Thursday, June 12, 2008

Our Collective Amnesia: Review of "A Living Mirror - The Life of Deyda Hydara"

Books and newspapers are very important in a society. They act as our collective memory, the things we can always go back to to take another look at events, to recognize repeating patterns in them, and to understand them. Whilst newspapers are of necessity published in a rush (there is a deadline, and it must be met - the paper must be out on the streets by so-and-so time), books have the luxury of being more meditated-upon, and are often better thought-out as a result. Authors can take years writing a single book - no one complains. This gives the authors of books a great advantage over newspaper writers and editors - the advantage of time, the ability to look at the bigger picture instead of just immediate events, and to allow events to reach their full maturity before commenting on them.

"A Living Mirror: The Life of Deyda Hydara" is one such book, written by Aloa Ahmed Alota and Demba Ali Jawo. It is a biography of Deyda Hydara, the Point editor who was killed in a drive-by shooting in 2004.

The book begins with Deyda as a young man, playing football on the streets of Banjul. We follow him as he is signed up, almost accidentally, for the French school, where he performs so well he is allowed to go to Dakar to complete his studies. These studies are cut short (though not before here, too, he has demonstrated his intelligence by already beginning to read philosophers such as Sartre. "Your verb conjugation is excellent", his teacher remarks on his first test) after his guardian becomes unable to afford the school fees any longer. He returns home and gets a job at Radio Syd, and the book follows his activites as he falls in love, gets married,and quits the Radio job to start a newspaper. We see, at the beginning, Deyda the man.

The middle part of the book is devoted to a series of Socratic-type dialogues Deyda had with one of his editors, during which they speak on various issues raised in articles Deyda wrote for the Point, ranging from the power of government to the rights of women. In them Deyda is presented as a learned man with very strong views on issues, and the editor as humble student asking just the right questions to keep the debate flowing, pausing only to read out relevant sections from articles as he is ordered to by Deyda. This part would perhaps have been a bit more interesting if the editor had acted as devil's advocate, arguing against some of the points Deyda made, making the discussion more lively. As it is, though, we do manage to hear of some of Deyda's opinions, and the ways in which he justified them.

Right at the end, we are told about the Point newspaper's 13th anniversary party - the speeches given that night, the dancing, the visit from the new US ambassador. And as the evening progresses, and we learn about the two female co-workers Deyda was planning to give lifts to their houses that night, we suddenly begin to realize what this entails. (There were two women in the car, when the shootings happened). The prose really flows here - you can feel the authors' emotions, as well as the emotions of the people who must have told them the tale. And then, after the unmarked Benz draws up to Deyda's car, and he is shot, after the assassins have escaped, we follow the ones left behind, their reactions recorded as they each get the news - some fainting, some in denial and going to check for themselves, some unable to accept that this was really happening. Not surprisingly, this part of the book was the most well-written.

There are a few little problems with the book, ones which can certainly be excused for having happened to first-time authors [both writers have worked for major Gambian newspapers in the past, but had not published a book before this one, as far as I know]. One of these problems is the excessive use of cliched expressions, especially in the first half of the book. Take, for example, this passage from page 57:

By now the lanky, sunken-cheeked adoscelent Deyda had developed into a beefy-faced, well-rounded adult with a bulky frame. He rocked on a springy step, especially when a journalistic scoop or a well-written story bowled him over.

Deyda rocks on "a springy step", especially when he is "bowled over"? There are more passages like this which add to a certain sense of unneeded clutter in the narrative, sometimes getting in the way of the story. [Deyda's uncannily prescient declaration that he would be shot, for example is referred to as a "hoary old chestnut" amongst his staff, a metaphor which just does not sound right given both the context and the expected readership].

Right from the beginning the authors admit to having "adopted a fiction style" for presenting the life story they had before them, in order to make it more engaging to the reader. This is rarely a problem - it actually does help the book flow - though sometimes it leaves you wondering what really happened, and what the authors made up to fill in the gaps. On page 85, there is an encounter between Deyda and the Gambia Press Union lawyer selected to represent the GPU in court:

Deyda stared at [the lawyer] and asked her for the umpteenth time, "Are you sure you'd like to represent us in court?"

[She] smiled and waved her hands in the air. "I've told you again and again that I can and will take up the case".

Deyda beamed. "You mean you can stop the National Media Commission from emasculating the independent media?"

"I'll fight it out in court."

"And I'll use my newspaper to enlighten the public on the ominous danger the NMC Act posed to freedom of expression in this country."

They both laughed.

This sounds more like actors reading from a script than an actual conversation between two people. This kind of set up happens a few more times in the book, but is a small price to pay to have the rest of it flow the way it does.

As biography, the book does not work as well as would be expected. The subject as presented is too flat. At meetings and press conferences he is always mowing the opponents down with his superior words, and they in their turn always clapping and cheering at his every utterance. He is always cheerful and happy and optimistic (almost superhumanly so), he is never afraid, he never has doubts.

It is instead as chronicle of media repression in this country that the book does a marvellous job, covering everything from the advent of Radio Syd to the debates in the National Assembly about the creation of a National Media Commission, and the subsequent attempts at parley by the Minister of Communications at the time. None of this is covered in any history curricula in the country, and most of it is information that could have been acquired only by talking directly to the persons involved, so bad has our societal amnesia become. Alota and Jawo have done us an invaluable service in putting this important part of the history of our democracy between two covers, adding to the store of collective memory in place for future generations.

After the main story itself, the book contains a series of photos of Deyda, and two appendices. The first appendix is made up of tributes written by his peers, all condemning the murder, all putting in words the horror and outrage felt by the whole country. The second one is a selection of articles, mainly from his "Good Morning Mr President" column in the Point newspaper. As we read these, and get closer and closer to his fatal hour, we cannot help but be struck by how brave he was, how he dared say the things which other people did or would not, in always clear and sometimes brilliant prose, never condescending, always taking the time to argue out his case, presenting the facts as he saw them. And it is the articles in this appendix which in the end convince us of the point the main story was trying to make all along: what we can see in these writings is the reflection of a man who until the last stuck to his beliefs - and died rather than relinquish them. If "patriot" wasn't such an overused, meaningless term these days in the country, I'd even call him a true patriot. The country is sorely in need of men like him once more.

You can find out more about the book by visiting