Authoradmin

“From Zero to Hero”: The life of Sierra Leonean football players in Scandinavia, by Zora Šašková

Community league game in Lunsar, Port Loko District

“Is Foday back home?” I asked Erik, a former Danish Superliga coach and owner of a second division club in Sierra Leone. “I don’t know where he is, he just disappeared, he didn’t make it to the flight from Denmark back to Sierra Leone.”

Foday was a young, rising Sierra Leonean football star. I first met him during a football game in June 2014 in Freetown. The Ebola outbreak was on the decline, yet, a ban on places of assembly, including playing sports and sport events, was still in effect. The game was held at a secluded part of a golf course because the organisers needed a concealed venue to avoid a potential fine of up to LE 500 000 (£50), a painful price to pay in the declining economy. Despite the risks, the game takes place. That is how much football is loved in the country.

Football is the most popular sport in Sierra Leone. Village greens, sandy beaches or dusty streets, wherever you go, football is played everywhere

The match is tense; everyone knows that there is a coach from Denmark watching and it might be the chance they are all longing for – getting a professional contract in one of the European clubs. Foday does well, so much so that within the next few weeks he is on his way to sign a contract with a Danish Superliga Club. This is a dream come true in one of the most unlikely periods. Football was not played, the clubs were not training, the national team had been banned from travelling. Watching English Premier League games in cinemas, a hugely popular activity among Sierra Leonean youth was also prohibited as part of the Ebola emergency and safety procedures. With no agents or scouts travelling to the country, he was more fortunate than he could imagine. Despite the ban being lifted within a few weeks after this game, the shut-down of Sierra Leonean football continued for another four years. For more than five years, the players lost their platform to showcase their skills but also their means of survival.

The temporary halt of the game caused many players to shift their focus and find alternative livelihoods elsewhere. “I met a friend with whom I played football, but now he was working in a store where they offload flour for bread. He told me ‘this is what I depend on presently, this is what I am doing now for a living’. It was very sad to see someone with such talent doing that stuff,” says Morris, a Premier League player. It was only earlier this year when the Premier League was resumed, but there are still thousands of the Sierra Leonean young men harbouring the dream and engaging in a committed pursuit of a career as a professional footballer.

Junior players’ personal training

It is a distant dream, and their chances are incredibly slim. In Europe, the odds of becoming a professional, for children playing organised football, are less than 1%. For Sierra Leonean youth, the odds are even smaller, given all the obstacles. Organised grassroots football is non-existent. The pitches are poor and equipment scarce. The majority of coaches are unqualified. Unlike in other West-African countries, where some of the big European clubs maintain scouting networks and recruit players from their academies, the possibilities in Sierra Leone are extremely limited.

SLFA Academy pitch in Kingtom, Freetown. One of the two artificial turf pitches in Freetown

Sierra Leone has never been a great footballing nation. The country has never won any major football competition, qualified for the FIFA World Cup nor produced many big football stars. The national legend, former Inter Milan striker, Mohamed Kallon, is perhaps the only Sierra Leonean footballer known by a broader international audience. And while stories like Foday’s are scarce, they do give players the hope to keep going. As John Keister, the former national team head coach puts it: “they’ve seen their colleagues gone and become professionals, that’s what is giving them the hope. You know, for example, we can be here together, going through the same processes, and then I have the break-through. Once I go, there is every belief and hope that you are going to think ‘I am going as well, I am going to make it’, so for me, I give them credit in regards to their application towards work.”

The players’ ‘application towards work’ is, indeed, admirable even praiseworthy. A Premier League player on a contract is promised a minimum salary of 500 000 LE/month (approx. £50). Some of them get more, however, as the players disclosed, most of the clubs are not keeping up with their promise and the majority get less or sometimes don’t even get paid. Yet, the players still commit and develop different strategies on how to navigate their lives as football players without a salary. As Morris tells me, “We have a musician here, called Emmerson, saying that we in Sierra Leone, we live like magicians, so I can say it’s something like that, we survive and even ourselves we don’t know how. It’s really hard here, really hard”, then he continues “The most difficult thing about being a footballer is, now you’ve made it to the Premier club, you are playing football, you wake up in the morning, go and train, and when the month is done, your parents expect something from you. It’s very, very hard. You are playing football, and you are playing at the top level, you are playing the Premier League, and you cannot support your family. Because forget about parents or kids, even just for yourself, to take care of yourself it’s very difficult.”

Football boots are expensive, and not all players can afford them. However worn out, these are still in use

Struggling to make ends meet is a reality for most Sierra Leonean players. Becoming a pro footballer in a European club is not only a question of fulfilling one’s dream and passion but is also seen as the fastest way of getting rich. Still, instead of expressing their desire of becoming rich, most players talked about their hope of having a decent life and being able to provide for their family. As Devin, a retired Sierra Leonean player currently living in Sweden, reflects: “People want to come to Europe, it’s the biggest thing. It’s where everything happens; people come from Brazil, America, other places, everybody wants to come to Europe and play football because the European football is one of the biggest you can ever dream about so that’s the reason why Africans want to come out here, and also for a better life. This is where you play and sustain, you earn something, you make a living out of it. In Africa, you don’t really make that much”. However, as he adds, the reality is quite problematic; “People take advantage of that when you come out here [to Sweden], knowing that you don’t get nothing back home compared to whatever little they give out here, they take advantage of that, they say, ‘I will give him little, he will take it, he will appreciate it better than what he got home anyway.”

Tactical meeting before a game

This, though, is only one of the unforeseen issues that Sierra Leonean footballers, who sign contracts overseas, have to deal with. Their imagined experience is highly positive. They often perceive any encounter with a European club as a guarantee for an easy and successful life. For Musa, a second division player, the image of living in Europe is pretty straightforward: “I will be happy. I imagine that everything is ok for me. I’m from zero to hero”.

Unfortunately, the expectations usually don’t meet reality. While the majority of the young men who are awaiting their chance abroad share Musa’s view, the players with the actual migration experience articulated their disillusion. Victor, a retired Sierra Leonean footballer living in Sweden, sighed as he told me: “They [the young players] have this dream that when you come to Europe, your dreams come true, no matter what. Because they do not know what happens here…”

The next time I saw Foday was when he arrived in Denmark. The smile on his face showed how excited he was about the opportunity. He had made it! He signed a professional contract with a European club. We went to the club, and despite being visibly nervous, Foday tried to stay calm and look confident. Everything was different. He had turned his life around. Foday was born and raised in one of the poorer areas of Freetown. There he lived in a tin-shack home together with his family. He shared a room with two of his friends. A double mattress on the floor that makes up half of the room, a shoe rack for their boots (an essential display for any footballer) and a light bulb, no TV, no radio. Access to electricity depends on the National Power supply, which is sporadic. Today, he moved into a newly built apartment with a washing machine, dishwasher, TV, unlimited internet, and electricity 24/7.

Three months later, I revisited Foday. It was in November, the time of the year when people in Denmark enjoy drinking hot chocolate and snuggle in fluffy blankets, and when the temperature averages around 5°C. I noticed there is no duvet in Foday’s apartment.

“Where is your duvet?”

“What?” 

“How do you cover yourself when you sleep”?  

“I don’t. But I am fine Zora. I am really happy to be here!”

After a short search, we found a duvet and sheets in one of the storage places in the apartment. Sometimes it is the small things that make a big difference. It is these cultural differences that then affect the integration process for the players. The traffic, opening a bank account, taxes, health system, the unfamiliar products in grocery stores and simply the fact that you are surrounded by a language that you do not understand. Navigating between two considerably different cultures without any help is a tiring experience. These little struggles contribute to making succeeding more difficult for many African (international) players.

While on the pitch the players might need to adjust to a new style of coaching or different training methods, the off-pitch life is often an overlooked part of their journey. One might assume that the clubs are there to help. However, as the players themselves acknowledged, unless you are a superstar, the clubs tend not to invest in players more than is necessary. Similarly, Erik Rasmussen, a former Danish Superliga coach and owner of a second division club in Sierra Leone, explains: “You have to keep in mind that the players the club brings over are very, very cheap players. The cheaper the player is, the less effort the club is going to do to try to make them fit in. And I mean, if you buy a player for two million pounds, then you have to put a lot of effort in making him successful, but if you get the cheapest possible player, they will say, ok, why should we put this much effort into him. And these are the players from Sierra Leone, they are the cheapest players you can actually get in all instances, so the club hasn’t invested that much. Maybe they should say ‘ok, when we take a player from Sierra Leone, it will cost us £1000 or £2000 a month and then we have to put another one or two thousand pounds to make him successful’ but they don’t do that. They will say ‘ok, now we take a chance, we spend this kind of money’ but they don’t put the money into trying to make the adjustment when it’s possible for the players to get successful.”

Beyond the level of practical support, the majority of the clubs have limited knowledge of the background and culture the players come from and thus cannot offer a lot of help in cultural readjustment. Likewise, many players do not understand the specification of the new culture they find themselves in. To their disadvantage, they must both, adapt to and catch up with their teammates on the pitch and adjust and adopt a new way of life. For some, this process can take over a year. Again, the clubs perceive that as problematic. “It’s very few clubs who have the knowledge of what to do. So that means that they see a big talent, and of course, some of the best players in Sierra Leone are talented, but they haven’t built up the whole network in the club when the player arrives. I don’t think it’s racism. I think it’s more a lack of knowledge about what kind of players they start to try to work with …. I mean, any club in Europe, any clubs in the world, they just want the best players. But if it takes too long to develop that player, then most of them they give up and would rather have a player from their own culture “, Erik mentions.

Sierra Leonean players on a football trial in Denmark

The practices that the clubs implement are often questionable. For example, it is common to put players from South America, Africa and countries of the so-called ‘Global South’ to a shared apartment, often rooms, sometimes even beds. Putting six players into a small, three-bedroom apartment can help with loneliness and establishing the initial bonds; however, most players in Europe would not accept such treatment. “A lot of Sierra Leoneans wouldn’t speak out on the negative because as much as it is negative, in this whole thing they are looking at the positive part of it, you had nothing, you got an opportunity come out here and make something up for yourself, we are appreciative. Whatever it is that these people are doing to us, it’s not as bad as what we went through when we were back home. So, the good outweighs the bad in a sense. From our own perspective. But for them, I think it’s just an opportunity to get whatever they can get out of you and not give a heck about you” says Devin, the retired Sierra Leonean player.

