Sierra Leone's 'family talk' heals scars of war
Inspired by childhood memories of community rituals, human rights activist John Caulker treks across Sierra Leone to reconcile war crime perpetrators and their victims.
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There, streets are crowded equally by people and piles of trash – a sign, in its own unintentional way, of abundance. Kids hawk candies, shammies, pirated DVDs, and cellphone chargers. They tease you, in the heat, with cold Cokes and baggies of drinking water tied tight at the top. An hour in traffic – a rather common way to pass an hour in Freetown – and you can do a day's shopping from your car window.
Here, to the east, in the villages where Mr. Caulker has done human rights work for 10 years, neither goods nor income are disposable. Every kid's belly seems to sag for lack of food. All that can be found for sale are staples – cassava, mangos, rice. Then there are the signs of the brutal, decade-long civil war: Abandoned houses, some clearly shelled, stand apathetically along the road. In one village, a rusting tank, its cannons sometimes used as makeshift laundry lines, sits at a crossroad, inscribed hopefully, "For Sale!"
The farther Caulker goes on his cross-country trips, the farther away Freetown seems – geographically, existentially. In countries recovering from war, capitals have the edge. They're the places where political power is reestablished, aid projects are launched, and donor money flows. It's in the capitals that the "postwar reconstruction" agenda, engineered in good part abroad, begins.
"It's like they have this postconflict checklist: Truth commission, tick. Military assistance, tick. Trials, tick. Next. Go on to the next country," Caulker says. "But the people have answers. They have their cultural values."
Caulker wants to put those values on that checklist. For months, he has been traveling from village to village, reviving fambul tok – family talk in Krio (an English creole). It's a tradition with a long history – before the war; before, even, the white man – and a range of meanings. Villagers sat around nightly bonfires, telling jokes and recounting the day's events. Sometimes, fambul tok resolved disputes, adjudicating everything from petty theft to matrimonial discord. The practice made villagers more than neighbors; it united them as a fambul.
Caulker thinks these old ways may be Sierra Leone's best method for dealing with its newest problem: reconciling rural communities after a war felt most brutally in these villages he says fell through the gaps of the postwar checklist. Here, former soldiers live again alongside the women they raped or whose husbands they killed, or the men whose hands they cut off. They didn't apologize; didn't acknowledge the past. They just, Caulker says, moved back in.
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Reuniting the fambul is more than theory for Caulker. Before the war, he lived with his mother, Annie Rosaline Caulker, in Songo, outside of Freetown. At first, his village was sheltered from the brutality of a war that started, in the east, as somebody else's fight. The Revolutionary United Front (RUF), notorious for looting Liberia's diamond riches and terrorizing its people, brought its battle across the border in 1991, in search of neighboring Sierra Leone's mineral wealth. The instability eventually led to a coup d'état and the splintering of fighting forces, who competed for political power and control of the country's diamond mines. As the war dragged on, the list of military groups – and war atrocities – grew.