Monday, September 19, 2011


In Late August 1968 we were assigned to the Holy Rosary Girl's Secondary School in Kenema. For our first 6 - 8 weeks in Sierra Leone we had lived for a portion of that time with the Nelson-Williams family at 77 Pademba Road. A Krio family, living in the heart of the capital city, the family was led by (at that time) Lottie Nelson-Williams, a wonderful women. Her husband had been put in the nearby Pademba Road Prison (Claude Nelson-Williams) for political reasons - we were never to meet him although within the house his name was mentioned frequently. He had been an active voice in the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) and, in April of 1968, when Siaka Stephens of the All People's Congress (APC) had grabbed power in a coup, many of the SLPP leadership had been rounded up and put in jail. Claude Nelson-Williams was one of these unfortunate men. Living in Freetown was the main center for Krio culture. The Krios were the descendants of liberated slaves. Settling, for the most part, in the Freetown area they interfaced with both the British colonial government and with the folks from the hinterland. Their langauge, Krio, is a combination of pidgin English and a variety of African languages - it was the ordinary langauge that we began to learn when we arrived on the Sierra Leone shores because it had become the language spoken between the fifteen or so Sierra Leone tribes. Krio was the patois or Lingua franca. Yes English was said to be the official language of Sierra Leone, and for the intellectual elite this was certainly true. But seemingly, for most of the country, Krio was heavily used in everyday communications, communication in the market, and in commerce. Our twice daily, four hour a day language instruction for our first six weeks made easy by our Fourah Bay College student instructors, was the helpful means by which we all learned Krio. Some of us went on to get tutored in languages of the interior - I sought out a tutor (Teacher John Koroma)to learn Mende.

Living with the Nelson-Williams family was our introduction. Our upcountry experience in Mendeland was a sharp contrast. In upcountry Sierra Leone the tribes of the country lived. In Freetown there was diversity, at least more obvious than upcountry because here there was crowding and a smaller area in which to mix. Although, in Freetown, every tribe had its representation, the Krios, in those days, seemed to dominate to some degree. However, Freetown was a real mixing pot - where you could hear Krio, and tribal languages spoken depended upon where you walked. You could even hear English. It was in Freetown where the Sierra Leone parliament stood, and where all the government offices were headquartered. Where traffic was busy and chaotic, and mixed often with the smells of charcoal fires, and the other wonders of an busy African city. In Freetown the houses were typically 3 floored, and crowded together. The older ones appeared fragile and were made of wood. Out back, kitchens with for the most part, open fires cooked the mysterious foods (or so they seemed to us at first).
And then we settled in in Kenema - the hotbed of Mendeland. Kenema itself had a sectional mix of many tribes. But it was the Mende who predominated, and who surrounded Kenema Town. The Mende had probably come out of the North some 400 - 600 years before and had settled in the Southern and Eastern Provnces of Sierra Leone. By the late 1960's it was said that they numbered about 600,000 thus making them, and the Temne the most predominant tribes in the country. It was said that the Mende found state representation with the SLPP, the party that in those years was knocked from power. For the most part my travels in Kenema were to visit Mende villages. I did from time to time visit with our neighbor Pa Maju Pah the Fula (Fulani) section chief in Kenema. There was also a small Limba village about 3 miles from our house that I would travel through on the bush trail to the River Moa about 6 miles from our house. But villages such a Vaama, Bitema, Tokpombu, Foindu, and Gbenderoo were all small Mende villages and some required a working knowledge of the Mende langauge to get by. Mende was a challenging language with lots of knew sounds and nuances in pronunciation. Although I made the effort to learn it, my ability was only in managing simple day to day greetings and perhaps a bit more. But the deep Mende left me flummoxed. From time to time I was able to pickup what was being said, but many times, someone would throw at me some complexity of the language and make me spin my wheels trying to catch up. Folks would take great pleasure when I made the attempt to talk in Mende and would laugh in a positive way when I would come up with some Mende expression in conversation. Upcountry Mende folks were hesitant to talk politics because in the coup of April 1968 many of their leaders had also been hauled off to jail as political prisoners. So they discussed politics but did it in the privacy of secure political gatherings in which little that they said would get out. As Peace Corps volunteers we were not to take sides - we were encouraged if not told to stay out of politics or run the risk of expulsion. So, when there was political discussion or comment, I would listen but not respond. I quickly learned how very volatile politics could be in upcountry Sierra Leone. It was early in our first year when, without warning, trouble fell down on the Kenema area. On the day in which it all began I had gone to Kenema Town to get our mail at the post office. On arrival, a very concerned post master saw me, called me into his office, and told me that there was something very worrisome coming and that I needed to leave Kenema "immediately." I remember vividly the worry on his face. He told me no more than I had to leave immediately. Somewhat puzzled by his urgency, I headed the 1.5 miles back to our house, where I told Susan of the puzzling interaction. But within one hour it became clear what was to happen. Intense fighting broke out in Kenema and from our plateau where we lived we could see fires everywhere, we could hear the roar of fighting and by our house many people passed heading to the bush to escape what was going on downtown. Jim Alrutz, Peace Corps director of the Eastern Province briefly came by to warn us to stay in. Most folks from our neighborhood headed to the outlying villages. And we hunkered down for the few days of fighting that resulted. That night and for the next few nights the Mende Men's Secret society (The Poro) came out - and as they passed by our house they made a very eery sound , and also the sound of stones hitting the tin roofs as they passed on to Kenema Town. Houses and cars were burned, a contingent of army soldiers were reportedly met at an entry bridge to the west of Kenema and they disappeared. For three days we kept to our house, we listened to the fighting going on, I went to the back of the school compound to view Kenema Town and see the smoke and listened to the roar of the fighting. Most important for us was that we were never threatened.No one showed up for school. The Teacher's Training College students all of who boarded at the school, worried about thier families. This was about the passion of in-country politics when it goes bad, but luckily we were not a part and were ignored. As quickly as the fighting started it stopped. Within a week markets were back and open, school kids returned with their families from the bush, and although the government canceled large get-togethers (i.e the Kenema Cacao Show) life returned to a semblance of normality. That is not to say that there wasn't grumbling. There was forever after that a semblance of grumbling. But the government sent in another contingent of soldiers and they kept people from reacting again.

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