And while the practical obstacles might make life unpleasant, what the players mostly struggle with is loneliness, social isolation and racism. When we discussed the experience of settling down in Sweden, Devin reflected: “Settling down in Sweden, that was difficult. It was difficult from the start because when I came up here, I had high expectations, I was thinking different. I thought life would have been from the suffering stage to gold and diamonds and everything, but it wasn’t that… it was pretty tough. I was lonely, you know, I grew up with a different lifestyle… I am used to being outside, run under the sun. I am living here, the place is cold, I am freezing, and literally have nobody to talk to. I live in my apartment by myself, and I was pretty young when I came here so the fact that I was in my own place, in my own space, it was great, it was big but then at the end of the day I realised that there was so many things that I miss.”

Whilst the Scandinavian countries rank at the top of indices for ‘happiness’ and wealth, they also outrank other countries and score the highest among countries where it is difficult to create friendship for foreigners, but also in the average number of people in a household. For Sierra Leoneans, who are known for their friendliness, and co-living with family, friends or extended family is part of the culture, might be the private, closed life in Scandinavia quite isolating. As Devin adds: “You can live in a house and your next-door neighbour doesn’t really know you, for years you see each other and you probably say “hi” and that’s it. In this country it is difficult to make new friends, people always keep their old friends”. His sentiment was shared among many Sierra Leonean migrant players that I talked to. By moving countries, and in this case continents, one loses the proximal social and support networks. The players stay connected to their close ones through social media and WhatsApp. Still, besides teammates and staff from their football clubs, they all pointed out that they mostly do not know any people outside their clubs. Yet, they perceive it as an advantage to help them to stay focused on their career as they have a lot at stake.

The pressure on the players is enormous, apart from being able to fulfil one’s ambitions they generally cannot keep people back home of their mind. And while living abroad is not easy, coming home might bring a serious dilemma as well, particularly for players from a more disadvantaged background. “No matter what kind of situation you find yourself into here, it is difficult to go back home because people back home have a 100% expectation from you. And if you come here and you don’t achieve that goal, your dream, you will always think ‘when I go home, my people have this kind of expectation and if I don’t achieve it or if I don’t have it, I don’t see the reason to go there’. So that makes it so difficult for players to forget about everything and get back home”, Victor explains.

This is also how Foday’s story ends. After a year in Denmark, his contract was not extended, and he was about to go back home. However, he never made it to the flight. Rumour has it that he joined his brother in France, met a partner, had a child and is currently an asylum seeker. Presently, with his football career abandoned, he is an undocumented migrant who cannot sign a contract with any club. Sometimes, the high expectations of friends and family makes going home not an option.

The situation is a vicious circle to which the migrant players themselves also contribute. As Victor admits: “It’s difficult, because we, who are going for holidays [in Sierra Leone], we are putting 100% pressure on them. Because when we go, we drive big cars, eat big food, go to hotels, night clubs, spending money all over, so they get that excitement, they get that thought ‘oh, Europe is heaven’. The people who go back home for holidays, they show the kind of picture that everything is WOW here in Sweden or Europe. No matter which kind of situation they find themselves in here, when they go back home, they show this kind of picture that they are living a luxurious life so the boys back home, they are so eager, they are so excited to be in this situation too.”, and explanation does not help, “There is nothing that you can tell them that they would trust. They will tell you ‘You say it’s so difficult there, but you are there, why do you never think to come back if it’s so difficult?!”

The question is then given these challenges, what are the possible solutions? What would be the best advice to get players prepared for their life abroad, and make the clubs more considerate? Devin concludes: “Well, leave your expectations behind. Don’t come here thinking your life is gonna be all brilliant because it’s not even about money, it’s just the social activities you got back home you won’t have here. It is a whole different lifestyle you are getting yourself into. You are going into this deep hole and you don’t even know what’s at the end of the tunnel. So, don’t come here thinking ‘oh, my life is going to be better now, everything is going to be alright’. No, in the same way how you have been struggling, you come here and struggle, just in a different format.”. . . . “And if the clubs sign a player, they should start valuing these players like they value the Swedish players as well, give them what they deserve instead of just going ‘He just came from Africa, he was earning nothing when he played football, let’s just give him this amount, he’s going to take it’. Give the value to the player that he deserves, the money he deserves, the life he deserves, give it to him. I think if the Swedish people stop looking at us as Africans and look at us as footballer players, they will help a lot more.”

Zora Šašková is a PhD researcher at the School of Sport, Ulster University. Her ethnographic research examines the ways in which various socio-economic and cultural issues that are specific to Sierra Leone influence the decisions of young men to actively pursue a career in professional football abroad. She also explores their experiences and expectations as Sierra Leonean football players and analyses their imagined and actual migrant experiences. Additionally, the study investigates the dynamics of the development of the emerging football migration network between Sierra Leone and the Scandinavian countries. 

The making of a market: politicizing gangs in Sierra Leone, by Kars de Bruijne

The back of a clique member

By January 2019, politicians were recruiting gang members again, nearly a year after the Sierra Leone elections. They were asked to join in protest against the decision of a commission of inquiry to go after prominent political figures. Rival politicians, however, tried to shift gang allegiance and used an informal-intelligence network to single-out, beat-up and warn potential troublemakers. By the end of the month, I spoke to one senior politician about how his party seemed to lose control over the cliques (the local name for gangs). The talk alternated between refusing to talk about cliques and him showing pictures of Commanders (COs) and so-called 5Os he supported in college, bragging how they accompanied him during rallies and boasts about how he could command them still given his leading role in the secret society. Politics and gangs in Sierra Leone are closely intertwined.

In this post I explore the relation between politicians and cliques: why, when and how do politicians interact with the gangs? I consider three elements in the relation between politicians and gangs: attempts to engage in “peace-making”, the role of cliques in elections and finally the role of Sierra Leone gangs outside of elections. Based on the evidence, I suggest that the growth in cliques is in part politically sponsored and I use the metaphor of a market to describe the present situation. Prior to the emergence of cliques, political violence in Sierra Leone was best described as a post-war “oligopoly”; a few big-men had extensive connections to former warring factions and their leaders. Today, the supply of cheap violence has increased but so has political demand. Consequently, a “free-market” for violence has emerged.

Politicising peace

Violence is a common feature of Sierra Leone politics. Yet, many politicians are uncomfortable with the role of political violence in general and the role of cliques in particular. Take a look at politics in the Western Area (Freetown urban and rural). In Freetown, attacks on political opponents, journalists and political friends are common resulting in a constant threat of (small-scale) political violence. Hence, senior party members in the area are expected to control cliques and other violent groups (often through a government sponsored role in the secret societies). Yet, I spoke to various that ambivalent about having to resort to (cliques) violence for political survival. This fits my experience out of Freetown; the vast majority of politicians do make small cash payments to cliques to maintain some influence and hire them during elections. Yet, these links are from the side of politicians accepted as necessary evil are generally transactional and shallow.

Over the last ten years, however, a small group of politicians (around 20 people) has developed extensive relations with cliques. These relations were primarily developed as a result of politically sponsored peace-deals between the three gangs (represented by a colour; blue, black or red). The earliest traces stem from 2009/2010, when one minister sponsored peace between the then Black and Blue Movement and the Members of Blood (Red) after a kill in a nightclub. An organization was created with representatives of every colour and used for political purposes. A second attempt came a few years later when another politician set his eyes on becoming minister and brought the three gangs back together. Being able to unite them was the prime reason to grant him a ministerial position and the ties were extensively used in and out of (party) elections (2017-2019). A third attempt to foster peace were various initiatives in 2017 and 2018 when another politician encouraged cliques to “come together”. Also, this third peace became a political instrument as it ensured loyalty to the politician during the election and cut the opposition out.

I started to realize how “threat to Peace” and “inter-gang violence” are also used by cliques to “demand” political patronage when I called “Dog-Chain” – one clique-leader. In the months preceding this call, I had developed extensive public ties with someone central in the above-mentioned peace efforts. But when I spoke to Chain he boasted that he was the one I should deal with; “I’m the overall clique-leader, I can command cliques throughout the country” and “I am the only one who can bring all colours together”.(1) Later as we sat down he confined that: “with N.N. (a prominent) politicians you can mess around”. Tell god tenki, that Sierra Leone is not El Salvador but I couldn’t help but think about how well-developed gangs like MS-13 and Barrio-18 discovered their political strength: “We dump bodies on the street until they say yes. And they always say yes” (Farah, 2018).

Electoral Politics: Playing the Game and Politics

It is helpful to make a distinction between “Politics” and “the Game” (see Utas, 2014) to better understand the relationship between cliques and politicians. For cliques, “Politics” represents the wider socio-political system while the “Game” is their hustling for livelihood, hanging-out and intergang beefing. The relation between the two is ambivalent. For example, one gang leader had the name of a minister tattooed on his shoulder but while showing the tat, told me how he despised politicians. Despite the ambivalence, “Politics” generally takes supremacy. This is perhaps best illustrated by the explicit and negotiated agreement that governed clique involvement in the past election campaign; early 2017 heads of the Blue, Black and Red came together in a meeting sponsored by politicians and jointly agreed that “the Game was off”.

This agreement (effectively freeing gang violence for political usage) had two effects. Foremost, it meant that all inter-gang beefing was forbidden – something that was violently enforced by gang-elders who sponsored the deal. Yet it also meant, that every hood and some members were free to link up with politicians of rival political parties. As a result, political units would consist of different gangs – e.g. Blood and Black, foes in “the Game” but now brothers in “Politics”. It also meant that members of the same gang (e.g. the Black) had allegiances to different political parties. Hence, they were one another friends in the “Game” but enemies in “Politics”. Probing into this dilemma, I was told that gang hierarchies takes precedence; those higher in the gang-hierarchy (e.g. a CO) would be allowed to campaign while those “lower” in the gang-hierarchy (E.g. a 5O) had to leave the area.

The agreement and previously developed ties, meant that the role of cliques in the past election campaign has been unprecedented (it is very similar to the 2006 deals that managed the political “integration” of ex-combatants, Christensen & Utas, 2008). Many politicians employed cliques for general protection, ability to hold rallies without disruption by opponents, have large crowds (cliques can and do call on many followers) and to influence voter turn-out. My more extensive work in six hoods as well as various one-time visits to other cliques tells me that politicians at all levels and from all major political parties have employed cliques; councillors, parliamentarians and presidential flagbearers (see table 1). The only difference between them seems to be the size employed. Councillors and parliamentarian use groups of around 15 to 20 while flagbearers go up to 50.

