Freetown, by Nigerian writer Ogaga Ifowodo is a single-stanza poem written in third person narrative that centres around themes of cruelty, violence and freedom. It describes a real-life incident of ruthlessness and brutality that people had to face in the 1991-2000 civil war in Sierra Leone. The piece is titled ironically- it is called Freetown, which immediately gives the readers an image of a vibrant, expressive living expanse, almost ideal. However, the depiction is the complete opposite- a hopeless land of ruthless punishment.
This poem has been dedicated to David Anyaele, a Nigerian businessman whose arms were amputated by the Revolutionary United Front militia in 1999 during the civil war in Sierra Leone in 1991-2000.
Freetown | Summary
The poem begins with a man being hunted down. He is running for his life, offering all his possessions- money, watch, shoes, clothes- in the hopes of being spared. There is no one else there, just him and his pursuers, who laughed when he started praying, amused by God’s silence. One of the chasers lifts his gun, eager to prove himself in the new revolution. But the captain asks him to stop, in favour of using the axe instead and asking the victim whether he prefers long sleeves or short sleeves. It’s a riddle that the victim does not know, a hidden meaning that he has not found yet but will soon discover.
He answers long sleeves because that is what he is wearing at the moment. The pursuers want to teach him the true meanings behind these questions, all of which have appeared in this new age of revolution. With this intention in mind, they place the victim’s hands on the tombstone in front of him and cleanly chop off one of his hands. The pursuers, finally described as “city defenders”, rejoice at having taught someone a lesson and march forward. It is revealed that they are merely schoolboys, abducted on their way to school a week ago. Their old school thought learning served a cause, but now they learn something new. These four boys will be promoted to sergeant-major in the people’s army, the organisation that abducted them and led to their brainwashing. They will return home and reenact the terrible scene as though it was a great deed, and return to school wearing a mark of their actions.
Freetown | Analysis
Ogaga Ifowodo has been awarded for fighting courageously through writing in the face of adversity for the right to freedom of expression. This poem, Freetown, is a clear example of that. With themes of lack of freedom, violence and dystopian revolution. The poem is in third-person, forming a clear-flowing story through the heavy description and dark imagery. It is written in one stanza, which emphasizes the continuity of the story being depicted. The poem employs stark imagery that demonstrates the horrors of war and its diction creates an understanding of the unfathomable evil and suffering that innocent victims have to face.
Freetown | Analysis, Lines 1-12
When they had chased him to the end of the world
and frozen him between two fresh mounds
in the graveyard, then thawed him hysterical
to offer money, gold watch, shoes, clothes
(all the world he had left, nearly as good
as dust now), his knees sinking into the grave
as he prayed, they laughed, amused by God’s silence,
and one levelled his AK-47
to prove the new divinity, to save time
for pressing needs of the revolution.
But their captain remembered the cause,
the dimmed glory of his city’s name;
When they had chased him to the end of the world
and frozen him between two fresh mounds in the graveyard.”
This opening line instantly creates fear and confusion. The main character is getting chased, and the references to the “end of the world” and the “graveyard” foreshadow a worrisome outcome. Both of these terms are used to refer to death or injury, and this description also creates for the readers an eerie image. Immediately, the picture painted of the town is painfully contradictory to what is expected of Freetown. Hence, we can also look at this as tone-setting for the rest of the poem. When it is written “(all the world he had left, nearly as good as dust now)”, it shows that the man being chased is completely alone, with nobody there to help him. However, it can also symbolise the disappearance of individuality. Individuality and personality are communicated through self-expression. By imposing a restriction on one’s speech and opinion, it stifles their creativity and characteristics, creating a herd of similar people, crafted by the leaders of the revolution. “All the world has left” represents loneliness just as much as the loss of individuality.
On seeing the man panic and pray, the city defenders “laughed.” Details like these- humans feeling amusement and pleasure at another’s pain and terror- is a disturbing exhibition of violence and sadism. Further, it hints that the boys- the pursuers- expect a reward for their actions, and see this as a chance to display the consequences of not following the new revolution. We can see this in the line “levelled his AK-47 to prove the new divinity.”- the new divinity being the revolution. The only reason the gun is lowered is because “their captain remembered the cause, the dimmed glory of his city’s name,’ a direct reference to the contrast between the setting and the name of the town.
Freetown | Analysis, Lines 13-19
he silenced the gun for axe and matchet
and in homage to freedom asked, “Long or short sleeves?”
