Saturday, May 27, 2006

Overnight in Bumpeh

Last week, I spent five days "upline" or "upcountry" -- meaning outside of Freetown and its environs – touring chiefdoms in Bo and Tonkolili Districts. It was a rich and fascinating experience that I'm sure will provide fodder for more than one posting, but for now I'll start with one particularly memorable night spent in a village in Bumpeh-Ngao chiefdom.

I'm sitting on a hard wooden chair, wobbling a bit on the uneven dirt, and a young girl named Hawe is asleep on my lap. It's nighttime, the moon is nowhere to be seen, and we've turned off the kerosene lantern, so the only light comes from the expanse of stars above our heads.

With me are a small group of new friends. Vivek, the American founder of an organization providing primary justice services in these villages. Joseph, one of the organization's community-based paralegals. A few of Joseph’s family members and neighbors. Our driver Mr. Tarawally. A smattering of children play quietly in the dirt nearby, and from beyond our little circle come the sounds of evening domesticity, mixed with the buzz and churn of the jungle at night.

Vivek and Mr. Tarawally and I have just finished dinner: rice and groundnut stew (canned beans for the vegetarian Vivek) prepared by Joseph's wife. We are tired from a long day of driving on dusty, rutted, rocky, poorly-maintained roads, and from the sweltering heat of the Sierra Leonean interior. This is the third night of our five-day trip, and one of the more remote villages that we are to visit. We are staying at an amputee camp, built by international NGOs to house a few of the thousands of people who lost arms, hands, or other limbs to Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war. (Earlier, when I’d shook the hand of one of our hosts, I felt fingers that had been cut off before the first knuckle. His other arm ended in a stump just above the wrist.)

Joseph is standing in the shadows a few yards away from me, recounting some of this area’s experiences during the war. A slight man with a soft smile, he has a deceptively calm demeanor, but is tough and independent. In measured tones, he tells of one night when the RUF rebels entered a nearby village in search of his brother. Not finding him, they punished the villagers instead, killing dozens and terrorizing the rest. The brother survived, but the village was decimated.

As Vivek asks questions, gently probing the raw wound of the story, I think about Joseph’s brother and wonder how he must feel when he remembers the lives taken in his name. And I think about Joseph, who speaks with quiet rage of the atrocities committed against his neighbors, and wonder where he – like so many of his countrymen – finds his reserves of forgiveness (or resignation?) that allow him to live side-by-side with his former tormentors.

As Hawe’s head lolls heavily against my shoulder, I am overcome by my own exhaustion, and I struggle to follow the conversation. Idly, I realize that these stories of brutality and hardship have become so normal that they barely keep me awake.

In the morning, Vivek and Joseph and Mr. Tarawally and I – accompanied by Joseph’s young son – walk down to the nearby river for a swim. We reach the water by way of a narrow footpath, and find a few adolescent boys already there, washing themselves and their clothes upon the rocks. The river is broad and deep and slow-moving, and appears black against the brilliant green of the surrounding vegetation. The locals believe that there are ancestral spirits that live in this river, and on this morning, I am tempted to believe them.

We dive in, and the water feels crisp and refreshing. Vivek and I paddle out and away from shore (to the great consternation of Joseph, who does not swim, and the great envy of his son), stretching our cramped muscles and washing away the sweat and dirt from the previous day – and, perhaps, the stories of the night before. As the men soap themselves and banter back and forth, I float on my back and listen to their laughter.

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