For those that did not read my last article, I am currently reading one book from every country in the world. My first book was from Syria because I desperately needed to learn more about the culture. The next country I will be discussing is one of my favorite countries in the world – Sierra Leone. The country’s name is often affectionately shortened to Salone by locals and others.
I visited Sierra Leone for 2 weeks with an anthropology professor and some fellow students in 2012 and yes, everything you’ve heard is true.
Once you go to Africa, the continent where our ancestors took their very first upright steps, something…happens. You fall in love fast and you never stop craving it. The dirt, the heat, the people, even the air has a certain feel to it that breathes new life into your lungs. Sierra Leone is a beautiful country about the size of South Carolina, located on the western coast of Africa with a tropical climate, and landscapes varying from mangroves to woodlands to mountains. The country is best known historically, or at least its capital Freetown, for being a trade port for slaves and other goods during colonial times. It is also where black loyalists were resettled after the American revolution. After the slave trade was deemed illegal by the British, the slave ships they intercepted were routed to Sierra Leone. This history has laid a foundation of diversity, but most people fall into the Temne and Mende ethnic groups. The main language is English though it’s often mixed with other languages so it can be difficult to understand. You probably know of Sierra Leone from the movie Blood Diamond or from its particularly bloody civil war (1991-2002) that displaced one third of the country’s population.
The book I chose to read is a memoir written by a child soldier, Ishmael Beah, who fought in this civil war, titled A Long Way Gone. I was hesitant to read a gloomy and violent book to represent the first African country in my project because it tends to get a really bad rap in mainstream American culture. Most people simply look at the continent as one big clusterfuck of chaos and sigh with pity, which drives me absolutely insane, because fuck you! Africa is a giant continent! Only like…50% of the countries are horribly corrupt and the rest are largely ignored because they don’t fit the mold and aren’t creating noise. ANYWAY, A Long Way Gone is a horrifying book, not just because it documents Beah’s journey from an innocent 12 year old child into a murderous war-machine, but because Beah did an amazing job humanizing himself and showing the audience that what happened to him could very well happen to any child in any country in the world. Beah begins his story by describing his life before the war – his village, his school friends, and his hobbies which include listening to American rap and creating coordinated dances to the songs. He then trudges us through the details of how quickly violence pervaded his life.
My favorite part of Beah’s story is that he didn’t go too far into the politics of the war – a deliberate literary tool used to keep us ignorant, reflecting the way he felt as a small child surrounded by a war he never thought could happen. Very early in the story Beah’s mother, father, and brother are murdered by the rebels, caught in the clash between the army and opposition groups. Both sides burned entire villages, murdered civilians, and recruited small boys to be soldiers in their ranks, using the trauma and violence of the war to convince the children that they must seek revenge for those who have wronged them. Beah was one of those small boys, brainwashed and literally drugged by the army so that he would be more malleable and easier to train as a soldier. One of the drugs is called “brown-brown” and it’s a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder, which sounds like two things that generally should not be mixed together.This is still a common war tactic in developing countries – drug children until they aren’t children anymore. Force them to rape women, force them to murder until they become so ashamed and hardened that they feel as though they can never be a civilian again. The issue of using child soldiers in war was recently brought up again in the Netflix film Beasts of No Nation. Side note: I did enjoy the movie and suspected it was mostly inspired by the civil war in Sierra Leone, but this tactic is by no means unique to any one country. If you don’t want to read this book, simply watch the movie and you’ll get a similar message.
I didn’t learn much about any of the unique cultural traits of people who live in Sierra Leone. Instead, I was exposed to the universality of violence and fear, a particularly alarming message to me considering the tension in the United States right now. The book ended well with Beah leaving the war at age 16 and attending a rehabilitation program set up by the UN to help integrate child soldiers back into the main population. This was no easy task considering everyone was terrified of these children and the children didn’t necessarily want to be rehabilitated. When Beah and his fellow friends were brought to the program, they were tricked by their leader into doing so and were still heavily addicted to drugs and had a hard time parting with their past lives. Beah’s mantra for four years was “my squad is my family, my gun is my provider and protector, and my rule is to kill or be killed.”
Beah is an outspoken advocate for former child soldiers. Towards the end of the book he documents what he says in order to help people understand the situation, “‘We can be rehabilitated,’ I would emphasize, and point to myself as an example. I would always tell people that I believe children have the resilience to outlive their sufferings, if given a chance.” Rest assured though, Sierra Leone has moved on from this civil war and surprisingly the Christian and Muslim population get along well. For example, Christian children often attend Muslim schools and vice versa. I find that so fascinating, considering Nigeria is right next door and is currently experiencing extreme religious warfare thanks to Boko Haram and other violent groups. Sierra Leone is a peaceful, yet very poor country that is slowly trying to rebuild itself. Ebola caused a huge setback in this progress, but it has been declared ebola free since November of last year!
Because I’m an egotistical American, one of favorite things to learn when studying a new culture is how they view the United States and its citizens. Beah was invited to an event in New York hosted by the United Nations intending to illuminate the unique struggles of children in each country. Beah had heard of New York, but only via the rap music he danced to. So it makes sense when he says, “I envisioned it as a place where people shot each other on the street and got away with it; no one walked on the streets, rather people drove in their sports cars looking for nightclubs and for violence. I really wasn’t looking forward to being somewhere this crazy” (pg. 193). I don’t know why but I found that sentiment so adorable. Here was a child who fought in a horribly bloody and violent civil war, and he was afraid of New York City.
I will always have a soft spot for Sierra Leone because it was the first African country I visited, so I want you guys to learn a little bit more about it by watching this video:
It’s a short 8 minute video and points out some of the staples of life in Sierra Leone. A lot of people think Sierra Leone still isn’t safe, and in some ways being a foreigner in a different country is always dangerous, but I would totally recommend visiting here – especially the beaches! The people are amazing, the climate is perfect, and the culture is vibrant. Navigate here to give a small loan to a business in Sierra Leone!
Sources – CIA World Factbook