Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Aminatta Forna, author of ‘Ancestor Stones’

‘My father was imprisoned a lot; it was a way of life’


Aminatta Forna, 46, is the former BBC journalist who wrote The Devil That Danced on the Water, a memoir about her father's trumped-up trial and execution for treason in Sierra Leone, where she has now launched a village school and farming project. The Washington Post and The Listener rated her novel Ancestor Stones as one of the best books of 2006. The Memory of Love is just out.

At St Margaret's, my nursery in Aberdeen, I can remember waiting for my mother at a bay window, and a horrible boy with a pudding-basin haircut lifting up my skirt. I can also remember telling the school I was a changeling (my grandfather used to tell me I had been swapped by the fairies).

When I was six, I went to Freetown Preparatory school in Sierra Leone. The headmistress had a very, very firm belief in corporal punishment and my overriding memory is of being beaten. They used to beat you if you got your homework wrong. Once I got beaten for writing "6 x 4" instead of "4 x 6".

I was there for only a term and a half. The political situation changed, and my father was imprisoned a lot; it was a way of life. We fled to London and hired a private tutor. Miss Bird was a softly spoken Scot and I honestly think it was from her that I began to love literature. We read a lot of poetry together.

She prepared us for High Trees, a co-ed boarding school in Horley, Sussex, where I spent the next five years. It was like something out of the 1940s, if not the 1930s. We had only six inches of tepid water in our baths twice a week. Mr Nosworthy – "Noddy" – the headmaster, would write extraordinary school plays that would incorporate every child on every lawn and turret: singing, battles.

I left at 11 to go to Malvern Girls' College in Worcestershire. It was in a very modern setting and my house, Hatfield, was newly built in a hexagon. There were baths and showers for fragrant little girls whenever you wanted.

Being of mixed race wasn't at all a factor; apart from one or two remarks in the heat of an argument, these things didn't matter to kids. In retrospect, there was only one point at which I was disadvantaged; one teacher put me, as she always did African, Chinese and Indian girls, in the lowest division for English, perhaps because she thought it wasn't our first language. But she also told me: "You have the gift of words."

I got 10 O-levels and then A-levels in French, Spanish and history. In the sixth form, the careers mistress said: "Perhaps you might become a translator." I said: "I rather thought I'd write the books that would be translated." She said she'd never come across such arrogance (my books have been translated into 14 or 15 languages).

I did law at University College London. I hated law, but it was good for me – it taught me logic – and I got a 2:1. Everybody else was doing shipping and banking law, but I did philosophy of law and Roman law.

One of my student flatmates was Amy Jenkins [the "creator" of the cult television series This Life and scriptwriter of Daphne on BBC2]. I remember constantly worrying that the gas would run out, as I'd lived in countries where it was delivered in canisters on a Saturday. She said: "I think the gas comes in a pipe."

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