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A REVIEW OF SUNDOWN AT DAWN (A Novel By Wilton Sankawulo Sr.)

By Robert H. Brown Sr., Ph.D.

....Sankawulo’s depiction of man’s inhumanity to man and the miscarriage of justice that lie outside the knowledge of this fictional society and the law is commendable, and commendable too is his portrait of the total absence of any redeeming value in the lives of criminals ...

Buy Sankawulo's books online

The most prominent Liberian writer today is Wilton Sankawulo. He has a mastery of Liberian idiom and standard English. Sankawulo has published a biography of the late President William R. Tolbert Jr. and other works of nonfiction. He has also published two collections of folktales. Although he has published fiction in an assortment of anthologies, journals, and periodicals, his first novel, The Rain and the Night , was published in London by Macmillan Education Ltd. in 1979.

The subject of Sundown at Dawn , Wilton Sankawulo’s second novel to date, is a radical departure from that of his first novel, The Rain and the Night , which dramatizes events of an inter-ethnic war between the Kpelle and the Gola of Liberia during the 19 th century. Although doom and gloom are initially foreshadowed in the novel, the narrative ends optimistically on a note of hearty bonhomie when the Kpelle and the Gola express a sincere desire for peace and amity. What the two novels share in common, therefore, is that their protagonists or major characters, Chief Kortuma in The Rain and the Night , and Dougba Senfenui Jr. in Sundown at Dawn , are members of the Kpelle ethnic group. Here end the similarities and the differences begin.

Sankawulo’s second novel is pervaded by a deep sense of degradation, decadence, tragedy, loss, hatred, cruelty, melancholy, and a blatant miscarriage of justice. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Sundown at Dawn is its genesis. Ostensibly inspired by a miscarriage of justice that lands Dougba Senfenui Jr. in a prison cell at Camp Belle Yallah, a prison for hardened criminals, the novel is a serious indictment against man’s inhumanity to man in general and against erstwhile Liberian officials in particular. The novel will initially depress readers or students of humanity. A book has that effect when it records a series of untoward events leading to the arrest and eventual unjust life-imprisonment of the major character, Dougba Senfenui, and two minor characters, Pastor Isaac Gbada and a county superintendent without trial or a writ of habeas corpus . It seems that those who tread the corridors of power treat educated and progressive Liberian citizens like little children. They simply must submit to the whims and caprices of their rule or face the might of their corrupt leadership. However, even though the heart sinks at the tragic lives of the characters, the spirit also soars because Sankawulo sheds so much light on the miscarriage of justice, a subject long left in the dark in Liberia.

Sankawulo establishes suspense in the first chapter of Sundown at Dawn when the narrator figure, Dougba Senfenui Jr., chaperones the reader round the action in which he himself is involved. In artistic prose that is carefully wrought, Dougba Senfenui Sr. hopes for a better future for his son by narrating a story about Ngalakemeni, the only child of a decrepit, old couple, who is saved from the drudgery of subsistence farming by acquiring a good education and becoming a District Commissioner. But to preserve the novel from didacticism and sentimentality, Sankawulo makes the reader perceive the action from the vantage point of Dougba Senfenui Jr. He, in turn, makes the reader aware that the theme that permeates the whole book is the miscarriage of justice resulting from jealousy, corruption, greed, hatred and the petty-mindedness of officials who make a mockery of democracy and a travesty of justice.

The first chapter, “Ngalakemeni”, contains an illustrative or framework story. In this illustrative story, Sankawulo attempts to make interlocutors, Dougba and his father, to listen to each other. Besides setting the tone, the illustrative story also provides the leitmotif of Sundown at Dawn . But this illustrative story has other purposes. First, it is a mandate from father to son. In other words, Dougba’s father’s mandate is a spur towards his acquiring a good education that will enable him to take a step from perdition to salvation. This is true because a good education will liberate Dougba Senfenui Jr. from the tweezers-grip of subsistence farming. Second, in this illustrative story, the author shows the reverence of traditional Liberian society towards parenthood while at the same time exposing its cruelty. Finally, Sankawulo uses the illustrative or framework story to capture the worldview of Dougba Senfenui Sr. Here, for example, is the dialogue between father and son on the first page of Sundown at Dawn to emphasize the significance of the illustrative story:

I watched him with entreaty and groaned. Spying my pouting lips by the glare of the center room fire, he said:

“I’ll tell you a story just to put you to sleep.”

