CategoryFragility

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

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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.

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?

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.

In between homes – the in-between existence of refugees in transit in Eastleigh, Nairobi, by Lena Johansson (master student at Uppsala University)

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Eastleigh shop in 2009 soon after Obama became US president. Photo by Mats Utas

Eastleigh, Nairobi is pictured as a good area for Somali refugees in media and in UNHCR reports. The migrant Somali population in Eastleigh has developed trade networks and made it a commercial area with major significance not only in East Africa but also globally. According to a report from 2012, by the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) and UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees), asylum seekers and refugees are surprisingly independent and integrated into the socio-economic life in Nairobi. The estate is considered a good area for refugees because of possibilities to socio-economic activities and according to the report, the profile of Eastleigh refugees is “one of incredible resilience and ability to survive in the face of significant odds” (UNHCR 2012). Continue reading

Elective Affinities: Fragility and Injustice in the Field, by Luisa Enria

2017

They say they can’t tell if I have malaria or not, maybe it’s something else. “Just lie down, try the drip, and see if it helps”. I am in the hospital in the North of Sierra Leone, I have a headache of a magnitude I have never experienced before, I have a high fever and joint pains, the fans are not working and to get through a huge number of patients in the overcrowded district hospitals the nurses are injecting strong antibiotics straight into the veins in my hand. In the evening the pain is slightly subsiding thanks to the drugs, as they bring in Kadiatu. She is about 14, she is incredibly thin but is brought in kicking and screaming and it takes three adults to keep her down on the bed and to stop her from ripping out the IVs once they are put in. Her family don’t speak English so I translate between them and the foreign doctor: “They say they haven’t used any traditional medicine on her”. Her screams are making me shiver, “I don’t think I can do this, I don’t think I can do this” I keep repeating to myself. By the next morning Kadiatu has died—my own illness worsens and I am transferred to the capital where I get better treatment.

2012

I am doing my PhD research with unemployed youth in Freetown, studying violence in the aftermath of war. I hang out in “ghettos”, I sit endlessly as young men drink, smoke, listen to music, and we talk about “the system”. It’s intense, but rewarding work, I’m learning every day, I think it’s what I have been trained to do, the full immersion experience. Then, one day the violence I am researching comes very close, too close, it rips my world apart. Continue reading

Can you imagine? Reflections on the SL elections and implications for penal policy and practice, by Andrew Jefferson and Luisa Schneider

IMG_7966Sierra Leone has a new president. And despite being challenged prior to the elections, the two party-system dominated once again. After two five-year terms under Ernest Bai Koroma of All Peoples Congress (APC), the second giant, the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP), takes over again. Julius Maada Wonie Bio of SLPP defeated APC’s Samura Kamara by gaining 51.8% of the vote in the runoff on March 31, 2018.

As the 5th president of Sierra Leone, Bio has been sworn in as president on April 4, 2018. He is a familiar and controversial face in local political landscapes. Now a retired Brigadier, he briefly held the position as military head of state after leading a coup in January 1996. Bio justifies this manoeuvre as enabling the end of the civil war and the country’s return to democracy. His followers appreciate him as the man who, during the civil war, started formal negotiations with the Revolutionary United Front (RUF Rebels), conducted national elections and handed over power to Ahmad Tejan Kabbah after Kabbah won the elections. Critics point towards his use of force to dictate the political arena. Bio was also the SLPP presidential candidate in the 2012 presidential election, then losing to Ernest Bai Koroma. Yet, while he is well-known, his next moves remain elusive. The onset of a new political chapter raises numerous questions, nourishes hopes and feeds anxieties about the future of post-conflict and post-pandemic Sierra Leone.

What might change and what might stay the same? This is perhaps the question in many people’s minds though probably most are thinking about local livelihood possibilities, education opportunities for their children, or whether the power supply will improve. Few will be thinking about prisons. Continue reading

Sierra Leone General Elections 2018 – A personal diary, by Diana Szanto

On the 4th of April, I was sitting on the veranda of a restaurant in Lungi and watched mesmerized the police officer next to me who, in his full gear, consumed bitter wine sold in small plastic packets. As he was finishing one packet after another, he was visibly getting drunker with each sip. The scene provided the context – both in historic and sociological terms – for what had been the most important public issue for Sierra Leone for the past few weeks:  the presidential elections.

With his drunkenness, the policeman’s voice grew louder. I could not miss it: he was boasting of his rebel past.  He was armed.  With this open and embodied reference to the RUF he reminded us all how the brutal memory of the civil war was still so near, constituting a permanently threatening background to national politics.  Sierra Leone got liberated from a deadly civil war just 16 years ago, too short time for a nation to forget the trauma but sufficiently long for the new generation to forget about the healthy fear of violence. In fact, the spectrum of violence seemed so real that the maintenance of peace and order was the number one stake in this election. A lot of people whom I asked about their hopes responded me spontaneously: “I just pray for peace”. Continue reading

Fragile Security or Fatale Liaisons? Reflections on 2 March 2018 Attacks in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, by Sten Hagberg

On Friday 2 March 2018 around 10 o’clock, two coordinated of terrorist attacks took place in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. The first attack involved gunmen seeking to enter the Embassy of France, exchanging fire with soldiers from Burkinabe and French special forces. Four gunmen were killed in the attack against the Embassy, and no casualties among the special forces. The second attack took place a few minutes later. A vehicle stuffed with explosives detonated at the Chief of Defence staff’s headquarters (État-major des Armées), followed by shootings between attackers and Burkinabe defence forces. Eight Burkinabe militaries were killed together with another four attackers. Moreover, there were many wounded in the headquarters. The car bomb seems to have targeted a high-level meeting of senior military staff of the G5 Sahel Joint Force. The blast destroyed the room where the meeting would have taken place had it not been relocated shortly before the attacks.

In total, the attacks led to 16 deaths, including eight assaulters. The number of wounded people amounted to some 80 persons. Yet in the afternoon the same day, French media outlets held that as many as 30 people had been killed. While this information was rejected by Burkinabe public authorities, and soon turned out to be false, it did fuel rumor and speculation, fear and anxiety. Continue reading

The myth of the trickle-down effect: What Guinea’s recent upheavals intimate about the country, by Joschka Philipps

The dry season’s dust has again settled on Conakry’s streets, aside from a few marks of ashes and rubble on the sides of the main avenues, everything seems to be back to the bustling normal. Just about ten days ago, things looked quite different in the Guinean capital. On February 20th, a nation-wide general strike in the education sector culminated in violent demonstrations, which took the government by surprise. Seven people were shot dead by state forces, thirty were injured and a dozen arrested, numerous vehicles were burnt, and a gas station and a police commissariat were pillaged. Though Conakry has experienced plenty of similar events during the past decade, there are a number of reasons not to write this off as simply another instance of urban violence. Continue reading

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