Sierra Leone is quite firmly post-conflict, with the war soon receding into the space of distant memory. And yet, the wounds of the war still appear raw at times, at least directly beneath the surface, where anger and frustration seem simmering in a pot threatening to boil over once again.
The ghosts of wartime past still linger in conversations. One man tells me about fleeing the war and being forced to be a refugee in neighboring Guinea, Ivory Coast, and Liberia. Another young woman tells me that her father was killed in the war, leaving her family – a mother and nine children – even poorer and more alone. You can see the shadow of the war when passing bombed out buildings– relics of the past, slowly becoming overgrown with nature once again, and yet left to stand.
But perhaps more subtly, the specter of the war remains in daily human interactions. Working for a conflict resolution office, I spend the day resolving disputes. Perhaps most clearly, Sierra Leoneans are anything but passive. They are angry, argumentative, easily prone to shouting and bursts of indignation. They have quick tempers that flare up at the slightest touch.
Sierra Leoneans do not speak quietly. They project loudly, speaking with their hands, which move and gesticulate animatedly with every sentence. They yell, point, and pace, and even a trivial argument can sound deathly serious. Two women argue about which one of their children is taller – but you would think, from their tone of voice – that it is a life-and-death matter.
In our office all day, arguments erupt between husbands and wives, family members, and friends. Outside of work, children are ‘flogged’ violently for the smallest transgression, and upon my attempt to intervene, I am told it is for their own good – and that “These are African children, not American ones; they don’t listen! Besides, in school, they are flogged five times. I only flogged this one four times!” Often, I see husbands and wives hitting each other outside (in full view of the police station, of course – no action is likely to be taken by the officers, who continue to lounge on their front porch, eating boiled peanuts to their hearts’ content).
In America, our violence might be sinister – hidden behind closed doors, with only neighbors hearing shouts and shattered glass through thin walls. In Sierra Leone, the violence is often public, and unabashedly so. There is no shame in hitting your children – it’s ‘normal.’ A crowd of neighbors and interested parties gathers when spouses/partners have an argument, physical or verbal, and word spreads; soon the entire village is privy to differing versions of their fight, and blow-by-blow re-enactments. Gossip is rife; nothing is truly private or safe from prying eyes.
While domestic violence is prevalent, and women bear the brunt of the beatings, living in Sierra Leone has further shattered any lingering preconceptions I might have of women as passive victims, silently and tearfully bearing weighty burdens. Instead, they are just as loud as their husbands and brothers (sometimes more so). Fiercely spirited, women and girls are not afraid to march into our office and complain about domestic violence, spousal neglect, or debts they are owed. They assert their opinions and anger with utter confidence – with far more self-assurance than I personally have. While their husbands might have multiple wives and girlfriends – they too, often have affairs and extramarital relationships (often those too, however, are tainted by abuse, inequality, and lack of true choice). And when I witness their husbands hitting them in public, women just as often strike back, risking further abuse. This is not to say that gender inequity doesn’t exist; it is frighteningly pervasive, even enshrined in the legal right of men to have multiple and even unlimited wives under customary law and the right of men to divorce when their wives do not provide them with sexual pleasure. But it is only to further negate stereotypical portrayals of women, particularly those subject to sexual and domestic abuse.
And so, in Sierra Leone, my life seems to be shrouded by conflict, and by the end of the day I find myself exhausted and often overwhelmed by the tasks of resolving one dispute after the other. Work and ‘play’ seems to blur together. Living in the community, any conflict I witness merges into my ‘work,’ – a potential space for peaceful mediation and the intervention of the law.
And so it is that years after the end of the war, this work – of conflict resolution and access to justice – has never been more vital to the lives of the poor.