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Boeke | Books > Rubrieke | Columns > English > African Library

Delia Jarrett-Macauley: Moses, Citizen and Me

Annie Gagiano - 2010-01-13

Moses, Citizen and Me
Author: Delia Jarrett-Macauley
Publication date: 2005

In a passage close to the end of this text the narrator (a woman who, like this novel’s author, grew up and lives in Britain but is of Sierra Leonean parentage) speculates about the home in Freetown in which she has been staying during an extended visit to her Uncle Moses, a photographer:

We could fix the place up a bit and display the photographs. We could build the photography archive here and set aside space for visitors to come and look at those lovely mysterious images of Alphonso Lisk-Carew, and the photographs of people up-country by Decker and so much more by Uncle Moses. We could do this together. And we should add those shameless scenes from which we always want to shield our eyes.

Here was the gift of a daydream that could shape our lives. Follow it and there would be a home for Moses, Citizen and me, and the night dreams could be surrendered. Follow it and see how the veil thins between one world and another, one person and another. (225)

Jarrett-Macauley has objected to her novel being read as primarily or exclusively concerned with the fate and fact of Sierra Leonean (and other African) child soldiers, hinting at the larger project of which the passage cited above may give readers some indication. If one glimpses the symbolic resonance of the details of this particular extract, one can see that she focuses on the notion of establishing a true record of Sierra Leonean society and history. She seems to want to do this while simultaneously acknowledging and including the terrible, more recent civil war history of Sierra Leone – but placing it within the larger, fuller perspective of a lengthier, whole history and a more inclusive social spectrum. Her novel rather wonderfully breaks through the merely sensationalist images of bloodletting and severing of limbs (as the most widely known activities of Sierra Leoneans broadcast by the international media). Seeing her uncle’s and earlier Sierra Leonean photographers’ pictures, the narrator remarks:

I’d never seen so many prosperous turn-of-the-century costumes, so many brass buttons or stiff white sleeves in an African setting. These images were a world away from the chaotic Freetown of today. So many people have died here, but in those prints there was no sign of despair, death, war and mutilation, not a gesture to our utter degradation. (44)

Moses, Citizen and Me is a justly acclaimed text, a profoundly humane novel that uses the moving account of the narrator’s imagined and imaginative recuperative efforts to help her mother’s brother Moses relate to his eight-year-old grandson, nicknamed Citizen, in the knowledge that the boy had (with himself held at gunpoint) shot and killed his grandmother, Moses’ beloved wife Adele. Citizen’s real name is George – he was lovingly given his nickname by his parents, both evidently slaughtered by the suddenly appearing band of maverick “soldiers” who had forced him into the murder of his grandmother as an initiation into the civil war. This kind of horrific conscription rite of young children was (or is) not limited to Sierra Leone or to the African continent, but Jarrett-Macauley demonstrates by means of her text how the continent’s people, with the gratefully accepted help of some committed foreigners, can find methods of healing and of societal and familial reintegration.

Jarrett-Macauley (who has written a highly rated historical biography of a Sierra Leonean woman leader, but whose first novel this is) uses an interesting technique of interspersing vivid scenes that are outlined in realistic detail with vividly imagined and “realised” dream scenes. Many references are made in the novel to the narrator’s uncle’s photographs of ordinary Sierra Leoneans and to earlier compatriots of his who similarly photographically documented aspects of this diverse society. But the major intertexts in the novel are, respectively, Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar and the Krio version of the play – a 1964 translation by a Sierra Leonean playwright and patriot named Thomas Decker, who called it Juliohs Siza. Although English is the official language of the country, Krio (a Creole that has adapted English to a number of African languages such as Mende and Temne) is by far the most widely spoken language of Sierra Leone. The devastating decade-long civil war referred to in the text as the immediate past did not break the society along ethnic lines, but had more to do with rebellion against an unsatisfactory government and vastly uneven resource distribution, fomented by Liberian backing for the rebels from across the border. As experienced by ordinary people and portrayed by Jarrett-Macauley, the war was an undeserved eruption of brutal violence and mayhem overtaking peaceful villagers – an extreme disruption of families (as in Moses’ and Citizen’s case) being quite characteristic of the way in which this war was conducted. According to the narrator, “Darkness, when it descended, kissed away the orange-purple light of the villages and the silver sheen of the seashore. Now it was blackness for true” (1).

