About the book
This semi-autobiography critically examines the experiences of Africans and other minority communities in Germany as well as key values and stereotypes that many people in Africa hold about Europe. The author acknowledges the flaws of African culture and advances proposals for the way ahead.
Book Reviews ? HYBRID EYES
Osman Sankoh?s Hybrid Eyes is not just another in the catalogue of stories about Africans in Europe, it is a fresh puff of narrative air, and a compelling story of tremendous human interest. In this autobiography, the author focuses on a particularly important ?moment? in his life. The experiences and ?encounters? that fill the space of this ?moment? engender a revision of previously held views, a critical re-evaluation of the author?s own culture, and a bifocal appraisal of the new culture (German) with which the author is confronted.
The book opens with the author waking up to a new physical and cultural environment. We hear him say. ?I have been trying to figure out where the hell in the world I am.? An African from Sierra Leone, the author is now in Germany in pursuit of higher studies. Osman?s story is not new; what is new and of great interest is the way he tells it, and the VISION embodied in the narrative.
The author?s narrative style is a blessing to his vision. Because he employs a multiplicity of narrative techniques, Osman is able to ?say?, dramatise, and interpret his experiences, and at the same time share with his readers, the essence of his message. For example, while following the life of Osman Sankoh, the reader is brought intimately close to the ?nature? of racism through the author?s use of DIALOGUE and ENGAGEMENT. In his encounter with the elderly German woman, the author uses dialogue to reveal the thoughts and feelings of the participants with regard to RACE (Colour). But the author goes beyond the dialogue to what I call ?engagement,? whereby he captures the German lady?s attention, exorcises the fear of Blacks in her, and then calmly tells her a story about the origins of Black ? skinned and White ? skinned people. This method of engagement has an educational value. It allows the breaking of the barriers of ignorance and fear that breed prejudice. The author uses the same technique in his encounter with the little boy in the public transport (S?Bahn). When the little boy refuses to sit near the author and his wife because his mother had told him that ?all blacks were niggers,? the author engages the little boy. Without rage, but with a sincere intent to ?educate? the little boy, the author succeeds to ?detoxicate? a young mind. This is a refreshing feature in the story of the African in Europe. It is not about passive complaint; it is about confronting this human issue in a human way.
Osman Sankoh employs the epistolary method to raise and deal with very topical issues. In Andrew?s letter from Sierra Leone to the author in Germany, issues of racism, the Western woman, money in Europe (the greener pasture phenomenon), the rebel war in Sierra Leone, and a lot more, are raised. The reader accesses Andrew?s views on all of those issues through the author?s use of the epistolary method. It is very revealing. The issue expressed in the American proverb, ?The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence,? is of interest particularly to African readers. Any African, especially one from a large family, who lives in Europe or America, knows about the enormous pressure from relatives and friends to send money back home and to help them come over to the ?Greener pasture.? It is difficult to convince anyone in Africa that one suffers in many ways in Europe or America. The author uses two lengthy letters that clearly map and discuss the problem. Since people are usually unsatisfied with their lot in life, a modern psychologist has spoken of ?The ?Greener Grass? Phenomenon? by which modern individuals continually evaluate supposedly better alternatives for themselves. This basic behavioural truth expressed in a universal metaphor, ?The Grass is always Greener on the other side of the fence,? the illusion of the land of plenty and luxury, is eloquently dealt with in this book.
Another important issue that the reader is forced to grapple with is that of individual versus group behaviour. In the book, the author?s family faces a serious crisis. The author?s daughter was born with a hole in the heart and is diagnosed in Sierra Leone while the author and his wife are in Germany. The little girl, Fatima, needs immediate medical attention. The outpouring of sincere human concern and support, both moral and financial, is enormous. Of interest here is the fact that the support comes from both BLACK and WHITE people. The story of Professor Urfer and his wife Barbara, both white Germans, is testimony to the fact that generalisations about human beings are, to say the least, inaccurate. Why then do we have racial tensions around the world? In the words of Carol Tavris, a social psychologist, ?Something happens to individuals when they collect in a group. They think and act differently than they would on their own.? Osman?s book is a perfect laboratory to test the validity of the above theory. This book is certainly one of great human interest.