Cliques are for hire and expect direct pay (see a previous post highlighting how “direct pay” is the modus operandi of gangs). Except for some gangsters at the very top, payment is not negotiated. Prices vary but are generally low – at around 100 dollars for months of work or 2 dollars a day for a group (the lowest was 70 dollars for about 7 months to a group of 50 cliques by one politician aspiring to be the flagbearer of a major political party). In addition, candidates are expected to provide daily moral boosters (Pega and Maggi – cheap-alcohol and Ganja). Promises of jobs or large sums of money after elections – or at least continuing favours – occur but do not replace immediate pay. There is massive disillusionment among cliques for broken promises and internally many advocate a more instrumentalist approach in the future; more and daily pay. There are clear differences between cliques and other providers in the market for violence; ex-combatants do negotiate for their services, do not always seek direct pay but instead cultivate patrimonial debt-relations.

Political competition and the usage of gangs

By March 2018, as the elections were over, most politicians left the gangs and “the Game” was back on. However, during my time “Politics” regularly took precedence over the “Game”. One time I hang out with a MoB hood when two busses with Blacks arrived to see the parliamentarian they had campaigned for. Their car-wash was demolished. As rival gangs cannot enter one another’s territory, I expected a move by MoB but to my surprise they casually dismissed this intrusion into “blood” territory as “politics” (and they recounted stories of individual Black-members that had been “very strong” during the past campaign). This is one out of various examples where “Politics” overtakes or at least influences “the Game”. For example, gangsters that “make a name” for themselves in the centre are generally considered more successful than those that operate in the East and West of Freetown. The explanation is that the centre is most political and being able to succeed in that environment shows that C.O.s (Commanders) are able to play against “the system”. Another is that becoming a CO – particularly a CO of a large hood – is generally only possible when having “political connections”. The connection ensures that the CO and those important for the gang are protected. The connection can pay or stand for bail, influence the court, change charges or provide income.

Hanging out with cliques and probing into the usage by politicians, I discovered however a more concerning reality of extensive employment of gangs outside of elections. For reasons of space, I limit myself here to horizontal politics (competition between politicians from the same party). One way in which cliques are used is for ministerial positions and stave off contenders in the party. I’ve specifically looked into the selection of one politician who aimed to be promoted to a minister. Both clique-leaders and the politician told me how they first organized a public appearance with clique-leaders and the minister-to-be and later a private meeting to back his candidature. The politician who was soon thereafter appointed as minister by the President as it was understood he could control (and use) the gangs. In the subsequent years, this access was used to stave off contenders through an ingenious clique-payment scheme. House-rents of various prominent CO’s with a wife and children (of Blue, Black and Red) were paid and on a monthly bases large sums of money were disbursed to individual COs (80 million Leones – around 8000 dollars). These COs in turn set up a rotating system for lower COs and 5Os (some would be paid every month and others on a one-month-on-one-month-off basis) reach perhaps close to 300 prominent cliques members. The ministers control of the cliques has been used at various moment to put pressure on contenders.

Another example of politicians using cliques for horizontal competition are the October 2017 election for the APC leadership. Nearly all big-guns had vied to become flagbearer of the APC and many had spent fortunes on their campaigns. However, a pliable candidate was imposed by the leadership and the former president elected as Chairman-for-Life and Party Leader “until death do us part”. There are various reasons for the ability of the APC executive to succeed in imposing people, but control over cliques played a role. I have confirmed, that in the days before the APC-convention large cash payments were disbursed to cliques to ensure loyalty. At the convention, gangs engaged in threats and occasional violence against other contenders. Various flagbearer contenders confirmed that they felt under physical threat. Some contenders had equally hired cliques-services. Yet, mechanisms like the aforementioned payment scheme meant that nearly all cliques were ultimately loyal to the executive and their middle-men. Hence, cliques were used to be for competition over the highest offices in the party.

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg of the usage of cliques; I have seen cliques being used to attack opposing internal factions as well as to ensure protection against too centralized executive (party) power. And cliques play(ed) a substantial role in inter-party tensions in the country. Cliques are therefore “capital” worth protecting. For example, in 2016 the then Deputy Minister of Defence started a “war” on cliques, carrying out massive arrests and declaring himself “the only 5O in the country”. Yet, a handful prominent politicians hid the most prominent COs and 5Os in Guinea and Liberia to weather the storm until the elections.

Political violence: Gangs and African politics

The example of hiding clique-leaders illustrates that the prominent role of gangs has not “just” emerged. Political demand for their services has sponsored their growth. There are a couple of reasons for increased political demand. Foremost, the geographic imprint of the war has had the effect of unevenly distributing ex-combatants over Sierra Leone’s two political parties with the majority of ex-combatants hailing from the South and East. In power the northern-based party could draw from a much smaller reservoir of ex-combatants from the disbanded army in 1998, some parts of the RUF, some Northerners and South-Easterners who had shifted-sides. Yet, compared to the south and east, the reservoir is smaller and ex-combatants are growing older. Hence, it was strategically understandable that younger providers of violence – i.e. cliques – were recruited.

Increasing demand for the usage of cliques is not only a matter of replacing one group with another. A second reason is that Sierra Leone’s political order is increasingly generating demands for violence. Politics in Sierra Leone is simultaneously highly centralized and hyper local with the effect of reproducing Sierra Leones bifurcated party-order everywhere at the local level. Post-war decentralization – both reinstating the chieftaincy and decentralizing central state function – has led to a continuous contest over local power and corresponding pressures. As violence was often a tool in local contests (Rosen, 2005; Tangri, 1967; Christensen & Utas 2008; Utas & Christensen, 2016), more contests has simply meant more violence.(2)

It is a paradox, but a third reason for higher demand for violence is the possibility of a democratic transition. Sierra Leone has a hybrid political order; informal subnational institutions perform state functions but are in turn co-opted by the centre. Democratic transition, however, means that not only the central state but also the hybrid political order has to change; heads of unions, markets, bike-riders, golf-clubs and student-bodies have been replaced. Studying power-transitions of over twenty hybrid-institutions taught me that change-by-force or management-through-force is very common. Hence transitioning and sustaining this hybrid-order given attempts of a strong opposition to return to power, generates a continuous demand for (clique) violence.

Increased demand for violence has had a major effect on the market for violence. From 2002 to about 2012, violence was almost exclusively regulated through oligopolistic principles; a limited number of ex-commanders controlling sizeable groups of ex-combatants and long-standing patrimonial relationship with some politicians. But the increased supply of clique-violence and the increased demand for violence has given rise to a free-market. In this free-market there is an abundance of available labour, many different groups offer the same product and therefore are unable to negotiate prices, a lower price (cliques are being paid less than task-forces), less brand-loyalty (cliques can work for different sides, sometimes at the same time) and a larger number of buyers. In short, a free-market for violence has been emerging where buyers are king.

One should not be fooled. The emergence of this free-market is not just a bye-product of failed social policies and the “unexpected” emergence of gangs (just as the reintegration of ex-combatants did not “just” happen). Rather, it is a market that is deliberate and politically sponsored. Sierra Leone is no longer a weak state in terms of its security – it has a strong and relatively well-disciplined military and a sizeable police force. Both have deliberately not been used to combat gangs but instead have been used to sponsor the cliques for example in conniving with crime or by providing gang leaders with a get-out-of-jail-free-card. Politicians have contributed to the growth of gangs through mechanisms like the payment scheme which allowed gang-leaders to strengthen their position within the gang and ensured some form of income. To me, the political sponsoring is the most concerning part of cliques in Sierra Leone. Rather than addressing real youth needs, political elites have purposively kept youth in a position of dependence and modelled a market for violence that fit their political need; disposable and cheap violence for hire.

Kars de Bruijne is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Sussex researching Sierra Leone politics, hybridity and incentives for violence. His PhD-research (University of Groningen)looked at the role of mutual optimism for political and military decision-making in the Sierra Leone conflict based on fieldwork between 2012 and 2015. He is also a research fellow at the Clingendael Institute.

Endnotes

  1. Despite tiring everyone in explaining that I was a researcher with no means to engage in projects, clique-leaders competed over contact with me, expecting future pay-back.
  2. NEC officials told me (confirmed through local data) that that the majority of (bye-) elections has been violent.

Are Sierra Leone’s gangs a new phenomenon? by Kars de Bruijne

One Friday afternoon, they dripped in. One by one. Young faces with scars, tattooed, waving handkerchiefs and showing coloured wrist-bands. We met in a concrete hideout constructed as a visible sign of one gangs’ ´mediation´ in a land-conflict – making sure that whoever would turn victorious would have to make arrangements with them. It was a surprisingly week, where I had accidentally stumbled upon a senior gang leader, hang out with him, and who – no doubt in an attempt to raise his own profile – called upon gang-leaders from all over Freetown to meet me. 

On these pages, it was Kieran Mitton who first highlighted the significant presence of gangs in Freetown. I accidentally stumbled upon them as I probed into Sierra Leones politics and encountered multiple links between politicians and gangs. (1) To me it has become clear that Sierra Leone has indeed developed a gang problem. Sierra Leone like other West African countries continues to face a youth bulge and rapid urbanization. Evidence suggests no direct connection between a youth bulge and gang emergence – there is too much individual variance – Pollard 1999; Howell & Egley 2005 – but Sierra Leones various social problems impacts many youths in Sierra Leone and allows gangs to grow. Moreover, gang emergence is a problem as political competition is increasing in Sierra Leone. Post-war decentralization attempts have reproduced political competition at many levels and there are tensions between SLPP or APC especially after the transfer of power in 2018. Hence, the demand for violence and the supply of violence has increased.

Yet, we presently know very little about Sierra Leone gangs; how are these gangs organized? And how do they compare to other sodalities in Sierra Leone? In this post, I present some information on the organization of the gangs and argue that they are in three ways somewhat different from earlier sodalities; their organization, their rejection of patrimonial debt-relations and their embeddedness in society. While not meant as a systematic comparison, I posit Sierra Leones new gansterism against historical sodalities; youth groups in the 50s and 60s (Banton 1957; Rosen 2005), the rarray-boys of the 70s and 80s (Abdullah 2002), the armed groups in the war (Peters 2011; Hoffman 2011), and the post-war phenomenon of ‘youth-crews’ (Utas 2014) and party-taskforces (Christensen & Utas 2008; Christensen 2012).