The narrator is summoned back to Sierra Leone by a caring neighbour of her uncle’s, Anita, but even though Anita reports truthfully that Moses needs his niece to come over and help him overcome the violent deaths of (in particular) his wife as well as his daughter and son-in-law, all at the latter’s small farm, she does not tell Julia that the surviving grandson, Citizen, had killed Moses’ wife, his own grandmother, and had spent years in the bush war. Julia is a single, 40-year-old woman; her Uncle Moses had become her favourite relative and a kind of surrogate father to her on his several visits to her mother in London. On arrival she finds a ravaged city and a devastated uncle, but nothing had prepared her for the encounter with the traumatised Citizen, “this eight-year-old boy in his torn shirt” whose “colouring is [hers]”, but “whose spirit [is] so far removed from anything [she] had ever met” (7) that she nearly bursts out in helpless tears. The child was brought back to his grandfather’s home with the latter’s permission, but lives there like a little wild beast, really still homeless, while Julia “could not get Uncle Moses to say anything at all about him, not even to mention his name” (15). By means of Jarrett-Macauley’s account, the notion of rehabilitation gets a deepened meaning as a return to home, to convey the idea of being accommodated in the full sense of that word. With a child as profoundly harmed as this boy, it will prove a difficult task indeed. As Julia says: “Futilely I tried to bring him back into our life but I was too clumsy. It was as though each time you try to pour a drink, it spills” (15).

The mending and the bringing back down to earth and ordinariness that needs to happen in this family has to happen in Sierra Leonean society at large, hence Julia’s encounters and engagements with a much wider range of beings – real, imagined and deceased people and their spirits, as well as animals – than only her uncle and his grandson. Also: healing of this kind cannot, of course, happen in isolation, nor could a single healer achieve it by herself.

Julia sees Citizen, “this wretched child soldier”, as both “confused and confusing” (15). He is neither a child nor an adult and he does not speak to anyone. She also encounters and needs to find a way of dealing with her uncle’s “despairing glances” and with the images of “men, women and children on sticks, waiting for limbs” that she sees in the city, producing "a permanent tension, [one] which engulfed [her] too along with the encroaching darkness” (18). Yet Julia resents and wants to resist the paralysis of despair and starts the great undertaking that this text records. Even though, unlike his estranged grandson, Moses has remained and still lives in his old, familiar home, he, too, is “lost” (22). Where can Julia start? Aside from being a comfortable companion for her uncle and lending a ready ear to his many fascinating reminiscences about life in an earlier, pre-war Sierra Leone, she has to find a way to communicate with and understand where and what the little boy Citizen has been and how he and his grandfather can be reconnected. To do so, she decides, she must begin by finding out more about the experiences of child soldiers. She goes to visit a care centre for children affected by the war – displaced; orphaned; conscripted as child soldiers; or raped and abused. Most of the children at the camp are boys; some only six years old. There are also a few girls and these tend to be older teenagers, Julia notes. She sees physically and emotionally damaged children; Anita, her uncle’s kindly neighbour, simply administers skin lotion, cheerful compassion and good food.

Julia gets to talk to the girl Sally, to whom the priest in charge of the camp refers as Citizen’s “little mother” (33): several years older than he, she had run away with him from their commander and bush camp, hiding along the roads until they were eventually picked up and brought to the rehabilitation camp in Freetown by a friendly truck driver. Julia also meets a little boy known as Corporal Kalashnikov because he was neurotically clinging to his weapon and (like so many child soldiers) drug-addicted, half crazed by constant chemical intake. Almost dazed by the demand on her feelings caused by the camp’s sights and stories, Julia goes home with Anita to Anita’s confident, normal daughters – her older daughter Elizabeth, a lovely twenty-year-old, had been the one to recognise Citizen in the camp where she was visiting her boyfriend, who worked there. With true, humane instinct she cut through red tape and simply brought the boy over to his grandfather’s home. Anita’s second and much younger daughter, close in age to the eight-year-old Citizen, though initially quite disdainful of the boy, slowly warms to him and allows him to join in her make-believe games and to be the audience to her stories, in which she herself always stars. These are further important steps towards re-absorbing Citizen into ordinary life, though by no means sufficient by themselves. However, Julia (without this being spelt out by the author) evidently learns from Sara’s example that it works to treat the boy in a matter of fact way – at least initially. From Anita, Julia has learnt how appreciatively a child soldier’s wounded skin responds to gently applied, soothing lotion – for Citizen’s skin, too, is covered in weals.

