About the book
Told partly through the diaries of Emmanuel Martin, a boy on the threshold of adulthood, Redemption Song is the story of how war came to a peaceful, if impoverished, country and tore it apart. However, as Emmanuel grows up and his life unfolds, all is not doom and gloom...
?Redemption song holds the reader?s attention from start to finish and is not easy to put down. There are flashes of humour despite the serious content, and the final chapters leave the reader with hope for the future of those who are trying to rebuild their lives. ?
Farid R. Anthony
Author of Sawpit Boy and Stories from Sierra Leone
About the author
Author of two previously published novels, Road to Freedom and Bittersweet, Yema Lucilda Hunter was born and grew up in Freetown, Sierra Leone. She had her secondary education at the Annie Walsh Memorial School in Freetown and completed her studies in the United Kingdom. For many years she worked as the Librarian at the Connaught Hospital in Freetown before taking up an appointment at the Regional Office for Africa of the World Health Organization in Congo Brazzaville. Now retired and a grandmother, she lives with her Husband in Accra, Ghana.
In the capital of a tiny West African republic two men, one much taller than the other, had a quiet chat one morning while making their way round the yard of the main prison. The men had to inch along like a couple of snails because the yard was swarming with other prisoners. They were all dressed alike in faded khaki shorts and the simplest of khaki shirts.
?My brother,? said the tall one, trying to avoid a fellow prisoner so wasted and stooped after years of bad food and back-breaking work that he resembled a mutant human being ? similar to, but not quite the same as the others, ?as for me, all I want in this life is to have plenty of money by the time I am fifty...big, big money.?
?Let God hear you,? the shorter one replied; but his companion could tell from the half-hearted way he spoke thatbecoming enormously wealthy was not an ambition they had in common. Nevertheless, the tall one asked, ?Do you know why?? Before the shorter one could open his mouth again, the tall one supplied the answer.
?It is because in this country people only respect you when you have plenty of money.?
?You can say that again,? agreed the shorter one, who was called Kelli Kanekeh, ?but becoming a money man is not what I am praying for. I want to pay back those bastards who put me in this place. I want to disgrace them the way they disgraced me. I want to make them suffer the way they have made me suffer. In fact, I want to make them suffer more.?
Rage consumed Kelli Kanekeh whenever he remembered how humiliated and afraid he had felt at the time of his arrest, the travesty of justice the trial had been ? at least in his embittered opinion ? and his subsequent imprisonment. To make matters worse, his wife, Ayi, missing his regular income and a free bag of rice every month, soon transferred her affections to a serving soldier. This betrayal had deepened Kanekeh?s sense of being trampled into the dust.
When feeling particularly incensed, Kanekeh would let loose a string of insults under his breath ? always directed, not at the President, whom he held chiefly responsible for his troubles, but at the head of state?s long-dead mother. He blamed the poor woman for raising a son without morals or conscience. That conversation in the prison yard did not arouse one of those incandescent rages, but as he expressed his desire for revenge, Kelli Kanekeh clenched one hand into a fist and slammed it into the palm of the other, causing his friend to lower his voice even further.
?Cool down, man,? he said, ?cool down.?
Pablo Malick, the taller man, had observed that drawing attention to oneself was unwise in the presence of the edgy prison guards. Heeding his warning, Kelli Kanekeh quickly dropped his hands to his sides.
?Yes-o,? he said, furtively glancing right and left. ?Let me not give them any reason to punish me more.?
At that moment, the siren?s elephant blare, summoned them back to their separate cells, and they never followed up that particular conversation; but it was to prove extremely significant.
Both men were in their mid-thirties at the time. Kelli Kanekeh, a former army sergeant had been arrested for allegedly knowing about a plot to overthrow the government and failing to report it to the appropriate authorities. He had sworn on his mother?s grave that he was innocent of the charge ? misprision of treason, they called it? but two witnesses for the prosecution contradicted his version of events and the jury chose to believe them. Pablo Malick, on the other hand, had fallen foul of a powerful business associate who consequently betrayed him to the Anti-Smuggling Unit of the police. He was caught on board a KLM flight about to leave for Amsterdam, with seven hundred and fifty uncut diamonds hidden in a plastic container of palm oil supposedly for a relative in England.