Gangland Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone has three main cliques. The oldest and largest gang is the So So Black (Black), the youngest is the Cent Coast Crips (Blue) and their main rival are the Members of Blood (Red). Gang members are recognized by a red/blue/black muffler (handkerchief) and most commonly a set of tattoos as identification markers. Members of Blood (MoB) have SoT (School of Thugs) and Blacks KKK (Keep the Secret) tattooed on their fingers or arm, sometimes alongside the number of their constituency. Older gangsters still have ‘BBM’ tattooed on their arms which refers to the Black and Blue Movement (BBM), when most Cent Coast Crips were still part of the So So Black.

Gangsters can also be identified by two others labels that crosscut them: Gulley (green) and Gaza (yellow). Those originating from Gulley hail from the seaside slum-areas such as Kro-Bay, Susu village (Aberdeen), Funkia (Goderich) while Gaza’s are ‘uptown niggez’. There is a subtle judgement in these terms; living in Aberdeen village at less than 100 meters from the sea I assumed I lived in the ‘Gulley’ but one of the local MoB-hoods I live and hang-out with, were adamant that they were ‘Uptown-Gaza’ rather than ‘Stinking Gulley’. Hence, Gulley vs. Gaza is a socio-economic judgement that is largely inconsequential; in gang feuds only the Red, Black and Blue matter. Almost every hood in Freetown can be mapped in one of the three gangs and the Gulley/Gaza label.

Similar to war sodalities (Richards 1996) and post-war street-crews (Utas 2014) gang-names are assemblages of western/global icons. The Red (Flag Movement) and Black (Leo) were imported by two US-based Sierra Leone rappers LAJ and Kao Denero. (2)  They seem to be loosely based on the Los Angeles rivalry between the Bloods and Crips (where the Crips have both blue and black as colour). The word cliques is likely a direct reference to Clicas or hoods in Latin America. The terms Gaza and Gulley stem from the (hugely popular) Jamaican gang scene – it is common for cliques to give you detailed histories on Jamaican gangsters and their feuds.

Gangland Sierra Leone should not be viewed as a Freetownian phenomenon (just like the rarray-boys were a country-wide phenomenon – see e.g. Abdullah & Muana 1998). There is a gang-presence in the whole peninsula (e.g. Tombo, Tokeh and Sussex) all major towns (Koidu, Bo, Kenema, Makeni, Kabala and Kamakwie) and strategic rural places such as border checkpoints (Kabala, Kambia). Some towns in the provinces have own gangs, such as the Green Flag Movement in Kambia. A prime reason for upland presence is refugee for gang-retaliation after ‘tjukking´ (stabbing) somebody. Consequently, cross-country links between gang leaders of the same colour are very well developed and leaders in Freetown are involved in political tensions across the country as their members are hired. In ‘the provinces’ the Blacks are by far the largest with the Red only hailing the majority in Kamakwie.

Organization and control

Gang organization into large hoods, commanders, and varying degrees of hierarchical and centralized control set the gangs apart from the more loose organizational structure of previous urban sodalites like the rarray-boys of the 80s and the red-shirt and palm-attire groups of the 60s (Rosen 2005). Present gang-structures seems more akin to the direct war experience where groups were formed around strong commanders and varying degrees of informal centralized command (CDF: Hoffman 2007; RUF: Peters 2011).

Gangs are organized into ‘hoods’ and ‘sub-hoods’ (except for the Blue who are a ‘society’). The So So Black for example have a few very large hoods (E.g. G-State, P.H., C.W.H.) and each contains a number of smaller hoods. The smallest sub-hoods have around 30-50 gangsters and the large ones at least 400 to 500 members (men and women). (3) Sub-hoods emerge in one of two ways; a) by command as the leader of the overall hood rewards rising members with an own crew; b) self-organization by a powerful person creating his own team and later aligns himself with a colour. The organization into sub-hoods leads to the dazzling variety of names and the sub-hood structure may be a ‘compromise’ with the fluid street-corner boy organization immediately post-war (Utas 2014).

In general, most large Black-hoods are in the east, Blue-societies in the Centre and overall Red-hoods in the West. Yet there are so many exceptions that it’s at most a statement of dominance and certainly not presence, e.g. every colour has numerous teams across the city, there is a prominent Black-hood around Lumley-Carwash, Funkia and from Ogo-Farm onward (hence in MoB/West territory) and by the same token MoB controls Brookfields, Kroo-Bay and parts of Lightfood Boston street (all centre – Crips – areas). Gang members cannot travel to areas controlled by others, unless they travel with Jew-men (‘fences’ for stolen goods), white researchers, politicians or when they are famous and/or have connections (which only holds for a handful of gang leaders).

Within the hood, gangs are hierarchically organized. There is some variation but the general model is that hoods are controlled by a CO (commander) with a 50 (or 5-star), 4gen, 3gen as statuses of decreasing importance. Around the CO is a team with authority, with a Godfather (key advisor), Chairman (chairing meetings), Brigadier (muscle), Beef-King (muscle for intergang fight) and Bouncer (makes way for the CO in large crowds). The CO is most powerful – initiation, type of operation and promotion are his exclusive right – but generally takes most decisions in collaboration with the Godfather. The 5, 4 and 3 in 5O and 3/4Gen are claimed to refer to the number of major offenses, but old members say that 5-start is awarded after a kill, meaning you need ‘only’ one offense. (4)

The three colours differ most notably in their extent of centralized control. Gangs do not have a central command although overarching gang structures do exist. The power to command many goes to ‘informal’ leaders who get their status from controlling very large hoods, a long history in the gang (all COs I spoke with claim to have over 15 years of ‘experience’) and ‘connections’. The So So Black are most centralized; the leaders hold positions in the overall ´EastHood´ can issue orders and mediate in intra-gang fights. The Blue and Red have ‘CentCoast’ and ‘EastCoast’ as overall label but lack centralized control. The Blue emerged out of a power-struggle within the Black and Blue Movement and the constant threat from the Red. Since 2010 the Blue have had two informal leaders but the reign of each was short (one was killed, the other fled after a stabbing). At this moment, overarching control is limited. The MoB finally are most split and have internal power-struggles. The best-known faction is the ‘Brookfields’ hood while other strong hoods are around Mount Areol (Mountain cut area) and ‘BlackStreet’ (Stadium area).

Big-men, debt and the last day

Perhaps the best reference point for comparing the cliques phenomenon is Mats Utas’ work on street-crews after the war (Utas 2014). At that time, many youth harboured feelings of exclusion after being used during the war and now losing out on the peace. According to Utas this lead to a new imagined community, a ‘rarray-boy nation’, where street-crews played their ‘game’ against the ‘system’ and simultaneously sought integration within it. I’m neither trained as a sociologist or an anthropologist, yet based on ten months deep hanging out with cliques I think the clique-game is very similar to the one described by Utas. Yet, there are two main differences: 1) unlike the rarray-boy nation, cliques have very few links with big-men and; 2) they demand direct pay rather than develop extensive debt-relations.

Youths in Sierra Leone typically seek to develop patrimonial relations and sababu (connection) in search for work. Violence is governed by the same similar principles. Enria shows that youths within the political parties are bound by patrimonial relations; their loyalty to their big-men is described as love (Enria 2015). Christensen and Utas (2016), argue that party task-forces, seek protection from big-men in their attempt to find jobs and engage in work that leads to lasting debt relations that bind big-men and followers. This modus operandi is similar to the groups in the 60s and 80s (Banton 1957; Abdullah 2002) and continues todays in the form of political party task-forces. For example, in one ‘solda’ team Group. (5)  I hang out with have received everything they own (Money, cooking-pots, a coleman, thee-can and storage bags) by big-men from various political parties, offices nearby and businessmen. The group has campaigned for nearly two years expecting jobs and get-out-of-jail cards. After elections, little is given yet they remain loyal to the party. The group is a typical example of love (and betrayal) and the lasting debt relations that bind big-men and followers.

It seems that the gangs are different. Foremost, cliques are governed by direct pay rather than debt relations, as is particularly clear from the way they conduct their ‘economics’. Many gang members actually ‘work’, hustling in the informal economy during daytime – operating at carwash, carry load, man roadblocks, casual jobs and cleaning. As this income is generally little, gang operations are used to top-up income and/or pay for large expenses (I have met various gang-members who pay their college fees through gang operation). Younger members, engage in pickpocketing and purse/bag grabbing while the older ones engage in robberies. (6) Burglary is generally seen with disdain (‘for thieves’) as it does not require ‘heart’ – but it is grudgingly allowed by COs when the ‘gron dry’ (there is little money going around). Daylight robbery is most appreciated; you directly take what you want knowing that no one can challenge you. (7) It is an immediate economy that satisfies instant needs.

The absence of patrimonial relations and the requirement of direct pay, is particularly pronounced in the gangs relationships to big-men. Except for leaders with extensive political connections (see a forthcoming post) there are very few patrimonial relationships. I have found some links between cliques and some nightclub owners and businessmen (e.g. Med Keh, Sanusi Buski, Washing Guy). Yet, in the rare instances these connections exist, dependency relations are absent. There are occasional patrimonial exchanges (e.g. paying bail) and mostly restricted to COs (e.g. with separate evenings on which they get free drinks). For example, at one point in time a journalist was beaten up for reporting on frequent burglary, in a hood I frequent. One big-man who owned the outlet, suspected the gang demanded an explanation of the CO. Yet he was cursed and told that he could never inquire about these affairs after which the big-man paid 50.000 Leones to the CO (which was in turn refused). (8)  As a forthcoming post highlights, the exchange between clique-leaders and politicians is also based on direct pay (lumpsum and in a limited number of cases a ‘per diem’) rather than promises of jobs. Gangs themselves refer to their alternative order as the ´last-day’; an individualized ‘end-of-the-world’ concept where you take now what you need.

Embeddedness in society

I’m closing this post with a final observation. As I just argued, the cliques can be read as a partial rejection of patrimonial relations (similar to the RUF, see e.g. Richards 2005) and society (just like Utas’ post-war rarray-boys). Yet, unlike the inward-looking RUF that enclaved itself from 1993-1996 (physically) and later mentally from society, todays gangs are situated within society. A prominent testament is that gangs generally have good relationship with the neighbourhood; many members (though this depends on the hood) are son-of-the-soil, most crime is performed outside of own hoods and gangs provide security against roaming cliques and rarray-boys. At one point in time, 7 gangsters (‘mercilessly’) beat-up a boy and stole in his phone. Yet, as the crime was committed in the own neighbourhood, the CO ‘arrested’ its members and put them in police-custody for one day. Showing the social standing of the gang in the neighbourhood, the mother of one gangsters of came in crying, begging for her son’s release – which was subsequently arranged by the CO with the local police-boss during a gangster football game. At other occasion, I’ve seen the spoil of crime being shared with family members and dependents. Off course, there are difficulties in that the community may not like the security that is provided, complaints about the need for it to happen (as the gangs are themselves a major cause of crime) and family members in the community accusing their sons (and daughters) for being idle and lazy. Yet, every hood I hang out extensively had tight connections between the local sub-hood and the community.

