In my house in Freetown there is a room that the landlord calls the library. That term is over grandiose, perhaps. It is not much more than a cubicle, with a view out towards the mango tree and the guard-post at the top of the compound.
Bookshelves line one wall of the library. Their contents fascinate me, as do the other antebellum relics in the house, like the green telephone with a rotary dial that sits on a table downstairs and still sometimes produces a dial tone, though there are next to no landlines now in the city. But the bookshelves in the library are intriguing not so much for their contents, as for the condition their contents are in.
At roughly head-height are four bound volumes, containing the laws of Sierra Leone for 1960. 1960 was the year before Sierra Leone became independent from Britain. On the inside front cover of each volume a rubric is printed: “A poisonous insecticidal solution has been used in binding this book,” it states.
Whatever that half-century-old pesticide was, it was not strong enough. The covers of the law books have been excavated, run through, burrowed by some invertebrate. Probably by a termite. Meanwhile, the outsides of the covers are streaked with grey-green mould.
There’s almost too much metaphor here. It’s too apparent, a sleight of authorial hand that you couldn’t get away with in fiction. The laws have rotted. The decay of the law is almost too apt an analogy for what happened after Sierra Leone became independent, the year after the books were made.
Corruption swelled, the second post-independent prime minister stole $250 million in 1960s money in three years in office. His successor made himself president, declared a one-party state, and made off with an estimated half a billion dollars. Within a few years began disintegration, the long, slow process of state failure that, three decades later, would birth one of Africa’s most brutal civil wars.
But those metaphors are not what I seek to say, not now at least. I just want to say that I live in a place where books rot. I have always read, in childhood, in adolescence; later for three years of an English degree reading was my profession. But living in a place where the climate is physically hostile to the continued existence of literature does confer upon it extra value.
There are no bookshops in Freetown, either. That’s the other side of this bind. The city lacks many things; enough grid power to allow the concept of the ‘power cut’ to have some meaning, reliable telecoms, and, for much of its benighted population, reasonable nutrition. But, selfishly, for me the lack of bookshops in Freetown grinds particularly hard.
There are a handful of establishments that do self-identify as such, but they sell self-help volumes – sometimes bound in plastic, so you can’t assess their proposals pre-purchase – or religious tracts, or stationery. Not fiction. Meanwhile the few stalls that pile paperbacks on street corners, near the wheelbarrows full of coconuts and the racked pirate DVDs, largely offer trash, though I did once find a battered copy of William Boyd’s ‘Brazzaville Beach.’
It’s a two-headed problem then, reading in Sierra Leone, absent supply at one end, the inevitability of book rot at the other. The rot itself is symptomatic of a wider malaise. It is difficult to overstate the unpleasantness of Sierra Leone’s climate. Before vaccinations and anti-malarial medication Freetown was affectionately known as the ‘White Man’s Grave.’
Even the local slave trade, which for an uncomfortable period co-existed with a colony for freed slaves established in the late eighteenth century, did not really work financially until the local management was Africanised. The European slavers kept dying.
Enough of history. In Freetown the humidity approaches the absolute. I have heard that a temperature below 19 Celsius has never been recorded. The sea breeze penetrates about as far inland as a neap tide. Bizarrely, heroically someone – probably the Chinese – gifted the thuggish armed wing of the police arctic camouflage uniforms. The police wear these blue and white pyjamas without irony.
In these conditions rot is inevitable and unassailable, unless you are one of the lucky few that has air conditioning and can run it all day. In a city dependant on pricey diesel generators, 24 hour cooling is a considerable extravagance.
Everything rots. Mildew colonises clothes left in wardrobes. I returned from a trip to find the mordantly expensive Panama hat I had purchased only half in jest in London was acquiring a greenish tinge. And books, well, given long enough they will end up like the rotten laws in the library in my house.
Of course, there’s a fairly obvious solution to this problem set. The Kindle would seem to solve both the supply side of the reading problem in Freetown, and sidestep the issue of decaying pages. I have one too, a birthday gift from last year. I just don’t like it. Now is not the time to thrash out the hackneyed trope of the book as artefact. Nor does my disgust at the fact the fact that I couldn’t order Larry McMurtry’s western epic ‘Lonesome Dove’ on my UK-specification Kindle justify my subsequent neglect of it.
But, alongside irrational dislike, it is worth pointing out that with Sierra Leone’s medieval telecoms it is impossible to download books on the hop on a Kindle, as one can in Europe or America. Furthermore, electronics are not immune to this country’s climate either.
At last inspection my Kindle was alive. But once, not long after I arrived in Sierra Leone, I sat by night outside a hotel in the town of Makeni in the scorching centre of the country, my laptop cracked open on my knees. Moths and flying things flocked to the screen-light. Some days later other, smaller, at-a-different-stage-of-the-life-cycle things were hatching under the keyboard. They were scrambling out of the cracks between the QWERTYUIOP.
In this environment of scarcity, books become twinned with another, apparently incongruous set of objects; Land Rover parts. The two categories have little in common in the wider world, but in Freetown both are, to a greater or lesser extent, essential but unobtainable. I have written at length before about the travails of car ownership in Sierra Leone. Now is not the place to go into it again. It is suffice to say that you need Land Rover parts in Freetown like you (or at least I) need books, you can’t get either, and so both are things that you have to bring in.
For me, book shopping is one of the best things about shore leave, about not being in Sierra Leone. In London hitting up Skoob, the subterranean second-hand emporium in the bowels of the Brunswick Centre by Russell Square, or raiding Slightly Foxed on the Gloucester Road in South Kensington, is a pleasure every bit as keen as the company of western women who don’t work for NGOs, or the feel of fabrics that have never hosted mildew next to the skin.
Buying Land Rover parts is less fun. These days it’s largely done over the Internet. The prices are lower (but still ruinous) and, as with the acquisition of pornography, online shopping removes the need to have a face-to-face encounter with a store owner who may well be situated somewhere on the autistic spectrum. But once, purchased, Land Rover parts, like books, need carriage to Sierra Leone.
When I returned to Freetown after Christmas my luggage contained the following: Anthony Powell’s ‘At Lady Molly’s,’ two front suspension shock absorbers, James Mellow’s Hemingway biography ‘A Life Without Consequences’, an air conditioning front evaporator unit, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in Oxford World Classic’s paperback, a front driver’s door lock assembly, AS Byatt’s ‘Possession,’ a fuel filter, Bruce Chatwin’s ‘In Patagonia,’ an air filter, Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Memoirs of an Infantry Officer,’ an oil filter, and Barbara Kingsolver’s ‘The Poisonwood Bible.’
There were also some more books. The key difference, I suppose, is that one day I plan to sell my car.
Simon Akam is Reuters’ correspondent in Sierra Leone. His website is www.simonakam.com and he has also written these which we think are excellent: The Long and Winding Road (on Land Rover parts in Africa) and Stars of the Stalls (on second hand book shopping).