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Looking Back

Looking Back

About the book and author

Because of the many roles he has played in the country, Looking Back is much more than Dr. Sama Banya's life story. In a lively and entertaining manner, he takes the reader through the chequered history of Sierra Leone from the colonial era to the present providing,along the way, accounts of the origin of Kailahun, his home town, the Kissy/Mende chiefs from whom he descends, life in Bo School where he had the early part of his secondary school education, as well as insights into the workings of the civil service in his day. A physician by profession, Dr. Sama Bnyha is best known as a politician. He served as a cabinet minister under two presidents, and his deep knowledge of political machinations in Sierra Leone as seen from both sides of the parliamentary divide, makes this autobiography an altogether fascinating read.

 

Some pages...

 

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MY GENEALOGY AND EARLY DAYS

 

My genealogy goes back seven generations. Fawi, or as has been suggested, Fayinda, was the father of Fakpala, who was the father of Buawie, the father of Sere, the father of Dorwie Komeh, who was the father of my grandfather, Chief Kailondo of Luawa in the Mende country. All my ancestors, down to my grandfather, were complete Kissis; that is, both their parents were Kissis. However, my father?s mother, Sombo, was Mende. The story goes that a Mende chief of Upper Bambara, Momoh Babawo, had provoked my grandfather into a dispute and his chiefdom would have been laid waste in a war but for the intervention of T.J. Aldridge, the colonial government?s Travelling Commissioner before the declaration of the Sierra Leone Protectorate. Chief Babawo was so grateful that Kailondo had spared him that he gave him his favourite daughter, Sombo, in marriage. Mama Sombo became an ndomanya (favourite wife) and bore Grandpa Kailondo a son, Momoh Gbanya, who later became my father. Europeans found it hard to pronounce the ?Gb? or ?Kp? sounds and wrote down the surname as Banya, which it has remained. My own mother was also Mende and I am totally fluent in Mende; but though I do not speak the language, I consider myself Kissi.

 

 

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There are events which have remained in my memory to this day, and which are the earliest recollections of my childhood. I could not have been more than thirty months old. There was dancing in my father?s compound, and my mother was the lead singer of his female musicians. I remember grabbing my mother?s seigulei (shake-shake), and yelling that I wanted to suck. The poor woman had to stop singing, lift me up and breastfeed me from a stool which had been quickly made available to her. I had not spent more than a few minutes at her breast before she gently put me down and resumed her singing. Another incident involved three or four of my brothers and me. We were playing on the stairs of a tall concrete building nearing completion, when I suddenly found myself on the ground below, yelling and with blood streaming down my forehead. I have no recollection of what really happened but one of my brothers was accused of pushing me over. To this day, I have doubts about that because we had been playing merrily together. I was rushed to the local dispensary (Kailahun had no hospital then) and my wound was cleaned and dabbed with some strong-smelling medication that stung; years later, when I was a medical practitioner, I recognized the medication as tincture of iodine. I carry the scar from that wound on my forehead to this day.

     In addition to the three or four already mentioned, I had other brothers, and a smaller number of sisters of about the same age as me. Between that age group and a much older group, was an intermediate group of siblings, smaller in number. Then, there was a still younger group of brothers and sisters to mine? perhaps a year or less in age. In all, I must have had about forty brothers and sisters from my father, most of them boys. We all lived in my father?s huge, walled compound, except for my oldest brothers who were away at school outside Kailahun for most of the year. They were accommodated in nearby houses when they came home on holidays.

       I have used the terms brothers and sisters as they applied to my father?s children since there is no noun like ?half-brother? in the Mende language. Someone who would be described as a half-brother in other languages is regarded as a full brother or sister. Similarly, there are no nouns like ?stepmother?, ?aunt? or ?cousin?. Eachof my father?s wiveswas regarded as our mother, and we addressed his sisters in the same way as we addressed them. My father?s brothers were regarded as our fathers and addressed as such. The only exception to the rule was my mother?s brother whom we addressed as ?uncle?. It was within that social setup that I began my early life.

       I realised, at that early age, that my father was a big ?chief? and soon learnt to refer to him as ?mahei?, meaning ?father, the chief?, because we could not address him as ?Chief Banya?; that would have been considered an insult. His compound consisted of a number of rectangular thatched huts, built with wattle sticks plastered with mud, and another house which was round, but like the others, covered with thatch. There were front and back entrances to the compound but neither of them had a gate. There was also an inner compound which consisted of three more rectangular huts. Each of them was occupied by eight to ten of my father?s wives. In the centre of the compound stood another round house. It was roofed with corrugated iron sheets and consisted of two bedrooms. That was where my father lived. With the exception of his servants, no other adult males lived in the chief?s compound, which explains why my oldest brothers lived outside when they were at home.

     Their arrival on holidays twice a year, from schools in Bo and Koyeima and, to a lesser extent, from other schools, was a time of great excitement for us. The other excitement was the end of the holy month of Ramadan when we were sure to receive new outfits from our father. Although it was the same material and colour, it was never referred to as ?ashoebi,? a term commonly used nowadays when groups of people wear material of the same colour on festive occasions.

     The house from which I had tumbled as a toddler was a three-storey building, and for many years, my father had the enviable reputation of being the owner of the only three-storey concrete building outside Freetown. It occupied a prominent position in the centre of the town and could be seen for miles around. My father never slept in that beautiful building because, even before it was completed, his moibla (a Muslim cleric with knowledge of the supernatural) had told him that doing so would shorten his life. Many years later, he put up a single-storey concrete bungalow adjacent to the three-storey structure. Both buildings give a picturesque view of the front of the chief?s compound. For a long time, the three-storey building continued to be described as one of my father?s great achievements.

 

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     Among the recollections of my early childhood were the occasional visits to my father of a mysterious figure draped in a country-cloth toga, and seated on a platform made of cane sticks. The platform was carried on the heads of two men, always accompanied by an all-male singing group with seigulas (shake-shakes). The lead singer carried what looked like a horse?s tail and waved it in the direction of the figure without actually touching it (Him). The singing was in Kissi, I didn?t understand a word of it, but gathered that they were extolling the deeds of a famous hero. The men who carried the figure swayed from side to side. When they were close to my father, they would lean close to him and say something at which he would nod as if in acknowledgment of what he was being told. Afterwards, tears would roll down his cheeks. The figure was said to be an incarnation of Kailondo, my famous grandfather, after whom the town of Kailahun, the administrative capital of Luawa Chiefdom and of Kailahun District, is named. Legend had it that he had risen from the bed of the Moa River which is perhaps Sierra Leone?s longest river. It rises from Guinea, and flows along the east side of Luawa Chiefdom which separates Sierra Leone from the Republic of Guinea. I later learnt that my grandfather?s Luawa Chiefdom had once extended beyond the Moa River into Wonde country in Guinea. Gbokei, as the figure was called, has visited Kailahun only twice in recent times; the first occasion was shortly after the election of my eldest brother, Sama Kailondo I as Paramount Chief in 1943, in succession to my father. He died on December 20, 1942, when I was only twelve years old. The second occasion was the election of my younger brother, Sama Gbalahun, as Paramount Chief of Luawa Chiefdom in 1982. I have not set eyes on Gbokei since then, although we sometimes get representatives from his own father?s birthplace of Lukono during our annual Kailondo-Banya family gathering in December.

 

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