A former rebel faces the Sierra Leonean farmer he maimed
Forgiveness is more than a generous heart, it's a practical matter in hardscrabble village life.
(Page 2 of 2)
They took my baby from my back and put him in the river.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
I met [the rebels], and they did what they wanted to do.
He hit me with a gun on my ear, and I am still feeling the pain; even today, I cannot [carry] water on my head.
The men who committed these crimes wedge through the crowd, stand before their victims and, atoning, touch the ground with one hand. They, too, tell their stories:
The commander told me, "Take the child." I could've been killed. So I took the child. It's not my fault.
They told me, "If you refuse then we will kill you right here." So then I must cut you, even though you are my friend.
We were given matches to burn down the houses. That was my job anywhere we go.
One by one, victims are heard and perpetrators forgiven, so that they might dance and make peace with the ancestors. Then, they say, the harvest will be good for the first time since the war. And then, they think about moving forward.
"If you are hungry," says Sia Falloh, the woman who can't carry water on her head, "you will not forget."
The next morning, a spiritual leader, wearing a dangling headband of animal fur, cleanses every corner of the village, dipping fistfuls of leaves into a bucket of water and sprinkling doors, footpaths, faces. Men walk single file through the jungle, to a stone, covered and secret, where the ancestors reside. There, they slaughter a chicken, intone prayers, plead for bountiful harvests.
Tradition says this will return peace to the village and fertility to the land; that, now, everything will be fine. Provided that tradition, too, was not a casualty of war.
"The war drove us [from the village]," says John Tombatemba, "and our ancestors, too. So we don't know whether they are here.... Even if they come back, they are strangers. Like us."
• • •
Caulker has initiated 35 ceremonies in as many villages over, roughly, four months; his program expands in the fall, and he expects to reach 800 villages by the end of the year. The rituals are as varied as the number of ceremonies, he says, though the intended outcome, of course, is universal.
He's not the only person to see a need for grass-roots reconciliation in Sierra Leone and his approach is not without limitations.
"We have to be careful about putting African traditions up on a pedestal, because they're also a construct," says Andy Carl, executive director of Conciliation Services, which supports local peace-building initiatives. "They're being reinvented all the time, and part of the war in Sierra Leone was about the failure of traditional institutions."
But Caulker and others still have faith in the old ways. "Through our tradition, if you own up to what you did ... and you ask for forgiveness, it's almost a guarantee that the person will forgive you," Caulker says.
Villagers pledge precisely that, but even after the owning up and the accepting, some things don't change. After the fambul tok, Kekura and Sakila sit next to – but not near – each other on a wooden bench. "I am sitting as God made me," Sakila says, "but this man has a problem."
Kekura has been ready to forgive, but at the ceremony, he made Sakila beg – three times. He finally forgave – not because his heart is big or his spirit generous, but because it is the only kind of power he still has. "There is nothing I can do," he says. "Only to have peace."
In the course of an hour-long interview, neither man looks at the other. Three people could sit in the space between them. But Sakila offers Kekura help in his garden, and Kekura says Sakila is free to visit the village.
Perhaps, then, what has happened here isn't really about something as high-minded as forgiveness or reconciliation. Perhaps, rather, it is about ritual – the simple finality of an act still considered sacred enough to wash away what's gone wrong in the world.
Perhaps this is what Kekura means when he says, "It has happened," he says. "It is finished in my heart."