Wednesday, April 04, 2007

A Sparkling Novel of Racial Identity and Civil War in Sierra Leone

Take Roots and Add Diamonds

A Sparkling Novel of Racial Identity and Civil War in Sierra Leone
What does it take for a man to be satisfied?

Richard White, extraordinarily accomplished by almost any measure, would seem to have it all.  Athletic, handsome, and very comfortably rich, the erudite, 43-year-old managing partner of his own international law firm speaks four languages and knows more about wine than most sommeliers.  And he comes from a very old family. Unfortunately, they were slaves. White is an African-American who’s spent most of his life focusing on the American part and putting as much distance behind him and the African part as possible.   But it’s all about to catch up with him.  And in the most unlikely of places: the tiny nation of Sierra Leone, on the West Coast of Africa.

Where Witch Birds Fly.  A heartbreakingly beautiful novel set in the twilight of the Cold War
Eugene Harkins’ Where Witch Birds Fly (Clarity Press, $14.95) takes Richard White—and us—into the languorous, semi-surreal world of post-colonial Africa.  It’s 1985.  The British are gone, as are the French, the Spanish, and the Portuguese before them.  Now it’s the Lebanese ruling the commercial roost making fortunes off Sierra Leone’s storied diamond reserves.

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When Richard White is sent to Sierra Leone on behalf of his client, Mobil Oil, to collect a $40 million debt, he falls into a rabbit hole of corruption, Big Diamonds, and bizarre cold-war politics that soon has White sipping cocktails and playing volleyball with ambassadors from the Soviet Union, North Korea, Cuba, and almost every other rogue nation on earth. (For centuries Russia has sought a warm, deepwater natural harbor for its fleet. The harbor in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, is ideal).

Harkins does a masterful job of evoking the sultry insouciance of the expatriate and ambassadorial classes’ bacchanals in protected country clubs while the black masses are barely surviving. Sierra Leone is a world of massive inequities caused by centuries of white exploitation—much like a part of his home country, as White begins to realize. 

Harkins portrays with sensitivity and passion the deepening identity crisis of his protagonist, catalyzed by his visit to Sa’ L’one, as the locals call it in their charming patois, which Harkins captures beautifully.  The people his protagonist meets while in Sierra Leone are for the most part charming and innocent. But passivity finally gives way to desperation and rage, and civil war explodes in March of 1991, tearing the country and its people apart for more than a decade. The rebel’s calling card—the wanton amputations of thousands of innocent men, women and children—gained international notoriety, ultimately resulting in the establishment of a UN War Crimes Tribunal.  Charles Taylor, the ex-president of Liberia, is slated to be tried shortly in the Hague for Crimes Against Humanity.  It was Taylor who is thought to have fomented the bloody civil war, profiting fabulously from the trade in blood diamonds and armaments.

This is a compelling book, for the light it shines on black history and for the skillful way the author depicts it in the life of an extraordinary African-American man who has achieved remarkable success in the white man’s world, a world where even today no one is quite sure whether calling a black man “articulate” is an insult or a compliment.

Link to Take Roots and Add Diamonds - A Sparkling Novel of Racial Identity and Civil War in Sierra Leone