Creating a Culture of Peace in Sierra Leone

9 September 2008 at 17:10 | 950 views


By Carrie MacLeod, Vancouver, Canada.

In the northern hills of Koinadugu District in Sierra Leone, the remote community of Kabala is rewriting a counter narrative that promises an alternative point of view to the dominant conflict laden headlines.

It is time for the world to tune in to these emanating rhythms, as cultural narratives are rising up from the war-torn legacies that have marked this region. The youth are catching the creative fire of this momentum, and together with their teachers and elders are co-creating new visions for their nation through imaginative and artistic lenses.
Their crude proximity to a decade of violence makes this burgeoning vision even more poignant.

Over the past ten years while working in the context of the CAUSE Canada-Sierra Leone partnership, I have been fortunate to work alongside those who have retained their capacity to imagine alternatives in times of political, social and economic upheaval.

My relationship with Sierra Leone has been like a call and response song, as film and theatre projects have called Sierra Leone youth over to Canada to create public awareness programs on Africa, and in turn I have responded several times to gracious invitations to Sierra Leone (with hearty and delicious groundnut soup included).

In these exchanges, I have discovered that the midwives, social workers, educators, writers, artists, and local development leaders are just some of Sierra Leone’s heroes who often risk their lives for others, but their stories may never make it into the media spotlight. I always leave inspired by those who humbly uphold the daily call to preserve the narratives of justice and peace, even in the face of danger. These stories are the narrative backbones of Sierra Leone, and refuse to be overshadowed by the common subtexts of recrimination and cross border insurgencies.

In April 2008, the living narratives that dwell in the red African soil pulled me back once again. As I stand amongst the emerging generation of young leaders at the Kabala Secondary School, I pose a question out into the student body that has dwelled in my mind since my last visit to Sierra Leone in 2003:

“How can we create a lasting narrative that will imagine possibilities and also address immediate priorities?”

Not a moment lapses before waves of eager voices fill the room with countless ideas. The resounding excitement bounces off the concrete school walls, and I lean forward to decipher the words in the spontaneous phrases.

“Let’s create theatrical plays on lasting peace, a giant puppet show on the rights for education, songs that promote anti-corruption in elections, a parade on clean water, a cultural dance for development...”

All of these suggestions become the sparks for plotting out potential community performance pieces. In the centre of this frenzied brainstorming, the words ‘cultural celebration’ continue to permeate through the ideas. We decide to explore the relevance of these two words in more depth.

The youth want Sierra Leone to be globally recognized as a nation that upholds values of peace. The ensuing dialogue amongst the youth points toward the fact that this particular town in Sierra Leone (Kabala, northern region) is home to several ethnic and religious groups that currently live alongside one another in peaceful coexistence. The Limba, Kuranko, Mandingo, Yalunka, Fulla and Susu ethnic groups all participate in this lively dialogue, and jump at the chance to animate and perform their interpretation of what peaceful co-existence means from a youth perspective. There are also the youth who express an interest in developing a more politicized narrative, and decide to write scripts for theatre and giant puppet performances that focus on the cultural roots of social justice.

The spinning energy around this conversation is palpable as the dreams for this dynamic performance begin to take shape. Although the war fueled mass displacement in Sierra Leone, the strength and determination behind these voices remind me that cultural celebration is not to lose its central place in society. The students teach me that celebration in a post-war context is integral and involves a conscious decision to live beyond the refuge of cynicism. The best option beyond cynicism is action.

Before the first initial meeting is finished, concrete plans are in place to produce a large cultural event. I am in awe of the irrepressible heart and spirit that belongs to their shared vision. The very next day these seeds translate into a voluntary daily regime of dance rehearsals, script writing and documenting the process through film.

One of my greatest teachers along the way is a young man who tries to show me how to dance while only using my hands to stabilize my body. Although the toll of conflict has left him with the permanent scars of amputated legs, he is still able to rest his entire body weight on the palms of his hands as he hangs “upside down” to transpose the muted language from his absent feet into a masterful dance. Trying to keep up, I flounder in my own body while awkwardly attempting to relate to this ingenious choreography of absence.

As outdoor basketball courts transform into dynamic spaces of cultural convergence, I witness the dedication to this created space as the students diligently comb the ground to clear off debris and rusted bullet shells before the performances. In seeing this, I am reminded how significant this moment is. In a fragile political climate, cultural celebrations are not irrelevant utopian gatherings.

Rather, they serve as relevant anchors of peace that honour multiple worldviews through aesthetic, linguistic and artistic diversity. As hundreds of people from Kabala gather to witness the performances and participate in this momentous celebration, the youth creatively carve out a vital space at the forefront of a communal ritual that merges the beauty of tradition with conceivable visions for political and social change.

It is here, at the cultural crossroads where memory, expression, identity, and imagination all converge.
It is here, on this simple makeshift stage in the back of a schoolyard, where our shared global dance finds a new choreography in the absence, and where emerging narratives of peace begin to unfold.

Photos: The author, Carrie Macleod(top) and cultural performances in Kabala, northern Sierra Leone.