Jarrett-Macauley, as observed earlier, unobtrusively folds a type of magic realism into this narrative of a difficult family reunion. Hence Anita, Moses’ motherly neighbour and by now Julia’s good friend and adviser, insists on plaiting her hair more loosely so that she can “see things better” (51) – and so she does. She begins to “see” Sierra Leone, and in particular its child soldiers, as they were during the war, acquiring an imaginary dream guide, a girl with a baby riding on a military truck. She is spiritually transported to the day on which Citizen and his best wartime friend Abu (an eleven-year-old) had their childhood destroyed by their brutalised and cruel unit commander of the “number-one-burning-houses unit”, Lieutenant Ibrahim. In Citizen’s and the other younger boys’ presence, Ibrahim, for the third day of their enforced seven-day march into the bush beat Abu severely with a huge stick – for crying, as they are all doing: disheartened, disoriented, exhausted, bewildered and nearly starving, wanting only the mothers from whom they have been forever separated. They have been told that they must fight for their rights! Ibrahim warns Abu that if he dares cry again, he will be killed. The narrator observes (imagining the little boys’ feelings): “In Citizen’s heart, in all their hearts, the beating reverberated like a drum. When would the drum break?” (52). Julia now identifies the girl who has beckoned her into following Citizen’s unit: she is the child whom Ibrahim had made his “wife”. Julia has passed “through a door to another world” (54) where only the sympathetic imagination can take one, and she takes the reader with her.

After depicting the torching of a village and the terrible scenes of the destruction of ordinary life and relationships that ensue, the narrator "sees" Citizen and Abu returning to “their” camp, where a newly recruited, conscripted boy is offered what comfort and advice they can provide: ““The first night is always the worst,’ Abu consoled him”; and “Do what they say or they will kill you,” they tell him (62). We learn that Citizen got a bad beating for his inability to flog another boy as he was ordered. In contrast, another boy is referred to as “trigger-happy Thomas”, bragging about having killed eleven people. As the boys are “seen” marching off to their next station, Julia “hears” them singing, hauntingly, a poignant song about their lost homes. A succeeding realistic passage tells how Citizen had been discovered at a care centre by Elizabeth and how Uncle Moses, who had had a premonition of the boy’s return, had said, “Let him come, let me see his face” – even though most other people were violently prejudiced against the ex-child soldiers for the atrocities they had participated in or committed, saying bitter things like “better throw these devils into a crypt where skeletons go to live”. But “when Moses set eyes on his grandson, he could barely conceal the quaking within” (78). The boy was still in a state of terror – an orphan haunted by the memories of what he had done and what had been done to him.

What can be done with and for children like this? In her perplexity Julia calls to mind or invents a village shaman and in her imagination she begins to construct the ideal place of healing for them – a safe space around a huge silk-cotton tree in the forested area in the north of Sierra Leone, near where some of the worst atrocities of the civil war took place. The old shaman is pictured receiving the lost and war-ravaged boys and a few girls. His way of initially engaging with them is to start teaching them mathematics – but he does so in entirely practical and local terms, lightly challenging them as well as teaching them the relevance of counting, accounting, analysis and structure. The children are also brought back into childhood by being engaged in game-playing and storytelling, although narratives at first bring out the uglier, fiercely competitive side of several boys. Bemba G, the wise old forest-dweller, works out a game of exertion and chance to establish an order of narration, also instructing the children in the BME (beginning, middle, end) rule for constructing their stories.

At home with Uncle Moses, Julia is introduced, through his family albums, to Citizen the little baby and Citizen the dapper little schoolboy, safe with his adoring parents on their smallholding before the war invaded it; robust and confident, unlike the confused and malnourished boy retrieved from the war zone.

Back in the imaginary forest setting, the healing process strikes the first of many hitches: the children feel betrayed because they were sent away and back into the war (so Julia imagines it) and told to come back to the silk-cotton tree after two days, since the safe space had not yet been properly secured at the time of the first meeting there. And the stories they tell are awful and dismaying.