What first drew the men together was a shared passion for keeping fit. While most of the other prisoners on exercise slouched around the yard like kicked dogs, these two ran on the spot for ten minutes, shadow-boxed for five then, ignoring grit and small sharp stones digging into their palms, did one hundred push-ups. This punishing routine always ended with them slumped to the ground where they remained for several minutes, heaving and exhausted, hence they hardly ever had time to finish walking around the prison yard before the siren?s deafening blast.
Malick, who was serving a two-year sentence, stepped through the imposing black gates of the prison a free man again, eighteen months after that conversation. He immediately started working towards his goal by successfully smuggling small quantities of locally grown marijuana into Europe. A business trip to South-east Asia which exposed him to even more lucrative possibilities, made him add heroin to his illicit merchandise. And when he realised the fabulous returns on even modest amounts of cocaine, he included that banned substance to his secret inventory as well.
For two or three years his fixed deposit bank accounts grew as steadily as beer guzzlers? bellies, then luck deserted him. He was on the point of establishing his own team of drug couriers when, as he passed through the customs hall at a British airport one fine spring morning, police dogs out on a random patrol, sniffed cocaine on his shoes. That misfortune was the result of a visit to a clandestine drug packaging workshop on the very day of his overnight flight. Before he could collect his thoughts or make any protest, he was hustled away in handcuffs and into a white van with blacked out windows.
Malick?s arrest led to another, much stiffer jail sentence, but consoled by the knowledge that his well-hidden wealth was still secure and growing, thanks to the interest on his savings accounts, he almost succeeded in shrugging off the sentence as a providential rest stop. Of course, it helped that the British prison system tried harder to reform convicts than the one he had experienced in his own country. He used his time in jail to study for ?O? level maths and passed his exam with credit. The prison authorities never discovered that studying was a mere pastime with this prisoner, or that his exemplary behaviour and professions of remorse were deceptions meant to influence them in his favour. They knocked three years off his ten-year sentence for good behaviour, then had him deported.
Kanekeh, meanwhile, had spent three more years in prison and the eight years after his release drifting along the West African coast by land and by sea. He worked at different times as a ship?s cook, a security guard, a middle-man for a rice merchant, a diamond miner and finally, with the help of a bicycle he was able to purchase on credit, as an itinerant supplier of video films for rental. None of these endeavours brought him any closer to satisfying his thirst for revenge and his enemies remained firmly in power. Small wonder then that bitterness had etched grooves on either side of his mouth and cast a deeper shadow over his brooding countenance.
It was at that low point in his life that Kanekeh met Malick again - a chance encounter at the entrance of the Lebanese shop which provided the video cassettes he rented out to clients operating film parlours in the surrounding towns. A large faded sign hanging from the roof of the building, announced to the world in huge blue and red letters that the proprietor of the shop was Samir Hariri, General Merchant. On this particular afternoon, having completed his latest transaction, Kanekeh was just about to wheel his bicycle down the two steps leading from a porch to the street, when a metallic grey Toyota Land Cruiser with blacked out windows pulled up outside the shop, raising red dust and crunching gravel on the unpaved road.
At the sight of the passenger who stepped nimbly out of the vehicle, Kanekeh dropped his bicycle and risked a twisted ankle in his hurry to reach the new arrival. He cried out, ?I can?t believe it! Malick! My brother, is that you?...Is that really you??
Eleven years had gone by since he last set eyes on Malick who, with an equally delighted exclamation, stooped to wrap his arms around his former comrade in adversity.
?Yes, my brother, it is really me. Have you forgotten? This is my hometown.?
The two men stepped back and appraised each other for a moment, the way people sometimes do after a long separation. Kanekeh took in Malick?s well built form and handsome face with its high-bridged nose and greyish-green eyes, his snakeskin shoes, heavy gold bracelet and necklace complete with embossed medallion. He also noted the perfect fit of his grey safari suit which could only have been achieved by an expensive tailor.
?Look at you!? he said, trying not to betray envy, ?your dream came true-eh??
Malick responded with a gesture of dismissal.
