James Fallah-Williams: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 27 August 2021:
Painting and drawing is a part of me; I grew-up with them and they are intricately intertwined with my writing. I was largely self-taught; I was only ever taught by one art teacher, at The Methodist Agricultural Secondary School, Bunumbu. She was called Mrs Agnes Deen-Jalloh. Let me tell you a bit about her.
Mrs Agnes Deen-Jalloh was Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front (RUF)’s most prominent senior female rebel officer. She was also the older sister of President Julius Maada Bio, who was my teacher in Form One; he briefly became a pupil teacher at my school after completing his secondary education at Bo School in the mid-1980s.
Before she achieved the accolade of being the most prominent senior RUF female rebel, Mrs Deen-Jalloh was a quiet and introverted teacher. She had come to the school in the 1980s when her husband, Dr Deen-Jalloh, moved to work in Bunumbu, which was a small but very strategic chiefdom headquarters town in Eastern Sierra Leone and the location of the renowned Bunumbu Teachers’ College.
Photo: At the edge of the table: You are only two feet away from this bowl and tomatoes on a coffee table. Oil on canvas paper.
In her capacity as a teacher, Mrs Deen-Jalloh, who was in her late thirties, specialised in arts and crafts, and she was well-trained and highly qualified. As a fourteen-year-old, I enjoyed arts and crafts to the point of insanity. I drew caricatures and made crafts at school and in my spare time at home. I even had teacher-training college students coming to me for advice on their art assignments.
I always looked forward to Mrs Deen-Jalloh’s lessons. She only ever spoke in a formal, lengthy manner to students during lessons and didn’t engage in conversation. She demonstrated how to draw precision matchstick men with eggheads, and showed how to enhance their structures with form and face. Her demonstrative drawings worked extremely well for me.
Mrs Deen-Jalloh’s apparent introverted outlook and quietness have often made me reflect; I have wondered whether her manner was a ploy to hide what was to befall the country in subsequent years, and whether she had any prior knowledge about it at all. I can only answer this by looking at one specific art exam question in which she asked us to draw a thief at a marketplace. I was excited about this; I drew a two-dimensional image of a thief running away from a market scene with a stolen tape recorder under his arm. He was being screamed at by market women and chased by stick-wielding men with punitive intentions.
Everyone, including Mrs Deen-Jalloh, liked my drawing very much, and I got a very good mark for the work. In 1991, just over a year after I left the school, the Sierra Leone Civil War broke out. By then, Mrs Deen-Jalloh had left the school and was teaching at the college. As the war progressed, she became known internationally as one of the leading figures of the RUF rebels.
I have carried my enthusiasm for art with me through my life and have managed to hold small exhibitions of my own paintings in Bristol, Greater Manchester, and Hampshire. But over the years I have reflected deeply about that art exam that Mrs Deen-Jalloh gave us.
And, as rationality and a detailed understanding of our national political structures and the events of the rebellion seeped into my thoughts, I considered Mrs Deen-Jalloh’s exam question as an allegory of the national political system. The marketplace she had asked us to draw was the country, the thief was the president, and the men and women who were shouting and running after the thief were the people of Sierra Leone. I was gripped; Mrs Deen-Jalloh had used art in a seemingly cunning and very powerful way to get her students to express their anger at and downright abhorrence for thievery in politics and for the overall political and economic rot that was so emblematic at even the very highest echelons of the nation’s leadership.
She was a very clever woman. Very clever, but seriously constrained by her powerlessness to exercise what was brewing in the minds of most professionals of the day. She and other professionals could see that pernicious corruption went hand in hand with the devastating effects of the Structural Adjustment Programme of the 1980s, which downgraded education, health, and the general standard of living across the country.
Successive school strikes in the country defined those years, as ideology and radicalism were implanted into us through the various covert means deemed necessary by those who couldn’t openly express their views. It was under such circumstances that we were all very highly radicalised in one way or another; we were finely tuned as to how to become positively or negatively radical, and we were enabled to pick out gross institutional failings such as corruption, tribalism, and ill-defined policies that were doomed to fail.
