August 1, 2009

Take Me Away to Sierra Leone

Take Me Away Saturday

As a lover of books that take place in different cultures and are about different cultures, Take Me Away is a way to share this love with you, my readers and friends!

Each week I feature a different country or culture (ex. Cherokee, Jewish, etc. that do not have a specific country per se) and list some books that can transport you there.

I am keeping a map of the countries we visit and a list of the specific cultures, which you can see at the bottom of this post. Here is a list of where we've been so far:
Sioux Nation

This week we are visiting the African nation of Sierra Leone. Click on the titles of the books to go to or Barnes & to read reviews and/or purchase the book.

Here is an easy to see map of Sierra Leone.
Click here to learn more about Sierra Leone.

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah
This absorbing account by a young man who, as a boy of 12, gets swept up in Sierra Leone's civil war goes beyond even the best journalistic efforts in revealing the life and mind of a child abducted into the horrors of warfare. Beah's harrowing journey transforms him overnight from a child enthralled by American hip-hop music and dance to an internal refugee bereft of family, wandering from village to village in a country grown deeply divided by the indiscriminate atrocities of unruly, sociopathic rebel and army forces. Beah then finds himself in the army—in a drug-filled life of casual mass slaughter that lasts until he is 15, when he's brought to a rehabilitation center sponsored by UNICEF and partnering NGOs. The process marks out Beah as a gifted spokesman for the center's work after his "repatriation" to civilian life in the capital, where he lives with his family and a distant uncle. When the war finally engulfs the capital, it sends 17-year-old Beah fleeing again, this time to the U.S., where he now lives. (Beah graduated from Oberlin College in 2004.) Told in clear, accessible language by a young writer with a gifted literary voice, this memoir seems destined to become a classic firsthand account of war and the ongoing plight of child soldiers in conflicts worldwide. Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux Genre: Memoir; Politics; War

Blood Diamonds: Tracing The Deadly Path of the World's Most Precious Stones by Greg Campbell
Freelance journalist Campbell here writes about the cost of diamonds not in dollars to the consumer but in blood, torture, and death for the unfortunate residents of contested mining areas in Sierra Leone. He explains that "conflict diamonds," or "blood diamonds," which account for only three to four percent of all diamonds sold, are mined in war zones, smuggled out of the country, and sold to legitimate companies, financing ruinous civil wars and the plots of international terrorists, including the al Qaeda network. The gems' value and portability have made controlling the diamond mines important to guerrilla fighters, who maim and kill innocent villagers to secure their territory. Campbell has spoken with individuals all along the pipeline, from miners to soldiers to smugglers, and the grim portrait he paints will make many people think twice about buying another diamond. While Matthew Hart's Diamond: A Journey to the Heart of an Obsession covered the international diamond trade more widely, this focused study of the catastrophic effect of blood diamonds on Sierra Leone belongs in all libraries. Publisher: Basic Books Genre: Nonfiction

No Condition is Permanent by Cristina Kessler
In her first novel, Kessler (One Night) explores sophisticated issues of cultural contrast between life in America and a remote African village through the eyes of a 14-year-old California girl. Providing an educational look into Sierra Leone's traditions and language, the author creates a likeable main character who is realistically headstrong and good-hearted. When Jodie's mother receives a grant to study in Sierra Leone, the girl suddenly finds herself living with snakes and scorpions and without electricity or indoor plumbing. She does find a soulmate in Khadi, a local girl who helps her see the beauty of the village and the culture ("Having Khadi, who I could barely talk to, hold my hand, as we walked past huts and goats seemed totally natural"). But when Khadi comes of age and is inducted into the women's Secret Society, which practices female circumcision, Jodie must decide whether or not to interfere. She wants to spare Khadi the pain (and possibility of infection or even death) but knows that getting involved might alienate her from her friend and banish her and her mother from their community. Jodie's observations of life in Sierra Leone occasionally read like exoticism ("Khadi, bare-breasted as usual and dripping wet, looked like a picture out of an art book"), and the ending, though realistic, comes a bit abruptly. Overall, the novel does a solid job of combining a complicated issue with a compelling plot. Ages 10-14. Publisher: Philomel Genre: Young Adult Fiction

