Sagarleh Viilage, Mawundia Section, Demblia Sinkunia Chiefdom.
Our destination for this leg of our trip is located a long way out into the bush, over very narrow and bumpy roads, and a short way up a mountain. Again they are not aware we are visiting, even though we are planning on spending the night. Such is the hospitality of the people of Salone.
To the district staff’s surprise, we learn they are having a reconciliation bonfire tonight. One of the villagers who left for Guinea during the war has returned to find two of his cows and ten of his goats taken by another villager. These animals are the total of the man’s wealth.
This type of offense is sometimes punished by the killing of the thief by the wronged party, which (it looked to me) was about to happen. Fortunately, the local Peace Mothers intervened and called in the community Reconciliation Committee, who has been working with both of the men getting them to agree to reconcile at the bonfire tonight.
Before the reconciliation, though, there will be a football match between the young girls of the villages from the section and several from Freetown. It is symbolic of the reconciliation and will take place on the field at the school. The game ends in a tie and even though it is not supposed to be a competition, tying the score is the best ending.
At one point, a long-horned cow (they are free to roam everywhere) wanders onto the field. The girls are not deterred and run right at it in pursuit of the ball. The cow beats a hasty retreat.
After the game, we are led to sit under the Peace Tree that can be found in every village. This tree is where anyone can go to work out even the smallest conflict. All are equal under this tree. First, a bowl is brought to us by the village elders. It contains kola nuts in some water and is a tradition here to welcome visitors. I am given the bowl first and told to take a nut, break it in half and take a bite out of one half. Then I am to present the other half to the Town Chief.
One of the men tells a story of the village right after the war. When the villagers began to return to the village, some of the men went to the river where before the war there was plenty of fish. When they got to the river there was only a small amount of fish. As time went on and the villagers struggled to get along with one another, the fish disappeared completely.
After Fambul Tok arrived and conducted the village’s initial reconciliation bonfire, the village then held a ceremony honoring their ancestors. After those two ceremonies, the villagers settled into a routine of peace and unity, beginning to work together once again. One day, some of the men returned to the river and found the fish back in more numbers than before! In their minds, a miracle had occurred due to the reconciliation and forgiveness process.
Several of the women speak about the success of the rice and ground nut harvests from the Peace Mothers cooperative farms. They all give credit to Fambul Tok and the power of forgiveness. They say that they love the fact that they have empowered themselves and are now able to send their children to school. Disputes are now settled under the Peace Tree – eliminating the need for the involvement of the Chief, the police and the courts and the cost of filing a complaint with those entities.
After their presentation, we are invited to go back to the village and rest until it’s time for the bonfire. As we sit resting on the porch of a large house, villagers come and go to visit with us. One of the elders brings us a whole tray of bananas as a gift, which we graciously accept.
Later that night, we make our way through the dark to the bonfire. The sky is bright with stars. It has been a wish of mine to witness a Fambul Tok reconciliation bonfire so I am in a state of excited anticipation. The significance of this bonfire for Fambul Tok is that it proves the reconciliation and dialogue process is still being practiced by the villagers, despite Fambul Tok not having a continuous presence in the village.
Before the war, these ceremonial fires were a regular occurrence used for dancing, singing, and storytelling. After the war, though, the pain of victim and perpetrator living in the same village was too great. Now, thanks to Fambul Tok, these same fires are once again used for social gatherings and ongoing reconciliation as issues arise.
A hush comes over the large crowd gathered around the raging fire. The victim is the first to speak, and he tells his story of the war and how he tried to stay in the bush outside the village, but the rebels were too active and, fearing for his life, he ran away to nearby Guinea. He left his entire wealth behind: 4 cows and 10 goats.
Why he stayed away so long is unknown to me, but he has recently returned to find two of his cows and all of his goats stolen by a man of his village who was captured by the rebels and forced to fight. He claims it is his right to kill the man and was about to do that when the local reconciliation committee intervened using the Fambul Tok process they were taught. After counseling and mediation, he finally agrees to forgive the perpetrator. Next, the perpetrator tells his story: He was captured by the rebels before he could run away and made to take the cows and goats for the rebels to eat. If he didn’t do this, the rebels threatened to kill him. He knew the man who owned the cows and goats had the right to kill him for this act, but he also knew the rebels would kill him if he didn’t obey.
After telling his story he expresses his regret in stealing the animals and asks for forgiveness. He stretches out flat face down on the ground in supplication before the man he wronged, asking for his blessing and forgiveness. The victim reaches down, lifts the man up, hugs him and grants him forgiveness. Then they dance together to a cheering crowd who join in the celebration. The faces on both the men are shining with happiness and relief. Tonight I saw and felt first-hand the peace and joy true forgiveness brings.