Chapter 1 to 5 Summary of Elma Shaw’s Redemption Road

In Chapter 2 of Redemption Road, we are introduced to the character of Moses Varney. He arrives at the Temple of Justice in a Pajero vehicle.

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Chapter 1 to 5 Summary of Redemption Road
Chapter 1 to 5 Summary of Redemption Road
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In this post, we are going to summarise Elma Shaw’s Liberian post-war novel, Redemption Road, from chapters one to five.

Chapter 1 Summary

In the beginning of this chapter, we witness the commemoration of the death of the paternal grandmother of Bendu Lewis, Catherine May Tyler Lewis, nearly a decade after she died an undignified death, ‘emaciated legs and arms dangling over the side of a dirty, rusty wheelbarrow,’ (p. 3) in the Liberian civil war.

Catherine’s remains were never recovered. Thus, the family opts to use a casket as a symbolic representation of their dead matriarch. They place a large portrait of her and her cherished items, such as her Bible, family photographs, a picture of her late husband Samuel Lewis II, a white rose, and Liberia’s red, white, and blue flag, within the casket.

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Family and friends gather to commemorate her death, among whom are Bendu’s parents, Benjamin and Eva Lewis, who returned to Liberia for the memorial service and are now staying with Bendu’s older sister, Siatta, and her husband, Terrance Clarke, who had previously returned to Liberia.

Ben and Eva had left Liberia in the early 1990s for the United States of America due to the civil war. They have no intentions of remaining in Liberia. They are scarred by their traumatic experiences during the 1980 coup d’état, which claimed their only son, Benji.

Emotions vary among attendees, with some remaining silent, others breaking down, and some engaging in conversation with the memory of the deceased. Bendu Lewis, having been with her grandmother during her final moments, feels the pain deeply.

Memories flood back. Benjamin Lewis comforts friends and relatives with stories about Catherine May Tyler Lewis.

Bendu reminisces about the harrowing experience of fleeing with her sick grandmother during the war. She and Granny May had visited their relatives in Sumoville. On their way back to Monrovia, the big bridge was destroyed, and this prevented them from going back to Monrovia. At Charlue Town, there was a rocket-propelled grenade explosion. Chaos ensued as people started running.

She pushed Granny May in a wheelbarrow among the fleeing crowd. Some of the fleeing people urged her to abandon Granny May, but she refused. In her frantic efforts to get away from danger, she saw babies, old people, and children along the roadside. They had been abandoned by their people in the resulting chaotic run. For a fleeting moment, she considered helping some of the children but couldn’t as she had to tend to her grandmother first.

She reassured Granny May and promised to stay together. Granny May urged Bendu to leave her, but she refused. After a while, Granny May became silent and still. An old man nearby praised Bendu for her dedication to her grandmother. Bendu cried beside the wheelbarrow upon realising Granny May’s death.

In her grief, she was unaware of about thirty rebel soldiers approaching. One of them, Samson, attempted to hit her with his gun, but the leading soldier, Commander Cobra, intervened.

Commander Cobra instructed her to stand up and questioned her about her background. Bendu explained that she and Granny May were visiting relatives when the bridge was destroyed, trapping them.

Commander Cobra ordered her to join them, but she insisted on staying with her deceased grandmother. She remained resolute, prepared to face any consequences for staying with Granny May. She firmly gripped the wheelbarrow, refusing to leave Granny May’s side. Consequently, Samson hit her finger with his gun upon receiving a signal from Commander Cobra. She was forcefully dragged away by the men. She lost consciousness. She would regain consciousness later that day to find herself among the fighters who were setting up camps in the forest.

Bendu is brought out of her reminiscence by a touch on her shoulder from a sympathizer. She looks around and sees familiar faces like Agnes, Tenneh, and Calvin. She appreciates them for their presence.

However, her grief intensifies due to her inability to narrate her traumatic experiences. She contemplates the potential reactions of her family and friends if they were aware of what she endured or the actions she took during her civil war ordeal.

Redemption Road
Redemption Road by Elma Shaw

Chapter 2 Summary

In Chapter 2 of Redemption Road, we are introduced to the character of Moses Varney. He arrives at the Temple of Justice in a Pajero vehicle with his driver, Weah, who also acts as his bodyguard. He notices a sticker on the dashboard of the car that bears the rallying cry of former President Samuel Doe’s People’s Redemption Council. It reads thus:

IN THE CAUSE OF THE PEOPLE, THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES.

(p. 12, Redemption Road)

Varney quickly heads towards the courthouse. He encounters a group of displaced teenage boys he knows near the courthouse parking lot who hail him. His driver attempts to drive the boys away, but Varney stops him and greets the boys.

Among the boys, he recognises Simeon and Alphonso, although he cannot recall the names of the others. Varney empathises with the boys’ plight. He reflects on his own experiences of loss and displacement as a child.

When he was just 11 years old, he was with his parents in a crowded minibus traveling from Sanniquellie to Monrovia, when the driver lost control and tumbled into a ravine. The bus was made to hold 15 passengers, but the owner had restructured the inside to take almost twice the limit. The roof of the bus was piled high with bags, market produce, several chickens, a goat, and a small pig. Ten people lost their lives that day, including his parents. After the accident, his two younger sisters were taken in by his mother’s sister, and he was sent to Monrovia to live with his uncle. It was not a time he liked to think about, but it was a time that changed the course of his life.