A second indication of the embeddedness of the cliques in the society, is the relations with the secret societies (Ojeh, Odelay, Hunting and Padul). For example, both the CO and the police-boss in the previous examples were Agba’s (leaders) in neighbouring Ojeh’s. Moreover, the vast majority of gangs are a member of these societies. For example, the main base of the Crips literally between one of the largest and most political Ojeh’s in town and a very political Hunting Club-House (it is the only cliques I am aware of that has stronger ties with big-men from the secret-society than with political big-men evidenced that most money comes from the society rather than politicians). And perhaps, most telling: when I had my first meeting with all those COs and 5Os on the invitation of one of the leaders the cliques spoke Yoruba. A Nigerian language used in Ojeh.

Hence, unlike the rarray-boys pre and post-war as well as some in-war sodalities, it seems that the current gang-scene in Freetown is more embedded in society than previous sodalities. In fact, it is this embeddedness that could prove to be the ideal entry point for policy-makers. It is clear that repression is not the best way to address problems involving gangs (Rogers 2012). Yet, what approach to take in tackling the clique-problem without repression? As the next post I write on this forum shows, politicians have been trying to reduce the social violence and engaged most of the current gang-leadership. Yet, the effect has been that leader positions have been strengthened and the appeal of cliques increased. Perhaps a better way is to work the clique problem is an indirect approach; improve societal structures with appeal to cliques so they can be dislodged without strengthening existing clique structures. In fact, as everyone who interacts with cliques and their leaders will testify: without exception they want a way out. Addressing real youth-needs through societal channels seems to be a promising direction.

Kars de Bruijne is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Sussex researching Sierra Leone politics, hybridity and incentives for violence. His PhD-research (University of Groningen)looked at the role of mutual optimism for political and military decision-making in the Sierra Leone conflict based on fieldwork between 2012 and 2015. He is also a research fellow at the Clingendael Institute.    

 Endnotes

(1) I undertook research in the country for ten months and extensively hang-out in six hoods. 

(2) LAJ formed the Red Flag Movement – out of which the MOB emerged whereas Kao Denero headed Black-Leo.

(3) With about 200 hoods belong to the Freetown EastHood (Black) in means that the blacks may have a membership of (at least) 6.000 members in Freetown. With the Red and Blue gangs and presence up country it seems likely that the absolute lowest bound is somewhere around 10 to 15.000. 

(4) It remains hard to verify these claims.

(5) An informal security provider attached to a political party (the groups described by Enria)

(6) A nation-wide ban on guns after the war makes that armed attacks are manual and either take place with ‘punch’ or with ‘chopper’  (knifes/scissors/pieces of iron).

(7) Note that gangs do no longer really operate engage in the flourishing drug market. Ganja farming is operated by separate ‘Cartels’. Previously some gangs were involved in the cocaine trade but highly secretive nature of this trade does no longer allow for gangs-that-can-be-bought.  

(8) Note; the gang was not responsible for this particular beating

Development for somebody else, by Alexander Öbom

Motorcycle-taxi driving: one of few new jobs in Kisoro district. Drivers often rent their vehicle from someone else, who can afford to buy it.

Alexander Öbom graduated from our international master program in cultural anthropology. His acrylic paintings presented here, inspired by local artistry, offers a unique way of representing and describing the field. His thesis is available online here

Blog editors comment

Motorcycle-taxi drivers in the district of Kisoro, in southwestern Uganda, talk about “development” which takes place in their society, but which they do not perceive as their development. Rather, it is a development carried out by others, mainly for others, while these drivers and many other locals feel that they only get the leftovers from it all.

A small network of asphalt roads has been constructed in the district since 2007, and the place has become a tourist destination for a growing number of foreign visitors who travel to the area´s national parks to catch a glimpse of gorillas. Simultaneously, new service jobs, in hotels, shops and on motorcycles, have popped up.

During my fieldwork in the area, in 2017, many motorcycle drivers described how the new roads were constructed by foreigners, local businessmen or unspecified others. These roads were also sparsely trafficked, and mostly by trucks transporting goods and by tourists, rather than by locals. Evictions of local people from national parks and establishment of new hotels had benefited foreigners, while being largely disadvantageous to locals like these drivers themselves.

Motorcycles were imported from India on the new roads. The so-called ‘Boda Boda’ motorcycle-taxi system was often portrayed as one of all these leftovers – a poor job and a poor taxi service which had recently been established in the area instead of better jobs and transport alternatives, which were only available for people with lots of money. The purpose of my painted acrylic pictures is to illustrate these experiences visually without disclosing identities. These illustrations have given me the posibility of adding and combining issues from a large number of photos and also working with feelings that is rarely contained in a photo.

People in Kisoro had dreams and clear ideas about what they wanted, not seldom derived from information and inspiration reaching them through screens – on smartphones and TV:s – screens which made an external world which seemed to prosper very visible. But even if inspiration flowed into the area, opportunities did not follow. A real development should provide industrial jobs, replace subsistence farming, and eradicate poverty, in many Boda Boda drivers opinions, but this development had mostly brought economic inequality, and the relatively few and not very well paid informal jobs which it had provided for ordinary people, meant many households nonetheless depended on subsistence farming, as a complement to these jobs, with an ever-growing competition for the land, as a result. And most roads which locals used extensively, walking, or riding on a Boda Boda, between their farms and their jobs, were left unpaved and in poor condition. It all resembled scholarly descriptions of how various so-called developments in the global South have become very uneven in the era of economic neoliberalism (see, for example, Leys 2005:111-116).

Some people had worked as Boda Boda operators for about a decade, but when they started, they used bicycle-taxis, and motorcycles were rare. A few of them said the recent shift to motorcycles had had a negative effect on their personal economy, as motorcycles are more expensive to buy and to run. Their price implied that many operators instead had to rent their vehicles, and pay substantial weekly fees to the motorcycle owners. Although many saw the shift to motorcycles as a step toward modernity, and although most customers who I talked to portrayed it as a positive change, many drivers framed it as a bad one. Yet still as customers prefered motorcycles, drivers felt they had no choice but to use them. It has been contended that “the Boda Boda transportation system allows rural and remote populations to connect with a broader social and economic network” (Gamberini 2014), but many people in Kisoro district felt that these vehicles, as a result of economic restraints, had not provided them with much new mobility. Glorification of bicycle times was only one of many responses and examples of nostalgia which circulated. Other nostalgic stories were related to the recent shift from high quality mobile phones to low-quality budget phones, the district’s deteriorated fishing industry and the liquidation of the country’s public transport systems in favour of informal transportation. This resonates with anthropologist James Ferguson’s use of the term abjection, which refers to people feeling that they have lost something valuable in society which they had in the past (Ferguson 1999:237-238), and it resembles nostalgic feelings found in other African settings (Trovalla & Trovalla 2015).

It would be wrong to say that there existed only negative attitudes toward the transformations taking place – many people appreciated the recent changes – but ambivalence was common, and a feeling of being partially excluded from Kisoro’s development, partly included but in not so beneficial ways, were present among many. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be a very unique feature; as many scholars have pointed out, people in various places, not least in Africa, often feel somehow excluded from a modernity of others (Mains 2007, Utas 2003:151, 252). As Kisoro’s development seemed mostly focused on other people it was perceived as highly limited, but not only limited – in a sense that more of the same would be a solution – it was also perceived as a distorted form of development.

A lack of alternatives had brought many men to the motorcycle-taxi job, and as a result, drivers experienced evermore competition, which implied that they had to spend enormous amounts of time just waiting for customers, while simultaneously waiting for a development for them – which they hoped would come, eventually – rather than the development for somebody else, which they currently experienced.

Alexander Öbom has a background in journalism. He is currently a self-employed artist and a research assistant at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU). He has traveled extensively in Uganda and neighboring Rwanda during the last seven years.



Litterature

Ferguson, James 1999: Expectations of Modernity: Myths and Meanings of Urban Life on the Zambian Copperbelt. Berkeley: University of California Press

Gamberini, Gian Luca 2014. Boda Boda: The Impact of A Motorbike Taxi Service in Rural South Uganda. Helvedius Group of Columbia University.

Leys, Colin 2005 [1996]. The Rise and Fall of Development Theory. In Edelman, Marc & Haugerud, Angelique (eds.) 2005. The Anthropology of Development and Globalization: From Classical Political Economy to Contemporary Neoliberalism. Oxford: Blackwell.

Mains, Daniel 2007. Neoliberal Times: Progress, Boredom and Shame among Young Men in Urban Ethiopia. American Ethnologist 34:4, 659-673.

Trovalla, Eric & Trovalla, Ulrika 2015. Infrastructure as a divination tool: Whispers from the grids in a Nigerian city. City 19:2-3.

Utas, Mats 2003. Sweet Battlefields: Youth and the Liberian Civil War. Dissertations in Cultural Anthropology. Uppsala University.

Africa Today: The Legacies of Colonialism, by Henrietta Ezegbe

I960 often referred to as “The year of Africa” symbolized emancipation and a new dawn for the African continent. The Independence movement spread through the continent like wild fire, with seventeen countries on the continent gaining independence from Belgium, France and the British. Having just passed the semi centennial era, the legacies and residual effects of colonialism have persisted in nearly every sector of many of these “liberated” nations. European languages have been adopted as national and or local languages, Western religions have become mainstream reducing indigenous African religious practices to myths, while trade networks, education systems and governance infrastructure still remain deeply rooted in European dominance.

