Returning to Sierra Leone

Thursday, December 26, 2013


Special to The Cabinet

Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part story. The second portion will run in the Jan. 2 edition of The Cabinet.

SIERRA LEONE, West Africa – When I completed my Peace Corps assignment in Sierra Leone, West Africa, more than 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 Pine Hill Waldorf School, someone I deeply admire.

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. It 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 more than 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.

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.

The dancing and singing came to a final halt as Lilly, Lisa and I were ushered onto the wooden benches of the rebuilt court barr – 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 more than 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.

The second half of this article will run in the Jan. 2 edition of The Cabinet.

Betsy Small Campbell was the executive director of War Child USA, formerly in Peterborough. 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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