“Not about Mr. Spider, I hope,” I said, laying my arm on his thigh for support. I was tired hearing about Spider and his greed.

“No!” he said, so loudly that I thought he was addressing the lightning that tore the sky and brightened the porch for a moment. “My story is about Ngalakemeni who was born in his parents’ old age. Not wishing to leave him a helpless, lonely orphan when they died, they sent him to school to become a kwii .”

“Where did he go to school?” I hung my head in contemplation.

“Ducor, kwii people’s biggest town.” Father scratched his beard stubble softly. “After finishing school, Ngalakemeni got whatever he wanted: money, women, wine, and servants—not to speak of cattle, rice, oil, meat, and fish. All he had to do was ask and he was given. He deserved the privilege, though, for he gave up the comfort and security of home and chose to suffer.”

“Must have become a king, then.”

“You could say that. The president made him Deecee for Salala District. Became the mainstay of support for his family. Ngalakemeni fought his battle alone because his parents were too old to help him. His relatives said they would be dead or too old when he finished school. What would they get out of him for their troubles? But the lonely battle made him wise, brave, and determined. As they say, ‘The child with too many hands to hold never learns to walk.’ After a pause, Father ended the story on a firm note: “I want you to be like Ngalakemeni.”

The fictional Kpelle society, which Sankawulo depicts in Sundown at Dawn, is highly organized and stratified. There is Chief Zina of Haindi. There are the elders and young men who work in age groups and are bonafide members of the Poro Society, and then there are young girls who are graduates of the Sande Bush School. Finally, there are Dougba Senfenui Jr. (alias Joseph Dennis) and members of his extended family.

Be that as it may, before Dougba starts school, he is given the necessary preparation. His father teaches him the English alphabets and the rudiments of arithmetic. Next, he goes through the ritual of circumcision. Kote, who performs the circumcision, relatives, and friends bestow their blessing upon Dougba and wish him success. Eventually, his father accompanies him to Kpolopele, a school run by a gracious missionary called Ma Miller. Ma Miller informs Dougba’s father that Dougba has to complete the Primer before he qualifies to attend Kpolopele. Meanwhile, Brother Thomas fills Dougba in on the nitty-gritty of the rules and regulations of Kpolopele Mission. A conscientious individual, Dougba is the only student who completes the fifth grace in Kpolopele.

The narrative eventually moves to Sanoyea, Belefanai, and Zorzor Missions, where Dougba continues his schooling, and ends it at the Lutheran Training Institute (LTI) in Salayea. It is at LTI that he becomes a very good student and earns his diploma. At both Belefanai and Zorzor Mission, Dougba participates in a work-study program to defray the cost of his education. At Zorzor Mission, he meets John Flomo who tells him that his confidence in the national government is misplaced. Government officials are only interested in building mansions and keeping mistresses. It is the missionaries who really educate Liberian youths and develop the country. However, before Dougba goes to Sanoyea Mission, Caesar Dennis wants him to continue his education in Monrovia. He goes to Monrovia but he is ill treated by the Dennises. He runs away from their home and returns to Haindi, where he informs his parents about his ordeal.

Before Dougba matriculates at LTI, he takes a year off to become a rubber tapper in Firestone. Pastor Gbada gives him a letter of recommendation, used clothes, shoes and $60.00 to enable him to continue his education at LTI. Before he goes to LTI, he visits the Dennis family in Monrovia. He learns that Caesar Dennis is continuing his education in the United States. In Monrovia, Dougba also visits his friend, Jacob, who beats his girlfriend and ends up in prison. Dougba also spends a brief period in jail for an alleged vagrancy. Eventually, he enters LTI. Once more he defrays the cost of his education by taking part in a work-study program. At LTI he becomes a good student. Just before his graduation, he receives a letter from a white teacher called “Daddy”, who informs him that his father is seriously ill. Dougba visits his father, who outlines the history of the Kpelle as a great ethnic group. He returns to LTI and graduates. Following his graduation, he returns to Haindi when he learns of the death of his father, Dougba Senfenui Sr. In Haindi, Dougba, his girlfriend, Sianeh, and members of his family, perform a ritual dance around Dougba’s grave. He places his diploma on the grave as a symbol to denote that his father’s mandate has been carried out. It is at this moment that he changes his name from Joseph Dennis to Dougba Senfenui Jr.