?Far from it, my brother, far from it. Money is coming, I won?t deny that, but far too slowly for my liking.?
?So long as the tap keeps on flowing...? Kanekeh answered. ?After all, you are still young??
?Young!? Malick protested. ?Soon I shall be fifty.?
?Well, perhaps you were too ambitious,? said Kanekeh.
Disagreeing, Malick replied, ?No, my brother. It?s just that I have had a few setbacks.?
Kanekeh raised his eyebrows in surprise.
?Enh!! Well, from what I can see, not many.?
At this, Malick simply laughed and clapped his friend fondly on the back.
?It?s been a long, long time,? he said. ?Come inside, let?s talk.?
Kanekeh was grateful that Malick seemed not to have noticed his own shabby appearance. Thanks to the rigorous exercise routine he still followed every morning, though chasing fifty himself, his belly remained as flat and hard as a board, and the muscles in his arms like thick ropes. But he was well aware that his much laundered polo shirt and fraying trousers, proclaimed him to be a man with shallow pockets.
Malick led him back into the shop, where Hariri was leaning over the counter, picking his tobacco-stained teeth as he waited for customers. Casually informing him, that he was borrowing the office for a while, Malick entered a back room and beckoned to Kanekeh to follow. Evidently, Hariri had no objection to Malick?s offhand manner because a few minutes later, a smiling young assistant arrived bearing a tray on which rested small porcelain cups without handles, containing strong black coffee laden with sugar. By this time, the two men were sitting at a table and as the aroma of the coffee wafted over it, a fiercer pang of envy clutched at Kanekeh?s heart. Indeed, this world is not level, he thought sourly. Malick was right. Without money people treated you as if you were a nobody. He had been doing business with Samir Hariri for almost three years, yet the man had never once offered him even water in a tin cup. He felt only slightly less resentful when Malick, sensing that an explanation was called for, mentioned that Hariri was his cousin on his father?s side.
?So what happened to you after you left ?the big yard?? Malick went on to ask.
?O, I travelled here and there,? Kanekeh replied. ?Travelled and worked for my living. Nothing worth mentioning...?
?And what about what you told me you wanted to do??
Kanekeh shrugged as he took another sip of the coffee, thinking as he did so that it was just as well that the cups were so ridiculously small. How could anyone enjoy drinking such a syrup?
?I soon realised that getting those people out of power could only be a dream,? he said, feigning indifference. ?And as you know, nothing has changed in this country. The bastards are still hanging on to power as if God Himself gave it to them...Perhaps if I had been able to go back into the army things might have been different ? people are really fed up now. They will dance in the streets, I know, if someone makes a coup; but as a civilian and one who has nothing, what can I do? Who would even listen to me? I tried to get money, you know. I mined diamonds for one whole year, but to be honest with you, I could not bear to have my legs soaking in dirty water for the whole day and every day?And as for parasites! Even after I left the washing sites, for a long time I used to feel as if little insects were walking up and down my legs??
Noticing that a blank look had replaced Malick?s previous expression of keen interest, Kanekeh paused, feeling rebuffed again.
Indeed, his friend?s mind had wandered along a different path altogether. Though he had been trying not to show it, the more he listened to Kanekeh, the more depressed Malick felt. How could the man be so resigned to his circumstances after talking so passionately about his desire for revenge? By now Kanekeh should have taken some action towards fulfilling his heart?s desire, unless that was all it had been - just talk. On the other hand, Malick mused, perhaps Kanekeh was one of those people who needed a push in the right direction as well as plenty of encouragement to get him going. His mind seemed fixed on a military coup, whereas a rebel movement like the ones happening all over Africa could be much more useful. It might lead to a full-scale war, which would open up all kinds of opportunities for making heaps of money...
?Sorry, my brother, sorry,? he said, roused from his reflection by the lengthening silence. ?An idea came to me while you were talking. Carry on; then I will tell you about it.?
?No, no, you carry on,? Kanekeh replied. ?I have finished.?
Ignoring his friend?s injured tone, Malick leaned forward with his shoulders hunched in a posture Kanekeh remembered well from some of their private conversations in the prison yard.