Where Witch Birds Fly by Eugene Harkins
In the twilight of the Cold War, a strange and horrific civil war erupted in Sierra Leone that would ultimately lead to a UN War Crimes Tribunal for Crimes Against Humanity. Where Witch Birds Fly captures the toxic brew of forces at play in the small West African country—Big Oil, Big Diamonds, competing outside powers, foreign mercenaries, and the local dominant Lebanese Christian trading community––all intriguing to pillage the African population’s assets, degrading and destroying its chances for development to the point that a brutal insurrection breaks out. Here amid the tumult, an African-American international lawyer comes face to face with all that he is, and all that he has become. Many years enjoyment of the accoutrements of professional success—sharp clothes, fast cars, and flashy white women—have left Richard White feeling troubled and alone. Long-term psychoanalysis has brought no peace. He is wrestling with an identity crisis brought on by rejection of his black, lower-class background, and estrangement from his family and community. White first arrives in Sierra Leone during the Cold War on a mission to collect a forty million dollar oil debt owed by the local Freetown refinery. There, even as he is swept into the ex-patriate community’s bacchanal, his pursuit of an ancestral linkage to the country via the slave trade begins. He returns a second time, post-Cold War, representing Lebanese interests in the largely illicit diamond trade, only to be kidnapped and held for ransom by Foday Sankoh’s Revolutionary United Front. The anguish of Sierra Leone will change Richard White’s life. Publisher: Clarity Press Genre: Historical Fiction; Mystery

Sierra Leone by Judy L. Hesday
Although graced with picturesque beaches, lush rain forests, and abundant diamond mines, the tiny West African nation of Sierra Leone is a land haunted by tragedy. It is the region from which the first slaves in North America were brought during the 1600s. A century later, thousands of freed staves would establish a settlement called Freetown, which later became part of the British colony of Sierra Leone. Despite its diamond resources, Sierra Leone remained a poverty-stricken nation after achieving independence in 1961. During the 1990s, its people were devastated by horrific atrocities that occurred during a brutal civil war. Since peace came to the troubled nation in 2002, Sierra Leone has begun the slow process of rebuilding. However, much work must still be done before Sierra Leone can become a peaceful and prosperous nation. Publisher: Mason Crest Genre: Young Adult (10-12), Nonfiction, Series

The Secret Keeper by Paul Harris
Sierra Leone's decades-long civil war and its tragic legacy of lost boy soldiers serve as the backdrop for Harris's journeyman debut. When Danny Kellerman, a British journalist in the midst of a flourishing career and a faltering marriage, receives an unexpected note pleading for help from Maria Tirado, a children's relief worker who was his lover during his brief assignment in Sierra Leone four years earlier, he does a Google search on her. To his horror, Danny learns that Maria was murdered before her note reached him in what authorities in Sierra Leone are sweeping under the carpet as a botched roadside robbery. Determined to learn the truth, Danny finagles his way back to West Africa, where he uncovers dangerous truths that suggest his government and his friends aren't the upstanding paragons he took them for. While the surprise-filled final chapter may strike some as a hastily contrived escape hatch, Harris shows a flair for intrigue that bodes well for future novels. Publisher: Dutton Adult Genre: Nonfiction, Memoir

The Devil That Danced on the Water: A Daughter's Quest by Aminatta Forna
Forna saw her father for the last time on July 30, 1974; she was 10 years old. In this harrowing memoir-cum-detective story, journalist Forna searches for the truth about her father's execution in Sierra Leone after his treason conviction for allegedly attempting a coup upon the government in which he had once been a cabinet minister. Mohamed Forna, a British-educated doctor and activist in what was, in the 1960s, a fledgling democracy extricating itself from British colonialist rule, resigned from what had become a dictatorship rife with corruption and chaos. The consequences of that resignation culminated in eight executions and precipitated the descent into anarchy of Africa's poorest nation. Forna writes with a compelling mix of distance and anguish, intent on explaining her father's death and reclaiming his memory. Lush descriptions of her idyllic childhood provide eerie counterpoint to chilling depictions of the hell Sierra Leone had become upon her return in recent years, a place where bands of child warriors, hacking off limbs as both punishment and warning, have created a mutilated populace. The poverty her father tried to fight remains the only constant in the war-torn land. A harsh critic of her father's executioners, Forna nevertheless equivocates on the dictatorships that have wreaked havoc throughout Africa, querying her own identity as a diaspora mixed-race Afro-European. Reminiscent of Isabelle Allende's House of the Spirits, Forna's work is a powerfully and elegantly written mix of complex history, riveting memoir and damning expos. Publisher: Grove Press Genre: Memoir; Politics

