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Praise for Black Man's Grave: Letters From Sierra Leone

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According to urban gang expert David Kennedy it takes relatively few thugs to begin utterly terrorizing a neighborhood—or, as Gary Stewart, John Amman, and their informants in Sierra Leone can testify, an entire country.
Black Man's Grave is contemporary African history as viewed by a journalist and an academic, professionals whose assessments are deepened by a patina of nostalgia. Both Stewart and Amman were Peace Corps volunteers in Sierra Leone, and they mourn the imperfect paradise they knew from their work in the same northern village, Fadugu (which means in Mandingo, "a town where one is well fed"), where three ethnic groups converged more than a century ago and managed to co-exist and thrive. Rounding out their insights are letters from old Fadugu friends: teachers, agricultural technicians, and other citizens who somehow, but not always, survived Sierra Leone's genocidal 1992-2002 civil war.

Evocatively written and carefully researched, Black Man's Grave can't really be done justice in a short review. Stewart and Amman's combination of history and reportage, and the letters' poignantly matter-of-fact close-ups, take the reader from Sierra Leone's days as a refuge for former slaves through the nineteenth century, when regional chiefs cannily manipulated their British masters, into the last century of cultural progress and relative affluence. Sierra Leone was eventually devastated by greed, with the struggle to control its diamond mines resulting in mass killings and punitive mutilations, sexual violence, and the enslavement of child soldiers, a nightmare orchestrated by the country's rival leaders and neighboring Liberia's president Charles Taylor.

A number of publishers inexplicably turned down Black Man's Grave, although declaring it "remarkable" (Thomas Dunne Books), "quite compelling" (Beacon Press), and "the kind of book [we'd] love to publish here" (Basic Books). The Special Court for Sierra Leone, set up jointly by the government of Sierra Leone and the United Nations, is now underway in The Hague, mandated to try Charles Taylor and other leaders for war crimes committed in Sierra Leone since November 30, 1996. As of this writing, Mr. Taylor's case is in the defense phase, so Black Man's Grave is a particularly timely read. Fifty percent of its profits will go to projects benefiting the people of Fadugu.—M. Lawrence

Fearless Reviews — 2009

Stewart and Amman's Black Man's Grave takes on a much-neglected aspect of the war, the experience of men who avoided recruitment into either government or rebel forces, yet who struggled to maintain themselves and their families through the long years of disruption....
When war ravaged the northern town of Fadugu, causing it to be abandoned and resettled multiple times over the years, many inhabitants reached out through letters to American and European friends, as people all over the region were doing. Stewart and Amman have skillfully integrated excerpts from letters they received with an historical narrative of the war drawn from published sources. The result is an account of the conflict from the point of view of ordinary heroes; teachers who keep showing up for work after years with no paycheck, traders who risk their lives and livelihoods trying to keep small towns supplied with necessities, and local chiefs who, after years of doing what the central government tells them, finally find the courage to stand up to power.

Stewart and Amman do a fine job of tracing the story of Sierra Leone’s trajectory from post-independence optimism to deep cynicism and disillusionment with “big man” politics. The global context of the diamond trade is also covered in enough detail to help students make sense out of other representations (such as Hollywood’s version) and to make it clear that the disaster that struck Sierra Leone was not all of its own making.

African Studies Review—April 2008

These authors draw upon a rich vein of personal experience...[in] Sierra Leone to depict that country's brutal civil war.... Dozens of letters from local leaders add to the vivid reality of this book. The horrendous picture they paint started in the late 1960s with widespread corruption.  State institutions decayed, with personal gain fed by corruption.... Nearly a dozen years of carnage and five years of UN "tutelage" have not necessarily resolved basic issues. The rebels acted like a "ruling mafia," alienating the populace with their brutal tactics, while the so-called legitimate government lacked the determination and support to rule effectively.... Clearly and concisely written...with the addition of interesting personal perspectives.
Summing Up: Recommended.

Choice, September 2007


The book tells a gripping tale....It is so well structured and carefully written that it makes almost lucid what in certain respects must always remain utterly incomprehensible. The analysis begins with historical context centered on the capital city, Freetown, from which at a steady pace it broadens in scope and complexity. The authors wisely refrain from blatant editorializing as they delineate the sequence of events, allowing the awful facts to speak for themselves, which they do, loudly and clearly. Thus Stewart and Amman create the necessary big picture while extracts of correspondence from their former neighbors provide helpful close-ups along the way.

Ted Boothroyd, The Beat


Black Man’s Grave is a poignant testament to Sierra Leone’s bloody civil war, which claimed hundreds of thousands of victims in the land of blood diamonds that remains one of the world’s poorest countries.  The story of the war is told, to a large degree, through the words of Sierra Leoneans, written before, during, and after the conflict.   Authors Stewart and Amman wonderfully place the words of the Sierra Leoneans in the wider context of the country’s history and politics.   Black Man’s Grave is an engrossing read that is a must read for Africanists, international relations specialists, and conflict theorists.

Christopher R. N. DeCorse
Professor and Chair
Department of Anthropology
Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs
Syracuse University


What is new in this book—and what makes it enormously readable and of enduring interest—are the letters from Sierra Leonean friends of the two American authors, formerly Peace Corps volunteers.... Gary Stewart and John Amman, who know the country well, are clearly very nostalgic about it, providing an eloquent context for the letters, and making this book a valuable historical document.... The letters are a testament to the tragedies as well as the pathos of a war driven by forces barely understood by the majority of Sierra Leone’s people, but which changed their lives and their country profoundly.

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