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Old friends, rediscovered

SIERRA LEONE: A quarter century later, Betsy Small returns with her daughter and a friend to a village transformed by war and maintained by an unbreakable spirit

When I completed my Peace Corps assignment in Sierra Leone, West Africa, over 25 years ago, a war there was unimaginable. The country I’d grown to love was peace-loving, welcomed strangers, and was proud of its culture.

I left Sierra Leone at the age of 26, promising the people in the village where I lived that I would not forget them. I told them they could count on me to return, and to continue to help them in any way I could.

Finally, this November, the time of the rice harvest in Sierra Leone, I had my chance. I booked a flight to Freetown, the capital city, for my daughter Lilly, a sophomore at Dublin School, and Lisa Freeman, my son’s former kindergarten teacher at the Pine Hill Waldorf School, someone I deeply admire.

The war-torn path

Tokpombu, Gorama (“Under the palm trees in the virgin forest”) is located in the country's Eastern province — the region of Sierra Leone hit hardest during the country's 11-year diamond war, which began in 1991, three years after I left. A village of almost 400 subsistence rice farmers, Tokpombu exists along a red dirt road between diamond miners and diamond buyers. It was of strategic importance during the conflict, and rebel soldiers set fire to the village on three separate occasions. Many innocent people died in horrific and unthinkable ways.

The war has been over for as long as it lasted, but visible signs of terrible events still intrude on this country’s otherwise lush and flourishing tropical landscape. Traffic through the capital city of Freetown was slow going, in part because of a population increase of over 300 percent ­— people displaced by the war who’ve grown accustomed to eking out a living in the city rather than farming on their ancestral lands. After about three hours of driving on a newly paved road, compliments of China, the pavement abruptly stopped. And the once difficult journey on gravel roads was now even more arduous, rife not with the expected rainy season grooves and potholes, but with craters the size of hot-tubs –reminders of 11 years of grenades and rocket launchers.

In nearly every town and village we passed along our route, abandoned buildings and charred remnants stood side by side with newer mud brick and sometimes cement construction. People here have no access to back-hoes or heavy machinery of any sort, so removing the rubble, even a decade later, isn't even a possibility.

Following the drum beats

On the fourth morning of our stay in the country, we rolled down the final 12-mile stretch of rugged terrain, where I’d ridden fearless and alone on my Suzuki dirt bike countless times. Now, inside a four wheel drive Toyota with my daughter and friend beside me, I became acutely aware of the passage of time. As we pulled into Tokpombu, I saw that my former Peace Corps house was still a gathering site for children, but only its concrete foundation and the metal railing of the front porch remained.

Emerging from the car, we were met by a jubilant crowd who danced us along the main road to drum beats and call and response singing that drew us toward the court barre — the town hall where more preparations had been made to welcome us.

At one point, the leader of the women paused, grabbing a drum stick from one of the young men. With one hand on his shoulder and another on the drum she infused him with the proper rhythm until he could manage it on his own. In that moment the full scope of Sierra Leone’s tragedy was undeniably clear. When I lived here, every young man grew up knowing how to beat a drum. But for a decade, the children lived on the run, hiding in caves in the forest to evade death or being captured and forced to take up a gun. Even if they made it safely over the border to neighboring Guinea, they were trapped in a refugee camp.

Ever since time began here, boys had been taught by their fathers how to beat a drum, not how to hold a gun. The drum is the common denominator here. A village knows itself by its drum beat ­— its heartbeat. These teenage boys had no idea of the legacy that had been lost: the rhythms of their own village.

A welcome home

The dancing and singing came to a final halt as Lilly, Lisa, and I were ushered onto the wooden benches of the rebuilt court barre — the original having been burned to the ground, like all the homes in this village. I’d sat in the original open-air structure many times during my two years here: for village meetings, celebrations, funerals, traditional court. Now I watched the adult faces of the children who once drew crayon pictures in my parlor. In their gestures I found echoes of their parents, many of whom did not survive this war — the men and women with whom I had plowed, planted rice, and built tilapia fish ponds more than two decades ago. These surviving grown children are now the leaders of their village.

When it was our turn to speak, Lilly, Lisa and I presented the customary kola (a caffeinated nut with a waxy membrane) to the few remaining elders. Through a translator holding a megaphone, I spoke in Krio, “Di won way e gee Kola, nain day gee lef.” (“He who gives kola gives life.”) Krio is the lingua franca of Sierra Leone — a combination of Portuguese, Yoruba from Nigeria and English that linguistically unites over 13 ethnic groups who live in this former British colony.

The leader of the elders responded by thanking me for acknowledging their tradition. He said it meant more than anything material I could have brought them. “Thank you for bringing your daughter to meet us, Sia Tokpombu (the name they called me back then), thank you for bringing a teacher to meet us.”

The welcome ceremony continued for many hours. A Muslim and a Christian prayer were recited to honor both religions. (Though Sierra Leone once ranked as one of the worst places on earth to be a child, it’s also been recently cited by the United Nations as a leader in religious tolerance.) People told stories about the time I lived there — the Beatles songs that played on a recorder whose broken “play key” I kept locked down with a clothes pin. For many, I was now Auntie “Besty” returning.

When Lilly was asked to speak, she shared how she'd grown up hearing about the Peace Corps, about the place her mother lived in Africa.

She'd heard me speak Krio, “But now,” Lilly told them, “Krio seems real, and you are real and I understand from only a few days in your country how special all of you are and why my mother loves you so much. And so, I love you too.”

