Saturday, December 9, 2006


Diang Chiefdom's New Paramount Chief !

A significant historical event has just occurred in Foria. A vote has been taken (and passed unanimously) that will enable a person from any family to be eligible for town chief. To date, each village, section and territory has drawn it’s chiefs from one or two ruling households. Chiefs are chiefs for life; at the point of their death, members of the ruling families will be nominated to ‘run’ and eventually one will be elected by the people.

Not a horrible system… in some cases, it has served the country very well. The obvious difficulties are that the system enables the ‘ruling houses’ to become complacent in their leadership, and sometimes a good candidate just cannot be found in one of the generations from this limited of a pool. Such is the case in Foria today.

As evident as this solution seems, it’s truly a huge step… and one that has not been taken in many other places of the country. One thing that is difficult for me to wrestle with is how so many people here seem to take their ‘lot’ in life in a resigned way. If something good happens, that’s how God must have wanted it (and much thanks is given). If something bad happens, that too must be ‘ordained’ and very little fight is made against it. In a way that I will perhaps never fully understand, people feel themselves to be at the mercy of God, of Westerners, of outside forces that they have no real control over. There have been subtle changes since the war though. As Mary Kortenhoven says, “People feel that they have experienced the worst horrors imaginable. They have survived. This has given some a boldness to speak their mind more quickly if they see an injustice or something that is not as it should be.” So, there are small steps… and some big ones. Women sing songs about how it is ‘better to have only one wife,’ the verses extolling the reasons why and the hazards of polygamy… and though this is a huge sensitive issue, people now listen, laugh until tears roll down their faces and talk about it. The recent vote to make all (still men) eligible for town chief has just taken place in Foria. Perhaps most significantly, a truly ineffective, drug-addicted and divisive paramount chief has just been deposed.

Magbah came from one of the ruling households of the Diang Chiefdom, in which Foria is located. He was one of the few who was able to get a visa to go to study in the USA as a young man, and spent over a decade there. His stories of accomplishments in the USA differ radically from the evidence others have been able to dig up: that in all likelihood, he drove a taxi for a couple of years, and managed to pick up a cocaine addiction. People here view an education in the US as the ‘Cadillac’ of educations and (until recently) have had little capacity to check up on the validity of claims made by returnees of achievements. Therefore, on hearing that there was a ‘vacancy’ for the position of Paramount Chief, Magbah was able to return to the country and be welcomed with open arms.

Getting rid of a Paramount Chief is almost unheard of. Though it’s a bit depressing to see how terribly bad leadership has to be before people agitate for change, it’s encouraging that this finally did happen. It’s involved a long process of grass-roots community involvement and decision-making, capped by an ‘official’ government edict from Freetown. (Note: one of the other things that is difficult for me to understand is the intersection of ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ spheres of governance in the country. I think that they do more than co-exist… but I’ll need to get further explanation from Aaron. In any case, Freetown is considered a ‘world-away’ up here in the north of the country. The current president has never, so far as anyone here remembers, actually driven the roads of the northern provinces. The village chiefs, section chiefs and paramount chiefs, on the other hand, seem to have a much more profound impact on a region’s cohesiveness, infrastructure and productivity.)

Rope Dance (In Celebration of a New Interim Paramount Chief)

I asked Kumba today if women were ever nominated to be chief in Sierra Leone. She replied, ‘not among the Kuranko’ and went on to explain how her mother came from a ‘ruling family’ but that eligibility for leadership passed through the father’s line, so she had two strikes against her. Aaron chimed in that the ‘Mende’ and the ‘Temne’ people occasionally elected women chiefs. Kumba went on to say that if she had an education, that she would make people elect her to be president of the country. Before I had time to ask, she went on to describe the first thing that she would do: essentially build a big compound outside of Makeni, where there are vast tracts of fertile land. Then she would round up all of the n’er-do-wells in Freetown and other places, and make them come to the work camp to learn how to farm. She explained how ‘not everyone has an education’ but that people can be taught to farm. She even has a system devised by which people would ‘earn’ their way out of the camp to more independence over time. She also thought this would be a good way to slow down or stop the importation of rice. In a way, her idea is simply a magnification of what she is doing locally on a smaller scale. She and Joseph Sesay pay school tuitions for 20-30 children at any given time, and provide housing to about that many people (mostly children) whose families have been lost or too badly damaged in the war to be self sufficient. In turn, these kids all help with the work of Kumba and Sesay’s expanding farms.

So, changes are taking place… and there is some reason to hope for the better. Magbah still refuses to turn over his golden staff (the symbol of a Paramount Chief’s authority) but a warrant has been put out for his arrest – so that should soon be resolved. It’s not yet clear where new leadership will come from. Though Foria has made the bold move of open elections, this has not yet been embraced by the entirety of the Diang chiefdom, so candidates for Magbah’s replacement are limited. Even without the ‘ruling family’ limitation, it seems as though good chiefs are becoming harder to find. Attribute this to the ‘brain drain’ (if you will) of western countries, and of the tensions that are faced by a people who want the security and wisdom of older leaders but who are living in a world that is fast changing.

Grace, peace and love to all,

P.S. Aside from having a little melt-down last night over my lack of language abilities, I’m doing ok. It’s still really hard, though, to figure out what I should be doing here. Aaron and I went with Kumba to the Kabala Hospital yesterday (a horribly oppressive and crammed place) to check in on a young woman who had had a botched abortion and see what could be done to hold the doctor to account and get her the medical attention that she desperately needed. I found the whole experience overwhelming. Especially as I tend to imagine being in the situation of the people that I encounter.

We have decided that I will go with Aaron, Yegbeh, Marah, Ferenkie and Foray to Outamba Kilimi National Forest (near the Guinea border) on Saturday. It turns out that there is a route to approach the park that will get us within 15 miles of where Aaron thinks it will be possible to do research. So, we’ll make the drive to that point, set up a base camp near the park headquarters, and I’ll wait there with Ferenkie two days while Aaron goes in and determines the proper location for a ‘bush camp.’ Then one of them will make the round trip to get me (and more supplies) while a bush camp is being set up. The plan is to stay for 8-10 days… so don’t worry about not hearing from us! Please keep this expedition in your prayers as this location has produced the most promising sightings and evidences of buffalo of anywhere in the country yet. Water is an issue - among other things. It would also be wonderful if my good health continues – particularly while in the bush! I’m actually really eager to get at least a small taste of Aaron’s official work and reason for being here… though I must say, it’s fascinating to watch how instrumental he is in being helpful in a myriad of different ways to people here in Kabala. I’m not sure how he negotiates all the roles he seems to be called to serve. Being in a country where one has connections, knows the language and the land really helps in a numerous ways while conducting research – but the flip side is how accountable one is to be appropriately responsive to the things they know about – and Aaron knows a LOT. I think that many people in academia ‘fragment’ that part of their life and (particularly while doing a PhD) plow through it in isolation, often neglecting the relationships that surround and support them. That will clearly not be possible here.

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