In the Shadow of the Snake Prince: A book about Forgiveness and Liberia's Murky History

— Ayen Dolo's reawakening shows that personal and national recovery is possible in Liberia without recriminations, vindictiveness, and vengeance; considering the centuries-old root causes of the country’s challenges today and tomorrow.

To forgive, in the words of Lewis B. Smedes, is to set a prisoner free and then learn that the prisoner was you.  But how do you forgive when your life is shattered early and the memories thereof seem too ghastly to be lightly forgotten?

This was the dilemma facing Kozee Slawon as told in the book, “In the Shadow of the Snake Prince,”  which invokes the horrible legacy of one of Africa's most catastrophic wars and the messy, complex, and gripping subject of forgiveness. 

The novel lays bare the widespread abuse and systematic violations of human rights law that characterized Liberia’s two brutal armed conflicts between 1989 and 2003, and the trauma that came along with the case of Kozee, who at the age of 1 year old was raped and enslaved by a brutal military commander.

Revenge was the only justice Kozee desired, mirroring the plight of many Liberians today. In the minds of millions of Liberians, the issue of the War Crimes Court is critical to bringing justice for civil war-era crimes, while unconditional forgiveness, as advocated by some, remains an elusive reality.

Vengeance, they say, has redemptive results. It is so when you're stuck in a roiling ocean of memories strewn with bodies and blood, making it difficult for her to live a normal life.

This was Kozee's experience. The death of her mother and brother in the hands of a psychopathic rebel commander and the ensuing abuse shattered her life early on. In the years that followed, she became a captive of the past, with, with the present and the future existing only as distant realities. 

Over the ensuing pages, flashbacks to happier and more desperate times unfold, as we are shown the struggle of Kozee to step into the future, away from the shadows of memories that seem difficult to forget as they controlled, governed, and directed her existence.

Kozee's moments, therefore, strike a deeper chord and gesture to a place we all may have been before, when ‘things fall apart, leading us to struggle for inner peace; with body, mind, heart, soul, and spirit at rest.  After all, we look at her life, everything we invested love and years in, and consider that maybe things cannot be as perfect as she wants, so we have to move on even when an apology does not come.

And this is what Ayen Dolo's reawakening novel, In the Shadow of the Snake Prince: A Saga of the Liberia's War is about. Forgiveness, while it can never rewrite the past, it however springs the possibility of creating a new future, and in this sense rewrites relation with the past.  The idea that unconditional forgiveness — even when the offender fails to apologize cheapens the value of forgiveness is unproven in this novel, which just did not lay bare the painful, and murky history of Liberia but tackles the complex ramifications of forgiveness thereof.

And with multiple conflicting voices now clamoring for recognition regarding post-conflict Liberia — including increasing drumbeat for a War Crime's Court — the novel has an apparent twofold purpose: fostering personal recovery, renewal, and restoration on the part of every Liberian affected by recent conflicts. While also challenging Liberians to collectively pursue national reconciliation, reconstruction, and sustainable development so as to reclaim their lost national pristine glory.

The novel, therefore, shows that such a personal and national recovery is possible without recriminations, vindictiveness, and vengeance; considering the centuries-old root causes of Liberia's challenges today and tomorrow.

And so it is said in Ezekiel 18:2 that “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”  The scriptural declaration of this saying implies that the emerging generations always suffer any negative consequences of the actions of past generations. 

In the Shadow of the Snake Prince: A Saga of Liberia's War… is a haunting and poignant novel…  beautifully written, fascinating in its insights, and extraordinarily moving. 

Editor’s note: Dr.J Railey Gompah, a veteran Liberian journalist contributed to this review.