I Did It to Save My Life: Love and Survival in Sierra Leone

I Did It to Save My Life: Love and Survival in Sierra Leone

by Catherine Bolten

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Utilizing narratives of seven different people—soldier, rebel, student, trader, evangelist, father, and politician—I Did it To Save My Life provides fresh insight into how ordinary Sierra Leoneans survived the war that devastated their country for a decade. Individuals in the town of Makeni narrate survival through the rubric of love, and by telling their stories and bringing memory into the present, create for themselves a powerful basis on which to reaffirm the rightness of their choices and orient themselves to a livable everyday. The book illuminates a social world based on love, a deep, compassionate relationship based on material exchange and nurturing, that transcends romance and binds people together across space and through time. In situating their wartime lives firmly in this social world, they call into question the government’s own narrative that Makeni residents openly collaborated with the rebel RUF during its three-year occupation of the town. Residents argue instead that it was the government’s disloyalty to its people, rather than rebel invasion and occupation, which destroyed the town and forced uneasy co-existence between civilians and militants.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520953536
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/01/2012
Series: California Series in Public Anthropology , #24
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 296
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Catherine Bolten is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Peace
Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Read an Excerpt

I Did It to Save My Life

Love and Survival in Sierra Leone

By Catherine E. Bolten


Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95353-6


Understanding Makeni and Nested Loyalties

Marginality and Collaboration in the Northern Capital

My initial trip to Sierra Leone in 2003 was spent largely in Freetown, mulling over research possibilities. I focused on the idea of studying Makeni because it was stigmatized, though it was a regional capital city. From that moment, everyone I met in Freetown, from the U.S. ambassador to university professors, dispensed advice on working in Makeni. The majority warned me to stay away altogether. They related what I would find when I arrived: a dangerous place, full of thieving youth, shameless rebel collaborators, arrogant RUF commanders ... a backward town, morally corrupt and ideologically marginal, harboring the dregs of society, the criminals whose tolerance of violence turned a rebel insurgency into a bitter, interminable standoff. On the whole, Freetonians reviled Makeni because of the occupation, which was viewed as iconic proof of the township's perpetually antagonistic relationship with the rest of the nation. Receiving these admonitions politely, I resolved to experience the town with an open mind, cognizant that strong feelings dominate thinking about Makeni. I had touched on an issue about which no one was neutral, though the issue was formed in a confluence of historical events, and not just the war.

In short, from the beginning of the colonial administration of Sierra Leone, Makeni was its most economically, developmentally, and politically marginal and vulnerable urban center; in essence the "least loved," most precarious place to live in a nation characterized by the precariousness of existence. As one of my interlocutors explained it, "Makeni was never loved like Bo or Kenema. You can see this in how poor the town is." Lack of love and poverty become conflated: the town is poor because the rest of the nation does not love, and hence nurture it, and the nation does not love Makeni because poverty hampers its participation in the national development project. Lack of nurturing is both cause and consequence of marginalization. Without the ability to reciprocate, there can be no display of gratitude. Without gratitude, there can be no love. What residents of Makeni wanted, and what they lacked consistently under successive governments, was a leap of faith that begins with investment: they wanted government to take the first step in nurturing as a parent would with a child, and hope that the investment will pay dividends in gratitude. As neither side had taken the first step, the town and country were at an impasse.

This was difficult to see in the immediate wake of the war, when aid created a boomtown atmosphere and carefree largesse was rampant. Makeni in 2003 was undergoing the largest demobilization and reintegration effort in the northern province, the second largest in the country. Young men were pushed through skills training hundreds at a time, six months at a stretch, and the town's economy benefited from their casual spending of transition allowances. The bulk of ex-combatants were in relationships with local women, and their money flowed through their girlfriends and wives to their families. With money present, everyone in Makeni gained from the generosity of someone else. The hateful selfishness purported by residents of Freetown seemed absent.

Once the international community retreated, however, the prioritization of nested relationships became more obvious. Individuals became careful rather than carefree—in essence, with fewer resources available, maintaining the most important relationships mattered, and the obvious gifts of bounty that occur with plenty disappeared. Many petty relationships broke down, but it was those that mattered—the marriages that produced children, as an example—over which people fretted and sacrificed. As people could not nurture through large investments such as school fees, tokens of love—important because the sacrifice involved more than their monetary value—became the order of the day. But how far can a little bit of money or a shared meal go in sustaining families, or pursuing dreams? Can small acts of love maintain a social world? As residents discovered long before the war, mutual love cannot occur without investment, and this is also true on the scale of communities and states.

