by Vamba Sherif
Armed men converged on the city at the same time as rumours reached us that there was a lull in the war in our country. ‘It’s time to return home, Halay,’ my father said. He was the most elated of us all, for exile had broken him and he wanted to escape it. But I was reluctant to leave. I had begun to appreciate this new land, the nature and the people I had loved and drawn on the pages of my sketchbooks. But exile was a metamorphic realm where we would perhaps never be at ease, despite everything. Home was certain to offer us a sense of stability and continuity. I couldn’t help but question that stability, for I was leaving Nafisat behind, the one who fed my passion and made me want to be better and to perfect my art. Would leaving her not mean the end of that passion? And what would home offer us after such a long absence?
My mother distributed what was left of her things among the market women who had fought her, and my father gave his fishing gear to a neighbour. The old lady returned to her house. ‘I am not leaving,’ she said. ‘I’ve seen enough of this world. I will be right here when they come. If they decide to kill me, so be it.’
Moments before our departure, we paused in front of the house that had been our sanctuary for a long time, and my mother heaved a sigh and without looking at me said, ‘Never forget what your ancestor did to prevent this war, Halay. We bear more responsibility than others. We feel more pain and suffering than others. Remember that.’
She seemed to be preparing me for the future and for what was at stake when we returned home. But the future was so clouded with uncertainties that I did not know how I would fare within it.
On crossing the river that bordered the two countries, we encountered thousands of people heading home. Every vehicle was moving – old trucks, motorbikes, bicycles. Children were strapped to the backs of mothers who bore huge loads on their heads, while men transported the old and the sick in wheelbarrows. The mass of people trudged on in slow steps, weary of the fate that awaited them. Our number thinned out at every junction, at every fork in the road, as groups split up and took roads to their various towns and villages.
Our city, when we reached it after days on the road, exuded the odour of death and desolation. Weeds had grown along the roads, mould had begun to cling to bullet-ridden homes, and the painted walls, the green, blue and yellow, had been scorched by fire until they had turned smoky black.
We walked through Old Town without encountering a soul, as though it was yet to be populated or would never be. In New Town, the streets looked narrower, the sewers broken, the lighting poles like scarecrows on burnt farms. The large store in town, the one my father had managed as part of the farming cooperative and which sold farming tools and building materials, was empty, the roof gone and the walls burned.
People we encountered wore haunted expressions that pursued us as we climbed the hill to the place where our house had once stood. Nothing was left of the place, not even the walls. My father took a handful of the ashes and let it run through his fingers and then he turned to us. ‘Well, we are left with the task of rebuilding it.’
I happened to glance down the hill at the city sprawled below and I saw George Richards, alias the professor, moving towards us. A descendant of Edward Richards, he was born in Monrovia, but for as long as I could remember, he had been a friend of our family, especially with my mother, and he treated me as if I were his grandchild.
The professor often wore simple clothes, his Afro uncombed, and with the habit of drifting through the city with a cane in one hand and an old manuscript in the other, telling stories and predicting the future. During his university days, he would correct his professors and arrive at mathematical solutions to complicated equations with a speed that astounded them. He taught for a while at the university, where his fame grew. He acquired so much knowledge that it was believed his brain could no longer contain it and he had gone out of his mind.
The professor hugged mother.
‘Daughter, how did you survive this war? You know, I did not leave. And when the fighters caught me, they thought I could be some help to them and kept me alive. But in the end I was of no use to them.’
As if a thought had occurred to him, he said, addressing my father, ‘They turned your store into a warehouse where they kept their arms and ammunition, Frederick. Yes, and when they left they burned it down. Some of them are still in town. You will hear them tonight.’
‘I am going to meet some of our farmers today and we will rebuild the warehouse and start all over again,’ my father said.
Soon afterwards he left with the professor. My mother and I retired to the shade of the tree where we had often had dinner. My gaze shifted from the ruins of the house to the city below us with its rusty roofs.
‘The city looks like it has been worked over by a bulldozer. There’s nothing left, Halay. We’ve lost everything,’ my mother said.
She was referring to her two petrol stations, to her store across from my father’s store; she also meant her position in the city, as a prominent member and one of its most privileged. ‘We will make it our home, Mother.’
‘Tell me how? How do you make a home out of a place where everything is gone? There’s nothing left for us here.’
She sat under the tree, gazing about her, at a loss as what to do. Later my father returned with more than a dozen farmers, and the men set to work, clearing the place of weeds, burned wood, and dirt. While some fetched water from the river to pour on mud mixed with dirt, others fetched trees to be used as poles to support the foundations.
‘This house will be finished in no time, Jowo,’ he said.