Everyone applauded and then stood up. Some of them stepped forward to hug my daughter.

Next on the program were songs from a group of 65 patiently waiting pre-schoolers.“Preschool” is a new concept in Sierra Leone.

The next generation

Twenty-five years ago, the elders of this village sat on their porches telling stories to children, teaching them songs and rhythms of daily life, while their parents went off to farm and their older siblings walked the mile down the road to primary school. But now, there are no surviving elders to provide this care. So, the village made a decision to convert the vacant church into a school for young children.

Five of the children were called upon to sing out their names for us along with their parents’ names, how old they are and where they live now — “In Tokpombu Gorama Chiefdom.” The fundamental human right to safely state out loud who you are and where you come from never felt more important.

At the close of this meeting, the women presented me with a traditional striped country cloth gown, a “coat of many colors,” handwoven by them to welcome me home. They said this day would become history for their children.

The next day, Lisa taught the children some of the same games she teaches her kindergarten class. Lilly helped usher children under a bridge, and Lisa made a hopscotch board. We threshed rice off its stalk with our bare feet, winnowed and pounded in a mata oda, a large hollowed out tree trunk and pestle. Later we remarked that our faces hurt, not from crying, but from smiling.

On our final day in the village, we visited the waterside where I used to bathe and tote water on my head back to my house. The path leading there, once well worn, is overgrown. But there is a good reason for this. The village now has two spigots with running water, along with a clinic funded by the United Methodist Church. Running water and a fully functioning clinic were inconceivable 25 years ago.

This, of course, means that for the first time, children are being vaccinated and taught about hand washing and the use of mosquito nets. Education on water sanitation is also taking place. For the first time ever, people know that the choices they make every day can help to prevent typhoid, malaria, shistosomiasis, cholera, and even HIV.

Sierra Leone’s infant mortality rate in this chiefdom was over 38 percent as recently as five years ago. But last year, there were only three instances of infant deaths, a remarkable accomplishment in this part of the world.

The gift of the past

One of our last acts was to distribute the gifts we’d brought from home. We unpacked duffles with sets of bedsheets, headlamps with replacement batteries, children’s clothes (organized by Christine Mendez, a parent in Lisa’s Meadowlark Kindergarten class), and an assortment of soccer balls (donated by my Peace Corps predecessor Raymond Wirth, the first American to live in Tokpombu Gorama). The remaining supplies, books and other school materials were being safely kept in a warehouse for them in Freetown to be delivered after the holiday season.

I also presented the village with two bound volumes of photographs I had taken between 1984 and 1987. Inside the front cover I had inscribed, “Thank you Tokpombu Gorama for making your home my home when I lived here... I did not forget.” I asked the Town Chief, Patrick Lahai, whose father, also the town chief, was the first person to welcome me to this village, and Ma Sando, the woman who cooked for me and became my best friend, to be the caretakers of this record of their lives before the war.

One man who stood beside his younger brother as they looked at the photo album suddenly gasped and pointed at a picture, saying, “Dis nar wi daddy!" This is our father. You couldn't mistake the resemblance between the father and the younger son who before today had no way to tell what his father looked like.

Comforting reminders

Driving back to Freetown in our rented vehicle, the parting gifts we’d received stashed beside our empty satchels in the trunk, a chicken my daughter named Harriet, and bag of freshly harvested rice, two papayas and a bunch of bananas, the driver played a CD by local pop artists — upbeat tunes about unrequited love, life as a diamond miner, how forgiveness is the only way forward.

As we headed toward Freetown, green fields of swamp rice seemed not only to be bending from the weight of its seed, but also reaching, like the people here, like people do everywhere... like I do. I thought about the man I’d met at the beach on our first day here­ — Sahr Pessima. In one moment, he was a strange face in the crowd selling cigarettes, (not by the box but the stick). In the next, he was my old friend who lived on one side of the church in Tokpombu while I lived on the other. In those first moments, I suspended belief that in country of six million, a man from village of 400, where I also lived, could be standing with his feet in the sand in front me, 25 years later. But he knew my face and I knew the sound of his voice.

Lisa commented that more than anything else, this trip reminded her of “how much we all need one another’s help in the world, down to the smallest thing, whether it’s an elderly neighbor or school that needs curtains for the windows. People seem happy here because of human kindness. It’s everywhere here...”

It’s nearly a miracle to be able to say this in a war-torn country still plagued by corruption, social injustice, and the psychological and physical scars of war. The massive population of amputees and polio victims, a generation of former child soldiers, untold numbers of orphaned children, and an acute sense of widespread geographic dislocation seem at times insurmountable.

Still, families are rebuilding their lives in Sierra Leone — maybe more from the inside, than the outside — it’s the parts you can’t always see that matter the most.

If you would like to help the village of Tokpmbu repair its war damaged buildings, including its “court barre,” you can mail a tax deductible donation to: Africa Yes, a 501 C-3 organization to: 2308 Sprunt Avenue, Durham, NC 27705 or email Betsy at: betsy@smallcampbell.com” with Africa Yes on the subject line.

Betsy Small Campbell served as Executive Director of War Child USA, formerly based in Peterborough NH. She is an active member of Writing from your Inner Voice Workshops led by Kate Gleason. She’s currently working on, “Bifaw Bifaw” a collection of stories about her time in Sierra Leone.

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