One of the central dilemmas of European literature in the nineteenth century is the movement of the country to the town: the play of masks given to the young man who arrives in the city to begin life afresh, cutting ties with everything he knows, for the promise of a place in which he can make himself anew. This great drama continues apace in the twenty-first century.
The drama contains within itself two central narratives. In the first, people preserve memories of rural life. Turkish villagers, uprooted to Greek cities in the wake of the population transfer of 1923, used to call streets after the names of the villages and families they had left behind; impersonal street signs were replaced by the continuities of kin. In Sierra Leone, the secret societies that organise rural life are also found in the cities – only now their purpose has changed. On the rubbish-filled waterfront of Freetown, Sierra Leone’s coastal capital, I came across a secret society called ‘The Japanese’, the name a commentary on the work its members did as port labourers, laying rhetorical claim to the gleaming Toyotas they bring off the ships and their insertion into the global economy.
At the bottom of a river in rainy season. Freetown, Sierra Leone. (c) Joshua Craze. In the communities higher up on the hill, just below the university, Qadhafi's Green Book was read with excitement by the young revolutionaries who would go onto forment Sierra Leone's long civil war.
In the city, the village.
The second narrative is, for me at least, closer to home. In June, the small village in the south-west of France in which I live is almost deserted. No one grows crops here: rather, farmers farm the EU subsidies they receive for letting their fields lie fallow. The young people who remain loll in the central square. In the absence of genuinely rural rhythms (the silence of winter, frenzy of the harvest), the villages in this area of France are small emaciated cities. The young watch television all day and have the same phones, computers, and posed busyness that marks France’s urban youth, but they have nowhere to go and nothing to do; they remain suspended, gazing at the city portrayed on their screens.
In the village, the city.
But what if the rural could be something else? Neither the nostalgia of the displaced, nor an inadequate version of the urban. What if the rural could be a model for the way urban life should be?