Until the Story of the hunt is told by the Lion, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. – African Proverb
Like many in academics, I like being lost in fiction every now and then. However, a good memoir can also pack a huge emotional punch and leave the reader in an emotional haze. The benefit to readers is that we are invited into the true story of the writer, their struggles, their pain, and some allow us to see them at their most vulnerable. Cherno Njie was able to achieve this in Sweat is Invisible in the Rain.
Cherno Njie’s Sweat is Invisible in the Rain is written with love and compassion as it confronts the struggles of taking up an authoritarian regime. It is a compelling personal account of the fight for democracy. We journeyed through his childhood which he weaves lovingly. We can feel the nostalgia of a childhood and place that has been spatially altered by policy decisions that are not in the interest of the people.
By providing a landscape and a backdrop to the book in the beginning, readers follow the narrative without having to keep looking up and questioning the dynamics of family structure, history, education, and religion. We bear witness to the elitism in colonial education in the Gambia to segregation in American prisons.
We journeyed to Texas and are part of Njie’s labyrinth of untangling State regulation and rules. The frustration with the early and later years of the Jammeh regime; of the killings and media censorship jumps at the reader. At this juncture, it becomes apparent that Njie’s frustration with the atrocities of Jammeh will have to be addressed.
“…This was the result of a process of accretion—of learning every few weeks of some new brutality committed by the regime. I called home, and every time the conversation gravitated to President Jammeh. I noticed that whoever was on the other end of the line always spoke in hushed tones when our talk turned to Jammeh, or else we talked of him in a roundabout way”
Njie’s account about emigrating to the United States is often funny and wistful. Rather than lean into a rag to riches story, it draws upon the tenacity of a young man wanting better and going after it. It is a testament to strength, character and compassion. I believe that Njie began to truly understand his strength and gain an understanding into the man he would become during his tenure working in local government in the U.S. Even while incarcerated, Njie was compassionate and often looking to learn about others, to determine how their lives will play out when released:
“Almost all of the other prisoners whom I talked to, or knew more about, were serving sentences that were quite long. Through my own casual observation and my talks around the track with the Africans, it was apparent that everywhere the system was putting a strain on rehabilitation and regular life on the outside for former inmates, their families, and communities”
Sweat is Invisible in the Rain was at times heartbreaking and often hilarious. Njie was honest and raw. I found myself engrossed in his story and also meditating on what route I would have chosen if I was in his position? His highly personal experience and the difficult decisions/choices jumped out at me.
Memoirs have been written, and will continue to be written, but this interlocking narrative of family ties and authoritarian politics brings another perspective that has been lacking. The impetus of the book is set against the backdrop of The Gambia’s struggle for freedom against dictatorship and disappearances of Gambians but it ends with Njie being defiant in the face of tremendous obstacles. Not once did he play the victim, though lesser men would have buckled under the weight of the loss of personal and professional ties.
Sweat is Invisible in the Rain does not offer a melodramatic ending nor a prescription on how “to do democracy”. It imparts a unique perspective and narrows a frame that was often broad when talking about democracy in the Gambia. The next generation will thank him for doing something- however defined- in trying to bring a semblance of hope to a people existing under a blanket of fear at one point in their lives.
I am glad Cherno Njie decided to tell his story and set the record straight on many issues. He took the power away from others who would have told the narrative from their own perspective. Throughout the book, Njie took ownership and revealed his determination to bring freedom to his people. The book left me inspired – not to topple a dictator- but to unravel the intricacies of resisting the status quo.
Aminata Sillah, PhD
Department of Political Science