kill many. Of course, along with this comes the impunity of their workers who are not from Imperi, and soon, rape, manslaughter, and other ills move into Imperi.
Sierra Leone has a rich deposit of mineral resources — from Rutile (the first being mined in Imperi) to Bauxite and Diamonds. The very things that should be a source of wealth to the people who own the land end up thwarting their efforts at rebuilding and chasing them off land that is rightfully theirs. While the capitalist gutting of Imperi is clearly immoral, the residents of Imperi are forced into grey areas of morality to survive. For instance, the school principal inflates the number of teachers and collects their salaries, yet pays for new uniforms for poor students when the government insists on it.
Two teachers, Benjamin and Bockarie, blackmail the principal into doing good and eventually leave their mostly unpaid teaching positions to work in the mines. As some characters die, leave Imperi or are moved off their lands, I realise that I wanted Radiance of Tomorrow to be easy, neat and restorative. What I got instead was real and raw — the fragmented process of rebuilding lives, and the fact of evil still existing.
Extending The Richness Of African Languages Into English
The language of Radiance of Tomorrow is very lyrical. While the words are in English, it is clear that they were conceived in another language first. English, in its normal use, does not have the effect that Beah’s descriptions have. The breeze, the land, trees, and lake are all alive in this book. Nature is animated in the same ways that the characters are. In the author’s note section, Beah says he drew on the oral traditions of his mother tongue, Mende.
In spite of the rich imagery conjured by Beah’s use of language, one cannot escape the subject of Radiance of Tomorrow: Trauma. Perhaps the language amplifies it, as it draws the reader into the intimate thoughts and lives of the characters, their land, and their culture. However, if one needs the comfort of knowing that they are going to be fine in spite of the horrors they continue to experience, one would not get it from Radiance of Tomorrow. In that way, the tomorrows of the characters are as uncertain as real life often is, but the journey Ishmael Beah takes one on is a priceless one.
a An emotive Ted Talk by Newton Aduaka in which he shares a clip from his film, Ezra, that tells of a child soldier in Sierra Leone.
b As of 1980, the rate of illiteracy in Sierra Leone for people aged 15 years and over was set at 80.5 percent by UNESCO.
c Though fictional in the conext in which Beah wrote the novel, the plights experienced by the characters are fairly reflectant of those involved in the (informal) industry of Diamond mining, in Sierra Leone, till date. Read this paper by Johnson on the history of Diamonds and resource-led conflict in Sierra Leone, and on working conditions here.