The Sierra Leone Web

  Jo Skelt is a British poet whose first collection 'PERMANENT EMERGENCY' is being published in November '02. She has performed all over the UK and at the Pan African Writer's Association, University of Legon '99. She works in a youth community organisation and does freelance training in citizenship and peace education and has worked across West Africa. She maintains a special interest in Sierra Leone and has produced a report on rethinking education for peace during a field visit in '97.  


Requiem for Ayp Mo

It is too late - yet never late enough
to warn you of the crossroads
of the trickster god who lurks there
who waits for unsuspecting travellers
and points his fingers.

But did you have a choice?

You, condemned to your hungry way-station
a pot-holed road without oasis
and I condemned to watch, dulled
and slowly entertained to death.
A poor metaphor when yours is all too real
and for all my 'sentimental education'
I played some tiny part perhaps
I may have bought the bag
in which your skeletal remains
were buried - without ceremony
there were no words, there are no words
to howl for you - for me
for the "angry swarm of desperate humanity"
they wrote but who wrote your story?
Who tore out the pages
before you even learned to struggle?
Sixteen years of struggle
dead, dying and decaying
the stench - the screaming stench
of bows and arrows, cannons and ramparts
butchers cleavers and machetes
of water guns and AK-47s
and the clanking of a million empty rice bowls
against the plastic name tags
designed for dogs by the men
with swollen bellies who also hunger.

But still you wore a tiny ankle bracelet
that now your mother carries
a small chain, no photographs
no Sunday supplements.

So next time you come to stand
at the crossroads - and you will
next time smile sweetly at the trickster god
but do not listen to his propaganda
to his theories, don't read the cards
he deals you or trust his maps
look up to the sky and let it guide you
- for that you were always richer.

Man has only made his poverty
and bandages to cover and to hide his wounds
in glossy newspapers and sleeping pills.

It is - is not too late for you to skip
yet it is time for you to sleep
to close your tiny eyes now we must open ours.

It is too late for Ayp Mo.


These Barbarians

Can't you see?
I don't want to be in this camp or that.
I don't want to separate the us from the them
scrub myself up as if to clean away
all traces of humanity - excrement and all.
Worse still join the mythmakers
the hypocritical soothsayers and peddlers
of words, who write rings around our
cosy, comfortable lives as if in some way
we have earned them.

Can't you see
the absurd coincidence of fortune and fate
that put us here and them there?
And we turn around and point at the
the Serbian rapists, once neighbours, and say
these 'barbarians' are not like us.

But I am no innocent. I'm no different from
the he or she, he that writes manifestos
for axe-wielding maniacs, trains children
to fear. She that takes the money
from the third punter of the night, shoves it
in her shoes and looks for number four, and five.

My needs, desires, confusion of birth and certain
death - all these I share.
No, it is not the sticks, the stones or words
that hurt me (though they do)
but our willingness to build encampments
and zoos, cover them with barbed wire and blinkers
herd together and hate as animals
smashing down bridges
in ignorance of all that it is to be human.


Whether it Is Really Gender That Matters

What matters is that the squidged-up caretaker said he fancied me in this skirt.
That there are young girls being raped by men five times their age as a as a cure for Aids in Soweto shacks.
That there are Rape Crisis Help Line stickers on the back-doors of public conveniences in most British parks and town centres.
To think what is going on right now.

And porn bothers me
because at a basic level something sacred has been violated.
Woman pitted against women in a race determined elsewhere
where the prizes are empty fashion sizes
cellulite prevention cream
and the demise of sisterhood.

Polygamy matters too. It is what I just can't find liberating about Islam.
What is all this crap about spreading the seed anyway?
If women were allowed four wives: someone to cook; clean; child-rear; titillate; amuse - well maybe five, then.
But this is too crass. I have no desire for the male burden either.

It matters that we were not brought up to be mums
that women of high potential have less (or no) children - and have them later, and later
that, as a mother, I would be judged differently if I travelled to West Africa or went to buy stamps or read at a poetry slam.
Perhaps I would even write differently.

It matters that marriage is exploitative and fast becoming a temporary thing; that homes are places where exhausted workers meet to eat ready-made meals and watch Blind Date; where parent/s pick up their children from play-centres and totally ignore the extraordinary sculpture that Jakob made from cornflake boxes, sellotape and blue paint.

