Why read about Sierra Leone? The south of the continent offers hope, the north pungent collisions of cultures and religions. Whereas the west's savage disarray is best captured by this anecdote from Teun Voeten's harrowing war reportage How De Body? Stopped by a random horde of drugged children with automatic weapons somewhere in the brush outside Freetown, Liberia, Dutch photojournalist Voeten realizes that survival is entirely arbitrary. When his captors merely rob him, his simple gratitude is entirely sincere: "Thank you for not killing me."
But reading (and writing) books stuffed with brutality so meaningless and endemic that it confounds understanding can carry a whiff of racial superiority, a voyeuristic fascination with the heart of darkness. As Daniel Bergner admits midway through this beautifully crafted account, "To a degree I cannot measure--a degree I can only hope was slight--I was drawn to Sierra Leone precisely because its terror and self-destruction offered me a kind of primal self-affirmation, a seductive proof, no matter how insidiously false, of the superiority of my own race."
Yet, paradoxically, his is the most generous and (cautiously) life-affirming vision of this wrecked culture so far. Like a village storyteller, Bergner traces the footpaths of human connection. Visiting a bar in the capital to discern the weird rules of expat social structure, he encounters a South African mercenary who, between strafing runs with his Soviet-made gunship, has gone native and supports numerous local youths. From there the author heads upcountry with an impossibly idealistic medical student whose education the mercenary underwrites, to treat aged country people trying to make do after their own children have chopped off their hands. Along the way he provides one indelible image after another: One expert teenage killer ("He make I feel bad," he says of the motivation for his first slaughter) hides his plate of chicken because no one ever taught him to use a knife and fork. Village children dance when they extort tissues from a passing car. British soldiers pacify the countryside by evoking 19th-century white imperialism. An optimistic amputee grasps a single coin with his pincers.
Bergner is painfully self-aware and alert to the beautiful amid the horror. He pays tribute to the determination of everyday heroes trying to recreate mere normality--even when their ultimate frustration seems as clear, and as inevitable, as the coming of the rainy season.