Imagine waking before sunrise, strapping on some worn-out sandals and walking a full ten kilometres to school along a dusty road in Sierra Leone. This was a daily journey made by Edison Yongai from the age of seven.
I have known Edison Yongai for almost twenty years now. We are both Sierra Leoneans who have made Australia home. As an elder in our community he used to mingle with my father. Now I am sharing a cup of tea with him in my house in Western Sydney as he describes his early childhood, referring to it as ‘adventurous.’ ‘We climbed trees, we picked fruit and everything.’ Although he recounts these positive memories, such experiences must have required self-discipline and determination, which are principles he has adopted throughout his life and successful career.
Edison Yongai was born in the Kono district of Sierra Leone, West Africa. He spent his childhood in a small village, later moving to the capital city, Freetown, for a secondary school and college education. In Sierra Leone he was a secondary school teacher, teaching French and English before becoming a journalist and author.
While listening to Yongai discuss the value of education in his life, I think of my father who is from the same generation. Both men were the first in their families to receive any form of education – a ticket to gentry status and a more favourable lifestyle. In their parents’ generation education was a novel concept that many Sierra Leoneans were denied by the British colonial authorities. As a result, many native Sierra Leoneans did not believe in the potential of education. However, Yongai’s mother sang to a different tune. She was more progressive in her views on education. He proudly recalls his mother’s advice to him, ‘You’re the father of the family. Do your best and learn so that the others will follow in your footsteps.’ Yongai was the eldest from a family of around thirty children. I was not surprised by this as our grandfathers could marry up to four wives according to our local Muslim tradition. This is how we would multiply into large family units. Counting my extended family members would be like counting grains of rice – near impossible. Many Sierra Leoneans, like myself, are reaping the fruit of the seeds that were sown by Yongai’s educated generation.
It fascinates me how in an environment like this, young Edison was able to develop a love of books. Picturing the world he described, I can’t see how he could grow to become such an avid reader. He tells me, ‘the only thing I could see in my village was a radio…but then not everybody owned one…’ Television had not yet reached his village. ‘But books, I could take books from school and bring them home, story books, read them, laugh alone when I’m reading them, enjoy them.’ Smiling, he states that he even went to the extent of borrowing books from his friends who had no interest in reading, saying to them, ‘This is my lunch. Take it and give me that book. I will read it and bring it back.’
Reading helped him learn to craft compelling stories and explore endless possibilities. This skill was also ingrained in him from an early age by his grandmother, who he referred to as a ‘captivating storyteller.’ He recalled that in his village, ‘people would gather together and then a storyteller would come and begin to tell stories for people to listen to. That was very engaging at that time and very interesting.’ In a similar vein, my filmmaking practice has been inspired by the folklore I heard in my Dad’s village. I remember sitting by the fireplace, with the moon shining brightly, listening to the soundtrack of the nocturnal creatures in the surrounding bush. In retrospect, this would have been young Yongai’s equivalent of a television except he had to craft the visual images in his mind.
When he was seventeen his short story, ‘Oh Justice, Where Are You?’ was published in a local newspaper to wide acclaim. It paved the way for his recruitment as a journalist for a well-known magazine Weekend Spark in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The story’s publication and popularity are impressive considering Yongai’s young age and self-taught status. He thrived as an author, and would go on to publish a range of books, including children’s books, Check and Come Here, and the novel, Who Killed Mohtta? which explores wealth, courtship and marriage. He shares these milestones with me in such a humble way, reminding me of the African proverb, ‘you don’t sing your own praise.’
Modesty aside, Yongai’s portfolio of published work since settling in Australia speaks for itself: various novels, three of which being picked up by major publishing house Macmillan in London. The refugee experience, as well as that of a new migrant in Australia, has been a frequent theme in his writing. The War After the War, reveals the aftermath of a conflict where there are no boundaries and greed and corruption run rampant. No Name for a Refugee tells an intimate and heartbreaking story about a refugee family facing the adversities of settling in Australia, and culminates in the gradual derailment of the family unit, whose dream for a better life becomes a nightmare.
Yongai’s moral sensitivity and literary versatility are further displayed in The Boy and the Homeless Man, which deals with the question, ‘Why not go back to where you came from?’ In Yongai’s fictional tale a stranger sets up a tent in a metropolitan suburb and explores the community’s reaction to the unexpected reveal of the stranger’s true identity. The common thread in Yongai’s writing is the experience of the outsider in the community, as well as a persistent desire for a moral, benevolent society.
Yongai and I share the migrant experience of Australia, grasping tightly to our culture and heritage whilst endeavouring to find belonging in Australia. Yongai’s Sierra Leonean programme on Radio Skid Row was greatly appreciated by our local community. Before social media, this was how my family would receive news and enjoy music from our motherland.
As we adjusted to life in Australia, we left behind a brutal civil war that claimed thousands of lives. Yongai and a group of fellow exiled Sierra Leonean journalists captured this in a documentary entitled Darkness Over Paradise, which was widely acclaimed both in Australia and overseas. Yongai expressed that ‘…the war, actually, you cannot explain it… It was gruesome. It was terrible.” The film has been credited with vividly conveying the suffering experienced during the civil war of the 1990s.
I admired how this documentary was told through the lenses of Sierra Leonean journalists, like Yongai, who have lived experience of the war. His photojournalist colleague Sonny Cole risked his life to capture the stories of both the RUF (Revolutionary United Front) rebels and the Sierra Leonean Government. At one point, Yongai was imprisoned for exposing corrupt ministers in the government. In 1999 his residence was burned and he fled to Guinea, as he recounts the only way out was by boat, ‘People were scrambling to go into the boat that was there…it was only one boat. So, they could load it in such a way that almost half of it was under the water.’ During his time in Guinea, he was granted refugee status by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Yongai and a group of fellow exiled Sierra Leonean journalists formed the Association of Sierra Leonean Journalists in Exile.
He explained about the role of journalists during the war, saying, ‘Well, as a journalist you need to sacrifice…to tell the truth for the international community…for them to intervene so that the war would come to an end. Because so many kids were dying… It was dreadful.’ As he discloses his intention was to stay in Sierra Leone until the end of the war.
Despite all these adversities his commitment to developing the future of the country is admirable. ‘I can never lose hope no matter what the political situation is. I know that Sierra Leone is going to stand up on its feet one day and that day will come very soon.’ For our motherland to stand upright, it requires the foundation that was established by Yongai and others from his generation. As a storyteller, I want to build on this foundation to tell authentic stories of our motherland that depicts its essence.
Yongai still works as an author and journalist and donates his time to help his community.
This article was written on the lands of the Daruk People and pays respects to the Elders past, present and emerging. Sovereignty has never been ceded. It always was and always will be, Aboriginal land.
This interview is from Diversity Arts Australia’s Pacesetters Creative Archives project, a chronicle of the histories of creative practice of migrant, refugee and culturally diverse communities in Australia. Find out more at diversityarts.org.au