The narrative of HYBRID EYES is laced with humour. Behind the veneer of humour is the author?s vision. Differences in cultural practices, and statements about how human perceptions and actions are closely linked with one?s world view, are made in a humorous tone. The story of the Sierra Leonean male who brings ?flowers? to welcome his loved one is told in a humorous way but speaks volumes about cultural differences. While flowers are important in interpersonal relationships in Europe and America, their function is different in the author?s culture. The BEE episode is another story told in a humorous way but making a profound statement. Walking in the fields on Professor Urfer and Barbara?s farm, Fatmata sees a stray bee and lifts her foot to smash it. Professor Urfer immediately intervenes to save the bee's life saying, ?No, it has a right to live.? The need for humans to respect the life and dignity of every creature on this planet, and particularly of other humans, is eloquently expressed in Professor Urfer's protest.
The author has injected freshness in the genre of autobiography. While telling his story, he does not merely stand or sit, watch and report, but actively participates in the social drama. He interprets, ?engages? other characters, fights back, reflects on issues, evaluates, and tells HIS and OUR story.
The language is intimate, conversational, and accessible. Like the storyteller in Warima, Osman holds a dialogue with the reader. The most interesting aspect of his narrative technique is the intricate interweaving of stories within the story. Since his story in Germany is about encounters, experiences, and slices of other lives, the story switches from one encounter to the other, or from one slice of life to an encounter, without notice. All the little ?slices? or ?pieces? are intricately tied in one huge examination of ? human ? nature story. Hybrid Eyes is not only about the experiences of an African in Germany, it is, in a wider context, a reflection on the human condition ? black and white. By recognising the beauty and deficiencies in both cultures, by raising prejudice to the level of a universal category, by recognising the role of language in the construction of social reality, by reflecting on the nature of politics in contemporary Africa, and by challenging Mankind to shed the clothing of FEAR and IGNORANCE and embrace one another, Hybrid Eyes transcends its physical, temporal, and social setting. Hybrid Eyes goes beyond the personal story, and assumes universal appeal. It is the story of everyone everywhere who lives with the ?other.? It is a story worth reading and discussing in classrooms everywhere.
Dr. Sheikh Umarr Kamarah
North Carolina, USA
In the many countries in Europe and North America where Africans (and particularly Anglophone Africans) study, Germany is not among the most attractive. There are historical and practical reasons for this, and they have to do with long and concrete associations through colonialism and language. But there is another, altogether less sentimental, reason for the European nation's lack of the easy attractiveness which Britain or France or the United States and Canada afford to the aspiring African scholar or immigrant: it has to do with the aggressively mono-cultural reputation of Germans, a tendency which easily and often violently translates into the kind of racism and racist attacks which has set Germany apart since the Holocaust. For this reason, I approached Osman Sankoh's Hybrid Eyes, an account of his experiences as an African student in Germany, with some trepidation, not to say uneasiness. At the end of my first reading, which surprisingly took me only a day, much of my fears were confirmed; but so nuance and subtle is this book that I also emerged with a far deeper appreciation of the various levels of humanism, of the kind of broad-mindedness and kindness of heart among a good number of this much-maligned people which I first came in contact with through my association with Karl Prinz, Germany's former ambassador to Sierra Leone.
The book opens with the author, from the impoverished West African state of Sierra Leone, finding himself in a very wealthy Germany. The wide-eyed observations he makes about his new surroundings are appropriate; the metaphor he uses are crisp and fresh, the language superb. He is in a large room with another Sierra Leonean student named Hudson Jackson. The room's many ?rectangular boards of different colours were neatly joined together to form a beautiful pattern.? And he compares this room, much too favourably, to his ?whitewashed concrete? one at Njala University College in Sierra Leone. Looking through the window, he sees beautifully organised rows and rows of houses reminding him of ?pictures I used to see in geography textbooks?; there is a ?clean grey street whose long back was covered with a make-up of bright straight white lines and arrows.? There is no self-absorption here, and one of the book's appeal is the author's remarkable sense of appreciation for his new surrounding, a foreign country. But it also means that the intensity of feelings and emotions which come with such self-absorption, the kind that helped create great leaders and great autobiographies (Gandhi, Nkrumah), are rather ruefully absent: there is only a man vacillating between appreciation and outrage, not taking a strong position, whining when there is a xenophobic terror, in effect pleading to his hosts for a better understanding and appreciation of Africans and other immigrants; a very normal, intelligent man out to make a good life for himself and others close to him. This is not a world-changing view, but it is no less worthy for it being limited. It is a sound vision, and to show how sound it is, let us look at how another ?Third Worlder? recounted his days as a law student in Europe.
