Saturday, December 27, 2008

In Sierra Leone, by Michael Jackson

Many years ago I was terribly impressed by a book Paths Toward a Clearing by the anthropologist Michael Jackson. I just picked up his interesting short book chock-full of vignettes and anecdotes, centered on Jackson's recent stay in Sierra Leone while he "ghost-authored" the autobiography of S.B. Marah, a very prominent political figure and friend. I knew very little about politics and the war, so everything was quite interesting. Jackson writes at a nice clip, though the seemingly regular asides about how a particular feature of life in Sierra Leone illustrated/deepened a sentence here or there from Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition was disconcerting. Surely she is not the source of all insights into the human condition? Was it deliberate, to refer to her enough times to be noted by the reader? Part of the strategy of this otherwise aimless reflection? Don't get me wrong, the book is fascinating and a great read for someone not knowledgeable about Sierra Leone.

There is a nice meditation on what young men want, when they leave their villages and commit awful atrocities. Power, of course, but what kind of power? "...A vast array of imperatives, any one of which an individual may consider vital to his very existence-- manhood, wealth, work, education, status, strength, renown-- though it eludes his grasp." (p. 147)

Another interesting point is asking why the young soldiers dressed up. "Because no laws or rules applied to them; it was to show that they could do anything," is the answer proffered by a young friend.

I liked S.B. Marah's observation on p. 165: "In some countries you see photographs of all the past leaders, whether good or bad, but in other countries, as soon as a new leader comes along, they drop all the photographs and things associated with the former leader. That, I feel, is not good."

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