Michael Stasik: “There is more to Sierra Leone than just war”

Who: Michael Stasik
Where: Afrika Studie Centrum, Leiden, the Netherlands
What: Music and society in Sierra Leone
How long: 7 months

By Anne Saenen
Published by Radio Netherlands Worldwide, Africa Desk

What attracted you to this subject?
I was gradually dragged into it. I was studying philosophy in Germany and did my minor in African history and literature. I was planning to do an exchange with Leiden, but ended up doing my masters in Leiden and wrote my thesis on music and society in Sierra Leone.

But why Africa? You were studying philosophy after all?
I’d been interested in Africa for a long time. I’m a huge fan of the Polish author and journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski. He has written many books on Africa. I read them all. I even met him once.

Wow! You met Ryszard Kapuscinski?!
Yes, in 2001 he received a prize in Goettingen. My mum’s friend was his assistant and had arranged his presentation. I went there and we had dinner afterwards. I was exited, of course.

What was he like?
I can’t explain it. He spoke so wise and intelligently and his knowledge was so extensive. He approached people in such a calm and open way. He is a huge inspiration to me. So that is where my interest in Africa came from. That same year I went to Ghana as part of my social service.

But, instead of Ghana, you ended up doing your research on Sierra Leone.
One of the reasons for that was that I had a Sierra Leonean girlfriend in Ghana. She told me many beautiful stories about Sierra Leone and the capital Freetown, in particular. She made me curious. I guess she was romanticising it. She spoke of Freetown as a cosmopolitan paradise.

And was it a cosmopolitan paradise?
Yes, absolutely. It’s a wonderful place. It’s not necessarily a typical West African city. I’d rather call it an Atlantic city. There are so many influences from the Americas. But apart from my former girlfriend’s stories, I’d also noticed that most research on Sierra Leone focussed on the war. That is why I wanted to focus my research on something else, something positive. Among Sierra Leoneans there also seemed to be a certain ‘war fatigue’. Although the war is still the main public concern, people seem fed up talking about it. I noticed that in the music scene too. Througout the 1990s and early 2000’s political music had always been present on the music scene. But after the last elections in 2007 this type of music virtually disappeared. That is why I tried to avoid starting conversations about the war myself… Although, now I did just that. By saying: ‘Im not talking about the war’, I am actually talking about it, you see. That is why I’ll stop mentioning it right now. Sierra Leone is so much more than just war.

Read more on Michael Stasik’s research.

More on the African Thesis Award 2011