And it matters that there are homes in your neighbourhood where council electricians take photographs so that their family and friends will believe what they have seen: a seven year old boy lying on a bed crusted with filth while mum and dad drink Special Brew, walls sprayed from shooting heroin that continuously bleed, grow giant abscesses and beg to be cordoned off, shit caked hard on the floor.

No, what matters isn't gender.
It isn't that male poets are deemed instantly desirable because they are 'so sensitive' although it makes me sick.
It isn't that I feel myself compelled to take a feminist perspective when I would like to write about the green Lisianthus flowers that have stayed alive on my kitchen table since my birthday, or that night when I cycled in cold steam along the underpass and just made out THE ART OF POETRY IS DYING in new graffiti but they've got it all wrong.

It is people that are dying. Unnecessarily. And it matters.
It matters that kids and adults jump in front of trains and land in smithereens across the Cambridge to Ely track.
It matters that knives, guns and policies have no respect for life and actively seek its cessation
and that schools - however unintentionally - teach hate and disaffection.

What matters is this: those twitching curtains next door, the guy with a mangy dog outside Sainburys, the woman who shops there everyday just for a friendly hello from the staff on check-out tills.

It matters greatly that there are no-go zones in more and more cities, that cities corrupt and suffocate the vulnerable
while city types quaff champagne in ridiculous wine bars
temporarily unaware
of their own pain.

What matters is that in my country community does not exist
but must be 'engineered'.

And the worst thing
is that none of this matters enough
to either men or women.


Of Earthquakes and Snowflakes

There is no sound
more humane
than the sound of children
playing in a school yard.

Have you ever woken
to the sound of children
playing in a school yard?

And nothing can compete
with the beauty of flowers
or spring's breakthrough
from the darkness.

But winter kills.
This is not a postcard
a snow-filled paper-weight
that we may enter or exit
at our pleasure.

The brutal snow
reaps many victims.
Children and mothers
may not survive
the onslaught.

And in some places
summer never comes
and it is dark.
In some places
those that wake at all
wake to silence
for the schools
have long burnt down
and only the vultures
occasionally sing.

And yet I wake
to the sound of children
playing in the school-yard.
I reach for the fruit
build Lego bridges
and they ask me
why do the trees blossom?

Why do the trees blossom
when in some places
children's hands
are severed from their arms
before they even
learned of summer?

And crowds gather to discuss
the ferocious earth
and crowds gather to discuss
why man has stopped moving
and repairing himself.

And they ask me
how can the trees blossom
while in some places
the earth quakes
and heads swing on poles
in desolate diamond towns?

And then the crowds dwindle
as I struggle with my words
they run away
and I am alone
back in the school-yard
playing hide and seek
a child again on fertile ground
and I can see
why the trees still blossom.

And I search for the crowds
but the crowds
have all run away.


The Problem with Peace Education

Teachers trained to rebel against the classroom
children trained to recite their 2xtables
and the universal declaration of human rights
men and women trained to use the internet and improve their interpersonal skills and career objectives
boys trained to use condoms and guns
men trained to kill like dogs
girls trained to service the men who kill like dogs
dogs trained to violate women
and we are all trained to turn a blind eye.


Of My Longing to Build Bridges

You are with me like crystal
vivid and sharp
breaking down colours
into their remotest parts
your ocean swamps all others
spills across my eyes
like the oil spilled across your rivers
I am unable to forget you.

You are with me like fire
and when I feel your flames
lash across my ashen eyes
I sense you falling - and bruised
your iron wounds untended
I feel your thirsting heavy hand
against my skin
withdraw uncertainly
then rise again in search of me
I want for you to stay
but I am unable to contain you.

You are with me like the beating of the earth
I hear you snap your fingers
and I begin to move
no, you are with me like a sail, like seven eyes
like trickery and wisdom combined
you open pathways
and yet you lie like pummelled wood
collected from the shore - unsculpted and unmet
I see you in sequined paintings
in mothers and shadows, knives
and promises
and when I think of you
I see silver harbours
and when I see the future
I see a bridge
perhaps there I will be able to meet you.