It was a riddle too hard for his heated head
so he sank deeper into the grave and wailed,
“Long sleeves! what I’m wearing, I have nothing else!”
They needed to teach him the vocabulary
of the new age for its choice sacrifice
When the pursuers raise the axe “in homage to freedom,” the readers may find the wording confusing- there is no true freedom, after all. We may assume that he believes he is doing the man a favour by letting him live, and that is enough. He asks, “Long or short sleeves?” which the man does not understand. This is a riddle for a terribly gory question- whether the man wants only his wrist cut off, or his entire arm. The fact that there is a ‘code question’ of sorts to convey this meaning displays that these events may have become a norm in Freetown. The man is in panic, and “he sank deeper into the grave.” Besides the literal meaning, this symbolises the man inching closer to his unfortunate destiny. The grave indicates his fate. When he wails “Long sleeves! what I’m wearing, I have nothing else!”, we remember the beginning of the poem, where he offered his clothes, accessories, money- anything to stay alive. He knows there is a hidden meaning to their question, but he is unaware of what it is, and therefore must answer literally. “They needed to teach him the vocabulary of the new age for its choice sacrifice” proves that these city defendants are enforcing their rules and beliefs, the creation of a ‘new age’ being one of violence and bloodshed.
Freetown | Analysis, Lines 20-31
so they set his hands on a fallen headstone;
the bright edges of stainless steel flashed, dazzled
the sun with the arc of the strike. Only one wrist fell clean,
the other flailed, hanging on slender hope
as the city’s defenders stressed the lesson
and marching to another front, the old school
that thought learning served the cause, they made sure to set
at the head of the band, the four boys abducted
on their way to school, a week before promoted
sergeant-majors of the people’s army
and led home to enact their first acts of valour
each wearing back to school the dread-digit diploma.
“So they set his hands on a fallen headstone”– It is important to note that his hands are placed specifically on a fallen headstone, not a normal stone or an upright headstone. This symbolises the end of the chase and the implementation of a vicious technique to enforce a belief- more importantly, it symbolises getting caught and having no escape. When the axe is described as it comes down on the man’s wrist, it is said to be “the bright edges of stainless steel flashed, dazzled the sun with the arc of the strike.” The usage of the words “bright” and “dazzling”- as well as the mention of the sun- are a brief insight into the city defender’s perspective on their own actions. They believe themselves to be revolutionaries who are changing the world and teaching a lesson to those who don’t ‘understand’ or comply with their vision. The brightness of the axe as it performs such a terrible deed represents how they see the future- a stark contrast to the tone of the rest of the poem, which is dark and eerie. While the man is getting chased to a terrible fate, the city’s defenders laugh together at what they think is a glorious victory.
The man is “hanging on slender hope as the city’s defenders stressed the lesson”- even when one of his wrists are cut off, the presence of his other hand gives him hope. The phrase “stressed the lesson” is a shocking jolt to the readers because it shows that the four boys- the defenders- view this as yet another daily activity. They continue marching to their old school, even feeling eager to boast about their day’s work. The employment of the school setting in the last few lines is a link to the aspect of the defenders attempting to teach the man- and those who do not conform with the revolution’s rules- a lesson. The defenders were a “band the four boys abducted on their way to school a week before.”
For a moment, we may feel sympathy or confusion, for these boys may have been brainwashed by the leaders of the revolution, led to believe in violence and new rules. We may wonder what made them follow such a terrible head and commit these sins with laughing faces. The piece provides several possibilities to ponder. One of the most prominent underlying assumptions is that they were young boys who were influenced by the wrong people, and when persuaded, they were unable to make outright from wrong, unable to see the true colours of what they were being led into. However, it is the closing line that gives the largest hint: “promoted sergeant-majors of the people’s army and led home to enact their first acts of valour each wearing back to school the dread-digit diploma.”- here, it seems as though the prospect of eminence tempted the boys into the army of the new revolution. They would be feared and revered, and most importantly, safe. The hunters cannot be hunted. They would be praised for ‘acts of valour’ and given high, important positions. The promise of glory lead them into a revolution and taught them a language of violence, a complete disparity from the misleading name of their town.
Note: Freetown follows a real-life incident that befell a Nigerian businessman called David Anyaele whose arms were amputated by the Revolutionary United Front militia in 1999 during the civil war in Sierra Leone. The poem has been dedicated to him. Today, Anyaele is the Executive Director of the Centre for Citizens with Disabilities. His inspiring story of how losing his upper limbs in Sierra Leone changed his life as narrated to Eric Dumo may be read here.