The African Book Review : What drew you to writing about Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia ?
Pramudith D. Rupasinghe :”I worked as a humanitarian diplomat in that area and explored a lot of West Africa, and stayed there for five years. I don’t write about something if I didn’t live in the country in question. (…) I did the same thing when I was writing Bayan and Footprints in Obscurity [his first book]. I had always dreamt of going to Africa because I also wanted to explore and draw my own conclusions. I did a road trip in 29 countries. Being there allowed me to explore a lot of the continent ; the cultures, the people, the landscapes, the history – it’s offering so much to the world ! It’s so far from the stereotype.”
TABR : What does Africa, and West Africa in particular, mean to you ?
Pramudith D. Rupasinghe : “I try to explore things in depth. I try to live the life of my protagonists. Exploring my own bias and deal with it right in order to do the justice to the story and its characters is vital for me. I stayed in West Africa a relatively long time and that allowed me to understand different cultures and subcultures, like George, a Kissi boy who travels around the villages of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone and discovers different subcultures.”
TABR : What drew you to this subject ? Why the Ebola epidemics ?
Pramudith D. Rupasinghe : “I worked with the United Nations Ebola response and I stayed in the region until the epidemic was over. George’s story was not the story of one person, but of many people. Most people living in Monrovia and Freetown had encountered multiple displacement and trauma due to several devastating civil conflicts, and atop the epidemic hit the war-torn nations, it was beyond their coping capacities. People in this part of the world are not much heard by the external world, their stories depict enormous level of resilience and worth telling the world.”
TABR : Is the “Bush-curse” the same as Ebola itself ? George draws this parallel between the two diseases when he goes abroad.
Pramudith D. Rupasinghe : “The Ebola virus was not a new thing. It was named after he Ebola river in the Democratic Republic of Congo [during the second outbreak that occurred in this region in 1976]. If you look at Central and West Africa, you see the same rainforest patterns, similar animal and plants species. The book gives a hint that the disease had existed in those areas. In 1976 the disease was first given a name by someone from the Western, but we have all reasons to assume that it had existed before. The pathogen agents, the carriers (animals), have always been there. The infection happens when humans get into contact with this zoonosis.”
TABR : Ebola could also be read as a metaphor for something. What do you think humanity should learn from these episodes of disease, pandemics and extreme hardship ?
Pramudith D. Rupasinghe : “The epidemic is also a metaphor for the past you can’t leave behind (as it sometimes bursts out like the outbreak of the disease), but which doesn’t make you stop or be blocked. In the book, Kumba’s character is the most increbile manifestation of the past that can disapear for some time, and then suddenly stands before his eyes.
What we should learn is that this kind of epidemic happens over and over again. Epidemics or pandemics are centralised on human behaviours, thus the human only could prevent or contain an epidemic or a pandemic that hits his habitat. As the Kissi proverb goes : If you find three dead monkeys within two full moons, the fourth one will take you with it.”
TABR : Who or what do you associate George with ?
Pramudith D. Rupasinghe : “I think the novel in general, and George’s journey, is also about crossing the borders defined by settlement of a certain group or ethnicity. In pre-colonial Africa, borders were not the clear-cut geographic borders of today (set mostly after the Scramble for Africa in the 1880s), but were mostly defined by the ethnic groups, the languages the groups spoke and the cultures they had.
In Behind the Eclipse, these borders are also the deep jungles between Sierra Leone and Liberia. Every character Tamba-George meets on his journey adds a border to his own baggage. His journey is also about displacement, which is mostly traumatic, even if people do it every day. Carrying this baggage of war, loss and grief shows that all the characters have a painful point that they don’t to touch or talk about. But they must move on because life goes on no matter what.
After leaving his homeland, George also crosses the borders of his own ethnic group, culture and religion as he joins the Christian mission. Historically, postcolonial Western influence was brought to Africa through faith. However, half of the intial or very authentic belief systems in West Africa remain unbreakable (George always rememorates his grandfather’s words), even if survival or circumstances impose you to take certain decisions. All religions have one fundamental thing in common: faith. Faith is only one and the is something you hold on to through your life. I wanted to depict the dynamics of faith, how attached we are to it, how it evolves, how we look at it. Human spirituality ultimately doesn’t have names and it helps you to recover and help the others.”
Read the review of Pramudith D. Rupasinghe’s novel on our site.
Ioana Danaila was born in Romania. She has a PhD in Nigerian Contemporary Literature and a First degree in French for Non-Francophone people. She is also the author of a collection of short stories and translated two books from French to Romanian. Trilingual in Romanian, French and English, she teaches English language and literature to highschool students in France.