?My brother, one thing I have learned is that you have to make your own luck in this world. Otherwise, you will stay where you are and even deteriorate. You have to hustle...Haven?t you heard what is happening in Africa these days??
?What particular thing?? asked Kanekeh, not quite appeased. ?So much is always happening in this godforsaken part of the world...?
?Rebel movements? guerrilla warfare,? Malick told him.
?Oh, as for that. It is all you hear about on the BBC. Fighting here, fighting there. Displaced people, refugees... They say that man in Libya is the one training people.?
?It is true,? Malick replied. ?And what is more ? and I am sure you did not know this ? the training is free. All you have to do is go there. People are building up their own armies now. That is what you have to do if you want to pay those bastards back for what they did to you. Build up a small army and kick them out.?
Kanekeh laughed out loud, but with little amusement. Build up his own army! The idea was too ridiculous for words!
?Even if I am able to find the money to go to Libya,? he said, ?how will a poor man like me be able to afford to buy guns, let alone feed a whole army? Sometimes, I can hardly afford to feed myself...?
Malick?s cat-like eyes glinted, so focused now that Kanekeh felt as if they could see into the back of his skull.
?My brother, look here,? he snapped. ?Nothing is impossible if you are determined enough. Nothing whatsoever.?
Thumping his chest to emphasise the point, he went on, ?I have proved it. The only reason those people are still around is because nobody has been determined enough to get rid of them...Do you know how many passports I have??
Wondering where this seemingly irrelevant question was leading, Kanekeh merely shook his head.
?Five,? Malick informed him with a self-satisfied smile. ?Two of them are under false names and three I got from other countries. I went to jail in UK, you know? for seven years...?
?What!? Kanekeh exclaimed, while interjecting mentally, so that was one of the setbacks?
?And they deported me immediately afterwards, but do I care? I go to other countries and do my business without any hassle. You have to know how to move, my brother. Otherwise you won?t get anywhere-o. I?m telling you. You can get the training, build the army and throw them out. Just make up your mind to do it... When last did our army fight in any war? Do they even know how to fire guns properly? Do they even have guns to fire? And think how sweet your revenge will be. Those guys will never get over the shame and disgrace of being thrown out - especially if they run to places like England and America where no one will give a damn who they are. Even with all the money they have stolen, they will become nobodies. Nonentities. After all the bootlicking they are used to, it will kill them slowly and painfully? like a cancer spreading in their bones ...?
As he listened to Malick?s pep talk, Kanekeh?s imagination began to stir like a boa constrictor just finished digesting a goat. Could it be, he wondered, that this chance encounter was the answer to his daily prayer that his enemies should suffer the way they had made him suffer? His heartbeats quickened and he began to feel slightly light-headed, as if his blood were surging through his body with unusual force.
Watching closely, Malick observed Kanekeh?s growing excitement. He leant further forward, lowered his voice to a whisper and continued to press his case.
?Listen. I travel a lot ? to many countries. I know people who know people who will be ready to make a long-term investment in a project like that. They will help. That I don?t doubt. The only thing is, are you ready??
?Of course I am ready!? Kanekeh exclaimed with an air of reproach. ?How can you ask me something like that after what I told you? You should know I am ready...?
In spite of that fierce assertion, Malick continued to harbour doubts about Kanekeh?s determination. However, always on the lookout for ways of entering the big league where wealth was concerned, he decided to take a chance with him. The situation in the country was just ripe for a revolution.
?I shall set things in motion,? he said, pushing back his chair. ?Let me have your contact. You will hear from me again? very soon.?
As they parted, he wrapped an arm around Kanekeh?s shoulder, muttering in his ear, ?Our future President.?
Having never envisioned any scenario beyond his enemies? exit from power in disgrace, Kanekeh was so taken aback by Malick?s suggestion that he stopped in his tracks.
?No-o, my brother,? he said, sincerity written all over his face. ?I am not seeking that position for myself. All I want is for those criminals to leave this country so better people can take over. Perhaps...?
What Kanekeh had been about to add was, ?Perhaps you know someone who could do the job,? but misinterpreting the speculative gleam in his eyes, Malick backed away, shaking his head emphatically.
?Don?t even think of it,? he said. ?Have you forgotten that I have been to jail twice? Who would want to make me president??
