There are only too many problems hindering the growth of Sierra Leonean literature. This includes the lack of a publishing house. As a result only those lucky and resilient enough to persist until they are noticed by a multi-national publishing firm and thus becoming published, survive as writers. There is also a lack of other alternative outlets such as literary journals or magazines. Apart from the fact that newspapers do not usually provide space for creative writing, they do very little to stimulate the production and growth of literature. When works get published by Sierra Leoneans they seldom get much attention in the press.
Another problem facing the literary art is the total lack of support from the government for literary activities. No support is given to efforts at creating literary outlets such as journals and magazines. A most glaring example of this unsupportive climate is seen in the Sierra Leone Association of Writers and Illustration having to subsist on only subscription with no government subvention whatsoever until its final demise.
The inhibiting influence of the acute shortage of electricity supply cannot be over emphasized. What I wish to underscore is that blackout and writing make uneasy bedfellows. Therefore in such a scenario writers wither, for they have to change their writing schedules and habits or perish.
The shortage, or expensiveness of stationary which are basic materials for the writer is another inhibiting factor. Stationary I think ranges from machineries such as typewriters to pens, pencils, paper, carbon and envelopes. Then with the completion of a manuscript comes the problem of dispatching it to a publisher. As most publications are based abroad, writers are left to bear the soaring postal rates. This is because with the present commercialization, the post office has ceased to be a social service. The widespread acceptance of submissions by e-mails is now minimizing this problem. As for me I find the convenience of e-mail so much easier, faster and cheaper that I have virtually forgotten about snail mails.
Books and other writing materials continue to be receiving heavy duties. Levies on books and other basic writing materials should be abolished if developments of the literature of Sierra Leone should be nurtured and this should be a consistent policy of government. Books and materials for their production should be free from all taxes and duties. There should now be a dramatic break from the past negative attitude to literacy and literature, In the past this has not been so. As a result there ihas been an ever diminishing demand for booksellers to order books except those whose demand is high as a result of being required at schools. Now the situation is much more desperate as indicated in another article I wrote ‘The Strruggle of the Book in Sierra Leone.’ which was published in FOCUS on International Library and Information Work.
A related problem is the negative effect of the recession on the once thriving bookshops. Sawyer’s bookshop is of course no longer there. The Fourah Bay College Bookshop closed several years ago leaving no bookshop to service the book demands of a whole college. The Fourah Bay College Bookshop was important not only because it stocked a wide selection of books including the most recent literary ones but it also organized literary events such as poetry readings and published from time to time cyclostyled pamphlets containing collections of poems of poets as Dominic Ofori. I am not sure whether the Njala Bookshop is still operating. But here in town it is indeed painful to see the once central and indispensable buying center for school-books as well as other readings for the general public, the C..M.S. Bookshop now Sierra Leone Diocesan Bookshop folding up rapidly. Today they are occupying only a third of the space they once held. A bookshop recently opened at Fourah Bay College raising hopes of a renaissance.
The problem of a lack of a sustaining and economic reading public does not provide enough incentives for encouraging the setting up of publishing endeavors. Official indications is that only 15% of our 3 ½ million people are literate. Of those who are officially literate it is probable that the vast majority of them are to all practical purposes semi-literate as they read nothing beyond the weekly or fortnightly newspaper. This kind of insipidness has been contributed to by a sterile and unimaginative educational system which allows little room for creativity. As a result the society sustained is one that is indifferent and insensitive and unsupportive of the literary arts.
Recession has further intensified these negative attitudes. Even those who are literarily committed change their habits as the need for survival becomes more compelling.
A major problem which faces writers and artists is that of producing their works without any certainty of the protection of their works form pirates and other threats. It is astonishing that in a country where courts are full of litigation, over physical properties-landed as well as otherwise, little or no place is still afforded litigants over trespass on their intellectual property. This is not because there have been no such infringements. Neither is it because we have no copyright laws, for there is solid evidence now of the existence of one from 1965 though which many would claim needs updating. It is still been bemoaned that Sierra Leone remains one of the few countries in the world which is still not a signatory to either of the international copyright conventions, universal or Berne.
The problem of which language to write is one which persists for many writers in Africa. If he writes in English he will not be read widely in his country. This is even more so in Sierra Leone where only 15% are literate in English. But again which of the over 10 languages will he choose. And if he does choose one of the less developed national languages there is the fear that obscurity will remain his lot as he will not be read beyond the narrow national or ethnic confines of his locale. But the famous Kenyan Writer Ngugi Wa’Thiongo has proved that this need not be so. He now writes his novels in his native Gikuyu and then translates them into English thus killing two birds with one stone.
Already, with the advantageous position taken by Krio now almost a de-facto Lingua Franca being spoken widely throughout the country and now being predominantly used in the theatre Sierra Leonean writers are more blessed with a ready choice if they should wish to reach their people first. Already an orthography has been made and a dictionary published. A few works including the Krio dictionary are already available. This position alone gives some prospects for the development of the literary scene especially so when placed besides the pioneering work of Gladys Casely- Hayford and Thomas Decker.
