On the re-opening of SLPP Office … “We would never encourage violence” John Benjamin...

Sierra Leone News: Let Us Now Praise Pios Foray

I promised to start, fully, engaging with the myriad political developments under the current dispensation last week. I lied. Fate had other plans; it decided to strike a devastating blow to the forest of Sierra Leone’s citizenry, taking down a Cotton Tree in the person of Pios Munda Foray. This here, is not one of those “glowing” mellifluous tributes or exercises in eulogy that paint someone as a saint simply because they have left us. Hopefully, this is an appreciation and celebration of my encounter with one of the few men I would offer the ascriptions “great” or “legend” to, unreservedly, in all of Sierra Leone. There is no complete history of its political activism and press milieus that will except his monumental presence and contribution. I settled for ‘Anchorman’, for different reasons, trying to capture the essence of “Uncle P,” as he was known to many, to his and other generations. His nomen “Munda” in Mende means “Our own.” I could rest my case here. I won’t.
Like many people of my generation, I first encountered Uncle P by way of legend: The Tablet newspaper and their exploits, in the late 70s and early 80s, as being the single fortress of free expression and progressive thought that galvanized the country’s mostly young radical elements resisting Siaka Stevens’ diktat of one-party dictatorship and its oppressive stranglehold on the country. The narrative, episodes and such, may be as manifold as the narrators. One thing is constant; the tragic and, literally, explosive end of “Tablet” that saw their offices firebombed. The ring leaders, such as its editor Uncle P and student union leader Hindolo Sumanguru Trye, among others, had to flee the country to the United States. To this day, I find profusely interesting this one thing: many a man in their 50s and 60s have one surefire way to up their credential as (ex)radical or progressive; by claiming to have been associated with “Tablet” back in the day. Trust me, many do! There are obviously bullshitters. However, if a modest truth lies in those numbers, my experience working with man who in his twenties was steering that ship at The Democrat, seeing him build the Stop! Press Restaurant into ‘the hub’ for not only the proliteriat, but anybody who is anything worthy in Freetown, was testimony aplenty. Testimony of the ‘Anchorman’ of whom I write.
I put a face to the legendary name shortly after the 1996 electoral dispensation that brought Kabbah to power. Our paths crossed a couple times thereafter. Word is, Uncle P along with Hindolo Trye were among exiles the NPRC Junta invited to come back and help with governance. He was said to have been offered a ministerial job which he turned down. In person, I have heard him say; maybe, it was because it was a deputy minister slot, jokingly, followed by that known hybrid of laugh-coughing. Personally, I don’t see him as a worker, he likes to create and run things—what he has done since his twenties. My hunch? A strange streak of artistry lurked inside him, the reticent or hesitant type that entrepreneurial drive, life and work suffered not to see the oxygen of nurture. It comes out gasping for air when he comes around to editing or the brilliant wordsmithing as he churns out eye-catching headlines with his very particular stylized font types and sizes. And, of course, he never passes on opportunity to show patronage, support, even camaraderie for the Arts and Artists. I remember a time that he collected so much artwork; swallowing most of his office, there was barely any room for a visitor to sit without knocking something over. Know something? I give up, Uncle P was an artist of a rare breed. An Assemblage Artist who found himself stuck with having to create his own businesses, whether in Freetown or New York (where he also lived), every time, to display possibility in people and things. From the first bag of cement poured, I watched him turn the defunct annex structure at the back building of 14A George Street which housed The Democrat, tile-by-tile, one exquisite detail after another, into an irresistible abode of beauty and elegance, complete with life-size carvings. Whether they were the ‘new breed’ of purported progressive politicians forming an alternative political outfit like Movement for Change or the nouveau riche/empowered trying out a decent place for food and/or booze, all and sundry found a home Stop! Press restaurant.
There is something that keeps coming up every time I think of the life of Uncle P and the circumstances that saw us crossing paths as constituents of the same species, associated by the happenstance of birth with the same nation-state entity called Sierra Leone, and sharing a religious commitment to promote the freedom and empowerment of it peoples: Romanticism. One of many newspapers I contributed to during the AFRC interregnum of ’97 was the Late Frank Kposowa’s Unity Now. True to character, Pios and his Democrat press were at the fore of the resistance to junta rule. The Democrat was raided and staff including a pregnant secretary were brutalized and detained. Rachel Bagray, I believe the secretary was, never made it alive after that episode. I think it was that day I saw him visiting with Kposowa when word was that he had gone “underground” after the raid on his press. No gainsaying, his paper was still hitting the streets, fiercer than ever. Forget the history of Tablet days. That day, I saw a man who had gone full-blown ‘guerrilla’ on the AFRC. A man of no mean build, unshaven, sporting a baseball hat (something I never would see him wear ever again, after) above six feet and gallant; he acted and looked the revolutionary part so much, I could have sworn I saw Fidel Castro after a melanin makeover. I decided that was the man to work for/with. And from 1998 and circa 2002, my first permanent press domain proffered space for me to explore my potentialities. Those were the heady days of The Democrat—it was like a warehouse for some of Salone’s finest minds who would later move on to bigger or more lucrative opportunities. Uncle P will let go as warmly as he embraced them all, no briefs held. Variously, in those few years, I was reporter, staff writer and editor. And eh, we could argue the (de)merits Sani Abacha’s role in restoring democracy in Sierra Leone till the goats come home. One thing is clear: there would have been no democratic continuity as we know it today without the Nigerian-led intervention. In gratitude, Uncle P named his son “Sani”!
There was a time when The Democrat and most of its writers were known for their, predictably, hardline stance against the rebels of the AFRC/RUF alliance. I seemed a lone voice advocating for dialogue and engaging with the rebels. Did I get silenced? No! I started a column “Liberal Expression” amid a battery of sharp minds at the paper then. The rest would come around, somewhat, after the January 1999 invasion of Freetown and the subsequent ceasefire. And I was editor, fast! Uncle P had this idea of a Saturday paper that will carry a very solid front page story and will be inclined heavily toward the arts and entertainment—that’s how “Demo-Scoop” was birthed. It was sadly short-lived. It was not economically viable before it could get on its legs or have enough ad revenue. It was that offices and businesses where vendors sell papers were closed on Saturday, not the fact that Uncle P did not inspire or invest the confidence in me to reach for the journalistic stars, that accounted for that flop.
The life of Uncle P was testament to the triumph of the human spirit, rich in the radical romantic idealism that there is good in others, and the world can be bettered if we gave others the opportunity and push to grow, one person at a time. He had a head full of grey hair, but his grey matter did not grey. He gave the world an idea of what a cross-breed romanticist and utilitarian survivalist could beget. I believe Uncle P always dusted up on what hipness was to every generation—he could hang. He would exude the same charisma and warmth at State Lodge as he would in any of Freetown’s slums or street corners harboring its downtrodden. I wager his kids, family, wished ‘their own’ Pios mastered the art of siphoning public resources, perhaps they would have had that overseas fully funded elite education, mansions and a hefty inheritance. Nope! His legacy is people like me, hundreds, maybe thousands, who whether famous, rich, powerful or nobodies, cannot quite truthfully talk about their formative and other years, without rightful mention of the influence of Pios Foray, generations apart.
With so much unsaid and millstone of a heart, I say Adieu, Uncle P.
By Fayia Sellu
Friday July 13, 2018.

Comments are closed.