Vitabu Review | GraceLand and Talking Slums

Three phrases from the opening paragraphs of Chris Abani's GraceLand took me to my familiar:

Heavy rain...wooden shutter...rickety lean-to made of sheets of corrugated iron roofing and plastic held together by hope.

Abani's award-winning book, removed from a Florida reading list in 2010 because of the sexual content of a torture scene, is a searing insight into violence: Rape, war, lynching, kidnapping, and the gory business of selling human body parts. Chris Abani "gets a little dirty" with a troubling look at darkness, but it's his "unpatronizing record of life" in Maroko, a slum outside Lagos, that stirs my nostalgia:

Abani's fictional Maroko is much like that of the real wharf communities which Sierra Leone's Muctaru Wurie immortalizes in his A Day in the Eastern Slums of Freetown.

From the wharves of Kampala, Susan's Bay, and Marbella, Muctaru Wurie introduces us to 14-year- old Abdul Mansaray. With his mother dead and father paralyzed, Abdul ekes out a living as a laborer. Only a week earlier, Wurie tells us that Abdul had fallen over with a pile of wood on his head, sustaining a severe injury.

We also meet Lamin Turay, a 29-year-old man.

"Standing on his recently built mud house at the edge of the sea, he moaned that as a boy he never thought of anybody living where he now lives. [T]he reality now is that the tiny sea front, back of Bishop's court (lower Kampala, adjacent to the Queen Elizabeth II quay) is filled to capacity...[with the] unemployed. Lamin confesses that he was a pirate, but that after seeing the brutal demise of two of his colleagues at sea, he has now decided to drop that career. Ask what he may like to do, he replied, I want to fish, but I don't have the money to purchase fishing nets."

Then there's Isatu, 17, who struggled to talk to Muctaru as she puffed marijuana to the air, and told him "since 1997 she has not seen any of her relative's after the war divided them."

"Asked what she is doing she was quick to reply: 'me na rarray gyal' boldly in front of the others, meaning that she is a prostitute."

There were also: Osman, the 21-year-old man who slept wherever he could during the day because he had no home; John, a former combatant who boasted that he sold the best available marijuana in town, and Tima 14, and Mbalu 15, both easy pickings for the city's flesh trade. Muctaru wrote of their complaints and of being intimidated by the police.

"[W]henever we failed to give them money we're frightened and sometime arrested until we 'cooperate', meaning bribing them before we are allowed to operate freely. When I asked them about the possibility of them contracting [HIV/ADS], they both wave off their arms saying that [AIDS] is a non-existence disease."

Muctaru also met Chief Pa. Alimamy. The local head of Big wharf summed up the condition of his area thus:

"They are suffering; there is no water, no health facility, and no toilet. The only job here the chief said is a laborer's job... At times I found it difficult to comprehend my position as chief in such a deprived community. We've been promised help several times by NGO's and politicians who sometimes come down here to do surveys. But as you can see there is nothing like development here."

Ever so often there is talk of bulldozers being sent in to rubble Freetown's slums and "expose their innards" as Abani wrote of Maroko. Yet the desperate communities continue to grow.

While working in Freetown to document maternal and infant mortality-related problems, photographer Dominic Chavez met a family who lived underneath a small bridge. Probably a lot like Abani's Bridge City where:

"[Y]oung children were beaten, raped, robbed and sometimes killed. Where they paid one set of scavengers to protect them against the others and on rainy nights sleep standing up, swaying with the wind as the rain was blown everywhere, flooding their sleeping places."

In Freetown, the Ministry of Health was launching a free health-care program for pregnant women and children under five. Chavez planned to stay after his contract was over, in hopes of sharing more time with Sierra Leone mothers and their families and to make known the difficulties they live every day.

"I was surprised by the amount of raw sewage and the lack of clean water. After visiting this family a couple more times they told me there were communities in Freetown much worse. This was when I first heard of Kroo Bay, a difficult slum filled with good families and shanty structures overrun with garbage, extreme sanitation issues, and a long list of health conditions due to the lack of clean water. Some of the biggest issues they are facing are polio, ringworm, typhoid fever and malaria, not to forget a high incidence of child malnutrition.

For little over a week, I spent as much time as possible documenting the community. These families lived in some of the worse conditions I have seen, yet they opened their makeshift homes and offered what little they had. Many homes had hard packed dirt floors, no windows, no doors and with poor roofing materials to shelter them from the heat and rain."

That's the Kroo Bay I remember. I first visited the sprawling shanty town on a dare as a college student in 1982. Wide-eyed, from the cosy world of my dorm on Mount Aureol, a hill perched more than 800 feet above the slum. On that first venture into Kroo Bay, I prayed for Aureol's circle of light and radiance to surround my body in that strange and unfamiliar part of my city.

More worldly in 1998, on a 2-week vacation from teaching in Beijing, China, I drank palm wine at ease in Kroo Bay: Sat with social entrepreneurs in a stop out much like GraceLand’s Madam Caro's Bar and Restaurant. It was a "shaky wood-and-zinc shack perched on the edge of a walkway, hanging over the swamp."

Much has happened since then, but my Kroo Bay experience, like a friendly ghost, never quite goes away. One day I hope to write stories of that place where life can be so harsh and yet so beautiful. In the meantime, I'm a virtual neighbor of Kroo Bay and I stay immersed with the help of my friends; and with the writings of Muctaru Wurie, Dominic Chavez, and the masterful storyteller, Chris Abani.


  1. maroko is like most other famous slums and lagos wouldn't be complete without it ... governments have come and gone each trying to make maroko disappear but it merely shifts to another location .... tales of poverty and deprivation in Africa are countless and hopefully should continue to prick the consciences of the more fortunate ..... especially those who can make a difference


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