Lamina Sankoh, Wallace Johnson, and The War | Fantasy History 4

In the summer of 2000, Vitabu interviewed Banja Tejan-Sie in London over several weeks. Born on August 7, 1917, Tejan-Sie died August 8, 2000, aged 83. He was the last governor-general of Sierra Leone. Excerpts from the interviews will appear in Fantasy History to enhance the backdrop on political events before and after independence in 1961. 

During my student days in Freetown I met a remarkable man called Lamina Sankoh. His real name was E.N. Jones. (Ethelred National Jones). He changed his name from Jones to Sankoh because deep in his heart he felt the name Jones, which is typically Welsh, had no sanguine relationship with him an African.

Jones was born in Freetown and he won a scholarship to read theology at (Wycliffe College) in Oxford, England. He returned home to serve the church, but left after some years. He seemed to have rebelled against the church for what the church stood for in the context of its humanism towards the underdeveloped world.

He set up a bureau, where he sold books published by the Rationalist Society. He also taught students preparing for the matriculation examination and became a writer, a freelance journalist, and, lastly, an effective politician.

One of the first books he introduced me to was "The Age of Reason" by Tom Paine. In fact, he recommended all Tom Paine’s books and those of J.B. Haldane and Bertrand Russell. I read them all avidly. He would deliver lectures on their works and those of the Humanistic Society.  I was converted to his ideas.

It was through Lamina Sankoh’s influence that I founded a monthly magazine called "The New Thinker." We had formed a literary club with some friends of his to write about current events. I was editor and chairman of the editorial board.  It was an all Muslim venture. As Muslims, we wanted to demonstrate to our Christian friends that we too had the mettle and background to discuss events in the modern context and to form and explain our views of modern social and political problems. The magazine continued to be published for a number of years and eventually went out of circulation.

Three of the friends with whom this venture was undertaken were Zubairu, later a railway traffic officer, A.A. Hassan, a retired accountant of the Railway Department, and Gibril, who tragically died young of heart disease.

I left school in 1938 and was determined to find jobs, which were nonexistent.  From the very onset of the youth movement, my elder brother A.S. Tejan-Sie and I became involved in the Youth League founded by Wallace Johnson.

The story of the trade union movement in Sierra Leone and the beginning of a more effective political consciousness in Sierra Leone is inseparable with the life of Isaac Akuna Wallace Johnson.

I was a daily visitor to the offices of the Youth League because I had become one of the freelance journalists contributing anti-colonial slogans in the pages of The Youth League paper. It was a sell out every weekend.

There was always some leaked government memo in its inside pages or some scandal involving a European employed either on government services or in business establishments.

Wallace Johnson’s radicalism at times got beyond control. He had been to the Soviet Union in the twenties and thirties and had learnt the art of provocative journalism with its usual dislike of the working class versus capitalist struggle.

Wallace Johnson was an orator. He could take the platform and speak for three hours without a break. His own voice and public acclamation was what he traded on and did so effectively. He chose his subject; he knew what the people wanted to hear and he gave it to them. He was always in trouble with the authorities. The step-by-step attitude of the colonial administration was anathema to him.

Everyone connected with the Youth League was a marked man by government intelligent services. Every Tom, Dick and Harry would bring in complaints against their employers in government hoping to get redress. They never did.

War was declared in 1939 and Freetown became a naval base for the war effort.  Because of the necessity to curb publication of damaging articles in newspapers, government decided to pass a bill making it possible not only to ban articles that could cause disaffection, but also to render those who published these articles liable to criminal prosecution. The Bill itself was a bad one. It was oppressive and punitive. There was universal hue and cry. Public meetings were called and Wallace Johnson addressed them in his usual passionate way with long harangues of denunciation.

The British government decided to put its case on the air. They invited prominent citizens to broadcast to the nation. The Reverend E.T. Fyle was to broadcast for the Christian community and my father, who was by now president of the All Muslim Congress of Sierra Leone, was to broadcast for the Muslim community.

My father turned to me to write the speech and do the broadcast as well. I prepared the speech on the lines of Wallace Johnson’s terms of reference. He vetoed it.  The Bill was actually aimed at Wallace Johnson, who was already a candidate for incarceration.

After the broadcast, a cousin of mine, A.F. Rahman, later mayor of Freetown for six years and chief clerk of the Education Department, came to warn my dad about the consequences of involving ourselves any further in this dangerous escapade. The authorities had sent him.

I served in my capacity as a nurse right through the war. Freetown and its harbor became a fortress of the British Empire. There was no ship, which at one time or the other did not drop anchor in the Sierra Leone River on its way to the Far East.

Every serviceman, be he general or private, who fought in the southeastern theater of the Second World War must have seen the Lion Mountain in its majesty.

The 34th General Field Hospital was hastily built on the hills above Freetown near a village called Wilberforce, named after the great slave emancipator.

Hundreds of people died around the cast of Freetown, drowned by the inexorable attacks of German submarines. The torsos, limbs, arms and half-eaten bodies, some tattooed, were washed ashore on many an occasion. All were brought to the hospital.

There was one occasion when dozens of bottles washed ashore on the coast. Curious fishermen who mistook them for rum or alcohol picked them up.  Many either died in hospital or were blinded. It was a tragedy.

There was the lighter side too. Drums of edible oil and boxes containing provisions and consumer goods were also washed ashore.

I had the opportunity of witnessing what was perhaps the first and only brain operation performed by one Colonel Stammers, a leading neuro-surgeon in the United Kingdom. It was unsuccessful. X-rays were not perfect and they had to numb the brain to get at the tumor. The whole operation took five hours; too much for the patient to bear. The patient was a Lebanese man. Brain surgery was still a long way off.

At the time of my transfer to Kailahun the war was still on. The district headquarter town was two hundred and fifty-six miles from Freetown. The transport system was chaotic. Travelling by steam locomotive from Freetown was twice a week, and this took forty-eight hours.

There was sleeping sickness. The British government was providing funds for s special medical unit called the Trypanosomiasis Unit to combat the disease. One would go into a village only to find it completely decimated. You saw people sleeping all the time, helpless and vegetating. You saw others dying and you saw the dead lying unburied. It was an awful sight. In some cases you had to break down a hut over the corpses because of the advanced stage of decomposition. Villages were abandoned and many areas depopulated. Some villages had to be burned down.

On my return to Freetown, I found that many of my contemporaries had gone overseas to study. I was now almost twenty-nine years of age with little or no money to pay for a premedical course in the U.K.  My father, who was now getting toward eighty, had no money. He had a small land on Sib Thorpe Street, which he was prepared to mortgage to raise funds to help me. My mother in law provided me with one hundred pounds.  I then went to see J.G. Hyde, a barrister friend of my dad, for recommendation to secure my passport. I also approached H.J. Lightfoot Boston and C.S.T. Edmondson, both barristers, to recommend me for admission into Lincoln’s, one of the Inns of Court in England.


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