Monday, November 27, 2006

For Want of a Cup of Rice (Another Tale of Woe)

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Not for the (false) history of it – you know, all that jazz about the Pilgrims and the Indians sitting down together to a happy cross-cultural feast – but for the meaning it now holds. I know it’s sentimental, but what better premise for a holiday than to join together with the people you love and give thanks for all the blessings in your life?

In Sierra Leone, I am constantly reminded of just how lucky I am, and just how immensely, enormously, profoundly thankful I should be – thankful for a Thanksgiving feast on any day I want it when so many people here go hungry every day; thankful for my Ivy League education when most Sierra Leoneans would be lucky to finish primary school; thankful for my first-world health care when one quarter of children here don’t make it to the age of five.

So, at the risk of dampening your Thanksgiving joy, I want to recount another tale of woe from the last few weeks here in Freetown. I hope you take it as I do – yet another reason to give thanks.

For Want of a Cup of Rice

Two weeks ago my friend Pam and I were driving home around 11 at night, and saw a woman lying face-down on the side of the road, arms and legs splayed and the pot that she’d been carrying on her head thrown a few feet ahead of her.

We were on Wilkinson Road, the main artery through western Freetown, and my first thought was that she had been hit by a car and left for dead.

Pam jumped out while I pulled the car to the side of the road. By the time I joined her, the woman had regained consciousness and a small crowd had formed. One man knelt beside her, fanning her face and trying to find out what happened.

The woman – a young adult, probably in her early 20s – didn’t remember how she ended up on the side of the road. She did not seem to be injured, but was definitely confused and disoriented. The last thing she remembered clearly was leaving her home in Tengbeh Town (a neighborhood a mile or so from where she now lay) to walk to an uncle’s house a few miles further on.

As it turned out, she was lying unconscious by the side of the road not because she'd been hit by a car, but because she hadn’t eaten in two days. She’d left her baby daughter at home (alone)and set off to walk across town to her uncle’s house so she could beg him for a cup of rice.

With a loaf of bread bought from a passing vendor and a bottle of water from my car, she got a bit stronger and more alert – and more concerned about getting home to her daughter. So we gave her some money and arranged for transport to take her home, and then got in our own cars and drove home to sleep.

Of course, we all knew we were doing almost nothing. Probably the very next day she would take to the streets again, searching for a bit of rice to keep herself and her child alive. But what could we do? She and her child are only two out of literally thousands in this city alone (and thousands upon thousands more nationwide) who live on the razor’s edge between life and death.

From time to time we give band-aids – spare change, a loaf of bread – and the rest of the time we work at the big systemic changes needed to end this sort of misery. But such changes are slow and success is elusive, and often you’re not sure if things are moving forward or standing still – or even sliding back.

And sometimes it keeps you up at night. And sometimes it makes you want to scream. And sometimes – like when a young woman lies on the pavement for want of a cup of rice – it makes you want to cry.

But this week, at least, it makes me thankful.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Sorcerers, Thiefs and Curses -- A Tale of Woe

Have been much remiss in posting to this site. My apologies to those of you who are frequent readers. At first I was just too busy, and a bit lacking in colorful stories. Lately, I’ve have colorful stories to spare but have been reluctant to share.

You see, it’s been a rough few weeks in Freetown – weeks that boggle the mind and test the nerves – and I’d much rather be a bearer of good news from this much-maligned part of the world than a dealer in the same old tales of woe.

But that’s not really fair either to you or to this complex country and its brave, struggling people. I should portray this place as it truly is – the misery along with the beauty, the frustration and backwardness along with the hope and promise.

And so, a tale of aggravation and woe.

Sorcerers, Thiefs and Curses

My job here is primarily to study how people in Sierra Leone resolve disputes and access justice. I spend a lot of time thinking and talking about the barriers to justice, about differing understandings of justice, about competing rules systems and the complexities of a dualist system that combines English common law, various systems of customary law, and deeply held traditional beliefs.

I never expected to become one of my own case studies.

A few weeks ago, my friend and colleague Pam arrived from the States. We dropped off her stuff at the house and then went out to get a bite to eat. When she checked the next day, several hundred dollars were gone.

