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Remembering the Past and Reconciling for the Future:

The Role of Indigenous Commemorative Practices in Sierra Leone*

BY DR. STEVEN KAINDANEH** | 06.09.2011


  • Introduction

Scholars have taken a keen interest in the study of war commemoration and its significance in helping survivors of a conflict come to terms with their experiences.  However, whilst much attention has been given to formal and ‘state-sanctioned’ initiatives, very little scholarly work has examined how ordinary people, especially those in rural African communities, commemorate traumatic events.

School_destroyed_by_Sierra_Leone_Civil_WarThe civil war in Sierra Leone (1991 – 2002) was so traumatic that it can hardly be forgotten by the nation, especially by people who had first-hand experience of it. Various agencies, ranging from state to rural communities, are therefore constantly involved in remembering it. Rather than state-sanctioned formal commemorative processes, rural communities rely on indigenous, informal approaches to remembering the civil war, many of which are invisible, especially to strangers and those who may not be familiar with such local processes. Formal commemoration initiatives often result in the erection of monuments with plaques, the establishment of museums or the production of historical documents, which are highly visible to the public. Indigenous remembrance practices on the other hand, are often not so visible and frequently rely on oral transmission, low key rituals and the day-to-day interactions between ordinary people.

This article will look at the legacy of the civil war in Sierra Leone, the extreme violence and destruction that characterised it and how it devastated the cohesion of rural communities.  To understand how indigenous commemorative rituals offer communities in post-conflict settings the prospect of reconciliation, the significance and practice of traditional processes for community life in Sierra Leone will be explored, focusing on the Mendi ethnic group in the southern and eastern regions of the country.

Three key indigenous war commemoration practices of the Mendes are particularly relevant here; confession, symbolic cleansing and the performance of rituals in sacred spaces.  I will consider how these are used to remember the civil war, and how they help survivors cope with the legacies of conflict and violence.   This will show that indigenous commemoration rituals contribute to constructing a collective memory of the civil war, to healing survivors and to promoting coexistence among survivors who were divided by the conflict.

The issues discussed here draw heavily on research into how the civil war is remembered in Sierra Leone.  Data was collected between 2008 and 2010 using interviews, focus groups discussions and observation. Among other things, the study was specifically interested in how rural communities were using indigenous remembrance methods to promote coexistence and come to terms with the legacies of the civil war. The study was therefore unique because it explored informal modes of remembrance and their significance in ensuring healing and promoting coexistence in post-conflict communities. It therefore provides important learning points for future research into the link between indigenous commemoration practices and reconciliation in communities emerging from repression or violent conflict.

  • Civil War in Sierra Leone (1991 – 2002)

In March 1991, armed men from Liberia attacked Bomaru, a small border town in eastern Sierra Leone. A group calling itself the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), led by a former army corporal, Foday Sankoh, claimed responsibility for the incursion. The RUF was supported by Charles Taylor, a local warlord in Liberia, and by mercenaries from Burkina Faso. According to Foday Sankoh, the aim of the uprising was to liberate Sierra Leoneans from oppression by overthrowing the corrupt and repressive All People’s Congress (APC) government and returning the country to a more democratic form of governance (Boas 2001: 713).

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*Published in Journal of Conflict Transformation & Security (JCTS) Vol. 1 | No. 2

** Steven Kaindaneh is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation Studies, Coventry University. He has just completed a PhD study programme with a research focus on war memories and their significance in promoting coexistence in nations emerging from armed conflict and repression. His recent research examined the civil war in Sierra Leone and how it is remembered, with specific focus on indigenous commemoration practices in the southern and eastern regions of the country. Before coming to Coventry, Steven worked in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Sudan (Darfur and Juba), countries which have experienced bitter and protracted armed conflicts. He has extensive experience in promoting coexistence and reconciliation in communitiesdivided by conflict.

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