(p. 13, Redemption Road)

He vows to the boys that things will change and promises not to forget them before he walks away.

Varney’s thoughts turn to the lack of justice in society as he enters the Temple of Justice. He recalls a time when justice was valued. He laments the current state of affairs, where people prioritise peace over justice. Varney concludes that true peace can only be achieved through equity for all and asserts that people must rise to liberate themselves.

Varney enters the judiciary wing of the Temple of Justice with a determined mindset, ready to confront the struggle ahead.

Chapter 3 Summary

In Chapter 3 of Redemption Road, Bendu returns to work after her grandmother’s memorial service. She pays the taxi driver with Liberian dollar notes and reflects on the economic situation and the exchange rate. Fifty Liberian dollars exchange for one US dollar.

She reflects on the challenges Monrovia has faced post-war and appreciates its resilience. She compares the current state of the street to the aftermath of the war.

. . .the smell of the raw sewage that had overflowed into the street with the torrential August rain ruined the joy of the short hike up the hill. The scent was nothing though, Bendu had to admit, compared to the stench of the rotting bodies that littered this very intersection when she returned from behind the lines a few years ago.

(p. 15, Redemption Road)

Broad Street was once more a lively, bustling hub of informal sector activity mingled with large banks, office buildings, government ministries, stationery stores, and now, internet cafés. . . . But still, sometimes Bendu couldn’t help remembering the mess she had seen when she returned: the telephone wires and cables destroyed and hanging down into the street; the bullet-riddled buildings; the bodies of men, women and children in various stages of decay.

(p. 15-16, Redemption Road)

Bendu arrives at the NGO, Peace in Practice, and observes the reception area. She meets Agnes, the co-director of PIP, who updates her on ongoing programmes.

Agnes is arranging a group counselling session. She delivers a message from Calvin to Bendu. Calvin is a friend of Bendu’s late brother and a potential donor to her NGO. Agnes tries to set Bendu up with Calvin, but Bendu remains focused on work. She subsequently advises her on her personal life and urges her not to let her past define her love life.

Bendu reflects on her deceased fiancé, Jonah, and their relationship. She also thinks about Calvin and their shared history.

Calvin arrives for an interview with Bendu. He informs Bendu about his freelance contract with the World Journal. Calvin thereafter interviews Bendu for a magazine article about her NGO’s work and the obstacles faced by PIP. The interview apparently shows that Bendu is committed to helping war-affected women.

When Calvin asks Bendu about her own war story, Bendu parries the question. This goes to show how much Bendu is trying to suppress her wartime traumatic experiences.

They concluded the interview. Calvin asks Bendu for a date, and she playfully accepts. Calvin leaves, while Bendu eventually joins the group counselling session.

Chapter 4 Summary

This chapter is a continuation of the previous chapter. Bendu and Agnes are now in the group counselling session with Rosetta, Josephine, and Tenneh, who are victims of the war. Rosetta is bitter after losing her husband to ethnic violence, Josephine is nurturing, and Tenneh struggles with depression. Bendu suggests therapy for Tenneh, who improves over time.

The counselling group is assigned to write letters to those who dehumanised them during the war. Tenneh reads a letter addressed to her mother, recounting her traumatic experiences. She blames her mother for betraying her as a twelve-year-old girl to rebel soldiers. She recounts how she escaped from the soldiers, naked and wounded, only for her mother to turn her away.

Afterward, Agnes discusses the pain caused by loved ones and asks them to consider forgiveness.

Tenneh’s story touches Bendu. She reflects on Tenneh’s letter and her own experiences. She was eight during the 1980 coup d’état. She wondered what a twelve-year-old Calvin must have seen when Benji was killed in April of that year.  She then writes a thank-you letter to Calvin and works on a grant proposal.

Bendu and Agnes leave the office. Later, Bendu briefly encounters Commander Cobra, the source of her throbbing war trauma, across the street at a gas station. This moment triggers fear and reminiscence about the war. She feels dizzy but regains composure and hurries away before he can see her.

Chapter 5 Summary

Bendu’s brief encounter with Commander Cobra in the previous chapter has taken a toll on her peace of mind and general well-being. Her past traumatic experiences, which have been suppressed until that encounter, come to the fore and become the subject of her nightmares.

In this particular instance, she has a nightmare about the execution of prisoners of war at Duluma, commanded by Commander Cobra. In the dream, she and other women are jogging with heavy rifles along a bush path. The women are led by Commander Cobra to a house where they find naked, gagged men huddled together, and a beheaded man with blood everywhere.

Commander Cobra orders Bendu and another woman to pick up the bloody weapons and instructs the women to execute the prisoners of war. The men on the ground react with moaning and wriggling as Cobra singles out one man and slaughters him, splashing blood on Bendu.

She wakes up, terrified, and goes to wash her face in the bathroom. She realises she has missed a day of work. She feels sick from remembering Commander Cobra and the war.

Agnes knocks on her door, and Bendu, fearing it might be Commander Cobra, is relieved to find Agnes instead. Agnes questions Bendu about her absence from work. She confides in her friend Agnes about seeing Commander Cobra in town two days before. Agnes comforts her and promises to help in the morning.

Bendu struggles with fear and memories of the past. She dreads the possibility of encountering Cobra again. She eventually falls asleep as it starts raining at midnight.

Further Reading:

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