It wasn’t the first time that I suspected something was stolen (the most obvious example is that another American friend had $175 disappear when he was visiting, and I convinced him he’d been pickpocketed) but it was the first time that I was sure it disappeared from inside the house. Besides, I didn’t want to accuse anyone without proof, and the most likely suspect – the person who spends the most time upstairs in my apartment, and who sometimes is there without me – was the person I was most certain would not have done it.

This time, we were sure the money had disappeared from inside the house – and, more startling, while the house was locked.

The story gets a bit convoluted at this point, so I’ll spare you some of the details. Basically, one person (the person I trusted the most) told me he’d caught another person (who also lived downstairs) coming out of my locked apartment on two occasions, including the night when the money disappeared. He said the other residents confronted this guy and he admitted to having a key, but denied stealing anything.

The others said this story was false, and begged me for a day to investigate themselves before I told the landlord or the police. I agreed, and they called a “native doctor” – a sorcerer – to find the thief. Such practices are common here, both to uncover guilt and to punish the guilty (by placing a curse). Belief in this sort of witchcraft (called “juju”) is very strong among much of the population – so much so that the mere threat of calling a witchdoctor can often convince a thief to return what was stolen. I later regretted allowing it to go forward, but at the time I was just trying to let them deal with it as they saw fit, particularly as it was a family matter for them.

So the native doctor came to the house to investigate our missing money. I was at work (fortunately or unfortunately, I’m not sure) but I got the story later. All the neighbors and assorted family and friends came over, and the ceremony was conducted outside in full public view. Using potions and spells and a thatched broom, the doctor tested each person in the house in order to discover who was responsible.

Unfortunately, the sorcery turned up nothing, and instead determined that Pam and I were lying and nothing had been stolen at all.

I convinced the people downstairs that this was not true, but we were otherwise at an impasse. We just had no mutual language – in terms we use in our work, no common sets of rules – to deal with the situation. It was like some sort of Through the Looking Glass courtroom, in which the rules of evidence and logic were turned inside out and upside down. Evidence that you consider incontrovertible (X person was seen leaving the premises on the night in question, and was found to be in possession of an unauthorized key to said premises) is deemed irrelevant and inadmissible. Evidence that you consider meaningless and even ridiculous (the sorcerer determined that Y person was innocent and, in fact, that no theft occurred) is deemed incontrovertible. You are left befuddled and powerless. How do you argue your case when you don’t speak the same language? How do you access justice when the rules make no sense to you?

It’s appropriate that I found myself in this position, a parallel to what we talk about as barriers to justice for the poor and marginalized. When a poor, uneducated Sierra Leonean ends up in the “formal” courts – run in the British common law tradition, down to the robes and powdered wigs – she finds herself similarly befuddled and powerless (if anything, considerably more so). Court is held in English, a language she neither speaks nor understands. Rules of evidence are strange and foreign. The facts she considers most pertinent – not only the outcome of sorcery, but also family linkages and historical background – are deemed irrelevant and inadmissible. Even the outcomes are unsatisfying: in small communities (and overcrowded cities) where people must find a way to continue to live side-by-side, even after a nasty dispute, the emphasis is often on reconciliation: “restorative justice”, as those in the business like to say. People seek outcomes like a sincere apology (to “beg” in Krio) or reimbursement for harm done. When the guilty party is instead imprisoned or punished by the courts, no one wins – the victim gets no compensation, the guilty person gets no chance to make amends, and the community is ripped apart.

In my case, things were eventually resolved – after much screaming and crying by everyone downstairs, and many (generally unsuccessful) attempts at mediation on my part – when my landlord called from London and ordered the guilty party evicted and the locks changed. (Typical for Sierra Leone, it took the intervention of a powerful Big Man to resolve the situation.) Tensions remained high for a few weeks, and there were rumors of curses (more juju) against me and my heroic whistleblower, but eventually everyone settled down. They even admitted last week that the whole key story was true.

Now things are pretty much back to normal and I’m starting to feel more at home again, though I’m definitely more suspicious and a little jittery. The other day Pam and I noticed a large bullfrog on my back steps on our way to work in the morning. “Do you think it’s a curse?” she asked. We both laughed... but I was still relieved to find the frog was gone when I got home that night.