TagSierra Leone

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

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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Criminalising relationships

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to reframe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death, fieldwork, and the personal, by Caitlin Ryan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am not guilty of causing Mafudia’s death.

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

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

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

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

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

Congosa politics: Rumours and elections in Sierra Leone, by Diana Szanto

politrics

The red party. APC political rally in Freetown

Congosa in Krio means gossiping and spreading rumour, but its connotations are much darker than in English. It equals with name spoiling. In a society where attack against somebody’s public image can meet mundane as well as occult retaliation, gossiping is considered as the antisocial behaviour par excellence. However, although unanimously condemned, congosa is omnipresent and is an essential part of public life. Friends, as well as strangers constantly share, comment and analyse stories of uncertain origin in a sort of collective jubilation. Rumours are much more than stories circulating without signature with questionable truth content. Because they are often the expressions of mistrust, doubts and alternative hypotheses challenging – while evoking – the moral order of a society, they touch upon the political, everywhere. But in Sierra Leone the political and the rumour are probably even more tightly knit together, in a way that congosa and politics become inseparable. Commenting on a previous Sierra Leonean election (that of 1986, still within the one party system) Mariane Ferme notes: “only through the careful and sometimes unpredictable management of rumours of secrete gathering and strategies can the abuses of the electoral system be kept in check” (Ferme 1999:161). 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

Jostling for power: Sierra Leone’s election runoff, by Luisa Enria and Jamie Hitchen

After six days of patiently waiting, during which 25% increments of Sierra Leone’s 7 March presidential vote were gradually released, on the evening of 13 March, chair of Sierra Leone’s National Electoral Commission (NEC) Mohamed Conteh announced final results and in doing so confirmed a runoff would be needed to decide who will become the country’s next leader.

The first-round result gives a slender advantage to the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) and its presidential aspirant Julius Maada Bio (43.3%) who will face off against Samura Kamara, the candidate of the incumbent All People’s Congress (APC), who trailed Maada Bio by just 0.6%. 14 other candidates shared the remaining 14% of the votes and these ballots will be up for grabs when the two leading candidates contest again on 27 March. Continue reading

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

© 2019 Mats Utas

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