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'Writing has been my salvation.' The troubled life story of Vamba Sherif

In fact, all his female characters are based on his powerful mother and grandmother, says Vamba Sherif (47). In his new, autobiographical book Unprecedented love the Liberian-born writer tells his troubled life story to his daughter Bendu. An ode to his homeland and the most important women in his life.

'I was born into a learned and influential family. The Sherifs were a family of theologians considered guardians of Islam in Liberia. They enjoyed prestige and respect, and from far and wide people came to ask my parents and uncles for advice. Sherif Quarter, the compound in Kolahun where we lived was run by my mother. She was a businesswoman and ran shops, petrol stations, houses. The community consisted of about two hundred people, so there was always liveliness. After a breakfast of rice porridge, the boys would go the compound sweeping and the girls fetching water from the well. In the afternoon, we were taught Arabic and English by teachers from Liberia, Guinea or Sierra Leone.'

'I was an incredibly curious, naughty little boy. I wanted to try out everything, and as a result I did things that couldn't be done. For instance, one day I put on a mask of the pagan Poro Society. Within our community, that was a taboo. Everyone talked shame about it.'

Vamba Sherif: 'My curiosity got the better of me at 11' ©Marc

'That curiosity got the better of me when I was 11. I grew up among books and loved to read. Our family had a library that contained precious, handwritten books that were forbidden to people under forty, the age at which you were considered mentally mature in Liberia. So the room in which those books were kept was always locked. I knew there were also books belonging to my father, who had died when I was only about five years old. I always heard people talking about him. He seemed to have been able to write beautifully, but I had never seen his handwriting.'

'One day I could no longer contain my curiosity. Through the attic, I managed to get through the ceiling into the room with secret manuscripts. I can hardly describe what it meant to me to finally see that beautiful handwriting of my father and my grandfather. To understand what all those people had kept talking about.'

'For months, I stood by a crack of sunlight secretly reading one manuscript after another - I almost began to believe that what I was doing was normal. Until one day I suddenly heard my brother-in-law's voice - I had been caught. From his intonation, I could tell immediately that this was going to have serious consequences. Over the following days, our compound a chorus of indignation, which grew and grew. No one in the family showed any understanding. I preferred to disappear.'

'What I had done was so serious that it was decided that I had to leave: I was expelled. From one day to the next, my world, which until then had been full of warmth and love, fell apart. My sense of security was gone overnight. I felt completely abandoned. Lonely and outcast.'

'My elder brother Vamuyah had got an appointment at the university in Kuwait and took me with him. There we lived in a flat with other nice people. I went to school there, we had books and people cooked for us. So it was a rich life, but at the same time poor, so without my mother and my grandmother. I saw them once, during a short holiday in Liberia. A wonderful time, but because it hurt me so much to have to say goodbye again, I left early on the last day without saying goodbye. Back I Kuwait, I heard that my grandmother had died.'

'Right after that, civil war broke out in Liberia and the First Gulf War started in Kuwait. Again, I had to leave, this time because of the war. Together with Vamuyah and my cousin Alpha, I fled the country. We ended up in a refugee camp in Jordan. Alpha and I then travelled on to the Netherlands. After three years of uncertainty, I finally got a residence permit. I went to study law and married a Dutch woman. We live in Groningen with our sons Jamil (16) and Noah (13) and daughter Bendu (11).

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Vamba Sherif and his daughter Bendu ©Marc

Vamba Sherif and his daughter Bendu ©Marc

'It took me years to write this book. If it was about my grandmother, I was crying after only a few seconds. My childhood revolved around her. She was the one who raised me; she protected me and was always there for me. She was a beautiful woman, and could sing very beautifully - I still know her songs by heart. Writing about her death I couldn't handle.'

'But recently, because I had to relate to all kinds of issues the world is struggling with now, such as being black, belonging, descent and migration, I wanted to define and articulate my thoughts on that. Those two women shaped me, they come back in everything. All the female characters in my books are modelled after them: strong, independent and enterprising women.'

'In Bendu, I see much of their temperament, but I also recognise a lot in myself. My mother's generosity and openness inspired me. Every Friday, she distributed money to the poor and she made sure children could learn and study. I still remember a poor woman accosting my mother on the street and asking if she could send her daughter to school, to which my mother took her into our 'compound.'

Vamba Sherif: 'No one way of life is superior.' ©Marc

'Not clinging to your money, but sharing it with others and putting yourself before others and facing them with love, that is what I learnt from her. I almost felt it a duty to share that outlook and way of life through this book, because such values are needed in a time of populism and xenophobia. I hope my book will show readers that people in Africa, in Liberia, do not necessarily have less valuable lives than here. Beautiful, wise people live there too, from whom we can learn something. No one way of life is superior, so let's listen to each other's life stories and enrich ourselves with each other's experiences.'

'My migration and the short time I spent in a refugee camp in Jordan reinforced my sense of homelessness. What I saw in that camp I wouldn't wish on anyone - it was hell there. Many people think refugees should be grateful for getting help, but it is a very hard life. There is no future perspective, no hope. My life was all fear. When suddenly you are no longer in control of your life and others decide everything - what you eat, what you do - it marks you for life.'

Vamba Sherif: 'My life was all fear.' ©Marc

'In our rich Netherlands, where we could really make a difference for people who are struggling, we do little or nothing for refugees. We immediately start talking about their duties, without listening to what they have been through. There is little empathy for migrants. That makes me sad. We realise too little that it really is a miracle if refugees can still successfully participate in society despite what they have been through.'

'I am still learning to curb and let go of my anxiety. Writing has been my salvation. With every novel I write, I bring back a small piece of the world of my childhood and the people I loved, everything that no longer exists. Turning my loss into art and sharing it with the world is a way for me to cope with my experiences and traumas.'

Good to know Good to know

Vamba Sherif, Unprecedented love. De Geus, €20.00.

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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