What Comes After War?

A review of Ishmael Beah's Radiance Of Tomorrow.


Image:  Demilade .

Image: Demilade.

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

She had returned home because she could not find complete happiness anywhere else.

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 African writer…should aim at fashioning out an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience.
Chinua Achebe in 'Morning Yet On Creation Day' (1975)

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.

Writing has become a way to bring to life some of the things I could not give people or provide physically. I want readers to get a tangible, tactile feeling when they see these words, so I try to use words in a way to fit the landscape. This is why the writing in Radiance of Tomorrow borrows from Mende and other languages.
Ishmael Beah

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.


Have you read either of Ishmael Beah's books? What did you learn from it?

Purchase a copy of Radiance Of Tomorrow online or directly from us here


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.

d Curious about the reintegration of child soldiers - otherwise known as ex-combatants - involved in the Sierra Leonean Civil War? Here are three reports by the UN, OECD and Humphreys and Weinstein.


Achebe's The Trouble With Nigeria

By Tobi

10 quotes from Chinua Achebe's The Trouble With Nigeria.

Image: AP / Craig Ruttle via  The Atlantic .

Image: AP / Craig Ruttle via The Atlantic.

Achebe, Achebe, Achebe. I have gushed countlessly (okay, maybe twice) about his writing and why it never fails to resonate. One, for his ability to mirror the truth, and unapologetically so. Second, for his storytelling; his hilarious yet sharp-cutting narratives. More than anything, what distinguishes his work is its relevance – from his anti-colonial African Trilogy to A Man Of The People – which permeates several decades. This latter reason, notably, is major thanks to the fixity of Nigeria’s - its leaders and populace - unwillingness to implement radical change to upturn its history.

In his infamous booklet written in 1983, The Trouble With Nigeria, Nigeria’s years of political instability feature yet again as a canvas. The author brazenly discusses 10 fundamental areas that “cripple” and “inhibit” Nigeria as a state, people and nation. Achebe pools his varied experience and excerpts from daily newspapers to prove, indeed, that “the only thing [Nigeria] has learnt from experience is that we learn nothing from experience.” Of the numerous quotes favourited, I share 10 that that will leave you snapping your fingers while reading The Trouble With Africa Nigeria.


1. Where The Problem Lies

2. Tribalism

Whenever two Nigerians meet, their conversation will sooner of later slide into a litany of our national deficiencies...consigning a life-and-death issue to the daily routine of small talk.
Nothing in Nigeria’s political history captures her problem of integration more graphically than the chequered fortune of the word tribe in her vocabulary.

3. False Image Of Ourselves

4. Leadership, Nigerian-Style

I know enough history to realize that civilization does not fall down from the sky; it has always been the result of people’s toil and sweat, the fruit of their long search for order and justice under brave and enlightened leaders.
A basic element of [Nigeria’s leadership] misfortune is the absence of political thought of our founding fathers — a tendency to pious materialistic woolliness and self-centred pedestrianism.

5. Patriotism

6. Social Injustice and the Cult of Mediocrity

A true patriot will always demand the highest standards of his country and accept nothing but the best for and from his people.

...the real explosive potential of social injustice in Nigeria does not reside in the narrow jostling among the elite but in the gargantuan disparity of privilege they have created between their tiny class and the vast multitudes of ordinary Nigerians.

7. Indiscipline

8. Corruption

There is indeed no better place to observe the thrusting indiscipline in Nigeria than on the roads: frenetic energy, rudeness, noisiness...
Nigerians are corrupt today because the system under which they live today makes corruption easy and profitable...

9. The Igbo Problem

10. The Example Of Aminu Kano

The lack of real leaders in Igboland goes back, of course, to the beginnings of colonial administration...the average Igbo leader’s mentality has not been entirely free of the collaborating Warrant Chief syndrome. have told us that you want our votes so that you can serve us. If we get killed while you are getting the vote, who then will you serve?

Have you read Achebe's The Trouble With Nigeria? What are your favourite quotes?


This Nigeria Sef

Ken Saro-Wiwa

Your own come pass two hundred:
Sanu, ekaro, deeyira, tank you, doo
kakifo, nonsense, you no go fit take one!
Nigeria, you too like borrow borrow
You borrow money, cloth you dey borrow
You borrow motor, you borrow aeroplane
You borrow chop, you borrow drink
Sotey you borrow anoder man language
Begin confuse am with your confusion
Anytin you borrow you go confuse am to nonsense
Idiot debtor, wetin you go do
When de owners go come take dem tings?




Ken Saro-Wiwa was a writer and activist, born in Port Hartcourt, Nigeria in 1941. His first novels, written in pidgin English, were both released in 1985: Songs in a Time of War and Sozaboy. He also wrote poetry and children’s stories, and was well known as a journalist and for his stance against corruption and the ecological damage on the Ogoni community.


Image: S. Mores, 1950.