To set his life on an even ethnical keel, Dougba marries Sianeh. Pastor Gbada performs the wedding ceremony. Meanwhile, “Daddy”, the white teacher, congratulates Dougba, recognizes his literary talent, and informs him that he has recommended him for a scholarship to go to the United States for further study. However, Dougba informs Daddy of his intention to head Zamei Mission in order to gain experience before he goes to the States for further study.

Dougba becomes an exemplary teacher and Head of Zamei Mission. But a jealous friend, Banda Folokula (nicknamed General”), betrays him when he informs the Executive Council of the Church that Dougba wears charms, worships ancestral spirits and is immoral because he has sired a child out of wedlock. Benda also accuses him of murdering Emmanuel Dennis in Monrovia, a crime punishable by hanging. Consequently, Dougba gets the sack. Pastor Isaac Gbada approves his dismissal. When Dougba learns of Benda Folokula’s betrayal, he vows revenge because he is annoyed, and indeed astonished and stunned that a friend should behave in such a manner. He visits the hospital where he thinks Benda is a patient. He is delighted to meet his wife, Sianeh, in the hospital. But he learns that Benda was DOA (dead on arrival) at the hospital from a plane crash.

Eventually, Dougba and Sianeh return to Haindi and decide to build their own school. They plant coffee and cassava. The money the couple generates from these cash crops enables them to build the Dougba Senfenui Academy. Before they establish the Academy, Chief Zina proffers a word of advice. He advises Dougba to build the Academy elsewhere rather than in Haindi. Nevertheless, Dougba stands his ground and established the Academy at Haindi. The Academy becomes a remarkable success. As a result, Dougba decides to establish schools throughout Fuama Chiefdom.

However, Dougba’s good intentions and efforts encounter hostility from Senator Loryii, an illiterate official and polygamist. Senator Loryii sends Water Zoe Kollie who confesses that

…Senator Loryii had hired him to send me crazy or infect me with an incurably paralyzing disease. I told the boys to set him free. I didn’t want to take responsibility for the death of someone who was halfway in the grave. I organized two shifts of vigilantes, the toughest boys I found, to guard the mission day and night. But the Senator employed another strategy that almost succeeded in destroying the mission. (p. 185)

Despite a peace offering from Dougba and the assurance that he does not have any political ambition, Senator Loryii hires “The Devil” (i.e. the Poro Master) to destroy the mission and the coffee farm. “The Devil” nearly succeeds in destroying the mission. Because of this act, members of a delegation advise Dougba to give up the mission and keep a low profile for his own security. But Dougba tells the delegation that he will confer with officials of the Ministry of Education before he makes a decision.

Meanwhile, Jeremiah Foday, a fellow aluminus of LTI, visits Dougba and informs him that he had finally succeeded in placing his school on the list for a government subsidy. Foday also informs him that the President of Liberia is unhappy about his “misdeeds” or “insolence”. Therefore, Foday urges him to write an article that will educate and inform Liberians. When the article is published, Dougba’s admirers regard him as a farsighted young man. But his detractors consider the article as an attempt to sow seeds of discord in order to topple a constituted government. Moreover, Senator Loryii regards Dougba as a staunch rival. But the article succeeds in having Senator Loryii’s name dropped from the list of senatorial candidates because he is illiterate.

However, before Senator Loryii leaves the senate ignobly, he succeeds in destroying Dougba Senfenui as a great Liberian educator. Senator Loryii tells the President of Liberia that Dougba has established the Academy on the pretext of educating the youths of Liberia when in essence his intention is to overthrow the government. The president tells him to take care of the matter because Dougba is a member of his constituency. In compliance with the president’s request, Senator Loryii dispatches four soldiers to arrest Dougba Senfenui and imprison him at Camp Belle Yallah. In his fifth year at Camp Belle Yallah, Dougba discovers that Pastor Isaac Gbada is also flown to the same prison for preaching the truth from his pulpit in Monrovia. Coincidentally, Dougba, Pastor Gbada and a county superintendent share a prison hut in Camp Belle Yallah.