The pioneering role of Sierra Leone in the fields of education, writing and journalism alone should make it ideal for the flourishing of creative literary works. It was after all the seat of the first and most prestigious college which produced some of the leading elite who were to lead their continent’s development. It also had the first blossoms of schools, newspapers, journals and broadcasting media. With all this available history there must indeed be some rich potential waiting to be tapped. And indeed many young creative talents keep waiting to be tapped at all levels whenever the machinery is set in motion for the full realization of our creative literary reservoir. Already signs of breakthrough were seen in other aspects of the arts, resulting in the upsurge of musical recordings, theatrical activities, and the larger percentage of novels which have been published internationally by Sierra Leonean writers during the past two decades. This hope in our prospects for a take off can only be buttressed by the fact that Sierra Leone boasts of two of the continent’s most prominent critics of African Literature Profs. Eldred Jones and Eustace Palmer. Already the poet Syl Cheyney Coker has become a leading figure in African Literature by bagging two prestigious prizes in just a year after the publication of his first novel – The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar which received rave reviews from some of the top media across the globe including the BBC Arts programmes Meridian and Arts and Africa. The two prizes in question here are the Robert Higham prize for a first novel; published in Britain. 3rd place and the African short list for the Commonwealth Prize.
Our present recession could be a plus for creativity for recession generally should serve as a stimulus for people to write and expiate their feelings. God knows, perhaps it is through such means that a breakthrough could be found. Experience and careful observation shows that most countries in the world have had the greatest spurt of creative explosion during crisis periods in their history. The great spurt of literature ‘the Nigerian civil war gave birth to is a case in point. So it is for us to see our own economic crisis as a fuel for generating our own creativity. Though we missed exploiting amply the opportunities offered by the UNESCO cultural decade we might try now to get funding from that end as well as locally to finance publications and other literary events. All the slightest hints of promise should be amply utilised. For there are certain signs that Sierra Leone will no longer be an obscure spot in the literary world. Syl Cheney Coker has brought much attention to Sierra Leone by his literary breakthrough with his first novel The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar. This is reinforced by the impact of his third volume of poems. The Blood in the the Desert’s Eyes. He has now completed work on his second novel The Last Days of the Barracuda . His previous two volumes of poems are: Concerto for an Exile and The Graveyard also has Teeth . This feat was only recently boldly followed with the emergence of another strident literary voice in Aminata Forna with her Booker- prize winning The Devil that Danced on the Water and her most recent Ancestor Stone
Much promise of growth also came from the large output of works of folklore put out by an Adult Education Association., The Peoples Education Association (P.E.A.) through their Songs and Stories (SAS) project. Though aimed primarily at retrieving and recording our oral lore through songs, proverbs and folktales, it has published some real creative efforts such as two plays, The Weaverbirds and The Runaway by Frederick Borbor James and a collection of stories of Brima Rogers Love without Questions.
Happily some space is now being given by some newspapers to poems and short stories. The National for instance featured regularly poems and carried a few stories which included five of mine. Through a column in the same paper I tried to redirect attention to the literary and cultural domain. A few others. The New Shaft from time to time published poems. And I have seen some stories published in the pages of. The Vision.. Other papers have received literary publications through reviews in their pages. I have acknowledged . Sam Metzger who through his We Yone newspaper reviewed my work Folktales from Freetown which was published in 1987 as part of the bicentenary celebrations of the founding of Freetown. It is hoped that this is only the beginning of a growing trend, so that when next Sierra Leone makes a literary breakthrough the local press will not remain even though innocently or silent on it whilst it receives rave reviews in the international media. The press should not preoccupy itself exclusively in painting a completely dark picture of the society when indeed there are sparks of light here and there. These should be magnified within their pages so that readers do not get drowned in depressive complacence and despair. Readers could only be galvanized into action to redeeming the fate of our country if aware of the little though enviable efforts others are making in their little corners.
The electronic revolution is also beginning to be a boon for Sierra Leonean literature as well. Quite a number of individuals as well as institutions have created internet sites which are publishing on-line the works of Sierra Leonean writers, thus giving it a much wider exposure than was ever possible.
The first and most noteworthy of these online e-journals is the Sierra Leonean Writers Series (SLWS) which was set up and launched in 2001 in Sierra Leone in Freetown by Dr Osman Mallam Sankoh. Many of its works the latest being Lucilda Hunter’s novel Redemption Song are also available in printed book form. It focuses on academic, fictional, and scientific writing used in schools and colleges,promoting good quality books by Sierra Leoneans, writers of Sierra Leonean descent , and writers writing on or about Sierra Leone. The works published have local appeal and are related to the lives and experiences of Sierra Leoneans. The Mabayla Review another online journal is published four times a year by a prolific poet Gbanabom Hallowell offering a wide range of fiction including one of mine, poetry, social essays, translations, interviews, book reviews, criticism, theory alongside photographs focusing on Sierra Leone’s literary tradition and issues of social justice and the writing life in general from new and established Sierra Leonean and guest writers as well as social and political commentaries by Sierra Leoneans arising out of Sierra Leonean life. The journal founded in 2006 though it seems to have suffered some setbacks since its last edition in April 2007. I was assured by Mr Hallowell that it will resume after the redesigning of the website. I do hope this is accelerated as I have a few more stories to appear there and I think it holds the greatest prospect for the growth of writing in Sierra Leone.
Sierra Leone Pen is in the process of building a website sierraleonepen.org which should be expanding into publishing poetry and stories. For now the site is restricted to news items, photos and features. Perhaps the most certain promise given to not only literature but arts and culture in general is the singular commitment of government to cultural development expressed in the 1991 constitution but which is yet to be more boldly articulated in real terms with visible support for writers and other programs supportive of the growth of a luxuriant and strident literature from our shores. Now that a new government is now in place it is hoped that much interest and support wlll be coming from Government.