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A living library

Children are as powerful as they are precious. I am a grown child of Sierra Leone, a country in West Africa where we have paid for this lesson in blood, in severed body parts and with the deaths of more than 50,000 children, women and men.

In 1991, civil war broke out in Sierra Leone, spilling over from neighboring Liberia. Rebel armies, composed mostly of children, rampaged across the country, seizing control of diamond mines and other valuable natural resources. Hundreds of villages were destroyed by youths kidnapped by the rebels, then forced to take drugs so they could commit otherwise unimaginable acts of terror on their families and communities. In a country of about five million people, almost the entire population has been driven into refugee camps in the last 10 years.

In November 2000, a cease fire was signed and 16,000 United Nations troops were deployed to keep the fragile truce. Last month, in a ceremony to celebrate the official start of an U.N.-brokered peace, rebels and government officials built a bonfire of surrendered weapons.

Last summer, I returned to my native country for the first time in 15 years. On previous trips in 1991 and 1994, I hadn't been able to venture beyond the city limits of Freetown. But in June, my lifelong friend Tamba, just back from his own visit to Sierra Leone, reported that the up-country roads connecting the urban centers to the rural villages were safe enough to travel. The improved security was due to efforts of U.N. peacekeeping forces, the attention of the international community and the fact that the diamond mines in Eastern Sierra Leone--which had been the focus of rebel attention--were by then exhausted and losing money.

Still, fresh in my mind were the repeated pleas of my sister in Sierra Leone, and my friends all over the world, to avoid returning while rebels and gangs of armed children were still murdering and maiming civilians. When my 11-year-old son, Juju, who is deaf, learned of my intention to surprise my surviving siblings with a visit, he was also worried. Although the U.S. media have largely ignored the war in Sierra Leone, Juju has seen macabre images of amputees and refugee camps in rare TV documentaries. He "spoke" eloquently to me in sign language: "Papa, there is war and people starving."

I felt our bond and I knew the risks I was taking in making the journey. But my longing was overwhelming, my friend's reports were encouraging and my need to bring whatever joy I could to my family made me determined to li nya yei, which in Mende means, "to go home when one feels homesick."

On July 8, I left Raleigh Durham International Airport and flew to New York to board a Ghana Airways flight via Accra to Sierra Leone. The flight to Freetown, the capital city, was crowded with other Sierra Leonean returnees, mostly coming from Europe. My conversation with a man from Germany was disturbing. He was going home to bury his father, a former diamond dealer who had died heartbroken. The rebels had taken his life savings and he had never recovered. The passengers were quiet as we descended to the partially darkened Lungi Airport.

The city was overcrowded and teeming with displaced people. Refugee camps were scattered across the outskirts. Children missing arms, legs, even genitals were living with widowed mothers under plastic U.N. tents that offered little protection against the drenching rains of the wet season. I saw graveyards of other children lucky enough to die rather than have to live with ghastly memories.

Despite such a dismal greeting, I tried to remain optimistic. After 10 years of war, I was eager to hear news about my village, Bunumbu. What I heard was heartbreaking. Folks told me Bunumbu no longer existed. My village, with its thatched houses, coffee and cocoa farms--where I had played under the moonlight, worked in the fields and swam in the nearby Loya River--had been turned into a bushy, overgrown woodland. There were once as many as 40 families there. But no one is living there now.

Who destroyed Bunumbu? It was the children of my village--children recruited by rebels to loot, pillage and commit unthinkable crimes against hundreds of community members and a way of life.

How did it all start? A decade ago, rebels of the Revolutionary United Front began a vicious guerrilla war against the ruling All People's Congress with the aim of gaining control over Sierra Leone's diamond fields and installing their leader, Fodoy Sankoh, as president. Sankoh had been imprisoned by the government for his alleged involvement in a coup plot. As revenge for being jailed, he declared war on the APC.

