CategoryYouth

“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. 

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

One Friday afternoon, they trickled in. One by one. Young faces with scars, tattooed, waving handkerchiefs and wearing 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 end up victorious would have to make arrangements with them. It was a surprising week, where I had accidentally stumbled upon a senior gang leader, hung 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 rivals are the Members of Blood (Red). Gang members are recognized by a red/blue/black muffler (bandana) 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 arms, 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 other 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 metres from the sea I assumed that I lived in the ‘Gulley’ but one of the local MoB-hoods I live and hang-out with was 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 Red hoods overall in the West. Yet there are so many exceptions that it is at most a general statement of dominance and certainly not a real 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 onwards (hence in MoB/West territory) and by the same token MoB controls Brookfields, Kroo-Bay and parts of Lightfood Boston Street (all central – 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 true 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 50 (or 5-star), 4gen, 3gen as statuses of decreasing importance. Around the CO is a team with authority, with a Godfather (the key advisor), Chairman (chairing meetings), Brigadier (muscle), Beef-King (muscle for intergang fights) and Bouncer (clearing the way for the CO in large crowds). The CO is the most powerful – initiation, the type of operation and promotion are his exclusive right – but he 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 offences committed, but older members say that 5-start is awarded after a kill, meaning you need ‘only’ one offence. (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 to claim to have over 15 years of ‘experience’) and ‘connections’. The So So Black are the 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 have 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 in time, overarching control is limited. The MoB finally are the most split and have internal power-struggles. The best-known faction is the ‘Brookfields’ hood while other strong hoods are around Mount Areol (the Mountain cut area) and ‘BlackStreet’ (the 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. First and foremost, cliques are governed by direct pay rather than debt relations, as is particularly clear from the way they conduct their ‘economies’. Many gang members actually ‘work’, hustling in the informal economy during daytime – operating at carwashes, carrying loads, manning roadblocks, doing casual jobs and cleaning. As this income is generally minor, gang operations are used to top-up income and/or to cover 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 take part in robberies. (6) Burglary is generally viewed 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 are particularly pronounced in the gangs relationships with 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 that these connections exist, dependency relations are absent. There are occasional patrimonial exchanges (e.g. paying bail) and are 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 that I frequent. One big-man who owned the outlet, suspected the gang demanded an explanation from 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 (in a lump-sum and in a limited number of cases ‘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 now take 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 his own neighbourhood, the CO ‘arrested’ the guilty members and put them in police-custody for one day. Demonstrating the social standing of the gang in the neighbourhood, the mother of one of the gangsters came in crying, begging for her son’s release – which was subsequently arranged by the CO with the local head of police during a gang football match. On another occasion, I witnessed the spoils of crime being shared with family members and dependents. Of course, there are difficulties in that the community may not want 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) ofbeing idle and lazy. Yet, every hood that I hang extensively hang out with has tight connections between the local sub-hood and the community.

A second indication of the embeddedness of the cliques in society is the relations with the secret societies (Ojeh, Odelay, Hunting and Padul). For example, both the CO and the head of police 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 is literally between one of the largest and most political Ojeh’s in town and a very political Hunting Club-House (it is the only clique that I am aware of that has stronger ties with big-men from the secret-society than with political big-men as evidenced by the fact that most of the money comes from the society rather than politicians). And perhaps, most telling: when I had my first meeting with all those COs and 5Os at 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 inter-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. Yet, what approach should be taken in tackling the clique-problem without repression? As the next post that I will write on this forum shows, politicians have been trying to reduce the social violence and have engaged with most of the current gang-leadership. Yet, the effect has been that leader positions have been strengthened and the appeal of cliques has increased. Perhaps a better way is to tackle the clique problem with an indirect approach; improve societal structures with an appeal to cliques so that 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 hung 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 belonging to the Freetown EastHood (Black)means that the blacks may have a membership of (at least) 6,000 members in Freetown. With the Red and Blue gangs and presence in the interior it seems likely that the absolute lowest membership 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 meansthat armed attacks are manual and either take place with a ‘punch’ or with a ‘chopper’  (knives/scissors/iron bars).

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

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

Generation Terrorists: The Politics of Youth and the Gangs of Freetown, by Kieran Mitton

Youth at Risk – Youth as Risk

On the evening of the 15th February, six leading presidential candidates for the Sierra Leone presidential elections took to the stage. Over three hours of a live broadcasted debate, each answered questions about their plans for the country. Seen by some as a milestone in Sierra Leone’s post-war political development, the following morning the capital Freetown was abuzz with talk about who had acquitted themselves, who had failed to impress, and what – if anything – this might mean for the election result on the 7th March. In the offices of a youth development organisation, staff enthusiastically discussed the event.

In an adjoining room, I met with their colleague Mohamed*, a man with decades of experience working in the city’s poorest informal communities. What did you think of the debate? I asked. Was it a sign that Sierra Leone’s political scene is moving towards serious discussion of policies, or as one report put it, ‘growing up’?

