Monday, March 12, 2007

Sierra Leone war inspires arts world

FREETOWN, March 12 (Reuters) - Ducking into a Starbucks for a caffeine fix could lead you to a harrowing tale of child soldiery in the tangled jungles of Sierra Leone.

"A Long Way Gone" is a novel by 26-year-old first-time author Ishmeal Beah about his combat experiences during Sierra Leone's civil war and it is being stocked in 6,000 outlets of the Starbucks chain across the United States.

Beah writes of a surprise rebel attack on his family, his kidnap into government forces as a 12-year-old, drug-fuelled killing sprees and his eventual remorse.

"Writing this book wasn't easy as it required me to delve deeper into really difficult and painful memories," Beah, who took 2-1/2 years to write the book, told Reuters.

"Regardless of the pain of remembering the time of war, I felt it was a worthwhile and important sacrifice to shed light on what happened in Sierra Leone and what continues to happen to children all over the world," said Beah who was rescued from the war by the United Nations and adopted in the United States.

Following hot on the heels of the commercial and critical success of the film "Blood Diamond", "A Long Way Gone" is the latest in a string of movies, songs and books to draw creative inspiration from the West African country.


A steamy coastal state that gained independence from the British in 1961, Sierre Leone has proved a narrative setting as fertile as its soils.

It was the backdrop for Graham Greene's 1940s novel of love, betrayal and diamonds, "The Heart of the Matter". H.G. Wells set a creepy short story among its secret societies while slaveship captain John Newton was moved to write "Amazing Grace" having weighed anchor from one of its islands in the 18th century.

A 1991-2002 civil war, which left 50,000 dead and half a million displaced, made modern Sierra Leone a byword for savagery, shocking the world with images of civilians whose ears, lips and limbs had been amputated by militia groups.

The trade in so-called conflict diamonds fuelled the war in Sierra Leone. Competing militias smuggled gems worth millions of dollars in exchange for weapons and drugs.

The stones were absorbed into the legitimate industry, masking the mutilations that had brought them there.

The curse of diamonds prompted Chicago-based folk hero Terry Callier to sing in 2002 "Colonialism cut like a knife ... The search for resources, the struggle for life ... One more bitter harvest for Sierra Leone".

It was U.S. rapper Kanye West's "Diamonds from Sierra Leone" that alerted the world of bling to the shady origins of the world's most exclusive gemstones.

A documentary backed by the United Nations Development Programme due for release on MTV this month, "Bling: A Planet Rock", goes a step further, taking three U.S. hip-hop artists to the heart of Sierra Leone's mining district where workers spend their lives knee-deep in rivers hoping to strike it lucky.

One of the three visiting artists, Paul Wall, owns a jewellery firm that specialises in creating custom-made diamond-encrusted teeth and mouth guards, known as grills.

After meeting amputees and artisanal diamond miners, he is now donating all the profits from any grill with a red stone to humanitarian efforts in Sierra Leone and other impoverished countries affected by the diamond trade.


On the streets of the seaside capital Freetown, young people are concentrating on more immediate concerns.

The leading pop star of the day, Emerson, packed out the national stadium in an all-night gig to launch his new album and sings of the problems of corruption and poverty that continue to thwart Sierra Leoneans' hopes.

"It's not only me, 60 percent of musicians here are singing political songs," he told Reuters.

His album "Tu Fut Arata" -- which means two-legged rats in the local Krio dialect -- refers to the politicians limbering for a July 28 presidential election. It follows his 2005 hit "Borbor Bele", Krio for swollen stomachs fat from corruption.

"'Borbor Bele' was a call for change, a rejection of corruption ... The politicians are behaving like rats -- stealing, destruction. We deserve change," he said.

Beah thinks this home-grown cultural scene is crucial for the healing of his homeland.

"People don't have clean drinking water, no electricity, no employment, the youth are hanging about feeling worthless because they can't afford to go to school. The devastation continues unnoticed to this day," he said.

"Through literature, arts and music, the youth of Sierra Leone can expose what continues to unfold in their country. I believe that this is the only medium that is left."

Link to Reuters AlertNet - FEATURE-Sierra Leone war inspires arts world