Evidence abounds indicating that most of Africa’s weaknesses nearly sixty years post independence are indeed rooted in the legacies of colonialism – a resultant effect of the general polity and colonial culture inherited by African elite nationalists. Ethnic division for instance is a strong case in point – from arbitrary borders ignorantly drawn up by colonists, to stressing the diversities of ethnic groups thereby igniting tribal rivalries that ensured different ethnic groups did not unite to resist the colonizers in a classic divide and rule approach. Furthermore, this ethnic separatist agenda intersected with governance leading to formation of political parties along ethnic lines that leaves opposition groups feeling marginalized and consequently developing ill feelings that resort in vicious conflicts. The Nigerian Civil war (Biafra war) of 1967-1970 and the Rwandan genocide of 1994 are a few examples. Africa’s commitment to these colonial borders drawn without cultural considerations- (manifested today as tribalism), together with religious extremism remains the driving force for violent wars and its grave costs and consequences on Africa’s development.

In spite of Africa “winning” the struggle for liberation from the alien dictatorship, political, economic, and other forms of exploitation of the continent has stayed on in the form of neo-colonialism. The idea of foreign aid is a foremost example. The belief that donor aid is Africa’s solution to poverty has sadly dominated the theory of economic development even though it is common knowledge that these interventions actually weaken political commitment and cause African states to be far less accountable to, and responsible for their citizens.

In the face of overwhelming evidence of the legacies of colonialism- past and on ongoing, the truth remains that Africa’s problems today are endogenous as much as they are exogenous. Endemic corruption remains a canker worm eating deep at the root of Africa’s development. With a vast sixty percent of the world’s uncultivated arable land, abundant natural resources, and a population projection of over three billion by 2050, it is time for African policy makers to stop pointing fingers and aim for total sovereignty. Championing brave and innovative strategies, investing widely in the health and education sectors, encouraging intra-African trade, and generally embracing a true spirit of Pan-Africanism is the way forward.

Dr. Henrietta Ezegbe is a physician and public
health practitioner. A fresh graduate from the Simon Fraser University Master
of Public Health Program in the Global Health concentration, Henrietta is
interested in HIV/AIDS research specifically among underserved population in
high and lower middle-income settings.

Philanthrocapitalism a means to Soft Power in Global Health, by Henrietta Ezegbe

In this era of global rise in charity spending, and dependence on donor aid particularly in the spheres of global health by developing nations, It is interesting to see how wealthy philanthropists gain an incredible amount of influence, and basically purchase soft power through mega donations that sometimes even supersede the place of domestic governments. A case in point is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; a powerhouse that plays an incredibly solid role in structuring and governing policies at top levels of international decision-making in the spheres of global health. One cannot help but wonder how a privately owned organization attained such magnitude of power that allows it actually dabble into the affairs of global health governance.

As crucial as donor aids are, they are not without problems as no one holds philanthropists who dole out huge sums of capital and resources accountable. Consequently, the personal principles and ideologies of a few mega donors end up structuring and shaping societies to which they donate, a proof that power lies in the potential to attractively influence the inclinations of others.

Philanthrocapitalism threatens health sovereignty in my opinion. The use of donor aid to structure public institutions often results in directly or indirectly ceding parts of a nations health sovereignty rights to mega donors. For instance, in my experience as a physician providing primary care for People Living with HIV/AIDS in Nigeria, we are faced with evidences of wealthy philanthropists micromanaging global health affairs that should be prerogatives of the government. I argue that these are some of the reasons for extensive zones of abandonment and its resultant health effects particularly among people living with HIV/AIDS in Nigeria. This is as a result of poor coordination by folks with inadequate knowledge of local norms and traditions, and not to mention the issue of internal brain drain.

Philanthropy in my opinion weakens political commitment, and I dare say, the extremes of Philanthrocapitalism indirectly reduce receiving governments to mere placeholders. Corruption, unwillingness to research new grounds, and reluctance to step out of comfort zones are some of the major barriers to thriving governmental sectors in many developing nations. Revitalizing credible governments is a task that developing nations must not take for granted. These nations must work hard to create functional and effective national health care, which I argue, is the building block for establishing health sovereignty and a means to achieving sustained social welfare, and less dependence on donor aid. In conclusion, I wish to reflect on what the stand of wealthy philanthropists would be assuming developing nations move towards achieving total health sovereignty. Will the mega donors be allies to this “movement”?

Dr. Henrietta Ezegbe is a physician and public health practitioner. A fresh graduate from the Simon Fraser University Master of Public Health Program in the Global Health concentration, Henrietta is interested in HIV/AIDS research specifically among underserved population in high and lower middle-income settings. 

Freetown – tangible progress, by Mats Utas

New roads and through fares, broadened streets, less traffic congestion, paved streets, a toll road making the exit out of the city much easier.

Thousands and again thousands of new houses being constructed, literary littering the hills around Freetown, and strewn out around stretches of road where their used to be forest and scrub.

The sound of generators, that once was a fundamental rhythm of the street, has silenced. During one of the few blackouts we drove through dark streets and I asked a longtime friend of why there were no lights in the windows. He simply stated that people had gotten used to the presence of electricity so they no longer maintain their generators. They tossed away their embarrassing Kabbah Tigers – a 100 USD generator named after the president at the time. Darkness still overcomes Freetown once in a while, but most nights when I am here the city is dressed in light.

It has been ten years since I last visited Sierra Leone

The first morning after my arrival it is cleaning Saturday. People clean their backyards but also public areas. Cars are not allowed to ply the streets up until noon. Smoke and the smell of burnt plastic dominate airspace. I enjoy the sounds of Wilberforce village an older part of the city that has received a good brush-up and now appear rather middle-class. A radio is playing E get Cro Cro a tune by Sierra Leonean musicians Manzu avec C-Bolt popular in 2004-05. Cro-cro in Krio (as well as in Nigerian pigeon) means rashes and although the song is mainly a cautionary tale over deceases a prostitute has, cro-cro was back in my days most often mentioned in relation to how filthy the city was. Cro-Cro, just as cholera, typhoid fever and the likes, is an outcome of a filthy city. Yet with a variety of cleaning efforts Freetown is much cleaner today. By stating that I am not saying that all is good. But, just as with the availability of power and the paving of streets, it has improved greatly over the past ten years.

Between 2004 and 2006 I did a two year long fieldwork centering a street corner in downtown Freetown. It was a quite messy area both socially and infra-structurally. Many of the guys I worked with were former combatants struggling to make do in the post-war realm. The more legal part of the income they made came from washing cars. The street corner was unpaved and in the dry season within minutes red dust covered newly washed cars. In the rainy season roads turned to muddy stretches and gutters were overflowing. Today the street corner is paved. Many of the guys from my fieldwork still hang-out on the corner, but to a much lesser extent. They are no longer dependent on the infrequent and ill-paying carwash business, but have jobs elsewhere in the city. They no longer live rough in the streets. Thus looking in the back mirror they were not as stuck as they themselves felt at the time. Life to most is still not easy, wealth is not available in abundance, but it is important to point out that they have maneuvered out of the hazy social death they at the time believed they would remain in.

Back in 2004-06 our discussions were dominated by topics centering the civil war, but also an equally violent aftermath. We talked about death, about drugs, about crime and about bare survival. Today we talk about children and we talk about relations. I want to repeat that life is still not easy for a majority of these guys. And quite a few are no longer with us having at a far too early age passed away – most recently Ebola took its toll. Yet still there has been progress. And in their faces it is hard to see that ten years has past. Their facial expressions signals newfound dignity and quite a bit of health. Rounder faces, clearer eyes. They made it this far.

Freetown is far from problem-less. The growth of the city is creating new emergencies. The shaving of the lush green hills surrounding Freetown is not just making the city look less attractive, but it destroys delicate eco-systems, creating ample space for catastrophes like a mudslide in August 2017, killing around 400 persons. Freetown has grown from a city of 130.000 in 1963 to over a million today. Despite good efforts has been placed on widening the road networks it is hardly enough. There is abundant need for a public bus system, and if being more ambitious a tram line. More serious the water and sewage systems are severely under-dimensioned and the lack of water might well turn into a serious emergency in a not so distant future. As I stated above electricity is much more reliant today, but how sustainable it is can be questioned. There is currently a big ship producing much of the power for the city on roadstead outside the city. It is reliant on oil – not very sustainable – but more seriously, on the short term, it could sail off with the blink of an eye if the government fails to pay for it. Close by where the ship is anchored, there is the slum of Kroo bay where people continue to live in pan-bodies, shacks, and where many people balance on the edge between life and death on a daily basis. When I was in Freetown a fire ravaged the community and it is alleged that several hundred houses were burnt down.

Socio-economically Freetown is still crumbling under a corrupt bureaucracy and with an insufficient taxation system that does not render a sustainable national economy. Little is indicating that improvements on this front are enough. The new president’s paopa (force in Krio) ways may make some more apprehensive, but it is difficult to believe that people within the vicinity of the president will not maintain impunity. I hope I will be proved wrong. There is however also a risk that paopa and the new ideal of a soldier team (written on mini-busses and an expressed idiom by local gangs) will once again turn the Sierra Leone to a more authoritarian country – and again let’s hope I am wrong.

I keep returning to roads. I believe in order to improve the Sierra Leonean economy it is pivotal that road transport from the countryside is good. If roads are in a bad state agricultural products ends being spoilt during transport thus driving up prices. But also the transportation itself will be expensive as bad roads demands high maintenance and repair costs on vehicles. With regards to infrastructural problems East-Central Freetown is still a bottleneck, but once leaving this behind the eastern part of the city has now a road of free flow all the way to Waterloo. Although some Freetonians are worried by the fact that the Chinese are making profit because of a road toll, even the toll gates are seen as a proof of progress by most. And one driver told me that except for the toll gates, there are virtually no police checkpoints taking your money:

you can go all the way upline with only a 2000 Leones (20 cent) bribe 

That’s development. Still local rice sold in Freetown is more expensive than the imported one. That’s sad.

Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world. Many people can hardly afford to put food on their table. Most do not have the resources to plan ahead. However that said Freetown is still a city of smiles and amicable social wealth. Much more smiling than my home country Sweden. That’s a conundrum. It is a country of “shuffering and shmiling” to quote great Nigerian singer Fela Kuti.

Postlude

First time I visited the country was in 1992. The next time was during the war in 1998. I lived in Sierra Leone for two years between 2004 and 2006. Between 2006 and 2009 I on average visited the country twice a year. After a ten years long break I returned during the spring of 2019. The worst condition I have seen Sierra Leone in was actually in 1992 weeks prior to the military coup that brought Valentine Strasser and NPRC to power. It was at the very beginning of a civil war that took off because of a direly mismanaged state. Although the war caused devastating destruction and human suffering, international attention drew more resources to the country and already a year after wars end conditions in the capital Freetown, but also in much of the “upline” provinces, was arguably better than before. The Ebola epidemic (2014-2015) was the next set-back, but it appears that at least Freetown has recovered well. Indeed lots of people passed away and it devastated families, but although I have no date to prove it I wonder if the resources which the international community provided is now in parts spent in the ongoing construction boom?