Acting in concert with his friend, Liberian President Charles Taylor, Sankoh's forces "recruited" the children of my homeland by force. They were easy to manage. The rebel leaders used drugs--cocaine, crack and heroin--to control them. Then, these new fighters, many as young as 12 or younger, were forced by Sankoh and the Liberian leaders to maim and kill. During the 10-year insurgency, RUF fighters raped, hacked off limbs, kidnapped children and perpetrated other abuses documented by human rights groups and the U.N.

And what was it all for? Sierra Leone is rich in diamonds. The world's second largest diamond, the Leone Star, was found in the Kono district near Bunumbu in the 1970s. For decades, the political leadership misappropriated and embezzled the natural wealth of the country. In the process, much of the population was denied access to education and the means to acquire the basic necessities of life. In the volatile context of revenge, violence and poverty, it only took a spark from neighboring Liberia to ignite the war.

My own family's plight has been the plight of the entire country. In 1991, the rebels forced my family to flee Bunumbu empty-handed. They ran for their lives and spent what must have seemed like endless nights in the woods subsisting on roots and berries.

I know all this from the many letters and phone calls that I have been forced to rely on--like many other Sierra Leoneans living in the Triangle--during the aching years of physical separation.

Much of what I read was frightening: "Children fell from the backs of mothers and they couldn't turn back," wrote Mariama, my brother's wife. "It was a matter of life and death." I also read about family members stepping over dead bodies and through abandoned villages to reach Segbwema, a town 20 miles away. It became their new home.

But the rebel leaders were unrelenting in their lust for blood and diamonds. In 1997, there was another upheaval and my family had to run for their lives again. Along with hundreds of other families, they trekked westward over 70 miles to Blama, a farming community noted for its rice, coffee and cocoa farms. That is where my extended family lives to this day. Bunumbu is but a memory.

On the third day of my visit, having sufficiently recovered from jet lag, my sister Hawa, two of my nephews and I took a minibus to Blama to see the rest of my family. The highway we traveled is the only roadway connecting the city of Freetown with the rest of the country. We bumped up and down over countless potholes and through dozens of U.N. barricades to reach Blama. It took 10 hours to go 180 miles.

During the war, the highway earned the name "Death Trap" because of frequent rebel ambushes. On my visit, evidence of the war was everywhere. The wreckage of burned cars and trucks lined the road. It looked like a junk yard. People called it "Sankoh's Garage," after the rebel leader.

Still, the spirit of my people amazed me. Packed into the minibus like sardines, the passengers entertained each other with songs and stories. We listened in silence as a woman told how her entire family was forced inside a house, only to have it burned down by rebels high on drugs. She was the only survivor.

As I listened, my anxieties rose. The last time I'd seen my brothers was in 1986, when I left Sierra Leone to join my fiancée in Durham. From letters, I had learned about their growing families. My oldest brother Bockarie had three children. Amara had six, Gbewah had nine. Kenie proudly had 10 and Hawa, my sister, had one.

I hopped down from the bus with my sister and nephews. As we climbed a hill and made our way toward a congested neighborhood, one of the residents recognized Hawa. Then, I heard a voice yelling to my brother, Gbewah, announcing the arrival of surprise guests.

I recognized Gbewah the moment he smiled. But he looked tired and thin. His wife Mariama and the children were at a rice farm, five miles down the road. I sat on a long wooden bench in Gbewah's living room holding my head in both hands as I waited for dinner to be served. I remembered how when I was a child, we used to eat from a single bowl in sequence according to our ages. And I also remembered how our late mother used to make us eat in the traditional fashion--boys from one pan and girls from another.

Nostalgia led me to suggest that we eat from the same bowl for old time's sake. Gbewah's huge appetite showed itself in his enormous hands filled with rice. We teased him about those kavae handfuls, and he in turn, teased me about my huge head. Our joyous laughter was a healing relief and despite the sorrow that lined my way there, I knew I was home at last.