In The Story of my Experiments with the Truth, Mahatma Gandhi, India's great nationalist leader, recounts his experiences as a young man studying law in Britain. He went to England at the age of 19 in 1888, when he was already married for 6 years. The long journey was by sea, but nowhere in his account does Gandhi describe anything seen or heard that did not relate to him personally. There is no description of the sea or the ship; though Gandhi spent three years in England, no London building is described, no street mentioned, there is no observation about the weather (a favourite pastime in England). But at the time that Gandhi arrived in England, London was the capital of the world, the greatest city on earth, surely something that would not fail to impress a young man from a depressed little town in India. Gandhi's inward concentration was total, his self-absorption fierce. Three years after he arrived in England, Gandhi suddenly becomes a lawyer; the adventure is over: ?I passed my examinations, was called to the bar on the 10th of June 1891, and enrolled in the High Court on the 11th. On the 12th I sailed for home.? There is what V.S. Naipaul has called a ?defect of vision? in Gandhi's whole worldview: the failure to absorb other experiences, to appreciate other cultures, to open up to a changing world. It is the quintessential caste mentality. But this was the foundation of his greatness: the small man in the calico dress, a near-naked man, highly opinionated and bespectacled, bringing down the British Empire.
Osman Sankoh is certainly not Gandhi, and he does not pretend to be so. Still, there are moments of superb engagements with the higher issues in Sankoh's Hybrid Eyes. In his interesting review of the book, Sheikh Umarr Kamara has referred to Sankoh's technique of dialogue, which allows for the ?breaking of the barriers of ignorance and fear that breed prejudice.? There is Sankoh's conversation with the old German lady, which quickly takes the form of Sankoh patiently lecturing the nervous woman on the issue of race, as well as his engagement with the innocent, but already polluted, mind of a German kid who calls him a "nigger" in a subway. These are superb scenes, as much for their sustained humour as for the educational value. They are also revealing of the kind of man Sankoh is: diplomatic, non-confrontational, a patient gentleman, and very, very clever. He is also very brilliant. Germany's graduate programmes, unlike those of North America and the UK, appear to seriously disrespect undergraduate degrees from African universities. So that even though Sankoh had graduated with a distinction in mathematics from the University of Sierra Leone, he is forced to do all his undergraduate courses all over again before he would be allowed into graduate school--some of the courses he had himself taught at Njala. Needless to say, he does it in style, graduating with ones in both his Masters and Ph.D. degrees. In December 1998, he wins the prestigious German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) prize for ?excellent academic performance and extraordinary social engagements by a foreign student?, the first African to be so honoured. If his performance does not indicate to the Germans that Africans are not only just as good but could be better, then of course there are more serious issues.
Sankoh is an ?accommodationist?; with him there is always another side to an issue. At the same time that he dreads the brutal and racist German police, the racist pranks of lumpen Germany, he also shows genuine gratitude and affection for those Germans who are truly nice to him and have a totally anti-racist worldview, people like Professor Urfer and his wife Barbara who invites him to their home. Initially a near-sceptic of German humanism, Sankoh's attitude changes dramatically after the painful affair involving his daughter, Fatima. Fatima gets dreadfully ill, with a hole in the heart, in war-ravaged Sierra Leone. A tabloid newspaper campaign in Germany brings in all the help that he needed to fly in Fatima to undergo surgery in Germany.