This must have incited my mother to wake up from her reverie, for she left to purchase some rice and greens, which she prepared for us, and we ate in the shade of the tree, as the men shared their war experiences with us. It surprised me how much they remembered.
‘Chief,’ one of them called my father. ‘War met me on my farm, right beyond the mountain. It was harvest time, but I found myself running away, leaving everything behind me. When I returned, everything was gone, my wife, my children, my home, my farm.’
‘They killed so many people that the river turned red. I swear it,’ another said. ‘Yes, our river turned to blood.’ ‘You are exaggerating,’ a third said.
‘If you don’t shut up, I will turn your face to blood. I mean it. I was here when those deaths occurred. The river was all blood, chief.’
No one dared contradict him again, and as each narrated his personal story, gradually our own experiences, our flight and exile, began to pale in comparison to the stories told and we had nothing to say.
The men worked until nightfall, and we slept in the corners of the newly built house, refusing the professor’s offer of a place in his house.
I often joined the men to work on the house and then on the warehouse, and when not needed I went to swim in the river. I forgot about drawing, for the new reality, worse than I had imagined, was too stifling to nurture creativity. Instead I stored up everything – the images of the burnt churches and mosques, the stories of the men, and the cries at night which were often interrupted by gunfire, by men bent on warring with each other even after the war had formally ended. The gunshots would continue till morning. No one dared go out at night.
We were told that the fighters were so used to war for so long that it had become their second nature. No one and nothing could make them stop. They would come to the city and fill it with gunfire and as dawn approached they would disappear, as if they were ghosts.
One day, I met our city mayor at the river. He was a diminutive man with a booming voice and slow steps. He seemed indifferent to what was happening to his city. But he was not always like that. Just after the war, we were told, he had bustled with enthusiasm. He would often tell the people that the city would recover and become better. ‘This is our opportunity,’ he would say. ‘We have to start anew. This time, our foundation will be stronger than ever before. This time we will not fail.’ He tried to rally the people around him to rebuild the roads, the homes, the wells that had been poisoned, and the schools. He sent out people to deliver his messages, but few listened. In the end he gave up.
‘What are you doing alone at the river, child?’ he said.
The warning in his voice compelled me to leave the river and change into my dry clothes. I walked up to him.
‘How is your mother?’ he asked, and before I could answer him he added, ‘I am ashamed to face her after this war. I cannot face her.’
The mayor often wore a safari helmet, and I could not remember seeing him in any other clothes but grey suits and the boots of a logger.
‘We should have avoided this war after what your ancestor did for us, Halay. But we forgot all about him, neglected him. We have to learn not to forget. We have to learn to remember.’
The river was wide at this point, where drivers brought their cars to wash them. It had not occurred to me that being alone in the aftermath of the war could be hazardous, for the people who had killed in the war were still roaming the city at night and could kill during the day.
‘Give your mother my regards. The school will soon be ready to receive students again. Don’t waste your life away,’ he said and moved on.
I returned home to meet my mother who was as fretful as ever.
‘I want to open up my shops again,’ she said, but there was no conviction in her voice, and she seemed to seek assurance from me.
‘I will help you with the shop after school.’ She was silent, her gaze intent on me.
‘You can feel our suffering,’ she said.
‘Mother, please, don’t.’
‘You carry our burden.’
‘Stop now, please, don’t go on reminding me.’ She shook her head.
‘I was told that school will reopen tomorrow,’ she said.
My father was away, visiting villages, organizing the farmers. He was hardly at home, as if he wanted to make up for lost time.
A sudden but crippling lethargy appeared to have taken hold of my mother, and many a time I would meet her seated where I had left her.
‘I will make you proud, Mother.’
I went to bed thinking of my ancestor and of his sacrifice, and wondering what I had to do to become worthy of him.
The excerpt above is from Vamba Sherif’s novel ‘Land of My Fathers’ which was originally published in 1999 in Dutch as ‘Het land van de vaders.’ It has been translated into English and published as ‘Land of My Fathers’ by HopeRoad Publishing. Permission to excerpt granted by HopeRoad Publishing.
About the Author:
Vamba Sherif is an author, journalist and film critic living in the Netherlands. Born in Kolahun, Liberia in 1973, he moved to Kuwait in his early teens. At the outbreak of the first Gulf War he left Kuwait to settle first in Damascus, Syria, and then in the Netherlands, where he read Law before becoming a journalist and writer.. He writes in English and Dutch. His latest novel, The Black Napoleon, is about Samori Toure who founded a great empire in the 19th century. Het land van de vaders (The Land of My Fathers) was his debut novel.