From the Ashes of War ...
When Abdul Kamara was asked by his friends in 1998 Freetown to join the rebels and fight he said emphatically “No. I believe that fighting and war are wrong”.
Although there was no Quaker Meeting in Freetown he had met Quakers and had correspondence with FWCC. He was convinced by the Quaker message. He even started a successful Quaker Reading Group. Because of his pacifist stance he was imprisoned and tortured by both sides of the conflict. Eventually he and a friend escaped to a refugee camp in Ghana. Here he came into contact with Quakers who were impressed by his negotiation skills with people from both sides of the conflict. He was invited to Hill House Meeting in Ghana and later supported to come to Britain, do a course at Woodbrooke followed by a Peace Studies MA at Bradford University. He became a Quaker through FWCC in 2003 and a British citizen in 2008.
After the MA he was invited to do a PhD. For his thesis he spent many months in the now peaceful but greatly impoverished Sierra Leone doing research into the causes of war and trying to assess possible future methods of prevention of violence.
On several occasions he accompanied QPSW and FWCC representatives to attend Quaker Peace Networks Africa (QPN) conferences. QPN is strong in the African Great Lakes Area AGLI and in South and East Africa. It was observed that there was nothing in West Africa and he was invited to start something. He remains committed to Quaker Peace Networks West Africa and continues to devote his time to promoting its purposes. In June 2010 he gave up his job to work full time for the project unpaid.
I first met Abdul in 2005 when he visited Keswick meeting and stayed at our house. I was deeply impressed by his integrity and his wish to help the people of his home country who were recovering from war.
At the end of 2007 he invited me to be a trustee of Quaker Peace Networks West Africa. The organisation became a company limited by guarantee in 2008 but did not achieve charitable status until 2010.
At the time of registration, supported by British Friends, Abdul had already achieved a lot. In a remote provincial area he had started workshops to help people relearn skills which had been lost in the war. The Quaker reading group had restarted and was meeting regularly. Several people were convinced by the messages particularly those relating to peace. He managed to get the money to reroof a school in a slum area of Freetown.
Now in 2011 there are signs of reconstruction in the war traumatised city of Freetown. There is however a very long way to go. The city has an unstable electricity supply but large areas still have no water or sewerage systems. There is no rubbish collection and many bombed out buildings remain. (The streets were cleared of rubbish during my visit for the forthcoming Independence Day celebrations which I am sure made them much sweeter smelling than previously). Because of the poor road structure, the presence of street markets and poor public transport, traffic jams make the city seem like one massive car park. Many sales are done through car windows while waiting.
The initial QPNWA project is based in the Rokel area which is about 12 miles from Freetown. This is a conglomerate of several primitive villages. The poorest communities are away from the main road and not visible to anyone from outside. There are no services. The roads are unmade and difficult to negotiate. Some of the houses are corrugated iron shacks. Others are made from bricks of local clay. Some areas are not accessible to vehicles.
On 1.5 acres of land purchased in 2009 a Peace Centre, “The Centre for the Prevention of Violent Conflict, CPVC” is being built. Although a small Quaker Meeting House was completed in May 2010 with the help of money given by QPSW the building has become too small for current use. The numbers are growing fast. Around 40 local children attend a Sunday school run by Kadie Kargbo, a Freetown headmistress. Many members of the original Quaker Reading Group would like silent worship, European style. However African style worship is preferred by some members. Often they do half and half but occasionally they have a silent meeting. Their emphasis is on Peace and Reconciliation and community service. Kadie is obsessional about the empowerment of women and “education of the girl child”. In a country where women are second class citizens her messages are essential and come much better from a fellow African than a European.
The future plans for the centre are ambitious but progressing very quickly. We have been promised £6000 by QPSW towards a clinic and there are plans to hold the QPN Africa conference at the centre in November. Wells for the community, a peace radio station, peace library, microcredit and Alternatives to Violence Workshops are also planned. Workshops to teach skills lost in the war are also part of the dream. Many local workers have already acquired useful skills in the building trade.