As the economic situation became dire, teachings became fiercely radical. There were persistent sit-ins by teachers and other public sector workers. They called their protests ‘GO SLOW’. And in support of the teacher’s sit-down strike, we used to chant ‘Go slow’. For us pupils, it was an acronym for ‘Government Of Sierra Leone Offends Workers’.
So, when the government failed to pay its employees after many months of waiting, the slogan became ‘Workers on Low Salaries Organise Go-Slows’ (the same acronym backwards). Even billboard advertisements were turned into anti-government slogans.
For example, STAR, which was a very popular larger beer for the well-offs at the time, was turned into an anti-government slogan for ‘Stand Together and Revolt’ and, with the acronym read backwards, ‘Revolt Against The State’.
As a teenager, I became gripped by this seamless intermingling of art and radicalism. My radical drawings got me into trouble once when I caricatured a student during a French lesson. The drawing had already done a desk-to-desk round in class, and when it got to the student in question, he was so upset that he gave it to the French teacher, who was known for his tempestuous relationship with his students.
The teacher was also a stiff-upper-lip type who showed little or no soft face or smile. But the drawing was of such grotesque form that, upon seeing it, he couldn’t restrain his snigger! He burst into sudden hysterical giggles that triggered the whole class into mass laughter. Nevertheless, he called me forward and excluded me from his class. I walked out looking panged, like a donkey with a broom tied to its tail – perhaps a little remorseful for the poor student.
Photo: Self portrait. Oil on canvas.
As mentioned earlier, Mrs Deen-Jalloh left us to become a lecturer at the Bunumbu Teachers’ College. I never met another art teacher again, so I became self-taught. As I grew older, my tendency towards radical drawings and paintings changed drastically, and I took my work in more subtle directions, creating still lives and landscapes/cityscapes and using a variety of styles including Old Dutch and impressionism.
My sudden change of direction was the result of me finding a different direct way to lay into the rotten political system in my country; the investigative and feature newspaper articles I write for national and diaspora papers.
This change was also triggered by other radical women entering my life. One was a medical missionary from England, who was also ex-Royal Navy personnel. At five-foot-two and of petite build, she was a live wire; a no-nonsense woman with some of the most brutal writing skills I have ever seen. Her letters to authorities hardly went beyond one page. ‘Anything beyond that is nonsense!’ she would say. Her writing skills were so brutal and devastating that they unsettled the receiver, triggering a rapid response with the promise to address the matter raised. She adopted me.
‘My son, this is England – you have to speak if you want to be heard!’ she would say to me, and ‘Don’t look at your toes when speaking to people!’. She didn’t stop there; she made sure that I understood exactly what she meant. She directed me to some of the toughest institutions England could offer. These were places where I learnt my other trade in social and public policy.
Another radical woman in my life was my landlady while I was at university. She was a retired academic – a physicist. Her speciality was polymers; a substance which has a molecular structure built up chiefly or completely from many similar units bonded together. Her hobby was ornithology, which I also came to like.
We lived in a five-bedroomed house with two sitting rooms, a kitchen, and beautifully trimmed gardens. We had only one small TV, which she had planted in one of the sitting rooms, and I thought this was a ploy to discourage me from spending unnecessary time watching it. In the sitting rooms, there was also a generous collection of books about artists including Cezanne, Constable, Peploe, L.S. Lowry, Van Gogh, Rousseau, etc.
On the walls were original British paintings that her husband, who was also a retired academic, had collected. I responded; in my spare time, and on weekends and holidays, I went through the books and thoroughly imbibed myself with colours and techniques. I picked up my easel, paints and brushes and transformed my bedroom with still lives and landscapes/cityscapes. That was the first time I ever used oil paint; I had always used water colours until that point, and I was not turning back! I had found L.S. Lowry on the shelves!
Photo: Texting on a wet winter’s day from Manchester Piccadilly. Oil on Canvas.