The ruins of a mining economy, by Danny Hoffman

 Around the 23-minute mark in the short film, Uppland, an unidentified voice speaks over a series of historical images of Yekepa, Liberia. Male and American, the speaker is presumably a former resident of the town. Yekepa was a LAMCO company town in Liberia’s Nimba Mountains, home to hundreds of the Swedish mining conglomerate’s employees. “Life was pretty nice there,” the voice says. “But you weren’t really living in a real world.”

 Edward Lawrenson and Killian Doherty’s short film is conceived as an archeological project, an excavation of the physical and psychic ruins of industrial mining in West Africa. Lawrenson, a Scottish filmmaker and writer, and Doherty, a Northern Irish architect, set out for Liberia after Doherty comes across photographs of Yekepa from the 1960s and 70s. Such images are not hard to find. Iron ore mining was a central pillar of Liberia’s post-World War 2 economy. Foreign mining giants like LAMCO, backed by the Liberian governments of William Tubman and then William Tolbert, rapaciously harvested the country’s reserves until the global price crashes of the 1980s. Today the detritus of company towns and massive iron ore pits litter northern and western Liberia. These ruins occupy a prominent place in the lives and memories of Liberians and non-Liberians who inhabited the mines and their supporting towns. The “pretty nice life” that iron ore mining made possible is a complicated and important thread in the story of Liberia. So, too, are the consequences of a political economy that so thoroughly shaped the “real world” of most of Liberia’s inhabitants.

Lawrenson narrates the film and describes the origins of both the town and the project, though fortunately he dispenses with the usual filmmakers’ journey and arrival tropes. The visuals are primarily scenes of ruins: abandoned industrial equipment and infrastructure; housing; and the terraced hillsides and massive pits carved into the mountains. The film’s 30-minutes are divided into four variously timed chapters. The first, Yekepa, is ostensibly anchored by the contemporary town. A small population still lives there, including at the gated campus of ABC University, a Bible college. Old Yekepa, the brief second chapter, is framed by a visit to the abandoned village of Yeke’pa. The Bible college’s carpenter happens to be a community leader among the population displaced by the mining operation, and he leads the filmmakers back to the village’s original site. New Yekepa, the third chapter, travels to the site to which the displaced were relocated. There the residents describe the inadequacies of their compensation and tell their own version of how geologist Sandy Clarke discovered the iron ore deposit and captured the mountain’s guardian spirit. The final chapter, Stockholm, briefly brings the film to the apartment of a retired couple who describe the suburban Stockholm aesthetic of Yekepa and the failure of the company to leave much of anything behind.

Each chapter weaves together historical still and moving images, on-camera interviews, and beautifully shot observational footage. Given that neither Lawrenson nor Doherty are ever named or made visible in the film (Doherty is simply referred to as “the Architect”), Uppland is surprisingly personal and reflexive. Lawrenson speaks frequently in the first person and includes both narratives and visuals that make the filmmaking process an engaging subplot. For example, the filmmakers cleverly include a few seconds of footage of Thomas, a young man assigned to keep an eye on Lawrenson, trying in vain to direct the action of people walking into and out of the camera frame. Uppland avoids most of the pitfalls of the narrated, exploitation documentary genre, its disembodied voice-over never becoming too authoritative, outraged, or self-indulgent—a rare achievement in this ever-expanding field.

The sum total of the film is nevertheless familiar. It is a galling portrait of the harvesting of African resources and the damage done to both land and people. The mountain that once housed the deposit is now a giant stagnant lake. New Yekepa appears as a soulless, impoverished, and somewhat embittered place. The Swedish retirees, meanwhile, are surrounded by a national museum’s worth of artifacts in their bright, comfortable looking apartment. And everywhere there are rotting husks of metal and concrete, useless now that the mine has closed.

Both visually and narratively, Uppland is too clever and interesting a film to stop at that. “Life was pretty nice there, but you weren’t really living in a real world” is a line that could arguably have been spoken by everyone in the film and everyone behind it. Certainly, this is true of the white foreigners who worked for LAMCO, who appear in their greatest numbers in swim trunks, splashing around in the company’s swimming pool. The Swedish retirees speak of their intentions to leave a sustainable economy at Yekepa, but “it’s a pity” is the best they can offer as commentary on the fact that they failed to do so. The American professor at the Bible college certainly seems to be having a good time, but his alienation from the “real world” around him is absolute. His earnest Old Testament history lesson about the disappearance of manna is deliciously apropos of the surrounding context but obviously lost on the man himself.

That the past was better but never real even for the Liberian residents of Yekepa is painfully clear in a conversation with two men named John, both former local employees of LAMCO. They fondly recall the town’s hospital, schools, and ice cream shops, all of which they claim made the residents of the town feel like they were “living in America” right there in the rainforests of northern Liberia. But they are unreliable narrators. One of the Johns describes the perfect racial harmony and integration of Yekepa, but there are no black bodies in the swimming pool images; a line of school children shows whites in the front and blacks in the back; and footage of a white Swede tending his vegetable garden is contrasted to a young Liberian houseboy stripped to the waist mowing the lawn.

The ruins of Yekepa make everyone look to the past and complicate their relationship to the real present. The residents of New Yekepa implausibly claim that their lives today would be better if only they hadn’t lost the written resettlement contract Clarke gave them when he forced them to move. And as the film abruptly ends, audio clips of President Tubman’s 1962 speech to LAMCO employees extol the virtues of mining, celebrating the company’s commitment to exploiting a wilderness inhabited only by spirits and bringing both wealth and civilization to Liberia’s upplands. The visuals, of course, are of a scarred landscape and still, rusting machinery.

In the film’s penultimate moment Lawrenson describes being approached by security guards as he filmed those ruins. It is cutting testament to the slippery unreality of memory and hope when they ask if he is here to restart the mine. Lawrenson smartly spins the encounter into a comment about his own position; the filmmaker must pack up and depart for Europe before he can engage them in meaningful dialogue, taking away the richness of his film and leaving them with their disappointment and their ruins. But the moment is more poignant than that. Rising world iron ore prices have led a number of multinational companies to revisit Liberia’s abandoned mine sites, and iron ore now accounts for about 30% of Liberia’s foreign export earnings. Small enclaves of foreign workers are building new company towns that are largely off-limits to local residents, who continue to inhabit the ruins of the old company towns. New mining equipment and infrastructure is being imported to do the work, much of it less dependent on human labor and therefore even less dependent on the “real world” of the people who live around it.

What kind of ruins this new mining economy will leave, and how they will be remembered, will no doubt be the subject of a film to come.

Danny Hoffman is Associate Professor of Anthropology at University of Washington.
This text originally appeared on the blog Africa is a country

Sierra Leone’s laws to protect women have unintended consequences, by Luisa Schneider

Age-of-consent law is complex. If it is set too high, there’s a risk that it will undercut young people’s agency. If it is set too low, it does not offer enough protection for vulnerable young people.

This is a conundrum Sierra Leone has faced in the last decade. In the aftermath of its civil war, the country has focused on ways to address sexual violence and protect young girls from sexual harassment and grooming. One approach was to create and enact laws designed to criminalise violence and empower women and girls.

The Sexual Offences Act is one example of such legislation. Here, the work of the country’s lawmakers has yielded some positive results: the act protects children, especially girls, who are abused by adults.

But it also circumscribes teenagers’ autonomy. The act raised the age of consent for girls and boys to 18. This effectively criminalises sexual activity between consenting young adults.

As I repeatedly witnessed in court cases during more than a year of fieldwork in the capital city, Freetown, it often results in boys from economically marginalised families being imprisoned after their consensual sexual relationships lead to a young woman falling pregnant. It is presumed by the girls’ families and the wider community that such boys cannot afford to support his partner and their child.

This law, along with the country’s ban on pregnant girls attending school, actually harms young women rather than protecting them.

Violence is not just a private matter between people. Regulating it is not the duty of communities or the state alone. Rather, it is the dialogue and the tensions between these different forces which expose not only how things are “supposed to work”, but also how they “really work”.

Lawmakers and those who craft policy that’s meant to empower and protect women need to consider and take seriously the knowledge of grassroots women’s groups and the criticism voiced by citizens and law enforcement. In this way, Sierra Leone can amend what doesn’t work in its legal framework and strengthen what does, to engender real change.

Criminalising relationships

The Sexual Offences Act was passed in 2012. It raised the age to give sexual consent to 18: the idea was that since girls younger than 18 cannot consent to sex, they cannot be coerced into sexual relationships by much older, powerful men.

However, while conducting my research and observing court cases stemming from the law, I realised that the act’s rigidity often undercuts the agency of young Sierra Leoneans and threatens their futures.

Under the act, men can receive a prison sentence of up to 15 years for having sex with a minor. Since consent is no longer considered, both rape and sexual acts that both parties have agreed to fall into the same category.

This meant some of the cases in Sierra Leone’s courts involved 17-year-old girls (the alleged victim) and 19-year-old boys (the accused) who told the court they were in love. In these instances, the sexual relationship had often been reported by one of the teenagers’ relatives, someone in their community, or a pastor or teacher when the girl became pregnant.

One lawyer I spoke to explained why this was the case:

… Usually the families knew and accepted the relationship but then report when the girl gets pregnant. It is mostly poor boys who are convicted, not rapists, because these boys do not have any money to offer the family of the girl. Often the families think that these boys cannot support their daughter and seek revenge for a spoiled future.

The boy’s conviction and imprisonment sets off a chain of events that leaves young women compromised by the very laws that were apparently designed to help them.

Time to reframe

In cases like those I’ve described, the 19-year-old almost always goes to prison. His 17-year-old girlfriend loses her partner and cannot rely on his help to raise their child.

On top of this, she is also prevented from continuing her education. This is because of Sierra Leone’s pregnancy ban, which was declared by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology when schools re-opened after the Ebola pandemic in 2015.

According to Amnesty International and human rights lawyer Sabrina Mahtani, the ban – which may be enforced through physical checks – aims to protect “innocent girls” by separating them from pregnant girls, who are seen as negative influences. Temporary alternative classes are provided for pregnant girls, but these are limited and increase girls’ feeling of stigma by isolating them from their peers who aren’t pregnant. Many girls don’t return to school once they’ve given birth.

