By Donu Kogbara
WHEN we were young (many moons ago!), I shared a flat in London with a clever, vivacious and beautiful fellow journalist called Aminatta Forna. Her mother was Scottish. Her father, Mohammed Forna, a highly principled native of Sierra Leone, had started his career as a medical doctor, then branched into politics.
When I met and bonded with Aminatta and her siblings, Dr Forna was dead, having paid the ultimate price for courageously and uncompromisingly opposing political violence and corruption (in 1975, when Aminatta was only 11 years old, her beloved Dad had been hanged for “treason” by the then brutal authorities in Sierra Leone).
When the patriarch of your family clan is a genuine Martyr and a widely acclaimed Man Of Substance and Role Model, you have a lot to live up to. And very few sons and daughters of Special People are able to rise above the averageness that characterises most human existences and become stars in their own right.
But I think it is fair to say that Aminatta has achieved this extremely difficult feat. She has become a brilliant, award-winning author of outstanding books (The Hired Man, The Memory of Love, Ancestor Stones, The Devil that Danced on the Water, The Angel Of Mexico City).
Her books have been translated into 16 languages. Her essays have appeared in several respected international publications. She’s a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and Member of the Folio Academy. She has acted as judge for a number of key literary awards, including the Samuel Johnson Prize, the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award, the Caine Prize and the International Man Booker.
She is currently Lannan Visiting Chair of Poetics at Georgetown University in the States and Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University in the UK.
Aminatta, an African as well as a Brit and global citizen, is a philanthropist as well as a writer of note, having established a charity, the Rogbonko Project in 2003.
An excerpt from Aminatta’s official website:
Rogbonko is a village of 500 people in central Sierra Leone. The name means “the place in the forest” in Temne [her father’s language]. Rogbonko was founded by Aminatta’s grandfather, a coffee grower and farmer, in the 1920s.
During the country’s civil war which began in 1991, the village was caught behind rebel lines and cut off from the rest of the country for the following decade.
When Aminatta returned [home] in 2002, years of economic decline had turned what was once a flourishing community into mere subsistence farmers. People were desperate to send their children to school, the only hope they saw of changing their circumstances.
The Rogbonko Project unofficially began in December 2002 out of a single village meeting to talk about building a school, the first in a series of initiatives which together would become the Rogbonko Project.
Since 2002 the Project has spread to include education, infrastructure and health, in a community effort to create an escape route from poverty.
The first school building opened its doors on January 15, 2003, less than three weeks after the village meeting. It was erected using bamboo and thatch and had one teacher. We called it simply Rogbonko Village School.
Today Rogbonko Village School comprises a five classroom school building with a library and solar power—the first electricity to reach the village—and some two hundred children. In addition to regular school activities, the school runs an adult literacy programme, skills training and a school meals programme.
The work of the Rogbonko Project goes on. Following two cholera outbreaks the village well has been entirely refitted, a second well sunk at the opposite end of the village and VIP (Ventilated Improved Pit latrines) toilets introduced.
Effective malaria control has been achieved with the donation of mosquito nets to every household. Recently the Rogbonko Project has turned its efforts towards maternal and infant mortality, of which Sierra Leone suffers one of the highest incidence in the world.
Dedicated birthing house
A trained midwife has visited the village to hold seminars with local birth attendants and the construction of a dedicated birthing house is currently underway.
At the heart of the Rogbonko Project lies the belief that Africans already possess the knowledge, will and systems to transform their living conditions.
Every project undertaken in Rogbonko is initiated, administered and entirely run by the village. We have found this works, because we think Africa has all the experts it needs—they’re the people who live there.
Aminatta has been nominated for many awards and won quite a few, including the Donald Windham-Sandy M. Campbell Literature Prize, which is awarded annually by Yale, one of the best universities in the world.
And the latest icing on her cake? She has just been awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth II in the New Year’s Honours List. And I am SO proud of her and happy for her.
I know that some Vanguard readers will rake about the archaic “British Empire” aspect. But it’s purely symbolic and the fact is that only a small handful of Black females – or writers, generally – have ever been recognised at such a lofty level.
When we were chilling out, sharing recipes and cooking, worrying about our work assignments and discussing boyfriends and other issues that concern young women in our little flat in London three decades ago, I didn’t guess that she would do so well…
…NOT because I didn’t think she was talented enough to shine, but because it is so damned hard to stand out from the crowd in ANY highly competitive profession.
Dr Forna must be SO proud and smiling in Heaven!