BOOK REVIEW: Beg Sɔl Nɔba Kuk Sup: An Anthology of Krio PoetrySheikh Umarr Kamarah & Marjorie Jones, eds. Sierra Leone Writers Series, Freetown, 2013
If you must borrow salt from a neighbour to finish preparing your stew, you’ll never have enough to do the job properly. This is the literal meaning of the Krio proverb that the editors chose for the title of this new collection of poetry; figuratively, it is a comment on the value of independence and self-sufficiency. It was well-chosen; Sierra Leone is still recovering from a horrific civil war that lasted for over a decade (1991-2002), and now the country must perforce rely on foreign intervention in its process of rebuilding. It is no secret that some outside agencies have exploited the situation for their own gain—hence the urgent need for Sierra Leoneans themselves to re-establish control of their own affairs. Predictably, this is the theme of a number of the contributions to this volume.
All of the poems are in Krio, which emerged as the mother-tongue of a colony founded in Freetown in the late 18th century for various groups overseas seeking a home in Africa; they came from England, Jamaica and North America, and were joined on the Sierra Leone Peninsula by local indigenous peoples as well as by Africans taken captive from all parts of Africa in great numbers—illegally, after the abolition of slavery—and released in the new colony. And from this cosmopolitan mix emerged a new people, the Krios.
There are at least eighteen different languages spoken in Sierra Leone, and while the official medium is English, it is spoken natively by practically no one. It was perhaps foreordained that Krio should become the lingua franca of the whole country, and today far more people speak it as a second language than do those for whom it is a mother-tongue. It truly serves as a nationally unifying force.
The introduction to the whole anthology is by co-editor Sheikh Umarr Kamarah, who provides an overview of earlier attitudes to Krio and a synopsis of the individual contributions to the volume. The foreword was written by Professor Eldred Durosemi Jones, a giant in the Krio repertoire of giants, a fierce champion of the cultivation of Krio as a literary language, co-compiler of the Krio-English Dictionary and—I must add a personal note—the man directly responsible for making my own academic career possible. Together with the “pioneer” poets, these are the Geoffrey Chaucers of their age, demonstrating the richness and potential of their language in the face of uninformed bias: government officials sent out from England to Africa in the nineteenth century condemned Krio as “semi-civilized” and a “travesty” of a language while at the same time being quite unable to speak it themselves. Yet English itself was similarly castigated in the past as “a language devoid of ornate terms . . . a grosse tongue, a rude and barren tongue, when compared with so flourishing and plentiful a tongue as Latin.” Thus the scathing criticism once aimed at English (referred to as “one of the great languages of civilization” in the pages of the Sierra Leone Weekly News!) became aimed in turn at Krio, which “was not flexible enough and did not contain the literature to meet modern demands” (Taylor, 1965). It really depends upon who is in charge.
We cannot date the earliest oral literature in Krio, which surely predates the verses recorded by Rankin in 1834, but the first published composition—a poem by “J”—appeared in the 1880s. By the middle of the 20th century, published writings in Krio had become commonplace.
It would take a great deal of space to examine each contribution individually. The editors have divided the collection into three parts: the first includes examples of traditional oral literature, children’s rhymes whose composers are long forgotten. The second is a tribute to the “pioneers,” four earlier 20th century poets, Thomas Decker, Gladys Casely-Hayford, Clarice Davies and another whose name has been lost to us. They reflect a gentler time—market women preparing their goods for sale, a tribute to a lover—contrasting sharply with the most recent compositions in the third (and longest) section of the book, “The contemporary poets.” Here, reflections on the effects of the civil war are a constant theme, particularly on the struggle to restore the country, potentially so rich, to what it once was.
Students of language will find much of interest in the pages of this book; it is written in the official spelling, which brings Krio in line with Sierra Leone’s other languages, though I’d question the continued exclusive use of ŋ rather than ng since the latter is able to incorporate both [ŋ] and [ŋg], sounds distinct in Krio (for example tɔŋ ‘town,’ tɔŋg ‘tongue’). With the large numbers of second-language Krio speakers coming into Freetown in recent years, the traditional urban dialect has undergone considerable change, influenced not only by the first languages of its ‘second language’ speakers—Temne, Mende, Limba an so on—but by the increased exposure to English as well. Certainly the older conservative dialect of the village Krios is disappearing, and with it much of the richness and nuance of the language. This has resulted in what has sometimes been called watawata Krio, “watered down Krio,” and is the theme of one of the poems. But the real ownership of any language is with its poets and writers, and it is they who must ensure the full potential of the language.
The Sierra Leone Writers Series promises to bring us more of the same, and I look forward eagerly to the publication of further anthologies and seeing more new names; clearly there is some real talent emerging which, like Sierra Leone itself, is slowly gathering momentum.
Taylor, P.J., 1965. A Study of Some of the Reasons for the Poor Standard of English among Pupils in Sierra Leone and Efforts that Could Be Made for Improvement. Thesis for the Diploma in Education, Durham University.
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