Thursday, February 1, 2007


Aaron and I have just returned from a short trip to Foria, where he made further arrangements for research on the mountain with Yegbeh, and I experienced more of the wonders of Kuranko-land, including the making of 'country cloth' and the eating of banana rice-cake bread.

We arrived to find Kabala-town in uproar last night. The 'story' floating around for the past day and a half has been that a Limba farmer killed two Fula cows that were perpetually invading his rice and cassava farm - and that the Fula rancher had retaliated by abducting and killing one of the Limba farmer's children and laying it on top of the cow. This precipitated an escalating conflict in which the Limba had gone and massacred part of the Fula family. With the two ethnic groups up in arms, the Fula, owners of almost all of the shops in town, including the 'grocery', drug store, gas station, and the bakers of all the bread sold in the central square, decided to strike.

Joseph Sesay is concerned, as a similar incident with the Fula and the Yalunka led to a short but brutal war 25 years ago. He's been trying to get the 'straight scoop' unearthed, feeling that it's usually milder than the 'stories' and that centralized public acknowledgement of the 'truth' will be the fastest way to de-escalate the conflict. Essentially, the informal stories circulating are growing in tragic and gruesome detail, while the formal story unfolding is much less violent and quite comprehensible.

Most of the Fula in this region originate from Guinea. Even those born in Sierra Leone frequently do not identify themselves as nationals of this country. They are nomadic traders and herders, and don't heed any official national borders. They are 'Fula' above and beyond any other identity. They also, historically, were slave traders in this region back hundreds of years ago. Even though an outsider like me tends to think of this history as 'ancient', you will still hear Fula quip or joke (to the Kuranko, Limba, Yalunka and other people groups), 'Oh, leave me be, you're all just slaves.' Even Kumba, when introducing me around town two summers ago, brought me into a Fula shop with the half joking / half serious admonishment, 'you watch this man. He's a thief. All Fula - thieves! He'll steal your children if you are not careful...' The Fula trader laughed - as he seemed to know and get along with Kumba pretty well, but there is an underlying tension between the people groups.

Apart from 'ancient' history, this tension is fueled by current conflict between agricultural farmers and nomadic herders. Fula typically enter a new region as herders, make as much money as they can on 'beef' and then use this money as the capitol to start businesses. It's an admirable model, with the exception of one critical factor: this is a subsistence farming region and the Fula recognize no boundaries for the grazing of their cattle. Farm after farm after farm in this region has been destroyed. Even farmers that are extremely vigilant and who build extensive fences often find that Fula cows have somehow worked their way onto their farm and destroyed / eaten a whole crop. This type of occurrence pushes the farmers beyond frustration into real despair, particularly as they feel that they have no recourse or advocate. The chiefs, who by all counts should be an advocate for the farmers, are all too frequently known to be 'in the pocket' of the Fula.

One (of many) illustrations occurred in the village of Borehkoro a few years back. The place was absolutely over-run by Fula cows. Destruction of crops including palm oil seedlings, rice and cassava was so extensive and that the Kuranko were at their wits end. According to Robert Jawara, director of C.E.S. (Christian Extension Services), one could not walk at night without stumbling into a cow - even on their front porches eating from baskets of produce harvested from the farm. The villagers finally decided to 'bring a case' against the Fula to the Sa Nieni Paramount Chief. In this case, the 'evidence' was clear; even documented by volumes of pictures. On the day of the trial, C.E.S. organized dozens of people to witness to the proceedings of the trial. They parked (sat) themselves in front of the chief's house and made it clear that they were present so as to make the 'verdict' of the trial known throughout the chiefdom. The Paramount Chief responded by refusing to 'hear' the case; deciding to 'refer' it to the court in Kabala. This precipitated unveiled grumbling on the part of the Fula: that they had "wasted a cow" (used in bribery of the chief).

Today, bits and pieces of the current story are becoming clearer. It seems that the people of Kabala have been pushed beyond the threshold of tolerance in regard to Fula destruction of farmland. This has led to the poisoning and shooting of a number of cows in recent weeks and months. The Fula, confident that the 'law' will be on their side, recently brought a case to court regarding the issue. The Limba, who happened to be the faction accused, essentially responded, 'fine, let's bring this to court but we'd like some restitution for destroyed crops while we are at it,' ...and proceeded to get organized for the trial. The Fula then failed to show up for the meeting. This did not produce the 'results' that they were hoping for, so they have now closed their shops to emphasize to everyone in town how important they are to the local economy with the hopes that people will recognize how much they 'need' and depend on the Fula. This might backfire on them, as (according to Kumba) much 'talk' is stirring among the Limba and Kuranko about how they need to get their act together and generate capitol for 'their own' shops.

It does not appear, despite the rampant rumors, that there actually were any murders this time around, though it does sound as though these stories were 'borrowed' from real incidents that occurred a few years back in a nearby region. The most significant turmoil on the streets is the result of 'strike breakers,' as some Fula shop owners are not quite sure 'why' they are striking and can't afford to do so for very long. Other Fula seem to be harassing those who find themselves in this position. The Paramount Chief of this region, who so far seems to be a pretty smart and level-headed man, has taken the interesting 'stance' that, though it fall within the rights of the Fula to strike, if they choose to do so, they cannot re-open their businesses without collectively getting permission from him. He has also spoken with the 'head' of the Fula and they together have agreed that businesses like the petrol station must remain open, as it is a 'branch' of a company in Freetown that would not agree to its 'shutting down,' and nor would it be a good thing for the whole of Kabala that depends on it.

For us, the consequences are relatively minor: no good bread, no Magram (my favorite tasting brand of bottled water), no other niceties like biscuits, soap etc. We are pretty well stocked and anticipate that the situation will blow over in a couple of days. I'm all of the sudden craving sandwiches though, now that I can't get bread.

This is a LONG standing conflict, and we don't anticipate that this flare up precipitate any real change... but it sure would be nice if dialogue was set in motion to arbitrate disputes and establish policies leading to a greater degree of justice.

We are looking forward to Paul's (Aaron's dad) arrival this evening!

Grace and peace to each of you,

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