Learning About Life in Sierra Leone

Sweet Sierra Leone, the Costa Rica of West Africa, where children are beloved and cared for by all, where people ask each other, “How is the body? How were your dreams?”, where visitors are entertained like royalty: hospitable and kind and lush: how could such a nation decline into civil strife? How could children be used as soldiers in such a place? What does it do to children to be soldiers, and how can they be forgiven and reintegrated into society? How can Sierra Leone create a new society in which such a horror would be impossible?

Alusine, Topher, Brad, Betsy.jpg

We discussed these and other such questions for hours last week with Betsy Small (parent of Lilly Campbell ’16) who served in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone before the war, Alusine Kamara, former head of a rehabilitation center for child soldiers in Freetown and currently a nurse at Mass General, and Topher Hamblett, also a former Peace Corps volunteer and  founder and president of the Foundation for West Africa. Last fall Betsy took Lilly for her first trip to Sierra Leone, and we saw pictures of Lilly dancing and playing with children in villages, old friends who recognized Betsy after 28 years, a church which survived the fighting. (Churches and mosques were not burned down during the war. The  church beside her house was now the site of a pre-school, a concept which was inconceivable before the war- as it was elders who took care of young children while their parents went off to farm.) Lilly and her mom sang songs and brought games school supplies to the 60 children who now inhabit this building during the day while their parents resume their centuries old agricultural lifestyle in the swamps and hills surrounding the village--just as their ancestors had for centuries before the eleven-year war ravaged their country, and they shared images of all this with our community in turn.

Some of us had never heard of Sierra Leone; others might not have been able to find it on a map. Even those of us who could may only have known what we saw in Blood Diamond, actually filmed in neighboring Liberia. Betsy and Alusine explained that, lacking communication and roads, a war sparked by attacks from Liberia unraveled Sierra Leone into the civil chaos. When no group of fighters is easily distinguished from the other, how do you know who is on which side? If a fighting group feeds you, you are automatically associated with that group; it might be a different group that feeds you the next day. You know you don’t trust government radio, so how do you know where the fighting is and where it is safe to flee?

Alusine described his work with former child soldiers. Trucks from the UN wold collect child soldiers from the forests or fields and bring them fully armed to the doorstep of Alusine’s center. The first step would be to make the children prove they had been soldiers by assembling an AK-47. Alusine saw children as young as 8 succeed in this task. Children would be disarmed, but one time, a boy who felt he had not had enough supper put a live grenade he had saved under the cooking pot. Luckily his bunk mate told Alusine in time. Children from different groups would be put onto soccer teams and they would play so as to unravel their group identities. Then Alusine would try to find family members.  One of the children he helped was Ishmael Beah, author of Long Way Gone, whom he rediscovered at a book reading in a store in Massachusetts many years later.

Topher showed us an excerpt from a film he sponsored called “Leh We Tok,” which portrays the efforts of brave men I Sierra Leone to establish independent radio stations. His Foundation for West Africa is dedicated to raising funds to support these radio stations, which have gone from 3 to 28 in number, largely thanks to Topher’s efforts. It was a revelation to us all to recognize that such infrastructure is a foundation for democracy and government accountability. Radio has also been a key tool in peace-building in Sierra Leone, as members of different groups have aired their views, families have found lost members, and radio dramas have taught coping skills, and such things as how to vote and where to vote. Dublin students are holding a fundraiser to make a donation to Topher’s foundation. Please take a look at his site: www.tfwa.org/.

We tasted delicious West African food at a community dinner that night too, absorbing some new knowledge into our bodies as we worked to imagine, form questions and integrate all we learned from these three wonderful visitors and teachers. There was talk after the presentation of Dublin students and faculty traveling to Sierra Leone in the future to learn more. It was a wonderful day that changed our understandings of the world. The devotion of Betsy, Alusine, and Topher to speaking truth and the courage they embody was humbling and inspiring. We look forward to working together more in the future, and to helping the people of Sierra Leone recreate their beautiful land.