In the meantime, the camp life is imagined as taking structure and a flexible, suitable routine. What is added to mealtimes, mathematics, storytelling and playtime is the rehearsal of Juliohs Siza / Julius Caesar (the children are free to use either the Shakespearean verse or those of the modern Krio version by Decker), most of the children having been assigned parts in the drama, not a line of which is to be cut in their eventual performance. Jarrett-Macauley suggests how important it is not to underrate such children’s maturity, intelligence and performance skills, by depicting them as fully able to grasp the political implications of the play, its profound insight into human motives and ambitions and the significant parallels between the Roman world depicted in the drama and Sierra Leone before, during and after the civil war. Nor do they shirk the immensely hard work required to acquire the necessary skills and rehearse the complicated stage actions and lengthy speeches.

The author vividly imagines also, nevertheless, the tensions, authority challenges and fiercely jealous ambitions that erupt over the course of the rehearsal period among the child actors and actresses. In one especially poignant moment, a former boy soldier, ironically named Victor, rushes to Julia in a panic, declaring in anguish: “[M]y head is blowing up!” Anticipating her later discovery that Citizen, too, was branded by his captors, Julia discovers that Victor has had letters inscribed into the back of his head – presumably to make him identifiable and retrievable by his commanders, should he attempt to escape (152). She manages to soothe him eventually: physically, by caressing the scarred place, and emotionally, by getting him to recall small pleasurable things from his pre-war life; and she remarks that “he made me an offering from the darkness of his memory of things he used to like – food roasted outside; milk in his own cup; milk moustache on his lips; his harmonica; his bicycle” (153).

On another terrible afternoon, Julia, along with Citizen the last to return from an afternoon’s swimming in the river, finds him brandishing his knife (which, against the rules, he had secretly retrieved from their weapons store). She is horrified, terrified and furious at the depth of aggression in the small boy, but refuses to show him her fear, and he ends up surrendering the knife. Later on he shows her that he has transferred his civil war identification number (439K), incised on his skin and traced by his fingers since he cannot see it, to a block of wood, and Julia suggests that he ritually bury the enslaving, fetishised number on the piece of wood, deep in the forest, and helps him do it. This is a key moment:

On the way back, walking in front, his head upright, he kept his hands cradled before him as though to protect his clothing from their mud. He stepped lightly over the forest floor and ignored me completely. Against the white snows of the Antarctic his small black frame would not have looked more distinct: when you are as lonely as that, even nature cannot touch you.

By the time we reached the compound, I could barely keep my eyes open but I saw him to his mat; as he lay down to sleep, I covered his legs with my own lappa. (164)

Later on during the rehearsal period a major attempted rebellion erupts among the young actors, prompted partly by “ordinary” stage fright about the coming performance of the play and partly (more seriously) by the difficulty children like these have in trusting that their efforts will be respectfully contemplated. Bemba G manages to regain authority, restore calm and reassure them. He contrasts mere stage fright with the fear of war as they have experienced it and Julia (in a long, highlighted passage) imagines aspects of the war from such children’s perspective: “labour in the sun or the rain: burn villages, kill people, cut limbs, clean and polish guns, gather water; steal food, cut bush, stack grain. Risk life” (176). It is the last phrase that sums up the terrible unnaturalness of the life they have been leading. So does Julia’s realisation that, among the countless scenarios the playwright Decker might have imagined for his Juliohs Siza, “surely never this one with performers who knew what it was to see a throat being slit” (209). Yet, as Julia later also says (about her uncle’s grandson, also in an italicised passage): “You were never meant to be a soldier; just a boy-citizen first named George” (195).

Since Citizen does not speak, and is especially terrified of doing so on stage, in front of an audience, Julia finds the perfect part for him – as Lucius, Brutus’s boy-servant who plays the lute for the leader of the conspiracy against Caesar. In this way, Citizen can sing, which he is able to do beautifully, and the song he sings is one he has remembered from his pre-war life; a Malian love-song. During the play performance (a huge success), Julia particularly observes Citizen:

Citizen lifted his head. He looked about, seeking out the living faces of the actors filling the tent. But his eyes said there was a dream, a dream of self-mortification. His face spoke of a heart softening from fossil to pearly shell. His open lips said the shell was ready to be broken. (208)

This seems an appropriate place to end my account of Jarrett-Macauley’s remarkable text.