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Book Reviewed by Sheikh Umarr Kamarah

Written by  Sunday, 07 May 2017

Hybrid Eyes - Reflections of an African in Europe (Review: 2001)

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

Professor of English and Linguistics

English Department, VSU, USA

Read 1193 times Last modified on Wednesday, 17 May 2017

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