The Lassa Ward: One Man's Fight Against One of the World's Deadliest Diseases by Ross Donaldson
Ross Donaldson is one of just a few who have ventured into dark territory of a country ravaged by war to study one of the world’s most deadly diseases. As an untried medical student studying the intersection of global health and communicable disease, Donaldson soon found himself in dangerous Sierra Leone, on the border of war-struck Liberia, where he struggled to control the spread of Lassa Fever. The words, “you know Lassa can kill you, don’t you?” haunted him each day. With the country in complete upheaval and working conditions suffering, he is forced to make life-and-death decisions alone as a never-ending onslaught of contagious patients flood the hospital. Soon however, he is not only fighting for others but himself when he becomes afflicted with a life threatening disease. The Lassa Ward is more than just an adventure story about the making of a physician; it is a portrait of the Sierra Leone people and the human struggle of those risking their daily comforts and lives to aid them. Publisher: St. Martin's Press Genre: Memoir; Medical

Notes from My Travels by Angelina Jolie
Three years ago, award-winning actress Angelina Jolie took on a radically different role as a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Here are her memoirs from her journeys to Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Pakistan, Cambodia, and Ecuador, where she lived and worked and gave her heart to those who suffer the world's most shattering violence and victimization. Here are her revelations of joy and warmth amid utter destitution...compelling snapshots of courageous and inspiring people for whom survival is their daily work?and candid notes from a unique pilgrimage that completely changed the actress's worldview — and the world within herself. Publisher: Simon & Schuster Genre: Memoir

The Bite of the Mango by Mariatu Kamara and Susan McCleelland
Relaying her experiences as a child in Sierra Leone during the 1990s, Kamara chillingly evokes the devastating effects of war. Mariatu is 11 when her tiny village is decimated by rebel soldiers, many of them children like her. Forced to watch as peaceful villagers are tortured and murdered, Mariatu is finally allowed to go free—but only after boy soldiers cut off her hands: We want you to go to the president, they tell her, and show him what we did to you. You wont be able to vote for him now. Mariatus long walk to get medical aid marks the first stage of a harrowing journey to build a new life for herself and other wartime victims; she now lives in Canada and is a UNICEF representative. Written with journalist McClelland, her story is deeply personal yet devoid of self-pity. As it aims to correct misperceptions about Sierra Leone and to raise awareness of the needs of child victims of war, this book will unsettle readers—and then inspire them with the evidence of Mariatus courage. Ages 14–up. Publisher: Annick Press Genre: Young Adult, Nonfiction

Black Man's Grave: Letters from Sierra Leone by Gary JR Stewart and John Anman
Black Man's Grave chronicles the hijacking of Sierra Leone's fledgling democracy by corrupt politicians, the plundering of the country's diamonds, and the rise of the notorious Revolutionary United Front. Based on letters from villagers to the authors, both former Peace Corps Volunteers in Sierra Leone, the book exposes 'big man' Siaka Stevens, warlord Charles Taylor, and rebel leader Foday Sankoh. Publisher: Cold Run Books Genre: Memoir; Politics; History

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Do you know of books about the Sioux that you want to share? Or do you want to share other thoughts? Please leave a note in the comments!

Be sure to check back next week for another trip in books! Here is what is coming up for the next three Take Me Away Saturday posts:
August 8: A visit to the Asian country of India.
August 15: A visit to the South American country of Brazil.
August 22: The culture of the Aborigines of Australia.
August 29: The African country of Egypt.

The Take Me Away Map of Countries Visited:


  1. I read another one of Aminatta Forna's books called Ancestor Stones. I can't remember if it was set in the same place. I like the look of the Angelina Jolie one too.

  2. I have read several books on the list but saw a couple of others that will be going on my reading list.
    As I like reading books about other cultures, I so love this series and look forward to seeing what will be posted.

  3. You find the most amazing things! Thanks!!!

  4. Wow, another fantastic post, Rebecca! I don't think I have heard of any of these books or authors. It's so incredibly disheartening to see what lengths people will go to when they are motivated by greed.
    I'm really looking forward to your next few posts. Have a great week

  5. A Long Way Gone is the only one I already know about. I just haven't been in the mood for non fiction for a long time now. You sure did a good job of coming up with some good, and interesting books on the topic. The Secret Keeper (I'm positive it's fiction by the way) and the Lassa Ward appeal to me most, though I have no doubt I would be entertained and enlightened by any of them. Thanks again for the wonderful job you do with this feature.

  6. What a great group of books. They look like excellent reads, though heart-breaking

  7. Long Way Gone was gut-wrenching. You listed some fantastic looking books that I'm going to have to read!! Have I told you how much I love this feature on your blog??? I do, I do, I do!!!!

  8. So many great books about Sierra Leone! My brother and I saw the author of A Long Way Gone on The Daily Show and he got the book from the bookstore because it sounded so interesting. I forgot to ask him if he liked it or not.


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