The list of sponsors included a ?female medical doctor? who ?put her jewellery on sale with the value of DM 22,000 to help pay? for the surgery. His conclusion: ?This is indeed a proof that generalisations about people, be they Europeans, Americans or African, are not good. There are always many people who not fit the generalisations.? Just where does this lead one? The reply is nowhere: sit right where you are. Sankoh is not here to inspire you to fight the proletarian or anti-racism war to the finish; his extraordinary brilliance aside, Sankoh is a normal graduate student, an aspiring professional. If he had been Rasa Parks, Sankoh would gently have argued with the white fellows in the bus, patiently lectured them about black humanity and charmed them into not taking him to court for sitting in a ?white only? section of the bus (and perhaps there would have been no civil rights movement or Martin Luther King and all those big marches?). When an African explains how he was wrongly accused of stealing, Sankoh laments:
Indeed, it is true that some blacks have been
caught in criminal acts. But this is not a
necessary and sufficient reason to put all
blacks in this country into that group. A black
man in Germany is generally perceived to be a poor
man, just like those hungry and starving Africans
shown on German television.
Hybrid Eyes is no doubt a brilliant narrative, highly readable. There are many memorable passages. Sankoh's descriptions of the many strange things he encounters are often matchless in their eloquence. Here is his encounter with a wooden lift.
The lifts here are different. They are small wooden cabins for a maximum of two people at a time that roll continuously up and down. I looked at them suspiciously, went a bit closer, but gave up any attempt to use them. I saw one person come off and another get on. I looked left and right, as if to be sure that no one was watching me to see whether or not I could make it. I moved closer, held tightly to the grip on the wall, raised my foot and waited for the next cabin. I then jumped in quickly.
The sentences build and add, every word belongs.
The high point of Hybrid Eyes is Sankoh's lengthy reply to his brother's letter from Sierra Leone. The two letters deserve to be read very carefully. Young Andrew's letter is enthusiastic, sincerely irresponsible in some places, very acute and sharp in others. The older Sankoh replies in a measured tone, (characteristically) patiently lecturing his brother about how misguided his views are about Germany as the ?greener pasture?, the drudgery of work he has to ensure to make sure that the deutschmark (always the deutschmark: without the deutschmark Andrew would not write the eloquent letter for he probably wouldn't be at Fourah Bah College: the deutschmark makes all the difference) keep getting to the family in Sierra Leone, the racism he encounters almost on a daily basis, all the worldly troubles. Clearly, Andrew would not be impressed by this argument. In his letter, he kept coming back to the ravages of the war in Sierra Leone, the trouble his family name (although not related to the warlord Foday Sankoh) would cause, the fact that he may not want to sit back all the time expecting to receive the packages from his brother (fruits of the drudgery of work in Germany!). Here, there are really no higher issues discussed; Sankoh knows better than to lecture a sharp and perhaps hungry FBC student about how to change the world.
In Hybrid Eyes, we see how incomplete ?hybridity? always is, how it is always a process, a precarious and often painful condition, a process of unequal negotiation. Osman Sankoh's book is a treasure for its unabashed and fiercely exact representation of this condition.
University of Toronto, Canada
This book is long but it is never a boring read. From page one to the end, the reader is inescapably riveted to Osman's ambidextrous weave of countless themes and sub themes about the experiences of an African in Europe - Germany.
The book could thus be called semi-biographical even though the author narrates only a tiny portion of his life - his stay in Germany since the early nineties.
But Osman Sankoh is such a good narrator that he uses flashbacks, letters and telephone messages from home, Sierra Leone, to recount his experiences - both as a youth in the village and as a civil servant in the city - thereby filling the gap to complete his autobiography.
Osman Sankoh arrived in Germany to do a postgraduate course in statistics under a German government scholarship. But that is where the goods ended, at least for a time.
For example, the German college he was to attend would not even allow him to immediately start his course because the authorities weren't sure an African with a degree from an African country will be able to cope with the course. Luckily for the Black race and Osman in particular, he came top of his class and was awarded the top German academic award.
The author also exposes many facets of the life of an African student immigrant in Europe. He discusses the visa curtain, racism both covert and overt, relationships with European women and the participation of African immigrants in development projects back home.
Sankoh has a sharp eye for details. He has meticulously recorded almost all there is to see or experience in the West: the graffitti on walls, ?it is seen all over Germany,? car theft, the impact of African footballers in the Bundesliga. ?Blacks have gained recognition in German sports, a positive step ...? The author ably stresses the impact of such Africans as role models for Black immigrants.
Yet the author uses humour and satire to lampoon the poor performance of Africans in their continent, thus the question ?Why Africans always fail at home but succeed in Europe??
