Tangled threads of personal and national tragedy

A British journalist returns to Sierra Leone to find her father's killers

After 10 years of bloody civil war, Sierra Leone faces a difficult question: Will healing come from forgetting or remembering the nightmare of its history?

Among those who place hope in remembering is Aminatta Forna. She details her courageous search for the story of her father, a victim of the nation's deadly politics, which predated its civil war by several decades. In straightforward prose, she offers an affectionate portrait of the father she loved and a searing indictment of the political regimes that have devastated her native country.

Forna, a journalist and documentary filmmaker for the BBC, interweaves the story of her own childhood with that of her father, Mohamed, a bright and charismatic man. After winning a government scholarship, he left Africa to study medicine in Scotland. In the early 1960s, he returned to the newly independent Sierra Leone with a white wife, three small children, and a medical degree. The young doctor soon became immersed in the political struggles of the fledgling democracy and stood out as a popular candidate in a field of corrupt politicians.

Once the All People's Congress finally came to power, he was named minister of finance by Siaka Stevens, the new president, whose megalomania and ruthless ambition would later emerge. When Mohamed resigned his post and founded an opposition party, he became a dangerous threat to Stevens, who threw his former minister into prison and tried him for treason.

As a little girl, the author adored her busy father and missed him terribly when they were separated. Three times she and her siblings fled Sierra Leone's chaos for exile in Britain, twice with their mother and once, after her parents' marriage disintegrated, with their stepmother. During this time, Forna never quite knew what was happening to her father. She would later learn that he was hanged when she was 10.

In 2000, she returned to war-torn Sierra Leone to investigate his death. Driven by an insatiable need for justice and an unrelenting desire to clear his name, she pored over transcripts from his trial, interviewed witnesses, and dared to enter territory still controlled by the murderous Revolutionary United Front.

The challenges of writing a memoir cum detective story set in Sierra Leone are formidable. Although Forna capably fills in the events of Sierra Leone's complex and confusing history, the many individuals, political insurgencies, and counterinsurgencies can be difficult to keep straight. In addition, the author's investigative imperative, which led her to meticulously and at times excessively record details of her father's and her own life, can sometimes work against the more literary aesthetic of a memoir.

Yet when Forna loses herself in the bittersweet memories of her childhood, her descriptions dance on the page. One of my favorites is her daily encounter with cockroaches (which her father dutifully crushed, every night, with bare feet): "Glossy wings tucked flat across his back; legs angled outward below the armoured undercarriage; the jaws which dominated his minuscule head worked steadily like a toothless old man."

But private truths remain at odds with official history. This gap propels Forna's quest, but it also creates an uncomfortable gray zone where knowledge of the truth becomes evasive. Although the author never questions her father's innocence, she does come to question her own mission: "How peculiarly Western was my search for the truth, as though it were there to be found at all. Would I have that confidence if this had really been my country, where arrests, detentions and beatings had become as common as ant tracks in the dust?"

While Forna's quest does not yield all the answers she craves, she demonstrates tremendous courage in braving the questions. And by sharing the travails of her vivid journey, she casts light into the darkness of Sierra Leone's history.

Heather Hewett is a freelance writer in New York.

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