As for Mrs Deen-Jalloh, she profoundly changed anyone who could listen to her. But, like many women during the Sierra Leone Civil War, she was abducted by the RUF rebels when they attacked the town. And, as the rebels became aware of her devastating intellectual capabilities, they never let her go. They held on to her, and she transformed them.
In the mid-1990s, indeed, two of Mrs Deen-Jalloh’s very own younger brothers, Maada Bio (my pupil teacher), and Steve Bio (who was Maada’s younger brother and three years ahead of me at the school), became deeply associated with politics and rebellion in Sierra Leone.
Maada Bio, a brigadier at thirty-two, became president in 1996 in a military coup. Steven Fallah-Williams, my older brother, who was also a military officer in the Sierra Leone Army, worked with Maada before and during his short presidency. It was during this that my brother Steven was killed.
Steve Bio, also a military officer, was driven by his own desire to become the president of the republic. In December 1996, eleven people were arrested for an alleged plot to overthrow the democratically elected government of President Tejan Kabba, which Brigadier Maada Bio had handed power to. Those arrested included Steve’s father-in-law, two Russian helicopter technicians, and six soldiers. Steve, however, escaped to Ivory Coast.
Photo: Entangled – Long Red Marconi Peppers on a stool. Oil on canvas paper.
Before then, Steve had established his own companies, Soruss Airlines and Tilda Atlantic Transport. These two companies helped to move cargo around the country using helicopters and trucks during the civil war. Steve’s escape to Abidjan in Ivory Coast enabled his reunion with Foday Sankoh, the RUF rebel leader with whom he had links – Steve supplied arms to Foday’s RUF fighters using his helicopters.
Steve was also providing the same services to the Sierra Leone Army. He was effectively a double agent, commonly referred to in Sierra Leone as sobel (soldier/rebel). In early 1997, after his return from Russia, Steve lured Foday Sankoh to Nigeria, where Sankoh was arrested by the Nigerian government under President Sani Abacha, thereby opening a huge gap at the head of the RUF in Sierra Leone.
Mrs Deen-Jalloh was way ahead of her time, and, in a deeply traditional society, the wrong gender. She would have been a far better head of state than Maada, but what she couldn’t achieve herself, she imparted into those who could listen; she had brought her brothers up, as their father had died when they were young.
Of course, going through the hands of tough and disciplined people has its own downside – it makes you susceptible to relinquishing your responsibilities to less capable people when you become an independent and responsible adult yourself.
This is quite evident in Maada’s leadership; looking at the roles his wife, Fatima Bio, and the now demoted Chief Minister, David Francis are playing. These two people are the de facto leaders, regardless of David Francis’ current role in the administration.
Both Fatima and Francis have also allegedly siphoned billions of Leones form the state’s account. Fatima at one time went on social media to say that she would ‘unleash mob-justice on anyone who criticises’ her husband. This sort of untamed peevishness could only be expressed by those who lack the simplest understanding of contemporary democratic values and character. The very mobs who are being invoked here to unleash ‘justice’ upon those who are rightly critical of her husband’s scandalous incompetence and failings are those unemployed young men who rely on food handouts and drugs!
Sierra Leone is at a critical crossroads
Maada is incapable of making independent decisions without Fatima Bio and David Francis. As a result, his leadership style has been publicly exposed by the ferocious winds of indirection, non-assertiveness, endemic child poverty, wretched unemployment, disgraceful infant and maternal mortality rates (the highest in Sub-Saharan Africa, to be precise!), terrific corruption spearheaded by his ministers, a failing education system, inexcusable blackouts, a lack of safe drinking water across the nation, unacceptable food shortages, and the dire economic situation of the country in general in the past three years. ‘Money nor dae na bank!’ is the common phrase you now hear in Sierra Leone.
It is painful to hear Maada defending such a bleak record, which has mostly pointed towards memorandums of understanding. Watching Maada on national television gleefully signing useless memorandums of understanding after useless memorandums of understanding of nothingness is as farcical as watching a drunken fly, whose feet are wet with ink, staggering hopelessly on a spread of plain white papers. If this is the New Direction, then we are heading for a cliff!