The sudden passing of Sheku Koroma, a founding staff member of Fambul Tok, not only stunned his colleagues at Fambul Tok and all of us at Catalyst for Peace (CFP), it raised the question of how to honor the life of a beloved family member who, in a heartbeat, was no longer among us.
One way is to remember Sheku by telling the family’s story – the larger ‘fambul’ he helped create and shape – which is also his story, and to celebrate the gifts this beloved one shared with the family.
To begin, let me be clear that I knew much more about Sheku through what I heard from others than I knew directly him from personal experience. I was privileged to spend time with him during the two trips I have made to Sierra Leone – one less than a month before the first Ebola case was diagnosed there in May 2014; the other a few months after the country was declared Ebola free on 7 November 2015 – only a little calendar time, but time rich with a deep sense of the spirit and commitment of this remarkable man.
To start telling the story, we need to remember – Wi na wan fambul.
We are one family.
Wi na wan fambul reflects Fambul Tok’s core ethos, and also the framework for the relationship between Fambul Tok and CFP – both the organizations and the people.
From its first reconciliation ceremony in Bomaru, Kailahun District on 23 March 2008, the 17th anniversary of the beginning of the civil war that ripped Sierra Leone apart, Fambul Tok has sought to help the country’s diverse population, village by village, reweave the shredded fabric of its fundamental unity.
The driving force behind Fambul Tok (Family Talk), a Sierra Leonean tradition of coming together as a family to discuss important matters, was a spirit of connected family further described as Wan Fambul – the belief that if we see ourselves as a connected family we can come together and overcome anything – even the horrible atrocities of the war and later – of Ebola. So wan fambul was the frame that would inspire Sierra Leoneans – no matter ethnicity, geography, economic status, or role in the war – to come together for the good of the whole to reweave, reconcile and move forward together.
At the beginning of this reweaving, an effort animated by the remarkable partnership between John Caulker and Libby Hoffman, Sheku Koroma was there. In fact, he was there even before the birth, helping to dream this new possibility into life through his long time human rights work with John. He was a gentle, dedicated midwife of reconciliation and a master re-weaver of community, who worked with an inexhaustible belief in the new life waiting to emerge from war’s devastation.
Sheku’s leadership in this movement was how he lived out wan fambul – embracing all Sierra Leoneans in his interactions and believing in them and their ability to overcome their personal differences and come together. As he lived this reality, even as it wasn’t readily apparent, it came into being. Communities that were engaged in Fambul Tok experienced a much stronger sense of connection within their communities, trust in community members and willingness to work together.
Building on the example Sheku and his colleagues set, and with CFP’s enduring presence and accompaniment over eight years, we have helped many in Sierra Leone experience their own power, find their own voices, and see that the boundaries of their wan fambul extend far beyond the geographic boundaries of their village, their district, their country.
Building on the transformation we were experiencing through this work, CFP has helped many in the wider world open to the possibility that people living in a remote village in Sierra Leone were part of their family, of the one human family. I certainly felt that; and that sense of connection was a big part of why I am committed to CFP and Fambul Tok.
These bonds of kinship were fiercely challenged, both within and outside Sierra Leone, by the May 2014 onset of the devastating Ebola epidemic. And, yet, the family ties held; and offered the nation a great resource both to defeat Ebola, and to maintain and in some cases even strengthen the fabric of community and mutual caring. Master community weaver, Sheku Koroma, and all his Fambul Tok colleagues worked heroically through the fear and devastation of so much death.
Then, when in November 2015, Sierra Leone was declared Ebola free, the wan fambul turned its attention to applying the lessons it had learned in the post-civil war era to the post-Ebola era. Central to these lessons was a foundational belief that local villages needed to be at the center of imagining, planning for and creating their futures; and that they needed to work in a healthy partnership with all other local, national and international stakeholders.
And so a People’s Planning Process (PPP) was piloted and became the convening focus for Healthy Partner Dialogues, which led to the creation of Inclusive District Peace and Development Committees (IDPDCs). As I write, three IDPDCs are claiming their authority to help the people weave the fabric of their own destinies.
And Fambul Tok, on behalf of all of Sierra Leone, is poised to receive a major UN grant to help the PPP and Healthy Partnership work grow to a national scale. Among the challenges presented by this great opportunity is how to help prepare many new people to embody the Fambul Tok ethos and way of working. As a member of wan fambul, CFP is involved in helping to meet this challenge. Core to our efforts, Amy Potter Czajkowski, our Senior Program Advisor, has been working closely with Sheku to develop the process and materials to support this ambitious goal.
On this past Thursday, Amy sent Sheku the latest in an ongoing email exchange about this work. Instead of receiving Sheku’s response, we received news that Sheku had passed away. It is still too early to fully comprehend that we have lost a dear family member. We’re grateful that Amy is traveling this week to Sierra Leone where she will represent the CFP branch of the wan fambul in celebrating Sheku’s life, in grieving our loss at his passing, and in honoring this noble man by joining with other members of the family to continue the work of community weaving to which he dedicated his life – wi na wan fambul.
For my part, I am abidingly grateful to have known Sheku whose gracious light helped open my heart in new ways to my membership in the wan fambul.
for other tributes to Sheku, see these posts.