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The Devil That Danced on the Water: A Daughter's Quest

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Praised as “a shining example of what autobiography can be: harrowing, illuminating and thoughtful” (USA Today), Aminatta Forna’s intensely personal history is a passionate and vivid account of an idyllic childhood which became the stuff of nightmare. As a child she witnessed the upheavals of post-colonial Africa, danger, flight, the bitterness or exile in Britain and the terrible consequences of her dissident father’s stand against tyranny.

Mohamed Forna was a man of unimpeachable integrity and enchanting charisma. As Sierra Leone faced its future as a fledgling democracy, he was a new star in the political firmament, a man who had been one of the first black students to come to Britain after the war. He stole the heart of Aminatta’s mother to the dismay of her Presbyterian parents and returned with her to Sierra Leone. But as Aminatta Forna shows with compelling clarity, the old Africa was torn apart by new ways of western parliamentary democracy, which gave birth only to dictatorships and corruption of hitherto undreamed-of magnitude. It was not long before Mohamed Forna languished in jail as a prisoner of conscience, and worse to follow.

Aminatta’s search for the truth that shaped both her childhood and the nation’s destiny began among the country’s elite and took her into the heart of rebel territory. Determined to break the silence surrounding her father’s fate, she ultimately uncovered a conspiracy that penetrated the highest reaches of government and forced the nation’s politicians and judiciary to confront their guilt. The Devil that Danced on the Water is a book of pain and anger and sorrow, written with tremendous dignity and beautiful precision: a remarkable, and important, story of Africa.

ISBN-13: 9780802140487

Media Type: Paperback(First Trade Paper Edition)

Publisher: Grove/Atlantic Inc.

Publication Date: 12-18-2003

Pages: 416

Product Dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

Aminatta Forna is an author, broadcaster and journalist.

Read an Excerpt


In the early morning he stands in the doorway of his hut and listens for the distant rumble. The cool air bears the earthy scent of promised rain. From the veranda above I can see the plume of red dust rising in the lorry's wake long before the man with the pickaxe who waits below me hears the engine. I am ten years old. It is 30 July 1974. I am watching a dust devil heading for my home. It writhes as it chases the driver around the rocky lanes, towering above the truck, forcing the vehicle away from the main routes, past the tumble of houses towards the edge of the precipice where we live. Now I can hear its roar begin; at first low and deep it rises to a shrieking cacophony. And suddenly, silence. The driver swings out of the cab down below. Behind him the devil slumps to the ground and waits.

I watch the driver speak briefly to the waiting man, who nods in return. The driver climbs back into his cab. The man with the pickaxe moves to within a few feet of his hut and gestures with his right hand. The driver manoeuvres his vehicle forward and back, until it is almost up against the shack. The massive hulk of the truck might easily crush the flimsy panbody of rusting corrugated iron, wooden slats and cardboard. The roof is held down with old tyres. Twelve people live in there, my stepmother tells me. I wonder if they are inside now, while all this is going on. Finally the driver pushes a lever and the load of rocks slides to the ground, freeing a mighty dust devil which spins up above the heads of all of us: the mother devil.

When the truck is gone the man and I contemplate the mountain of rocks. He leans over and picks one up. In his hand it is about the size of a melon; the surface is pitted and full of holes and it looks like a red moon rock. He positions it with care upon the edge of a boulder protruding from the ground. Then he lifts his iron-handled pick and, with the practised grace of a tennis player about to serve an ace, he swings the tool in an arc up behind his back, over his shoulder and down, lunging at the heart of the rock. It shatters, pleasingly, into half a dozen pieces. He glances briefly up at me and nods; I wave back a small acknowledgement. Then he selects another rock and repeats the same, perfect action.

The plateau where he stands is just at the point where the level ground gives way to the steep sides of the valley. There are no more houses, just a dense, green mat of tangled vegetation crossed with narrow paths of bare, red earth leading to and from the stream on the valley bed. I am forbidden by my father to go anywhere near the water. Farther up the valley a slaughterhouse built directly above the narrow channel pours effluent directly into it. The slaughterhouse attracts vultures, who wait out the time between meals on the roof of our house. I often do go down to the stream alone because I can't equate the joys of playing with the glittering, cool water with the invisible danger. Neither can the family in the panbody, who carry water from the stream to wash their pots and cook their rice.

On the opposite side of the stream, halfway up the valley, stands a wooden shed. Empty by day, it serves as an illicit drinking den at night where men and women from the low-cost houses gather and drink omole, a twice-distilled palm wine so strong, I'd been told, that it could rob a man of his sight. The fermented liquid had to be strained of dead flies and live maggots before it was considered fit to drink. On the weekends the drinkers become revellers and turn up the music until it reverberates across the slopes and drowns the night-time sounds. Every Friday night the clamour of the frog colonies at the water's edge, the nocturnal serenades of stray dogs and the constant clatter of the crickets give way to the rhythms of Carl Douglas singing, 'Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting' again and again, until the early hours of the morning.