IMG_3204

A poster in Susan’s Bay calls on Sierra Leone’s youth to be peaceful during elections. Photo by the author

Mohamed smiled. Pointing to his colleagues next door, he replied: ‘Each person there is arguing about why their preferred candidate won the debate. What the candidate actually said, how they performed – it doesn’t matter.’ He went on to make a familiar point; voters put party, tribe and personal loyalties ahead of policies. Whilst certainly not new or unique to Sierra Leone, this he contended, meant such debates had little bearing on the electoral outcome. The promise of some candidates to provide free education, surely a positive development for the country’s youth, was just rhetoric, he concluded. In fact, ‘politicians keep the youth uninformed and uneducated so they can use them to their own advantage.’ 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

Flavour was not supposed to die…, by Andrew Jefferson

flavourIt’s raining in Freetown and the traffic is, as usual, slow on the road through Congo Town towards Kroo Town Road. The radio announcer is going through the obituaries in a solemn, deliberate monotone, the names different, the pattern the same: Mr John Koroma of Kissy Town passed away on said date leaving said relatives in said location… repeat… repeat… repeat. Variations on the theme. After a few minutes of death reports the obituaries are rounded off with a few snatches of Abide With Me, by which time we have actually reached Kroo Town Road. We swing right on the now tarmacked road that runs parallel to Adelaide Street and pass what, ten years ago, was the Pentagon car wash, a hangout for ex-combatants and others struggling to make a living in a world of ‘no war no peace’ under conditions that one of them described as ‘exorbitant poverty’.

I’m heading for the office of Prison Watch (a local human rights NGO) on Gabriel Street at the other end of the road but it was Pentagon that was my first point of reference in Sierra Leone. It was there my encounters with marginal, hustling youth began (thanks to Mats Utas!). And it was not far from there that I first encountered Flavour. Continue reading

“We Are With You” – Musicians and the 2016 general elections in Uganda, by Nanna Schneidermann

In Uganda, the campaigns for the 2016 elections are on. On the 16th of October president Yoweri K. Museveni was the guest of honor at a dinner party comprising of a dozen of the country’s most popular singers, as they revealed their song Tubonga Nawe (luganda for We Are With You) supporting the president and his party The National Resistance Movement (NRM) for another term. Amidst intense press coverage, the president also donated 400 million shillings to a fund to promote the development of the music industry.

The song has sparked passionate discussions about the proper relationship between politics and popular music among media elite, the aspiring urban cool, as well as on the streets of Kampala. Are popular musicians obligated to praise the political elite? Or do they have a special responsibility to protest injustice because of their popularity? Continue reading

“Rogue, Rogue, Rogue…” – Marketscapes, Criminality and Society in Liberia’s Postwar Borderlands, by Richard Akum

“Rogue, rogue, rogue!!” In many communities in Liberia where the state faces security service provision challenges, this chorus whips up the pent-up wrath of violent mobs. The “rogue, rogue, rogue” chorus metes out swift and immediate ‘justice’. It results from the social interpretive dehumanization of the “rogue”, exacerbated by challenges posed by inadequate social and rational-legal control when borderland marketscapes overlap with residential communities. The postwar state and its international NGO partners have liaised with local community leaders to encourage communities to seek recourse through formal rational-legal justice processes. However, rational-legal justice processes are seen as costly, time-consuming and largely ineffective, hence the arbitrary lynching of some alleged “rogues” persists. The “rogue” who gets lynched is often more a victim of their method than their action. Two narratives of the “rogue’s” outcome emerge in the interpretation of postwar socio-political processes in Liberia’s borderlands – that of the community leader and that of the community member. Meanwhile, a geo-spatial interpretation of physical borderland spaces in two cities – Foya and Gompa – further elucidates the difference between the method and the action, which contribute to divergent outcomes for “rogue” transgressions. Focusing on marketscapes as dedicated zones of human and material exchange, connections arise between the “rogue” and markets. These connections are crafted to circumvent social controls, collude with the state and escape the arbitrary mob-lynching outcome reserved for the individualized “rogue.” Hence all “rogues” are not created equal to face certain death because of their actions. The difference in outcomes is in their operational and embeddedness rather than their actions per se.

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Beyond the paradox: African youth research and the policy debate, by Joschka Philipps

During the past decade, African youth have become a hot topic in academic, public, and policy debates. The plethora of discussions, papers, policy notes, media reports, and conference panels is diverse, and yet often united by an intriguing concern with African youth’s paradoxical nature. Titles of prominent Africanist works read “Makers and Breakers” (Honwana and de Boeck 2005), “Vanguards or Vandals” (Abbink and van Kessel 2005), “Promise or Peril” (Muhula 2007), and “Hooligans and Heroes” (Perullo 2005). Development agencies, too, have repeatedly contrasted youth opportunities with youth risks, emphasizing that “young people can be a source of growth and development for their countries, but [also] a source of inequality, poverty, exclusion, […] crime and violence” (Cunningham et al. 2008:9).

Continue reading

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