NEW BOOK: LAND OF MY FATHERS
The proud Republic of Liberia was founded in the 19th century with the triumphant return of the freed slaves from America to Africa. Once back ‘home’, however, these Americo-Liberians had to integrate with the resident tribes – who did not want or welcome them. Against a background of French and British colonialists busily carving up Mother Africa, while local tribes were still unashamedly trading in slaves . . . the vulnerable newcomers felt trapped and out of place. Where men should have stood shoulder to shoulder, they turned on each other instead.
Land of My Fathers plunges us into this world. But in the midst of turmoil, there is friendship. Edward Richard, a man born into slavery and a preacher by profession, is convinced that the future of Liberia lies in bringing peace amongst the tribes. His mission takes him to the far north, where he meets an extraordinary man, Halay. Edward’s new and dearest friend is ready to sacrifice his own life to protect his country; for the Liberians believe that with Halay’s death, no war will ever threaten their land. A century later, this belief is crushed when war engulfs the land, bearing away with it the descendants of both Edward and Halay. The story of Halay is the untold story of Liberia. What he did would come to stand as symbol of man’s ability to defy the odds, to face the inevitable head on.
Author Vamba Sherif, born in Kolahun, Liberia in 1973, is also a journalist and film critic living in the Netherlands. Land Of My Fathers, one of Sherif’s five books, was originally written in Dutch. The author has re-written an English language edition to be published in the U.K. by HopeRoad.
DUNIA Magazine had the pleasure of connecting with the author ahead of the November 3rd release of his book:
Why was it important for you to tell the story in Land Of My Fathers?
Vamba Sherif: It was important for me to tell the story in Land Of My Fathers because it had to do with the founding of Liberia and with the war that was raging in the country. It was a war in which some family members died, including my mother.
The war broke out in December 1989 while I was in Kuwait, but less than a year later, in August 1990, Saddam Hussain of Iraq invaded Kuwait. We were compelled – my father and a few members of the family – to flee Kuwait and to travel to Jordan, where we spent a few months, and then to Syria, where we stayed for nearly two years.
In the end, one of my brothers and I settled in The Netherlands as refugees. Meanwhile, as we faced uncertainty regarding our future in The Netherlands, Liberia was fully caught up in the throes of war.
The constant images of the war on television, the death and destruction compelled me one night to sit up and to begin to write about Liberia. My goal was to attempt to explain the country and the war to myself. I wanted to know why a country which was once a symbol for many countries in Africa could wage such a terrible war on itself.
I wanted to tell the story of the Americo Liberians and the native Liberians who had so much in common but who along the way chose to put much emphasis on those few aspects of their lives that divided them. I wanted to tell the story of Liberia to myself.
Born in Liberia, you’ve lived in Kuwait, Damascus (Syria), and now the Netherlands. How has your life been impacted generally by your experiences in these places?
Vamba Sherif: I was born in Liberia and spent parts of my youth in Kuwait, where I learned to speak Arabic as fluently as the languages I spoke at home in Liberia, including Mandingo, Mende, Gbandi, some Loma and Kissi. In Kuwait I befriended people from all over the world, and this broadened my outlook on life and made me appreciate the diversities and the communalities of mankind. I bought my books through a friend from India, including my first microscope, because I dreamed of becoming a doctor.
I had friends from Sri Lanka, the US, Tanzania, Sudan, Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and dozens other countries in the world. Life was as cosmopolitan as it could be. I also began to read Russian and European writers, after I had exhausted the African writers, especially those published in the Heinemann African Writers Series. I marveled at the work of Sembene Ousmane, Camara Laye, as well as Sankawulo and Coetzee, even as I enjoyed Morrison, Mann, Isaac Singer, Tolstoy and many others.
When I moved to The Netherlands, my first home became my books, which was easier to access. In no time I was familiar with the European classics and with its modern writers.
Living in Liberia, Kuwait, Jordan, Syria and The Netherlands have taught me to perceive the world through broad prisms and to consider myself privileged and enriched by these various experiences. The fact that I speak not only many languages of Liberia but also Arabic, Dutch, English and some French is a great privilege.
The facts that I get to read and write any book that I want is also a privilege. My ancestors were so reverent of knowledge that they wrote their books on leaves, on starched clothes and they guarded those books with their lives so that we could read them. I am a product of their diligence and hard work, a product of that long line of scholarship.
You have written 5 books, what are the most surprising lessons you have learned along the way?
Vamba Sherif: The most surprising lessons I’ve learned during my journey as a writer is that honesty in writing and patience while at it pay off. My first novel, Land Of My Fathers, which was published in Dutch in 1999, was a success, but my second book, which I thought was as good as the first or even better, wasn’t. I had to dig deep into myself to muster to courage to go on, and it paid off.
You spend most of your time between the Netherlands and Liberia. Tell us, how has Liberia evolved in recent years and what are your hopes for the country in let’s say 5-10 years?
Vamba Sherif: Liberia has evolved from periods when parts of the country were at war even after the war had ended to a period when it has had enough of the war. Now it is looking forward to the future. The past is not forgotten, the future still is uncertain, but Liberians are determined to keep hammering away at that future until it takes the shape and form they want to be, until it bends to their will.
There seems to be a lot going on around the world these days. If you were to write about a current world leader, who would it be and why?
Vamba Sherif: My choice of the leader to write about in these times precarious times, would be President Paul Kagami, because he succeeded in turning Rwanda around. Or it would be the Dalai Lama, because he’s been my hero since childhood, a source of calm amidst a storm. Or it would be the women of Liberia because they fought to bring the war to an end.
What can readers look forward to in coming months from you?
Vamba Sherif: I would be available to answer questions or sign books for my readers. I hope to visit the US where the novel is partly set. It is a novel that unites the world of America with the world of Africa, the world of the African Americans with the world of their brothers and sisters in Africa.
If my readers reach out to me, I will reach out and share my passion for literature, for life with them. Land Of My Fathers has a universal message, as it explores themes such as love, exile, friendship, longing and art. In the end, despite the contradictions that defined Liberia, it’s a novel about love, about hope.
Author Vamba Sherif will be in the U.K. to promote Land of My Fathers at the time of publication.
LAND OF MY FATHERS
Author: Vamba Sherif
Release date: November 3, 2016
Available in Hardback here
Publisher HopeRoad, set up in 2012, specialises in writers and writing from and about Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. Their aim is to give a voice to writers and stories that might otherwise be missed by the mainstream book trade. Website: www.hoperoadpublishing.com
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