In our house, we love it. We learn the words and improvise dance routines. My cousin Morlai scrunches his eyes into oriental slits, spins on his heels, kicks and punches the air. He is in his twenties and wears a slim-fit, patterned purple nylon shirt and matching flares with patch pockets. The girls Esther and Musu, also our cousins, laugh as though they are fit to burst. Afterwards Morlai and Santigi (who is not our cousin but lives with us all the same) leave to go out on the town. As they depart we tease them from the same veranda I watch from now. They take turns at wearing a pair of cheap sunglasses and disappear from view enfolded into the unblemished blackness of the night. In the morning there will be stories of bars and bravado.

Against the metronome of cracking rocks I can hear car horns and the poda podas on Kissy Bye-Pass Road revving their engines as they prepare to take the workers into the city. High above the motors come the singsong sopranos of the boys who lean out of the back door to call the routes: 'Kissssy, mountain cut, savage street, motor road.' I can imagine the people pressing forward, cramming their bodies into every available space on board, the fetid odour, the heat. The latecomers climb onto the roof, or hang on the back step.

Poda poda: 'hither and thither' the words mean. Rival teams of minibuses, covered in painted slogans and boasting the names of their owners, flying through town all day long. From here they weave their way through the tight alleys of the East End into the downtown area, where the office workers drop down and disappear into a grid of low-rise office blocks and old colonial government buildings. Some buses go up Circular Road and past the cemetery, beyond whose walls thick tropical climbers coil round the gothic gravestones as though they'd like to drag them back into the very graves they mark.

Other poda podas inch their way around the massive trunk and soaring branches of the Cotton Tree, which appears on postcards and in calendars as the symbol of Freetown, home of the freed slaves, once but no more the Athens of Africa. The words are always written with capitals: the Cotton Tree. In between the massive roots the lepers sleep on, undisturbed under their makeshift awnings. The poda podas start up Independence Avenue but turn off halfway up, before they reach State House, where the president rests in air-conditioned rooms; across to Pademba Road they go and past the prison. At Savage Street the schoolchildren jump down and separate into shoals: royal blue follows royal blue, brown checks group together, green blazers and boaters drift into one.

On a free run down Savage Street the poda podas pass the brightly painted shutters and cottage gardens of the old Creole houses: little enclaves of Louisiana brought home to Africa. At Congo Cross passengers for the fishing villages at Juba and Goderich or those going out to Lumley beach and Aberdeen switch to transport headed in their direction. Next the buses ease up the hill to Wilberforce and Hill Station, where the view from the windows opens out onto the curved line of the hills of Freetown. At their base, lying like grounds in a broken coffee bowl, is the city. Beyond that the sea. Up here, above the heat and the constant clamour , is where the British once lived in a line of looming, identical wooden houses built on stilts with covered balconies and latticed stairwells. Here they thought themselves safe above the rank, malarial air of Freetown. When enough of them had died, in revenge they dubbed this whole region of West Africa 'the white man's grave'.

There was a time when we lived up here, too. The roads are lined with fruit trees: avocados, breadfruit, and mangoes hanging on loops like a woman's emerald earrings. We children used to pick the mangoes green and eat them with salt, then roll around with bellyache. We stole the long seed pods from the flamboyant tree and used them as rattles. Weeks later, when every pod had fallen, the tree burst into beautiful, fiery blossoms. There were the tamarind trees, black tombla. In the tamarind season all the local children went their way holding onto branches of the tiny, dark fruit and sucking the sweet-sour sticky brown flesh from the smooth seeds. But that was nearly four years ago. Almost half my lifetime away.

Today from west to east above the city clouds slowly mass, crowding in between the hills. They drift above the trees on the slopes below Wilberforce and mingle with the fumes from factories and diesel exhausts above Kissy. They seek one another across the sky. They are waiting. Today rain is certain.

Last night it did not rain. I lay on my bed reading a book and outside the night was still. In the middle of the ceiling a naked sixty-watt bulb glowed. Above me my mosquito net was draped over itself. A few insects were beginning to gather around the light, but it was still early, only a little after seven. Daylight had just departed. It would stay dark another twelve hours. This close to the Equator the days and nights are measured with precision. Long before bed time Morlai would spray the room with repellent and leave a mosquito coil burning under my window.

My rubber flip-flops had fallen off my feet onto the bare, stone floor at the end of the bed. I was lying on my stomach in shorts and T-shirt, lost in the lives of Gerald Durrell's family and their anthropomorphic pets, when my brother's head appeared at the door. His face was riven with the excitement of one who knows and is about to tell: 'Have you seen the man?' was all he asked.

Our house has two verandas. The one at the back, away from the road, overlooks the crevasse and is next to the kitchen. We reached it in moments. We ran along the corridor, skidded round the corner, raced through the living room, past the dining-room table and out of the kitchen door. There were a number of people already out there and they were crowded around in a semicircle facing the other way from me. The span of their backs blocked my view. People were talking in low voices. I edged around the outside of the group.

A man sat almost motionless on one of the hard-backed chairs. His face was damp, great globes of sweat hung on his forehead, his head and eyes rolled slightly backward. Our father, balanced on the arm of an old black plastic easy-chair, was bent towards him.