Who indeed, Kanekeh silently agreed, though he was genuinely fond of Malick. Nobody with the interests of the country at heart could possibly entertain such an idea. Malick saved him from having to think of a tactful reply by going on immediately to say that, in any case, he would hate having to put up with security men and bootlickers around him night and day.
?We have plenty of time to think about who should take over,? he added. ?Let us drive these ones out first.?
Malick?s skilful and persistent wheeling and dealing bore the desired fruit. Within six months, of their reunion, Kanekeh found himself in the Sahara desert discovering that it was possible for his skin to turn several shades darker. He mastered the latest in small arms technology and studied the art of waging guerrilla warfare. He also spent many hours in conversation with aspiring and confirmed revolutionaries he met at the training camp as well as in struggling to understand the ?Green Book? of revolutionary ideas written by Colonel Gaddafi himself. And his muscles grew harder still.
In rare periods of solitude, he would lie on his canvas bunk reflecting on the remarkably smooth way events had unfolded since meeting his former comrade in adversity again. In the end, he came to the conclusion that the hand of God was in it. Once that idea took hold of him, his original desire for revenge began to seem petty and soon gave way to a much higher purpose. He now saw himself as a man of destiny, chosen to liberate his countrymen from their oppressors and usher in a new age of justice and prosperity. The fighting force he and Malick were going to build together, would be the means of accomplishing that sacred mission. He decided to call it the People?s Redemption Army. PRA for short.
In the same country where Kelli Kanekeh and Pablo Malick began to plan their insurgency, there is a village called George Town which lies about six miles to the east of the capital, Sewa City. It straggles the lower slopes of one of a semi-circle of thickly forested hills sheltering the city?s south-eastern side.
Founded in the early nineteenth century, George Town was named after the king on the British throne at the time. Great Britain had taken over the running of the country and, having abolished the Slave Trade, the colonial government needed homes for Africans rescued from slave ships by the Royal Navy. All the villages established for this purpose were patterned after their English counterparts, with Anglican churches, vicarages and primary schools in one large compound. In the case of George Town, this former centre of community life had been built at the top end of the village, close to the edge of a forest reserve.
On the eastern boundary of the village, a stream still tumbles down the hill slopes all the year round, passing under the highway going up-country and onwards to the sea. It used to be the only source of fresh water when the village was established, and more than two hundred years later, continues to perform that service when the water taps run dry ? an occurrence far too frequent for the liking of the village?s inhabitants.
George Town?s main road ? Macaulay Street ? goes right up the hill from the highway and ends in the open space in front of the Anglican compound. Like most of the streets in Sewa City, Macaulay Street was paved after the Second World War, but after several decades of being punished by torrential rains and the tyres of vehicles of every description, all that remains of its former smoothness are ragged patches of tar ? like small islands in a dry river bed.
The first house on the left, immediately after the highway junction (No.2), belongs to an elderly widow called Mrs. Cobola Ennison. Everybody calls her ?Gramma Cobola?. Her house is a small clap-board bungalow set close to the road and surrounded by a bush-stick fence. She has tried to make her property a little more attractive by planting yellow/green croton bushes against the side of the fence facing the road. That side also accommodates her narrow gate and a rickety wooden stall where she sells matches, spools of black and white thread, pins and needles, cakes of local black soap, pieces of alum, various sweets and other small items. That is not all her merchandise, however. Gramma Cobola keeps the more expensive items indoors to thwart any dishonest and nimble-fingered visitors to her stall ? things like batteries, tins of sardines, luncheon meat and corned beef.
On the same side of the street (No.4), Gramma Cobola?s immediate neighbours used to be the Martins ? Ola, Millicent and their only child, Emmanuel. Their house was set about six feet away from the edge of Macaulay Street, a more substantial building than Gramma Cobola?s, since it had a large all-concrete room beneath the clap-board walls of the first floor. Ola Martin had built a store for wood and coal at the back of this room and a public bar at the front. He called the bar ?Millie?s Corner? in honour of his wife.
It so happened that the very year in which Kelli Kanekeh embarked on his military campaign, Emmanuel Martin finally took his English teacher?s advice and started recording some of the events of his life.