The next day, Bockarie and Kenie joined us at Gbewah's home for a family meeting. Traditionally, he or she that comes home asks for the news and that's what I did. In Gbewah's two-bedroom house, 50 family members filled the living room and overflowed to the porch. Gbewah opened the meeting by calling on our ancestral spirits to join us, and he thanked them for their guidance. Then he turned to me. "Thank you for coming home," he said.

Gbewah connected the family to The Dead through a traditional naming ceremony. There was complete silence as he listed family and members of the community who had died in the war: Our mother, Matta Gbateh, our brother Amara, our Aunt Jenneh and all but two of her 15 children.

Our silence seemed to echo far beyond the walls of Gbewah's house. He finally ended it with a story. "Once upon a time," he began, "a bad spirit came and turned the heads of the children against their own parents. With the help of guns and drugs coming in, the children fought amongst each other, ruled over the adults and took all the wealth for themselves."

Then, my brother started naming other members of our once close-knit community who had died. Uncles, aunties, grandparents. That's when I realized the seemingly irreparable gap in our generation. We are like baby birds who've just lost their parents to the hawk.

Imagine a country where libraries and hospitals have burned down and all the wise and learned are killed. In my village, the elders who would teach the children are gone. Those who were our traditional libraries and teachers, venerated herbalists and griots who were poised to pass on the old ways, were killed in the fighting.

During my visit, the clear truths and teachings that I had grown up with glared at me from the chaotic present. My head was often swirling with confusion, pain, anger and questions. My journey home was about the faces and hearts of those who had called me from afar; the people of my beloved homeland now mostly perished, or worse.

Seeing members of the community who raised me, I know what it means to be truly loved. I know of growing coffee and cocoa and cultivating rice--this special way of life that even the colonial English could not stamp out. It's a way of life I inherited from my grandfather. As early as 1920, he advocated peacefully and effectively against the artificial system of land ownership and redistribution that British colonial interests had tried to impose on Sierra Leone.

While considering my country's dilemma, I am reminded of Patricia Jones-Jackson's book, When Roots Die. It is an account of how Africans, during the years of the slave trade, were cut off from their customs and heritage by little villains gone astray to enrich big villains far away. Similarly, the horrible war in Sierra Leone was about profits from diamonds. The local warlords gave guns, bullets and drugs to the children and taught them to kill each other in order to amass their own fortunes and those of world diamond interests.

Like the slave trade, the diamond war in Sierra Leone has severed future generations of my people from the wisdom that can only come from the elders. The present generation of children has been tragically denied knowledge of our country's traditions--our sacred stories--and the power those traditions have to bring peace, order, justice and freedom.

Although I am far too young, inexperienced and imperfect to be an elder--although I, too, am orphaned--I will try to participate in the massive healing on Sierra Leone's hope-filled horizon. I am grateful to this country for sheltering me and the traditions my grandparents and parents entrusted to me. I am now a living library.

My tradition calls for komei, which means sharing in my native Mende tongue. I have shared our sacred teaching tales with thousands of children in the Triangle to show my gratitude to my adopted home. Let the healing continue for all of the other Sierra Leonean families in the Triangle, most of whom lost nearly everyone they left at home.

In the noble words of my grandma, Nematu, "The world is a spider web. A break in the web affects the whole." Let us continue to tell our healing stories, to mend the web and to weave the children back into a beautiful, diverse, just, compassionate and peaceful worldwide village. EndBlock

Braima Moiwai is an artist in residence for the Durham Arts Council's Creative Arts in Public and Private Schools program. On Feb. 9 from 3 to 5 p.m. at the Hayti Heritage Center on Fayetteville Street, he will be showing slides of his recent trip to Sierra Leone as a fundraiser for survivors of the war. To contact Moiwai for presentations, send e-mail to bmoiwai@hotmail.com.

  • A family reunion in Sierra Leone reveals the suffering and strength left in the wake of a decade-long civil war.

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