View From The South
Are diamonds really and truly a girl’s best friend? Not in all circumstances – certainly diamonds are not the best friends of a rather pretty, three-year-old Sierra Leonean girl-child called Memuna Mansarah. They have proved to be her worst nightmare, long before she was old enough to know what nightmares are.
I remember those geography quizzes clearly. ‘Name three export minerals from Ghana [the Gold Coast then!].’ ‘Gold, diamonds, manganese, bauxite…’ we droned on. I also remember that once we had started it seemed as if we could never stop. To us, in our mid-teens, the list of Ghana’s exportable natural resources stretched into infinity. In youth everything seems longer, bigger, sweeter: in short, better.
We all became witty and blasé enough to make jokes about the minerals. Or rather, the class imp did. ‘Name three minerals from Ghana.’ Her hand would shoot up. We would all look anywhere but at our teacher, all the while trying hard not to giggle. We knew what was coming. ‘Yes, Jasmine. Gold, diamonds, cream soda…’ The classroom would explode into shrieks of laughter, while our poor confused teacher swore to have us all suspended – at least – for a term. Luckily for us, she never did.
We were missing a couple of facts back then. One was that Ghana, though very well-endowed in the minerals department, was not one of the biggest deals in Africa: not with Sierra Leone in the immediate neighbourhood, Angola and South Africa to the not-too-distant south and the Congo right in the centre of the continent. We hear that the entire map of Sierra Leone sits on diamonds and other minerals. Some of us have completely panicked that this may be true of the entire continent from the Cape to Cairo, from Dakar to Djibouti.
If indeed Africa is even more rich than thought earlier, then what has become of us, our children and our children’s children? We have suffered so much – and are still suffering – because of Africa’s mineral resources, especially diamonds. Oil too. Remember Ken Saro-Wiwa and the eight other Ogonis?
Another fact we missed in our blissful teenage naiveté was that gold and diamonds are not a laughing matter. Certainly not if you are Memuna Mansarah, whose right hand was lopped off when she was a baby. As Memuna wakes up to an awareness of herself as human she will also immediately be confronted with a stump for a right hand, which she will be obliged to carry around and manage for the rest of her life. Dear Reader, check Memuna out: There is a picture of her in the August 2000 issue of Vanity Fair.
We first saw pictures of Memuna just after they cut her arm. Who could have done this? What were they looking for? Surely not the severed, bleeding arm of an infant? She could not possibly have done enough wrong to deserve such a fate. So then, what was at stake here?
We need to ask these questions because we cannot escape into face-saving clichés like ‘she was a civilian caught in the crossfire’. Sure, Memuna is a civilian, but ‘caught in the crossfire’ she was not. She had been targeted for destruction as though she, the infant girl, was herself an enemy combatant. Whoever cut off her arm had to get extremely close to her.
If diamonds were at stake, it is imperative that we in Africa pause and take a hard look at the minerals under our soil and how their exploitation is impacting on our lives. No-one is making the slightest attempt to answer any of the simple questions facing Africans today. Like, if our land is so chock-full of these fancy minerals, why are we still so poor? Or, why do our leaders seem so incapable (unwilling?) of negotiating on our behalf?
Once upon a time the mental anguish from our bizarre situation was a little less than now. Because, hard and harsh as our reality was, other facts that we had to deal with were not so complicated. Our colonizers/exploiters were foreigners, mostly Europeans of one kind or another. Even the Arab slave traders could be said, on the whole, to have been a shade lighter.
These days nothing is that simple. When Memuna Mansarah gets articulate enough to ask about her stump, someone should be prepared to tell her the truth. That, probably, some child soldiers – black like herself and most likely from the same neighbourhood – had done it. Of course, they would have been fed on alcohol and harder drugs by some warlords calling themselves revolutionaries. But the perpetrators could also have been properly trained, mature soldiers from the national army. In Africa, who can tell whom from whom?
It was probably because her parents had refused to be cleared from their home close to a lucrative diamond mine. Cutting off their baby’s arm must have been an excellently persuasive argument!
Now all we can hope for is that when the time comes for Memuna to understand clearly what has happened to her there will be someone around to prevent her from tumbling into insanity at the horror and the senselessness of it all. And don’t let anybody get ready to tell her that she should learn to feel better about her stump because hundreds and thousands of others have suffered a similar fate.
Ama Ata Aidoo is a writer who lives in Ghana. Her latest publication is The Girl Who Can and Other Stories.