The book also provides an incisive insight into a day in the life of an African immigrant family. The experiences of the author's daughter and his wife in trying to learn the new language and observing decorum like not to throw waste about or to queue for buses, or at the post office.
Such culture shock is adequately depicted by the author to unravel the dichotomy between African and German cultures.
The author's language is concise, crisp and simple. This makes the book well suited for the average reader. His ability to discuss emotive and controversial issues like racism and the adulterous disposition of African couples in the West with humour is exceptional and reveals the makings of a good writer in the author.
This book is recommended for Africans living in Europe or are yearning to travel to Europe. And who is not?
Gambian Daily Observer
August 10, 1999
Western Europe is often perceived by many people in developing countries as a land of hope and opportunity. To many Africans, Western Europe is a place of endless economic opportunities and where poverty and suffering is "non-existent." This perception is sometimes created by Western films and holiday-makers visiting Africa.
Written in direct and simple language, the author, while drawing from his own experiences and observations, discusses the pertinent issues in Germany towards the end of the twentieth century.
Osman arrives in Germany at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall - the reunification of East and West Germany. His first impressions of Germany is of a highly industrialised country with good infrastructure. However, he soon discovers that, even in this land of wealth and prosperity, poverty does exist. To his surprise, there is an unequal distribution of income, just like in his homeland Sierra Leone, although in no way are the levels of poverty in the two countries comparable. In Sierra Leone and in most of Africa, people continue to face increasing poverty due to unfavourable terms of trade coupled with mismanagement of resources, poor leadership as well as military dictatorships, corruption and political instability which are not suitable environment for economic development.
Contrary to popular belief back home, Germany is not the rosy place it is made out to be. Looking for a house for example, is an African's worst nightmare since some German landlords and landladies are not comfortable renting their houses to foreigners let alone black people. Some Germans would also not entertain the thought of having black neighbours. Even in apartments where Africans live, it may take a long time before Africans can establish any kind of contact with their German neighbours. In public transport and even in the universities, Africans tend to feel isolated in the initial period of their study and without the support of the family, relatives and friends, Germany is indeed a lonely place to live.
As the century comes to a close, Germany is increasingly facing economic difficulties. The once abundant job market is shrinking. Coupled with the opening up of the borders in Europe, there is an increased demand for jobs. Germans are presently competing for the 'black jobs' which were once the reserve of African students and other foreigners as well. In this kind of atmosphere, there is an increasing intolerance by Germans towards Africans and foreigners as a whole.
Most of the difficulties that Africans undergo in Germany, racial discrimination not withstanding, have to do with the stereotypes that Germans have of Africans. As is often portrayed in the Western media, Africa is a continent of poverty, starvation and endless wars. Hence most Africans are perceived as either criminals, illegal immigrants or economic refuges living at the expense of the German tax-payer. The author is also quick to point out that this does not mean that all Africans living in Germany are law-abiding. Africans are also often thought of as being 'foolish' and most Africans have to prove themselves in order to dispel this myth. Even in some German universities, certificates from African universities are looked upon with suspicion and more often than not, African students have to excel in order to gain admission in the courses they intend to study.
The author also points out that not all Germans are racists. The overwhelming support he got from many Germans during his daughter's major surgery, is a case in point. He is therefore of the opinion that both Africans and Germans are people and each should be judged from an individual perspective. He does not rule out the fact though, inspite of there being a minor increase in intermarriages between Germans and Africans, there are still problems of integrating the children of such mixed marriages in society.
In addition, the author also brings out the different cultural perceptions of the two communities. In Africa the role of the family as the backbone of the society is still strong. Both men and women have defined roles which are governed by the traditions and customs of the community.
The author adds that, issues that are not even discussed openly in most of Africa like homosexuality and transsexuality are slowly gaining acceptance in Germany. In the same way, polygamy and female circumcision would be unthinkable among Germans. He emphasises though, for some of the 'harmful' traditions like female circumcision to be phased out in parts of Africa where it is still practised, the willingness to change must come from within the practising community and from Western pressure.
This book is a good read and it encourages the reader to revisit some of the different perceptions they may hold of the African society and the German society as well.
HELEN MUENI MAGOLO
The African Courier, Speyer, Germany