By: Osman Sankoh (Mallam O)
Review by Dr Lans Gberie, Author of War, Politics and Justice in West Africa (SLWS, 2015)
In the many countries in Europe and North America where Africans (and particularly Anglophone Africans) study, Germany is not among the most attractive. There are historical and practical reasons for this, and they have to do with long and concrete associations through colonialism and language. But there is another, altogether less sentimental, reason for the European nation’s lack of the easy attractiveness which Britain or France or the United States and Canada afford to the aspiring African scholar or immigrant: it has to do with the aggressively mono-cultural reputation of Germans, a tendency which easily and often violently translates into the kind of racism and racist attacks which has set Germany apart since the Holocaust. For this reason, I approached Osman Sankoh’s “Hybrid Eyes”, an account of his experiences as an African student in Germany, with some trepidation, not to say uneasiness. At the end of my first reading, which surprisingly took me only a day, much of my fears were confirmed; but so nuance and subtle is this book that I also emerged with a far deeper appreciation of the various levels of humanism, of the kind of broad-mindedness and kindness of heart among a good number of this much-maligned people which I first came in contact with through my association with Karl Prinz, Germany’s former ambassador to Sierra Leone.
The book opens with the author, from the impoverished West African state of Sierra Leone, finding himself in a very wealthy Germany. The wide-eyed observations he makes about his new surroundings are appropriate; the metaphor he uses are crisp and fresh, the language superb. He is in a large room with another Sierra Leonean student named Hudson Jackson. The room’s many “rectangular boards of different colours were neatly joined together to form a beautiful pattern.” And he compares this room, much too favourably, to his “whitewashed concrete” one at Njala University College in Sierra Leone. Looking through the window, he sees beautifully organised rows and rows of houses reminding him of “pictures I used to see in geography textbooks”; there is a “clean grey street whose long back was covered with a make-up of bright straight white lines and arrows.” There is no self-absorption here, and one of the book’s appeal is the author’s remarkable sense of appreciation for his new surrounding, a foreign country. But it also means that the intensity of feelings and emotions which come with such self-absorption, the kind that helped create great leaders and great autobiographies (Gandhi, Nkrumah), are rather ruefully absent: there is only a man vacillating between appreciation and outrage, not taking a strong position, whining when there is a xenophobic terror, in effect pleading to his hosts for a better understanding and appreciation of Africans and other immigrants; a very normal, intelligent man out to make a good life for himself and others close to him. This is not a world-changing view, but it is no less worthy for it being limited. It is a sound vision, and to show how sound it is, let us look at how another “Third Worlder” recounted his days as a law student in Europe.
In The Story of my Experiments with the Truth, Mahatma Gandhi, India’s great nationalist leader, recounts his experiences as a young man studying law in Britain. He went to England at the age of 19 in 1888, when he was already married for 6 years. The long journey was by sea, but nowhere in his account does Gandhi describe anything seen or heard that did not relate to him personally. There is no description of the sea or the ship; though Gandhi spent three years in England, no London building is described, no street mentioned, there is no observation about the weather (a favourite pastime in England). But at the time that Gandhi arrived in England, London was the capital of the world, the greatest city on earth, surely something that would not fail to impress a young man from a depressed little town in India. Gandhi’s inward concentration was total, his self-absorption fierce. Three years after he arrived in England, Gandhi suddenly becomes a lawyer; the adventure is over: “I passed my examinations, was called to the bar on the 10th of June 1891, and enrolled in the High Court on the 11th. On the 12th I sailed for home.” There is what V.S. Naipaul has called a “defect of vision” in Gandhi’s whole worldview: the failure to absorb other experiences, to appreciate other cultures, to open up to a changing world. It is the quintessential caste mentality. But this was the foundation of his greatness: the small man in the calico dress, a near-naked man, highly opinionated and bespectacled, bringing down the British Empire.