When I arrived at Rokel there seemed to be hundreds of people. They were dancing and playing African music. I hadn’t fully realised that I was to be a celebrity. To my amazement I noticed television cameras. Thomas, my driver turned off the main road and bumped into the sandy track which was the final part of our journey. The procession followed. I was told later that many of the children present had been attending the Quaker Sunday school. It was only possible to drive at a walking pace on this part of the journey.
I was pleasantly surprised at the standard of my accommodation which was not nearly as basic as I had imagined it would be. The crowd waited outside and continued to sing and dance. I was feeling overcome by the intense heat but was told that the crowd was waiting for me to speak to them. I had no idea what to say but thanked them for their music and said I was glad to be with them. I explained about my difficulties with the heat and said how much snow and ice we had had in the winter. Only one of the children knew what snow was and I congratulated her.
The TV reporter was waiting to interview me. I remember only that I felt very tired and hot but the questions kept coming. I was very glad when it was finished.
The report was so successful that Abdul and I were invited to Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation SLBC for an hour’s chat show. We must have made an impression because we were later asked to go again but we were coming home.
I wondered how many people would see the programmes on the television but many people in the capital Freetown do have electricity. Many others watch in small shacks which offer the service for a payment. However I doubt that any of the people who were responsible for my welcome had the privilege of seeing it live.
Maternal and infant mortality in Sierra Leone is said to be one of the highest in the world. (Although I understand that it is improving). Life expectancy of just over 40 seems very low indeed especially as the country does not have a massive AIDS problem as in many of the South African countries. I wondered what the problems are in collecting the data for the statistics in such far flung communities and whether in fact there could have been even more deaths than those recorded. How many babies are born and die without there ever being any trace of them? As already stated we plan to open a clinic on the site. With Sierra Leone government and UNICEF help we hope to offer maternity and child health services free. We will be unable to offer all services free of charge. The unit will be nurse led and there will be a strong emphasis on health promotion and family planning. It is unlikely that a Doctor will go there more than once a week.
I found the poverty in the area very upsetting. I knew that it would be bad but never realised just how bad. It is unusual for the people of Rokel to have more than one meal a day. This mainly consists of rice or sweet potatoes or cassava with ground potato or cassava leaves. These are cooked over charcoal which is a long drawn out process. Many of the men are fishermen but the fish is sold on the markets to keep the family. There is no electricity, water supply or sewerage. It is common to see the women and children carrying water on their heads for long distances. Chickens wander around but as with the fish the chickens and eggs are sold in the market. It is unusual for the children to go to school or speak English. However they dress well and take great pride in their appearance.
The most pitiable group of people are the amputees. During the civil war rebels often hacked limbs from their victims.
They would say “Do you want a long sleeve or a short sleeve?” Then they would proceed. Many died. The ones that survived get their money by begging in Freetown. A disabled person is not able to get a job in Sierra Leone. Jobs are for the able bodied. The amputees live as a community and help each other. I felt particularly sorry for (Thomas Baimba) who has no arms and is blind in one eye. He looked miserable and I could not blame him for that. He is a living example of the horrors of war.
The amputees fetch their water from a small stream. The water is polluted and they worry about disease. QPNWA would like to provide them with a well. We said we would try to raise money to complete the well. It will cost about £2000.
One of our aims is to open wells in the area. I opened one in the village known as Marout. I was asked to name the well so I called it the Keswick Well because Quakers in Keswick have given so much support to the project. The women have been doing a six mile round trip to collect water and carry it back on their heads. They sang songs of thankyou to me in their native Krio and even walked to the centre the following morning to thank me again.
I found my visit deeply moving. The people of Rokel were very friendly. The Quakers were deeply committed but have few books to read. In particular they are hungry for more knowledge about Quakerism, its history and about Peace Making. If you have any unwanted books, especially Quaker books including Quaker Faith and Practice or children’s books please send them to QPNWA at our head office address.