I pushed in past them all and eased myself in next to my father. I smelled stagnant sweat and alcohol rising from the man, who must have been in his twenties. His skin was dusty grey. It reminded me of something I once saw on a trip we made up-country. We were driving back to Freetown, late at night; everyone around me in the car was asleep. Our driver swung the car around a bend and we came suddenly upon a dark figure walking at the side of the road, miles from any village, petrol station or even crossroads. The walker turned abruptly and the headlights lit up his face. I gasped and so did Sullay, the driver. The man's black face was smeared with pale ashes. His robes were dark, their colour obscured by the darkness. He came like an apparition out of the night. Seconds later the car had left him far behind. That, and the time a boy I knew was stung by a scorpion, were the only occasions on which I had ever seen someone turn that colour.

The light was yellow and poor. I peered down until I was able to see what my father was doing. In the man's lap there lay a bloodied object. I thought at first he was holding onto something, a wounded creature maybe, so badly hurt as to be unrecognisable. Then I realised it wasn't an animal but a hand – his own hand. Or rather, what remained of his hand. It lay in tatters. There were no fingers, no fingernails, no palm to speak of. The flesh seemed to be everywhere and nowhere at once. It looked just like raw meat. Amid the quantities of blood there was a gleam: a nub of bone, a sliver of white tendon, a glint of grey muscle. I stood mesmerised, as my father set to work removing pieces of dead flesh with a pair of tweezers.

There was no breeze; the air was close. I began to sweat. I wanted to stay and watch but my father ordered me quietly: 'Am, you go and help with the bandages.'

My cousins were sitting at the dining-room table just inside the door. They were tearing a sheet into strips and sewing the pieces end to end. I moved to obey, disappointed at being sent away, placated that I had a task.

My father called for antiseptic and Morlai dashed into the house at once. A moment later he reappeared with a near empty plastic bottle. 'Uncle, the Dettol is all done.' He gestured with the bottle, half shrug, half question.

A beat passed and then I pitched in: 'I have some.' I saw my opportunity to be of real use and seized it.

I raced to my room, slid to my knees and reached under the bed. One day I wanted to be a vet. In a cardboard box that I kept hidden was my first aid kit for injured animals. Week by week I used my pocket money to add something new: gauze, tape, splints. Everything else I foraged, like the cotton wool, or else was donated: my father had given me a couple of plastic syringes from his own medical bag. So far I had effectively treated only the dogs and, with less success, a lizard that lost its tail.

At Choithrams supermarket a few days before I had bought a tiny glass quarter-bottle of Dettol. It was still new and unopened, easily the most prized piece in the entire collection. I loved the long Excalibur sword on the label and the sharp scent when I unscrewed the top. It was this I returned bearing, primed with self-importance.

'Here's some Dettol. It's mine but you can use it.' I held the little bottle up high. I took up the position next to my father again, and again he sent me away. For the next hour I sat with my cousins and stitched yards of bandages – more, I imagined, than anyone could possibly need.

A long time later, after the wounded man had been taken away and the detritus of soiled dressings cleared, I fell asleep on the same plastic-covered armchair where my father had been sitting. Someone must have carried me to my bed. When I woke up this morning, less than half an hour ago, I was lying under my mosquito net, sheets tangled round my legs. Dawn was barely a memory across the sky. For a little while I stayed there half dreaming until images of the previous evening began to come back to me.

In her bed on the other side of the room my elder sister lay still sleeping: I could hear her breathing. Outside a cock crowed, a tuneless, inarticulate and abrupt cry. It was a young cockerel and it hadn't quite mastered the full-throated song of the rooster. It annoyed me because it often woke me up. One morning I went outside and threw a stone at it.

I lay there listening to the ordinary sounds. I hadn't fallen asleep and been put to bed for years. Had I somehow imagined all of it? I wriggled free of my sheets and yanked up the mosquito net. Pulling it over my head, I leaned out, balancing myself with both hands on the floor. I ducked my head under the bed and slid out my vet's box. The tiny bottle of Dettol was still inside, the top was on. Everything else was in place. I was about to close the lid and push the box back, when I paused and instead I removed the bottle to inspect it. It was my bottle, that was certain, and someone had returned it to the box. But there were no more than a few drops of liquid left inside. And the label was spoiled. It was bloodstained and covered in reddish-brown fingerprints so that you couldn't even read the words any more.

At breakfast our father tells us the man had a car accident. He is wearing a brown suit, ready for the office. I am eating Weetabix, soaking them in milk and mashing the biscuits up. At the weekends my stepmother supervises in the kitchen and we have akara, deep-fried balls of banana, rice flour and nutmeg; or else fried plantains with a hot peppery sauce made with fish and black-eyed beans. On weekdays we eat cereal and toast.

'How did he crash?' we ask. I layer sugar thickly over the cereal.

'I don't know,' our father replies.

'What happened to him?'

'He's gone to a hospital.'

We nod. I spoon the soft brown mush into my mouth while I begin to formulate another question, but my father's next statement stops me dead in my tracks.

'Am, I'm seeing someone today. A maths tutor. I want you to have some extra lessons during the holidays.'


Excerpted from "The Devil That Danced on the Water"
by .
Copyright © 2002 Aminatta Forna.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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