Osman Sankoh is certainly not Gandhi, and he does not pretend to be so. Still, there are moments of superb engagements with the higher issues in Sankoh’s “Hybrid Eyes”. In his interesting review of the book, Sheikh Umarr Kamara has referred to Sankoh’s technique of dialogue, which allows for the “breaking of the barriers of ignorance and fear that breed prejudice.” There is Sankoh’s conversation with the old German lady, which quickly takes the form of Sankoh patiently lecturing the nervous woman on the issue of race, as well as his engagement with the innocent, but already polluted, mind of a German kid who calls him a “nigger” in a subway. These are superb scenes, as much for their sustained humour as for the educational value. They are also revealing of the kind of man Sankoh is: diplomatic, non-confrontational, a patient gentleman, and very, very clever. He is also very brilliant. Germany’s graduate programmes, unlike those of North America and the UK, appear to seriously disrespect undergraduate degrees from African universities. So that even though Sankoh had graduated with a distinction in mathematics from the University of Sierra Leone, he is forced to do all his undergraduate courses all over again before he would be allowed into graduate school–some of the courses he had himself taught at Njala. Needless to say, he does it in style, graduating with ones in both his Masters and doctorate degrees. In December 1998, he wins the prestigious German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) prize for “excellent academic performance and extraordinary social engagements by a foreign student”, the first African to be so honoured. If his performance does not indicate to the Germans that Africans are not only just as good but could be better, then of course there are more serious issues.
Sankoh is an ‘accommodationist’; with him there is always another side to an issue. At the same time that he dreads the brutal and racist German police, the racist pranks of lumpen Germany, he also shows genuine gratitude and affection for those Germans who are truly nice to him and have a totally anti-racist worldview, people like Professor Urfer and his wife Barbara who invites him to their home. Initially a near-sceptic of German humanism, Sankoh’s attitude changes dramatically after the painful affair involving his daughter, Fatima. Fatima gets dreadfully ill, with a hole in the heart, in war-ravaged Sierra Leone. A tabloid newspaper campaign in Germany brings in all the help that he needed to fly in Fatima to undergo surgery in Germany.
The list of sponsors included a “female medical doctor” who “put her jewellery on sale with the value of DM 22,000 to help pay” for the surgery. His conclusion: “This is indeed a proof that generalisations about people, be they Europeans, Americans or African, are not good. There are always many people who not fit the generalisations.” Just where does this lead one? The reply is nowhere: sit right where you are. Sankoh is not here to inspire you to fight the proletarian or anti-racism war to the finish; his extraordinary brilliance aside, Sankoh is a normal graduate student, an aspiring professional. If he had been Rasa Parks, Sankoh would gently have argued with the white fellows in the bus, patiently lectured them about black humanity and charmed them into not taking him to court for sitting in a “white only” section of the bus (and perhaps there would have been no civil rights movement or Martin Luther King and all those big marches?). When an African explains how he was wrongly accused of stealing, Sankoh laments:
Indeed, it is true that some blacks have been “caught in criminal acts. But this is not a necessary and sufficient reason to put all blacks in this country into that group. A black man in Germany is generally perceived to be a poor man, just like those hungry and starving Africans shown on German television.”
“Hybrid Eyes” is no doubt a brilliant narrative, highly readable. There are many memorable passages. Sankoh’s descriptions of the many strange things he encounters are often matchless in their eloquence. Here is his encounter with a wooden lift.
“The lifts here are different. They are small wooden cabins for a maximum of two people at a time that roll continuously up and down. I looked at them suspiciously, went a bit closer, but gave up any attempt to use them. I saw one person come off and another get on. I looked left and right, as if to be sure that no one was watching me to see whether or not I could make it. I moved closer, held tightly to the grip on the wall, raised my foot and waited for the next cabin. I then jumped in quickly.”
The sentences build and add, every word belongs.
The high point of “Hybrid Eyes” is Sankoh’s lengthy reply to his brother’s letter from Sierra Leone. The two letters deserve to be read very carefully. Young Andrew’s letter is enthusiastic, sincerely irresponsible in some places, very acute and sharp in others. The older Sankoh replies in a measured tone, (characteristically) patiently lecturing his brother about how misguided his views are about Germany as the “greener pasture”, the drudgery of work he has to ensure to make sure that the deutschmark (always the deutschmark: without the deutschmark Andrew would not write the eloquent letter for he probably wouldn’t be at Fourah Bah College: the deutschmark makes all the difference) keep getting to the family in Sierra Leone, the racism he encounters almost on a daily basis, all the worldly troubles. Clearly, Andrew would not be impressed by this argument. In his letter, he kept coming back to the ravages of the war in Sierra Leone, the trouble his family name (although not related to the warlord Foday Sankoh) would cause, the fact that he may not want to sit back all the time expecting to receive the packages from his brother (fruits of the drudgery of work in Germany!). Here, there are really no higher issues discussed; Sankoh knows better than to lecture a sharp and perhaps hungry FBC student about how to change the world.
In “Hybrid Eyes”, we see how incomplete “hybridity” always is, how it is always a process, a precarious and often painful condition, a process of unequal negotiation. Osman Sankoh’s book is a treasure for its unabashed and fiercely exact representation of this condition.