Makeni did little to participate in the national development project because it was poor. It was poor because it had always been an accidental town, unincorporated into the ethos of the nation, and because it was betrayed by its first political hero, the dictator Siaka Stevens. Makeni was, in essence, the unwanted stepchild. This was not a natural state of affairs. Rather it stemmed from the notion that Makeni had nothing to contribute. Bereft of natural resources, the town grew on the vagaries of trading and transport, tying its fortunes to the market rather than a base of production. It was more prone to drought and crop failure than other parts of the country, and because of the early conversion of many local people to Islam, was attractive neither to missionaries nor British administrators for education and development. After Sierra Leone achieved independence, successive governments blamed Makeni for its own "backwardness," speaking derisively of residents' tendency to think in terms of their intimate relationships rather than contributions to the nation. "Makeni people care about money and not education," is a common trope. It speaks to someone who thinks about feeding their family, but not nurturing a future doctor.

As a consequence of consistent neglect and tribulation, the nurturing that Makeni's residents did for each other was small-scale and immediate. Their ability to practice love was limited heavily by their poverty and economic uncertainty; one can literally see a person's poverty in how they prioritize their many relationships and the nurturing they can accomplish. One may be asked to share in a meal but not a harvest. A parent gives a child clothes but not school fees. Resources must be carefully divided amongst chosen loved ones; the greater the number of relationships, the less each person receives. Sometimes the effort of nurturing is more than one person can handle, given their own small resources. An elderly farmer who decided not to exert his last efforts planting rice one season did so because he was tied to too many people. If he tried to feed them all, everyone would receive very little. At the end of the day he would have "planted hunger," and it was better for each person to try to feed himself than for him to disappoint his loved ones. If one has anything, one must share or risk sparking feelings of betrayal. He chose instead to avoid their anger by having nothing himself and hoping they would understand.

The rest of Sierra Leone views Makeni as marginal because the residents often prioritize their family and friends rather than the nation. The common wisdom is that as a regional capital, Makeni should make an identifiable contribution to national welfare. What is missing from this judgment is an understanding of the invisible everyday poverty that masks sacrifices people make for their family and friends. The consistent threat of destitution and hunger generates different criteria by which people judge each other. Nonresidents' lack of familiarity and empathy with the tremendous cost of small-scale nurturing leaves the town open to being judged on the fact that, during the war, people cared more about their own families and friends than they did about what the rest of the nation wanted. In their narratives, residents emphasized the rightness of concentrating on family, directly challenging the rest of the nation for failing to embrace this.

To be acceptable to the rest of the nation during the war would have required a wholesale rejection of the RUF, in essence, an uprising. Such a townwide effort was impossible: residents were so demoralized and jumpy due to the constant threat of attacks and internal fighting that, according to one person, "any sound of gunfire caused us to hide under the bed!" Instead, everyone closed ranks around their most treasured people, choosing to save themselves and their families by acquiescing to occupation. The repercussions were harsh.

To understand how this process unfolded requires delving into exactly what Makeni is as a place, who lives there, and how the ostensible willingness of residents to accept ex-combatants was a predictable outgrowth of existing marginalization. When asked to prioritize saving their loved ones or ending the war for the country, most everyone chose, in Andrew Oldenquist's words, their "naked" loyalties: family and friends. Just as Sierra Leone was an artificial construction of colonialism and politics, so love for the nation was a secondary, more cerebral consideration than the primary impulses of family. Nationalism would have been stronger, perhaps, if people felt they belonged to the nation.


If trade were utterly reliable as an economic pursuit, Makeni would be wealthy beyond residents' wildest dreams. The center of town is dense with markets and storefronts selling every ware imaginable. If the movement of people could make a place wealthy, Makeni would not have a trouble in the world. From the center of Makeni, one can proceed on a direct route to every other corner of the country, making it the nation's internal transport hub. Everything about the town itself reflects the constant movement of people and goods that define its identity as a trading center, but also define its fragility, how susceptible it is to swings in market demand and thus to poverty. The town's iconic center is Independence Square, from whence one can travel northeast to Kabala, east to the diamond area of Kono, south to Bo, and west to Freetown. Just off this square is the lorry park, a plot of land surrounded on all sides by stalls of wholesale and transit-oriented goods, teeming at all hours with hawkers, taxis, motorcycles, and travelers. Framing the town to the north and south are two large hills that dominate the landscape. Residents think of them as a married couple, cradling and nurturing the town, physically defining a permanence of place that cannot be achieved by buildings alone. The larger of the two, a solid mass of granite emerging from the ground, is Wusum, the male hill. His mate, Mena, the female hill, rolls gently along the highway, dotted with trees, vegetation, and boulders.

The town's population is contained loosely by these hills, but otherwise spills out in an unplanned jumble of construction, ranging from mud-brick and thatch huts to multistory concrete edifices. Most of the new construction lines Azzolini Highway (named after the first Catholic missionary to arrive in the town in the 1940s), which runs between Freetown and the mining area of Kono, and cuts between the two hills. Large commercial structures hover over the road, hoping to attract custom from travelers looking for food, accommodation, or gasoline. Much of the actual activity on the roads takes place along their verges, where children play, women sit with baskets of produce, and laborers wheel overloaded carts of wood, rice, and other sundries into town. Much of the wheeled traffic on side roads consists of commercial motorcycles, which rose in popularity after the war because they negotiate poor roads with greater ease than do their four-wheeled counterparts. Along with houses and shops in various states of construction or decay, the streets and small waterways are lined with tiny "kitchen gardens," the opportunistic growing of rice and vegetables wherever a seed can take root. Chickens, goats, and sheep peck and browse between buildings and among voluminous piles of garbage, often fighting semiferal dogs for the chance to do so. Nights are pierced by the snarls of dogs battling each other for the day's waste.

