By Mohamed Sankoh (One Drop)
A journalist cum-former exile-cum-former Press Secretary-cum-former Deputy Minister of Information and Communications-cum former Deputy Internal Affairs Minister, and now author. That’s the synopsis of Sheka Tarawalie, aka Shekito, whose page-turning book, “Pope Francis, Politics And The Mabanta Boy” (published by Troubadour-UK), has once again shown that Sierra Leone was once the “Athens of West Africa”.
Shekito’s 405-page seminal book is written in journalistic prose laced with academic colourations. The fluidity with which the book is written, in Twenty-Eight chapters complete with a Forward and an Epilogue, gives the reader an insight into the spiritual, intellectual and professional growth of the author. In some chapters, the reader gets the feeling that s/he is reading the diary-like entries of the protagonist in Mongo Beti’s “Mission to Kala”; and in others you get the feeling of reading a modernised well-researched long version of Christopher Magbaily Fyle’s “The History of Sierra Leone”.
In Chapter One, the author exhibits the same urgency with which Amos Tutuola does in the opening pages of “The Palm-Wine Drinkard”. Like Tutuola, Shekito wants to introduce the theme of his book just the same way journalists are taught how to write in the Inverted Pyramid format. He employs the First Person narrative technique to hook the reader: “For a boy from Mabanta to meet the Pope is a miracle! Accept it or not, that’s how I see it. Because I am ‘the boy from Mabanta’, and I know where I’m coming from, and I know where I’m going as far as relating the events that led to this great encounter is concerned…” (page 2) Once hooked, the reader has no alternative but to continue turning the pages.
Though Shekito is a Wesleyan and the Pope is Catholic, his meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican is described in such a sublime language that creates the equivalency of a Muslim touching the Kaaba in Mecca during Hajj. He creates that aura this way: “…But I would go beyond the mundane and look at whom the Pope is actually representing…A perfunctory look at his titles would put him on a pedestal: “Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the State of Vatican City, Servants of the Servants of God…” In fact Chapter One, in literary terms, might remind the reader of John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim's Progress”.
But unlike Bunyan’s protagonist, Christian, who makes a trip from his birthplace to the “Celestial City” because he “is weighed down by a great burden…”; Shekito’s journey from Sierra Leone to meet with Pope Francis is not for the sake of penitence but just “the work of God”, as he puts it. That’s why he believes that, “…to meet such a man, even by chance...is worth celebrating. To meet him by appointment is worth trumpeting. To meet him at the public square, St. Peter’s Square, with live TV cameras and giant screens relaying the event is out of this world. To meet him, talk to him, have a conversation and received a prepared gift from him is an extraordinary once-in-a-life-time event for me…” (page 6)
That “extraordinary once-in-a-life-time event” for him makes his “…Christian journey [to have] come full circle” (page 7). But as he stands before the Pontiff, he finally realises that “…the Pope is also human. The Cardinals and priests are also humans. We are all humans. Our dependence on human strength is ephemeral. Only our dependence on the grace of God offered through direct access by Christ is eternal. Pope Francis could look like the biblical Melchizedek, ‘the priest-king’; but he is not Melchizedek” (page 7). Here the reader sees a kind of Martin Luther-like ecclesiastical rebellion from “a protestant Wesleyan” (page 6) “… boy from Mabanta” (page 1) village in northern Sierra Leone.
Just like Tutuola in “The Palm-Wine Drinkard”; Shekito has unburdened something that has been eating his soul with urgency. But the fundamental difference with “Pope Francis, Politics And The Mabanta Boy” and “The Palm-Wine Drinkard” is that the author, Shekito, is retelling a personalised encounter intertwined with pre-religious views he has held long before meeting the Pontiff at the Vatican, while the protagonist in the latter is telling a Franz Kafka-like tale.
The book, itself, is also a sort of daredevil attempts at the exploration of uncharted waters. The author wades into sensitive areas that many authors in those fields have been afraid to thread. Tracing the origin of his Temne tribe to Israel, when well established Sierra Leonean Historians have recorded otherwise, is one of the many intellectual gauntlets which the author throws down to provoke academic debates.
Quoting the African-American researcher Brandon Coleman the author notes that, “According to oral traditions, the Temnes are from the tribe of Yahudah/Judah. They left Israel after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. They then went to Yemen/Ethiopia, to Mali/Western Sudan, then Futa Jallon/Guinea, and later Sierra Leone” (Chapter Six, page 53). This is not what students of History at Fourah Bay College (FBC) have normally been taught about the origin of the Temne tribe. It is like Shekito telling History professors at FBC that Sierra Leone has its own version of the “Dead Sea Scrolls”!
And with glee the author announces his Eureka moment: “To me, one of the clearest links between the Temnes and the Jews is the love for high-street trading. At different scales of course… but the passion for monetary gain is not different-it is in the bloodline!”(Page 53) Here, again, the author is making a bitter-sweet-truth statement that could be described as some home truths from a Temne “… boy from Mabanta”.
But looking at the book, “Pope Francis, Politics And The Mabanta Boy”, from another angle, one notices that it is not only about his meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican but, rather, the progression of the “Mabanta Boy” from humble beginnings to being an intellectual promise at Fourah Bay College to a journalistic pundit and a national figure. In this evolution, the author consistently explores, or fact-checks, his relationship with God and Man.
Sheka Tarawalie aka Shekito has written a book that is worth celebrating simply because he has given the world something new from Sierra Leone other than Ebola, Mudslides, and corruption allegations.