The novel under review is a masterpiece of literary fiction. The only adverse criticism that the present reviewer has to offer lies in the author’s omission of the word “Chapter”, in each heading in Sundown at Dawn. This would make easier reading in that it would guide the reader for the purpose of making references. It would also require the author to have a table of contents because that is the convention. But this is such a minor fault as to be negligible. Furthermore, the author’s approach could be construed as a matter of style.

Sankawulo’s depiction of man’s inhumanity to man and the miscarriage of justice that lie outside the knowledge of this fictional society and the law is commendable, and commendable too is his portrait of the total absence of any redeeming value in the lives of criminals such as Benda Folokula, Senator Loryii and his lackeys, the police, the soldiers, some inhabitants of Haindi, and the prison guards. He presents Dougba’s mother as a kindly, even-tempered lady, who is irked by her son’s occasional misdeeds. He portrays Dougba Senfenui Sr. as a caring and loving husband and father who, nevertheless, rules the roosts at home. His portrayal of Dougba Senfenui Jr., Pastor Isaac Gbada, the county superintendent, Jeremiah Foday, Teacher Moana and Lorkula, and the prison guards illustrate the author[‘s amazing ability to create memorable characters. He achieves this principally by revealing their thoughts, actions, and the idiolects he constructs for their speech. For example, when a prison warder overhears the detainees’ discussion about the nation’s state of affairs, he gives a brief lecture. His lecture reveals that the detainees’ discussion and the crimes they are allegedly guilty of are collusion between them and the government. The reader sympathizes with, and for, the detainees because there is an attendant prophetic doom in the tone of each detainee’s voice. Moreover, the reader experiences vicariously the degradation, cruelty, humiliation, and the debilitating ennui and tedium that mark the detainees’ each day because they wear chains that circumscribe their movements. It is indeed amazing that living in the midst of this conflict, Dougba Senfenui finds the physical and emotional convenience to write a memoir, which spans a period ranging from his childhood through adolescence to adulthood. Sankawulo’s insight into character and social relationships has much to commend it.

Sundown at Dawn shows originality and great creative ability. As in his first novel, Sankawulo uses symbolic imagery in his second novel. For instance, the title of the novel is another brilliant example of his use of symbolic imagery. The reader is made aware that the sun is the source of life in our planet, earth. But it also portends doom and gloom for some characters in the novel, who sing their swan song when the sun rises at dawn. Then too, the sun emits magnificent yellow rays of light against the horizon as well as on the Deyn River, which is also a source of livelihood for the inhabitants of Haindi—and indeed of the entire Fuama Chiefdom. But it also signifies death because on its riverbed lurk watermen who seize and kill anyone who, in their opinion, violates the laws and mores of the Chiefdom.

Sankawulo uses the internal or first-person point of view in Sundown at Dawn . In other words, Dougba Senfenui, the major character, tells the story. Because the story is told from this vantage point, it has an element of truth or immediacy in that it involves the reader. The reader vicariously experiences the emotional turbulence that inundates Dougba Senfenui. Dougba is constantly seen wincing with pain and frustration when his vision to contribute his quota to national growth and development by educating and molding the minds of the youths of Liberia is a dream fit for nothing but Utopia because it is thwarted by the likes of Senator Loryii and his lackeys.

Indeed, Wilton Sankawulo is a storyteller of genius with a tragic view of human behavior. As a modern writer, he cultivates the short, snappy dialogue of the day. Although his characters occasionally speak Liberian Pidgin English, his style isn’t the demotic idiom of a loafer or urchin. It is very accessible. In short, he combines simplicity of style with an entertaining narrative. Sankawulo uses a whole galaxy of devices in Sundown at Dawn : the framework story, figures of speech, proverbs, symbolism, humor and wit to give unity and depth of meaning to his narrative. These structural qualities will make the novel to endure as a supreme work of art. Each word, each phrase, indeed, each sentence is assigned its place with pointtiste precision. Even though the novel is set in Liberia, the message it conveys transcends its cultural milieu and nationality. In this regard, the message is a universal metaphor for the human condition. A masterpiece of a classic, Sundown at Dawn is, indeed, a prize-winning novel. The novel will be at home with secondary schools, colleges, and universities as well as with the general reading public.

About the Autjor: The reviewer is a former Assistant Professor of English at the University of Liberia, and the author of After Long Silence and Other Liberian Stories published in New York in 1979.

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