The town does not look wealthy, or healthy. Aside from the flies and putrid puddles advertising a lack of waste disposal, many crumbling buildings, pockmarked with scars of war and time, stand waiting in vain for intervention. Most of the new construction is commercial properties, the majority of them owned by absentee landlords trying to profit from the safe distance of Freetown. Children play in the flooding created by the garbage-choked drains when the annual rains arrive. The rest of the year it is oppressively hot, and prone to the abrasive, invasive dust that annually sweeps off the Sahara with the Harmattan wind. People seek relief in scant shade; many of the trees have been felled for firewood and construction, leaving the landscape largely barren of green cover. The fruit-bearing trees are usually spared the axe, and when in season, the glut of fruit presages outbreaks of intestinal diseases, as flies feed off rotting peels and pits. With water supplies dwindling, households converge on the few wells deep enough to continue supplying daily needs. There is nothing comfortable or easy about living in Makeni. Every season has its own problems, every part of town susceptible to the same problems as any other.

When I first arrived in Makeni in 2003, the population was estimated at two hundred thousand. This was remarkably high for a city that lacked natural or economic attributes: the density reflected the ravages of war more than a natural dynamic. The population was partially a reflection of an influx of displaced people who, having lost rural homes or livelihoods during the war, hoped for waged employment. Many were ex-combatants who disarmed in Makeni and decided to remain in town. Others were attracted by the commercial possibilities inherent in the influx of aid organizations, still others for the prospect of employment from all of the above. In many ways, the population grew because of the possibilities inherent in having so many people in one place.

The town was founded by a group of elders from the Temne people, whose ancestors migrated south from Guinea several hundred years ago. Up until the war Makeni remained largely Temne, with a sizeable minority of Limba people, whose villages dot the landscape north of the town. Other ethnic groups represented—Fula, Kuranko—came largely as seasonal traders, or to take advantage of the educational opportunities that first arose with the Catholic missions. Though the war began in 1991, it reached Makeni first in the form of refugees from the south and east, who contributed a sizeable population of Kono, Mandingo, and Mende people. Though many of the displaced returned home and the Temne once again assert their dominance, the town retains the cosmopolitan feel of a metropolis. Unless one is certain of someone's ethnic background, all conversations begin in Krio, the national lingua franca.

Temnes are known as keen traders. Early colonial accounts of the town marvel at the resourcefulness with which trading took place, from tailors setting up shop on their verandas to small girls toting wares on their heads, circulating through town. One can find anything from tomatoes to automobile parts in the central market, where there are also bustling trades in used clothing and the local batik and tie-dyed textiles. Those without access to market stalls set up shop wherever space is available; often people start their trading with small boxes from which they sell candy, matches, and soap. The glut of traders causes stiff competition, so profit margins are slim and traders work to turn customers into padi—friends. Affective ties, more than shrewdness or chance, keeps one's income reliable, if not large.

The town is politically scarred; residents are largely loyal to a party that for many years humiliated and ignored them. It is nearly impossible to walk down a street without seeing a flash of red, the color of the APC. In the years after independence, the party became attractive to Temnes who had been excluded from the Mende-based political sensibilities of the SLPP. Residents voted en masse for Siaka Stevens in 1968 and hoped he would reward their support with development projects, even as it was clear that he was using his presidency to eat. In 1977, several cabinet ministers defected. Objecting to Stevens's ironfisted control of the political landscape, they formed their own breakaway party, the United Democratic Party, and held meetings in Makeni.


Excerpted from I Did It to Save My Life by Catherine E. Bolten. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
List of Acronyms
Timeline of the Key Events of War and Aftermath, 1991–2003
Note on Sources

Introduction: Sierra Leonean Emotions, Sierra Leonean War
Chapter 1: Understanding Makeni and Nested Loyalties: Marginality and Collaboration in the Northern Capital
Chapter 2: "I Must Be Grateful to Them for Freeing Me": The Soldier
Chapter 3: "They Said Nobody Would Hide from This War": The Rebel
Chapter 4: "I Held a Gun but I Did Not Fire It": The Student
Chapter 5: "The Government Brought Death, the Rebels Allowed Us to Live": The Trader
Chapter 6: "It Was the Lord Who Wanted Me to Stay": The Evangelist
Chapter 7: "They Really Damaged Me": The Father
Chapter 8: "The RUF Thought I Was on Their Side": The Politician
Epilogue and Conclusions: Makeni, May 2010


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