As a student at Harvard, Sanneh worked in the punk department of the radio station WHRB, a position that required he pass a written examination. He still considers himself a punk at heart, a jarring claim for someone with his temperament and who writes about his mother chaperoning him at a Ramones concert when he was 14.
It’s easy to imagine that he inherited his kindly but questioning spirit from his parents. His father, Lamin Sanneh, was born and raised in poverty in Gambia. Raised Muslim, as a teenager he converted to Christianity, which he discovered through his own studying. He went on to become a leading scholar of world religion who taught at Yale for 30 years.
His son can remember him discussing various subjects at the family dinner table and becoming “impatient with pat explanations.” He was equally annoyed by simplistic Christian political positions and by knee-jerk dismissals of Christianity; and, after 9/11, by broad-stroke arguments that either lumped Islam together with Christianity or posited the faiths as polar-opposite rivals. Kelefa Sanneh’s mother, Sandra Sanneh, followed her own remarkable trajectory. White and raised in South Africa, she became a scholar of Zulu and other African languages, retiring from Yale in 2020 after her own three decades there.
Kelefa Sanneh was born in Birmingham, England, and soon after moved to Accra, Ghana, where his father was teaching. Two years later, another job took the family to Aberdeen, Scotland, and when Sanneh was 5, the family moved to Massachusetts. He’s always been most comfortable and confident writing in a mode that’s “a bit more analytical, a little less hot-blooded,” he said, and tries to explain subjects as if coming to them from another world.
“I always thought about it as related to being an immigrant,” he said.
Growing up, Sanneh also recalls “an immigrant’s sense of wanting to figure stuff out: ‘What are they doing over there?’ And that immigrant’s sense of whenever someone says, ‘No, this is country music, they’re singing about the troops, this is not for you,’ saying, ‘Hold on a second, I’ll be the judge of that.’ So I’ve always thought of it as curiosity and maybe a bit of mischief.”