Salia Koroma: An Elegy Sung In A Stadium
The third section of Mende Gendei (the second portion in my edited version) is an elegy, and the main subject is how the powerful, the wealthy and the famous will eventually heed the call of the earth. They may be unwilling to depart, but they’ll go when the silent, hungry earth summons them. This particular version is sung to the august gathering of African despots gathered in one place for the opening ceremonies of the 1980 OAU Summit in Freetown. (The Organisation of African Unity is now the African Union.) The song is addressed to the host, Siaka Stevens, but the general audience is this group of despoilers of their own peoples.
Salia Koroma begins his meditation on death with a list of praise names to the host and an appeal to the host’s generosity. But are the praise handles really extolling the host? Or rather, are they names one would wholeheartedly and readily assume? (Lagula bettu= Drooping Lips; fohfoh monjoh=beetle muncher.) Salia masks criticism, even ridicule, with impressive verbal dexterity. Is it just verbal deftness, though? Here again one needs to dig a little deeper to get at the wit and linguistic inventiveness of our troubadour. I’m loath to call Salia a praise-singer. This is because listening to his songs, it’s quite clear that if the patrons were flattered it wasn’t because he was buttering them up, but in spite of what he said about them to their face. If they were flattered it was because of his very presence in their courts (Sama geh loh a Ngoimoh=The Prince’s end is the Musician). He didn’t find his being and meaning in them; it was the other way round. What’s the tree without the forest? Or the raging fire without the billowing smoke? The crocodile’s an animal of dread, but what is it without the pool?
So that if on this day Salia appeals to the president’s munificence it’s not because he considers himself of a lower social rank. If he appeals to the president’s generosity, it is the better to tell him of their common sonship in God’s creation. It is the better to tell him that he, Salia, had served some of the most influential leaders that emerged with the Protectorate, people whose lineages predated the Protectorate and the modern entity of Sierra Leone. Isn’t Salia older than the president by a few years? In other words, he’s telling the president that he, the president, was new; on the other hand, what he, Salia Koroma, represents was ancient; the culture and the history he’s served all his life predate the post Stevens was glorying in on that day. Salia was impressed with the pomp so magnificently displayed. He was even willing to commend the host for the show. But why the proud silence? Why the vaunting? Perhaps the president thought of himself as God’s beloved son? A nephew, perhaps? Did he perhaps consider himself the equal of God? Power does that. Wealth does that. Fame does that. Where’s the sense of proportion? Consider…
(More to come on An Elegy Sung In A Stadium)