In the example I’ve outlined here, the law has led to the policing of a young couple’s relationship and put both their futures at risk. However, if the law would include these considerations it could refocus on criminalising rape and would not have to send boyfriends who are barely over 18 to prison.

But it can only include such considerations if it goes beyond reporting statistics and the law’s theoretical intention. Local experts can expose the law’s actual effects in relation to increasing existing inequality and power structures. For instance, a health worker at a Rape Crisis Centre told me

..If the SOA would allow people within a certain age range, like 16-21, to consent to sex and criminalise sex between persons of very different age groups and with very young people, it would stop stigmatising pregnant women, stop sending poor boys to prison but continue to protect small girls.

Through community meetings, focus group discussions and the knowledge of local grassroots organisations, law enforcement and service providers, such effects could be made visible and addressed. In this way Sierra Leone’s laws would become both fairer and more relevant.

Luisa T. Schneider is a Postdoctoral research fellow at Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. This post has previously appeared on www.theconversation.com

Death, fieldwork, and the personal, by Caitlin Ryan

I suppose that the first thing I did when I sat to write this piece probably underlines the problems we have in academia with emotions and fieldwork. Using my institution’s electronic library search, I typed ‘fieldwork and death’ into the search bar. The results were, predictably, disappointing.

In January 2018, eleven weeks into my twelve-week research trip in Northern Sierra Leone, one of the local researchers I was working with died. She died in the government hospital in Freetown, after a prolonged illness, the details of which are unknown to me. I was mid-breakfast when I got a phone call from Joaque, a man who had been helping me with contacts and access. I didn’t pick up the first time he called, because my mouth was full of bread, but when he called back immediately, I knew.

I want this piece to come flowing out of me, but it’s stuck in my throat like the bread I hastily swallowed as I picked up my phone. “We’ve lost Mafudia” he said.

The day before, I thought I had wrapped-up my project. I left the district town where I’d been for most of the last 11 weeks, and had my driver drop me off at my partner university for a seminar. The other local researcher I was working with, Osman, had come with as well, because we’d had one more meeting on the way back to the university. I’d hugged him goodbye, said that I’d see him soon. I’d meant it, I was already thinking of how I could come back to Sierra Leone. I didn’t mean that I would see him the following day, at a funeral.

I knew she’d been sick when we were working. Long days in remote communities made it clear that she was not well. I asked her every morning how she was feeling. The reply was always the same – ‘thank God.’ She took a day off and went to hospital once while we were working. I expected her to be out for a few days. I called her to say this. She was back the next morning. On several occasions, Osman and Joaque said that she was not well. That she had always been sickly. I assumed that if I kept checking in with her every morning, that she would tell me if she was too ill to work. I didn’t know what her illness was, and it’s not that I didn’t believe she needed medical treatment, but I never assumed that it was life-threatening, and I never pressed her. Just before Christmas, we finished the part of the project I’d hired her for, and she went into hospital two days later. A few days before her birthday. For the next two and half weeks, she was in hospital, first in the district town, then in Freetown. I called Osman. I called her daughter. The week before she died, everyone said she was improving. The doctors were pleased. I planned to stop in to the hospital in between interviews one day when I was in Freetown, but the visiting hours were later. I didn’t go back.

When we talk about fieldwork, the preparations, the joys, the challenges, the logistics of dealing with arranging meetings and dealing with transportation, and eating things you’d normally not eat, and hearing hard stories, no one tells you about how to go to a funeral for a person you’ve worked with for 3 months. No one tells you how to pick out the right kind of clothing, or how much money to give the family. No one tells you that there is no other experience you’ll ever have in field that will make you feel like more of an outsider than not knowing how to behave and grieve in the ‘right’ way. When we talk about coming back from the field, about readjusting and finding our footing again, and sorting through interview notes, no one talks about what to tell your colleagues who ask ‘how was it?’ There’s no good way to answer this when all you can think about is standing outside the boundary of the cemetery with the other women as your colleague, guide, friend, is buried, So, I didn’t really tell my colleagues – only the two who I’m really close to, and my supervisor. As for the rest, when they ask ‘How did it go?’ Any problems?’ I say ‘It went well! I have so much data.’ The words almost get stuck in my throat as I rush to get them out. Mostly, no one talks about how all of this will leave you with feelings of guilt so intense that in some moments, you cannot think of anything else – What if I’d insisted that she go to hospital earlier? Or insisted that she was too ill to keep working? Or paid to have her admitted to private hospital? Or? Or? Or…………

Weeks later, I went to give advice to a colleague’s project team about how I’d dealt with the university’s finance office and logistics and receipts. One of her PhD students raises a great question – in light of the university’s policy that research assistants have to have university contracts, what is the university’s policy about liability to our hired research assistant? I’d expected questions about these contracts, and so I’d brought my copies. When he asked the question, I was looking at Mafudia’s handwriting on her contract. I covered it with another piece of paper, lost my voice, and struggled to get out that the university had no liability, but that we had a responsibility to think of what our own moral liability was. Feeling obligated to explain my spluttering, I told them briefly what had happened, and then left.

My guilt, my feelings of obligation – to her family, to academic discussions about fieldwork – are tangled in my project. I feel pressure to get publications out as soon as possible so Mafudia wouldn’t be disappointed – or so I can tell Osman that I’ve kept my word. But reading the interviews she conducted is a struggle. I can hear her voice in the notes she took at meetings. And then I feel guilt for feeling so upset – I am not her daughter. She was not my daughter, sister, wife. I am not grieving in the right way.

At her funeral, I sat – straight-backed – in a borrowed shirt, by hair tightly wrapped in a scarf. I dug my nails into my palms. I bit the inside of my mouth, set my jaw, curled my toes into balls in my shoes. I was not supposed to cry. I started to cry a few times – and was told (kindly) to ‘bear it up’ because it was God’s will.

Some kindly American missionaries drove massively out of their way to drop me back in the district town after I got the news in the university. I’d packed a bag in 10 minutes – cash, phone charger, toothbrush. I don’t know what I was thinking about clothes, I left the university in a filthy t-shirt and stained pants. I had to borrow clothes when I got to the district town several hours later. Of all the things I could have brought that would have made sense, for some reason, rushing out of my room at the university, I’d grabbed the pineapple I’d bought the day before. I arrived back at the guest house I’d checked out of 24 hours previously, sweaty, not clothed for a funeral, and clutching a pineapple. Mercifully, it’s a small town, and Mafudia was well-loved, and I didn’t have to tell anyone why I was back. One of the cooks tied my hair in a scarf. There were so many small kindnesses – the barman took me to the funeral on his motorbike, the guesthouse manager refused to charge me, a woman I knew loaned me clothes, and the next morning, her husband dropped me to a major road junction so I could get shared transport back to the university. Two shared taxis and a motorbike – 4 hours crammed into the passenger seat of the taxi with another person, seat molding digging into my hip – exhausted – drained – felt like some sort of penance. That night, I told my mom what had happened. The guilt – of not doing more – of making Mafudia work too much – of not seeing how sick she was – of pushing her too hard – came out in sobs. My mom was so alarmed about my mental state that she emailed a friend of mine who’d spent a lot of time in West Africa and asked her to call me. When she called, I felt like I could finally explain to someone who understood – that a research assistant is never just an employee or colleague – but that they become, for a time, the person you trust most in the world. The intensity of the relationship cannot be brushed off. She told me that if the same thing had happened to her when she’d done fieldwork, that she would feel the same guilt. That I wasn’t guilty, but that my feelings of guilt were legitimate. My feelings of guilt are legitimate.

I am not guilty of causing Mafudia’s death.

There is nothing in any training for fieldwork that prepares you for this. Over the years, I’ve had excellent conversations, mostly informal, about how fieldwork training is inadequate, how emotions play a huge role, how fieldwork is hard. None of those prepared me for this. My friends and colleagues – the ones I’ve told – have been kind and supportive since I’ve been back, but I have this enduring feeling that something needs to come of this that creates a space for academics can talk about death in the field. I know that I cannot be the only one who has had this experience, and I cannot let this slide without forcing a broader conversation about our moral liability, Maybe if I’d have this conversation before, I would have given more thought to how to offer private hospital admission to Mafudia, or I would have insisted that the whole research team take a few days off. Maybe this couldn’t have changed anything, but I also feel like I owe it to her to say her name, and talk about her death.

It’s been a year now. Sometimes, I collide with a thought about Mafudia like I’ve walked into a wall. Once, it was walking into a grocery store and seeing a woman with a look of intense concentration that reminded me of her. Just before Christmas, I was out for a run and realized that it had been exactly a year to the day that I’d last seen her, and the thought stopped me in my tracks. I know that these are feelings that anyone could have when dealing with loss. These feelings are not about emotions and fieldwork. But they also are, because I can’t find the precise place where the personal breaks from the field.

The questions I have for myself now are mostly about Mafudia’s daughter, and what if, if anything, I can do for her. Mostly, I’m grappling with why I feel like I need to do something. If I offer to pay for her school, am I doing it to make myself feel better? If doing something makes a material difference in her life, does it matter why I did it? How are my feelings of needing to do something tied up relations of race and colonialism? If I think about this in terms of ‘responsibility’ to her, it feels patronizing, and if I think about it in terms of ‘debt’ – to Mafudia – is that better or does it imply that at some point the ‘debt’ is repaid? Or maybe my feelings about this don’t matter, and what does matter is that I could be in a position to contribute financially to the daughter of someone I cared about? These questions get tangled in other questions about doing fieldwork – about how it can be done with justice and human dignity at the forefront, and also, if this is enough.

I don’t know if writing this is right, or if I have dislodged the right words from my throat. I don’t know if it is too self-centered or too introspective or too much of rambling narrative. I do know that Mafudia was kind, hard-working, strong-minded, independent, and cared deeply about the rights of marginalized people in her country. She worked as an advocate for prisoners, for human rights, she took testimony from survivors of the war during the truth and reconciliation commission, she was so well-loved and admired, there were hundreds of people at her funeral, and you could feel the grief cutting through everyone. She helped people wherever she went but never took shit from anyone. I know that the world is better place for her being here, and a worse place in her absence.

Caitlin Ryan is an Assistant Professor at the University of Groningen. Her work focuses on gender and land deals, and the Women, Peace and Security Agenda.

© 2019 Mats Utas

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