hard to believe that we arrived here four weeks ago today. . . our flight out isn’t until midnight tonight, but we will have to leave the city around 2 or 3 o’clock, to make sure that we catch the erratic ferry that shuttles people and cars to the airport across the bay (helicopter flights, which took only 8 minutes, have been suspended here in the wake of a fatal helicopter crash at the airport last month). . .
this past weekend saw the election campaign kick into full swing, as the parties trotted out their candidates for next month’s elections. . kirsten and i unwittingly found ourselves in the thick of it on saturday afternoon, when we headed east out of town to find mariam, a girl ex-combatant, we met a few weeks ago, who was eager to have kirsten help her learn how to write a poem. . .we set off under sunny skies. . . and along the way, our journey turned into something of a fellini-esque adventure. . .first, we began encountering crowds of all manner of green-clad people (t-shirts, blazers, fedoras, scarves, you name it); turns out saturday was the day the ruling political party here was officially parading its presidential candidate through town (green is the party color, as you may have guessed). . . as we drove east out of town, the crowds just kept getting bigger, throngs along the streets, yelling, singing, chanting, drinking; cars and vans coming by, loaded with yelling, singing, chanting, driving supporters (using the term “supporters” loosely, however, since this kind of “support” comes from paying people a small sum of money to turn out for the candidate du jour). . .anyways, as the crowds get thicker, we see these oncoming dark, dark rain clouds (it is, after all rainy season). . but suddenly we’re in the middle of the storm, lashing waves of rain, lightning, thunder – and a traffic jam you wouldn’t believe. There were a few hundred vehicles coming into town (as we were heading out), all of them green people. . . it was a bit surreal. I mean, it was pouring down rain – buckets of it – and these people were piled on top of cars, hanging out of windows. . . there were even several trucks in a row that were piled high with people, all soaking wet (and cheering, singing, etc). i turned to look at one particularly overflowing truck and through our rain-wet car windows, it looked like the people who were dangling off the back of the truck were actually dripping off it, in that kind of dali-esque, dripping watch way. . . one of the most highly absurd moments came when a group of young men – dressed in variations of green – came jogging down the middle of the road, past our car, and our driver actually said, “hey, there go some of the guys you interviewed a few weeks ago” – referring to the day that we had actually met 24 ex-combatants (adults who’d signed up for the army before becoming rebels and also young men and women who’d been abducted as children). We were, in fact, near the village where we had met then, but i was astonished at the fact that our driver (mohammed), had actually recognized them in the pouring rain, in green hats, etc. . . while most of this was going on, we were at a dead-stop, about 5 minutes away from mariam’s village, stuck behind a huge truck, which we assumed was sitting behind a line of cars in front of us (due to the fact that oncoming traffic in support of the green candidate was actually coming at us in two lines, turning a two-lane road into a rather crowded three-lane road, which it was never meant to be). . .we sat there for at least a half an hour, until somebody yelled at mohammed and asked why he didn’t go around the truck, which of course he couldn’t do by passing in the normal way, cuz of the circus convoy coming our way. . however, he does eventually manage, barely, to inch the four-wheel drive around the right hand side of the truck in front of us – and we discover that there is no line of traffic on our side of the road. the truck itself is broken down, and we have simply been sitting behind it, forever. . .. yep. . . so, off we go, finally making it to mariam’s house – only to discover that she isn’t there, that she is in fact at her boyfriend’s house. . . which is back in the direction we came. yep. back into the madness, which by this time has subsided a bit, so it only takes us twenty minutes or so to travel a distance that should have taken us about five minutes. . we get to the boyfriend’s house, only to discover that mariam has – yep. . . jumped on the green caravan, and headed into freetown. . . somewhere along the way, we have probably passed whatever crammed-to-the-brim vehicle she was riding in. . . we took it all in stride. . kirsten left a notebook for mariam, with a pen, and a note about it being for poems that she could write in the future. . i was pleased to see mariam’s two daughters, who were at the boyfriend’s house – they ran to me for hugs, and stayed close to me, particularly the oldest girl who is the one who was born to mariamin the bush, during the war (when she was a bush “wife” to one of the commanders, who abducted her at the age of 11). whe’s an incredibly sweet child, and very shy; we hadn’t interacted much the first two times i saw her, so i was really touched that she just wanted me to hug her and hold her close. . . . i was glad we made the effort, because i had promised mariam that i would come back with “the poet” for her. . mariam is working so hard to keep her family together, to deal with the demons from her past that make it hard for her to deal with her oldest daughter. . . the sweetest postscript in this is that last night mariam called the woman who first introduced us to her. she was so sorry that she had missed us, that she is coming into town this morning, to meet kirsten, and to learn to write poem with her. . it will be a lovely ending to the trip. . .
as for thoughts on forgiveness. . .i haven’t written much while i’ve been here – too much to take in, in some ways, too much to think through, a lot of ground to cover. . . i usually need time to understand the images i’ve seen, the words i’ve heard, to begin to have a sense of where the work is leading me. . . in four weeks, we’ve seen and heard so much. . .we’ve been in koidu – the diamond mining district, which was at the heart of some of the bitterest fighting during the war and still is marked by ruins all over town and in the surrounding villages – and in a town called makeni, which, by contrast, was basically untouched during the war . . . because it served as the home base for the rebels. . . we’ve also been in many little villages, where people are still grieved about what happened during the war, while at the same time, former combatants/perpetrators have moved back in their midst – an astonishing thing that life goes on under these circumstances, in settings where no process of apology/repentance has been made by many perpetrators. . . there are many shades of gray here, i’m learning, when it comes to forgiveness and reconciliation and how it takes place, or doesn’t, or hasn’t yet. . . the international community basically came in at the end of the war and insisted on a blanket amnesty (except for a dozen or so of the top leaders from all three warring factions who have been put on trial, at a cost of MILLIONS of dollars – while there has been practically nothing spent on reparations to the victims of the war, including people like tamba ngaujah, the double amputee angie and claire wrote about in their op-ed piece), and holding a truth and reconciliation commission (which basically never reached the village level, where so many atrocities occurred), and on top of that, the government people told people that they had to forgive and move on. all of this in the context of a country which has a huge cultural tradition of forgiveness, of reintegrating perpetrators, a fabric of wholeness and an energy that is fed by community (what one person we interviewed referred to as a “centripedal” force, rather than a “centrifugal” one – a drawing of people in, rather than pushing them out). . . there have been many acts of reconciliation and forgiveness here, at both the community and individual level, yet i can’t help but feel that the country’s fabric of forgiveness has been severely stretched by this war and its aftermath. . . and yet still, the starting point here is that forgiveness is the right thing to do, that perpetrators should be reintegrated, that all sierra leoneans are in fact brothers and sisters. . .i’ve met many sierra leoneans who are discouraged by what they see as a surface kind of forgiveness, and a lack of the deep reconcilation work that is part of the traditions here. . . but i remind them all that they are already a thousand miles ahead of so much of the rest of the world, ahead of my own country, where getting even, or winning at all costs, or punishing others, takes precedence all too often over forgiveness.
i have learned more, and will be still learning in the months ahead, than i ever could have imagined when i wrote my first blog. . .