Caesar in Africa
While watching a BBC report in 1999 on the civil war in Sierra Leone, I had the idea of writing a novel about a child soldier who participates in genocide and of linking his war story with that of his family in Britain.
Moses, Citizen Me is the result. Told from the perspective of a young woman brought up in the Uk and visiting family in Sierra Leone, it blends Sierra Leone with England, historically, culturally and through the lives of relatives, none of whom could have predicted such a tragedy.
I have never met a child soldier, but I have heard many tales of how grim such an existence is: drugs, poor diet, no schooling, sexual abuse, injury.
At the start of the war in 1991 more than 70 per cent of combatants were under 18. This was a young people's war. But I wanted to go beyond documentary, creating child soldiers who taunted and teased, revealing fragments of their true stories and their wounded selves, and insisting they be allowed to inhabit a world in which they could say more.
Moses, Citizen Me uses fantasy, dreams and night-dramas to paint an alternative world in the heart of the Gola rainforest, a region on the border with Liberia where many child soldiers were recruited. At the same time, the novel is studded with Sierra Leone history, geography, cultural forms and foods to ground the work in reality.
The war officially ended in 2002 and the long process of demobilisation and reintegration began. Today, about 7,000 former child soldiers have been reunited with their families or settled into community education programmes run by Unicef, Cafod and other agencies. But much work remains to be done.
Some former combatants, though recruited or abducted as children, were demobilised as adults and failed to receive the care they needed. Some were recruited to fight in other conflicts. Thousands of abducted women and girls and their children still need protection, counselling, education and training.
The rehabilitation of former child combatants has attracted a wide range of supporters including Everton FC, which donated pound;66,000 to Cafod's large community football programme. This, in addition to peace work, social work and drug counselling, is proving an inspirational way forward for young people in the UK.
In this extract, Julia, the narrator and visitor from Britain, is on her penultimate "journey" into the rainforest, where Bemba G, a wizard, has introduced a group of child soldiers to Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in the original form and in Krio translation. Among the child soldiers is Citizen, Julia's eight-year-old cousin, who was forced to execute his grandmother.