Vitabu Reads: Contemporary Fireside Stories

Tony Jordan might not have been the first to get the idea of “building literary tunnels through which to liberate characters from the constraints of Dickensian novels,” but the thought was on my mind after reading Contemporary Fireside Stories during Banned Books Week.

Let me explain.

Banned Books Week is promoted by the American Library Association and Amnesty International.

The annual campaign "stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of unpopular viewpoints to all who wish to read them" and the requirement to keep material publicly available so that people can develop their own conclusions and opinions.

The campaign notes those individuals "persecuted because of the writings that they produce, circulate, or read." The 2017 date is September 24–30.

Tony Jordan created new lives for Charles Dickens’s greatest characters in a British television series Dickensian, which I watched back to back recently.

Contemporary Fireside Stories is a volume of short stories, poems, and excerpts from short novels, collected by a group of Sierra Leonean writers on a WhatsApp Forum. The book was published by Sierra Leonean Writers Series early in 2017.


Fireside's stories weren't written collaboratively or collectively, but they did get generous amounts of input as drafts were posted and reposted to WhatsApp Messenger, the free instant messaging service for smartphones.

Contemporary Fireside's Preface provides a great introduction to “stories on themes such as ...sexual assault, stigmatization, street life, and witchcraft.”

Once you plunge in and meet the cast, you not only begin to see common threads but might just get the idea of bringing together all the characters in one neighborhood. Thanks to Tony Jordan.

While most of the 17 stories in Contemporary Fireside are set somewhere in Sierra Leone, the first one, “Running the Kilimanjaro,” finds us rather incongruously on the slopes of Tanzania's famous volcano and Africa's highest mountain.


It's a cool and misty morning in September of 1973, and we're set among a group of Caucasian long distance runners and their African hosts in a race to the peak.

The fast-paced story is almost breathless as it dashes through, offering fleeting glances of stunning scenery and encounters with wildlife, as we play peekaboo into the lives of the runners who've been drawn to the mountain race.

By the next story, we're 3,000 miles removed in Sierra Leone and have been transported more than 30 years through time and space


“My Brother's Confession” is one of the collection's stories that expose the poverty and bleakness of urban haves and have-nots in post-war Freetown.

Confession meanders through the recollections of Fancy, still struggling to come to terms with rape at the hands of a neighborhood pedophile who groomed poor girls and boys for sex.

Sexual assault of a minor and the fallout also runs through “A Complex Situation,” which features a predator cast in the same mold as the one in the previous story.

“A Place to Die” takes a break from urban blues to give us a speculative view of a slavery-era hero, Joseph Cinqué (c. 1814 – c. 1879), also known as Sengbe Pieh.

Pieh famously led a revolt of fellow Africans on the Spanish slave ship, La Amistad and returned home after a lot of derring-do.

“Kadiatu” is a jolt back to reality in Freetown, where a young girl has learned to cope with life away from her village. A middle-class urban family faces the unintended consequences of removing rural children from their nurturing cultural environments.

“Falling Leaves” kicks off with a raucous brawl in the middle of Congo Town, a waterfront area that has seen flooding during the rains, because of people building houses in creeks, under bridges, and in slum areas.

Here, Brer Mello is the local kingpin. When his village was attacked during the war and both his parents killed, he finds his way to the city like thousands of internally displaced people. Fifteen years later, the young pickpocket, now an undesirable bachelor on the make, had Adeline, and Fatu, who lived in Adeline's home as a child, fighting over him.

“Letter to my Beloved” is about the angst-ridden love affair of beautiful Egertina George and Momoh, who has returned from America for the first time after winning a coveted green card in the Diversity Visa (DV) Lottery.


Under the DV program administered by the United States Department of State, a limited amount of diversity visas are made available each fiscal year to individuals from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States.

Love is also the centerpiece of “Submission,” the story of a poor family in a hardscrabble Koya town. Shirked by a feckless husband and deadbeat father, a dedicated wife and mother drives herself into the ground providing for her family.

“Chronicle of a Birth Foretold” is an excerpt from a book by Mohamed Gibril Sesay. Find out what happens when a spirit, called krifi in Temne, slides through an unprotected vulva and merges its identity with that of a fetus.

After an ex-protective guard at the Customs Department gets out of jail, he is physically free but still trapped in the throes of depression.

“Sori Clever” once led a gaudy lifestyle fueled by bribes and kickbacks. But when the top man at the seaport falls out of favor with the president, the state turns its beady eye on the levels of corruption that allowed customs officers to siphon off custom duties, and skim off public coffers.

In the story, Sori must face his destiny when he runs up against a fundamentalist group in turbans and long coats waging a homegrown campaign of prohibition in seedy bars.

Freetown's myriad social problems are once again under the spotlight in “The Street Child Beggar.”


Wartime acronyms such as ECOMOG (Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group was a multilateral armed force established by the Economic Community of West African States), and UNAMSIL (the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone was a United Nations peacekeeping operation in Sierra Leone from 1999 to 2006), make your head reel, but the suffering of the poor will break your heart.

While tuberculosis can be treated easily with antibiotics, the highest number of TB deaths is still in poor, urban Africa.

“Wheelbarrow Man” takes us back to the gritty dockland of Freetown, where we find a recuperating Bimbahun, who'd hit rock bottom after being abandoned by friends in an international drug ring that spread across Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Liberia, France, and America.

Unlike Sori in the previous story, Bimbahun was really clever; had even shown prospects of earning a doctoral degree. But he would not get rich that way.

Instead, he turned to drug trafficking and became the casualty of drug cartels.

“Fatu Melemeleh” is a similar down-at-heel story based on the experience of ambitious migrants who set their sights on making it to the west against all odds.

“The Concorde” and “Equainneh” are both overindulgences of poetry and lyrics. But they are also a “Catharsis” from tragic drama and the experiences of the majority of postwar Fireside stories.


Still, Philip Foday Yamba Thulla's “Pa Foday” returns to the cynicism with a sinister twist in the land of devils in laughing steams, tamas (amulets), an urge to get a female forest sprite “under control” and a lascivious ghost unbeaten by the Poro devil.

Tempted?

Once you're done, try to imagine all this motley crew created by Sierra Leonean authors in one neighborhood. Imagine them in a Tony Jordan production that creates lives for them in a Sierra Leonean television series.

Until then, Contemporary Fireside Stories is highly recommended for Banned Books Week, which has been held during the last week of September since 1982.


Contemporary Fireside Stories: An Anthology Paperback – April 27, 2017
Sierra Leonean Writers Series




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