A community gathers to hear the testimony of victims and perpetrators at a bonﬁre ceremony in Gbekedu, Kailahun District. (Photo Sara Terry for Catalyst for Peace)
Context & Experience:
Sierra Leone’s civil war (1991-2002) was characterized by widespread atrocities and human rights abuses (committed by parties on all sides of the conflict). By the end of the war, the official demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration program of ex-combatants had mixed results. For many observers, more effective were the purification and reintegration ceremonies organized at the local level, at times in connection with Christian or Muslim traditions (at times both with reading of both the Bible and the Quran as part of the ceremony). Although ceremonies varied from one community to the next, they typically included apologies, some form of purification ceremony for the former combatants (some of them minor), at times the cleansing of entire sites or buildings, and they were concluded by the sharing of food (for instance a glass of water and kola nuts).
For large numbers of irregular combatants – in particular those known as Kamajors (loosely translated as “traditional hunter” because of the origins of the militia), the largest and most powerful of a heterogeneous group of ethnic paramilitaries loosely allied under the umbrella of the Civil Defense Forces (CDF), those ceremonies may have been the only process of reintegration they ever went through. The case of the Kamajors is particularly interesting as their training and induction in the militia during the war were conceived as actual initiations, with very striking esoteric prescriptions. Entering the militia was ritualized as a transformation. The Kamajors were famous for their hunting regalia (clothes, headdresses, protective amulets), which were meant to transform the wearer, heating his heart to the point that he becomes something more than himself, and even more than human. Ritualizing the process of coming out of war was therefore particularly crucial for this group.
During that post-war period, one organization embedded those ceremonies in a program approach to fostering reconciliation. In 2008, a program called Fambul Tok (Krio for “Family Talk”) was initiated by a local human rights NGO, Forum of Conscience, to step into the gap left by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Special Court, and facilitate community-owned and led reconciliation, drawing on the indigenous culture and tradition. Bringing together perpetrators and victims of the violence, the work involved community led bonfires that invited victims and perpetrators to testify in front of their community about what they did or what happened to them during the war, and to acknowledge, apologize, and forgive. Cleansing ceremonies were the final step; they drew on cleansing practices rooted in the local traditions as well as traditions of communicating with the ancestors and pouring libations. These ceremonies were held at sites that hold special, often scared, significance for the locals, such as a particular rock, tree, or dwelling. They culminated in a communal feast. The Fambul Tok process to support the communities continued long after the ceremonies. During that period, the organization facilitated over 250 bonfire ceremonies, involving over 2,500 villages, across 6 Districts.
Berghs, Maria. War and Embodied Memory: Becoming Disabled in Sierra Leone. Routledge, 2012
Ferme, Mariane C. (Mariane Conchita), Hoffman, Danny. “Hunter Militias and the International Human Rights Discourse in Sierra Leone and Beyond”. Africa Today 50:4 (Summer 2004): 73-95
Graybill, Lyn. Religion, Tradition, and Restorative Justice in Sierra Leone. University of Notre Dame Press, 2017.
About Fambul Tok:
Fambul Tok International – Sierra Leone (FTI-SL) originated in the realization that peace can’t be imposed from the outside, or from the top down. It supports community led and owned reconciliation processes in Sierra Leone, which highlight the resources communities have within themselves for their own healing. Now its own organization, Fambul Tok has leveraged the lessons from the post-war context and worked to shift the post-Ebola response nationally, creating what became the People’s Planning Process. This has become their primary work at the community level.
Nyumah (left) and Sahr, just a few days after the dramatic bonﬁre ceremony that restored their friendship (Photo Sara Terry for Catalyst for Peace)
A strong dimension in this case is the power of ceremony and rituals that not only mark the imagination but help transform traumas and representations at a very deep level. Rituals can also be viewed as a way to create change, to transform (or even re-interpret) norms, perceptions and behaviors. Rituals of reintegration and healing in post-war contexts, such as this, generally include both the re-affirmation of collective rules and their reinterpretation (see White Paper).
In group settings, ceremonies may give individual suffering a space (both symbolic and physical) in the community, so that survivors can come to terms with that feeling of being “lost”, a feeling that may be reinforced when they are confronted with forms of healing and medicine that they don’t understand. This is sometimes framed as a form of collective acknowledgement and validation of the trauma, as well as of the individual experiences and the narratives attached to them. It tells victims and survivors that the community/society values their humanity and recognizes the tragedy of what has occurred. It might be a way to honor them, even at times to allow the survivors and victims’ relatives to engage in a mourning process. This dimension can be particularly important for individuals who may be stigmatized: rituals acknowledge their suffering and the cleansing component of the rituals support them in gaining community acceptance, prompting in some cases the mobilization of community elders to provide additional protection (see White Paper).
3.2. Rituals provide a sense of safety that can allow for the suspension of the fight/flight response and can ease the stigma around traumatic experiences
4.2. Rituals serve as an important mechanism to convey intentions and create a space for the possibility of mutual understanding
5.1. Benevolence, compassion, and forgiveness are powerful values that can motivate a person to choose peace
6.2. Some form of deliberate practice, devotion, or ritual is necessary to reaffirm these powerful and emotionally-charged memories and maintain the connection between outward behavior and core spiritual values
7.2. Transcendence is also associated with a sense of hope that supports individual and collective well-being
Similar experiences and practices in this database:
A Forgiveness Ceremony Uniting Veterans and Natives at Standing Rock Indian Reservation (Fort Yates, North Dakota)
In December 2016, a highly emotional forgiveness ceremony united veterans and natives at Standing Rock Casino, in the context of the anti-Dakota Access Pipeline movement.
Escuelas de Perdón y Reconciliación / Schools of Forgiveness and Reconciliation, Es.Pe.Re (Fundación para la Reconciliación)
The Fundación para la Reconciliación has been working to create a training that supports individuals – both perpetrators and victims – and their communities in “forgiveness.” Rituals are a very important part of the process, to create and maintain a safe space, and support empathy and compassion.
Similar experiences and practices outside this database:
In Mozambique, mediums and traditional healers (kimbanda) helped with the peaceful re-integration of former combatants and former child soldiers, through purification rituals involving the whole community. Referring to concepts of pollution and purification, they not only made it possible to designate and describe the period of violence as ‘abnormal,’ as ‘unacceptable,’ but also to re-define the rules indispensable for the group’s co-existence and survival.
Alcinda Honwana. “Sealing the past, facing the future: trauma healing in rural Mozambique.” In The Mozambican Peace Process in Perspective. Conciliation Resources, Accord Series No. 3, 1998, 76.
In Northern Uganda, traditional Acholi rituals such as the ‘stepping on the egg’ ceremony (nyouo tong gwent) and, to a lesser extent, ‘drinking the bitter herb’ (mato oput) have played key roles in the reconciliation and re-integration of ex-combatants or abductees into their communities.
Liu Institute for Global Issues. Roco Wat I Acoli, Restoring Relationship in Acholi-land: Traditional Approaches to Justice and Reintegration. Liu Institute for Global Issues/Gulu District NGO Forum/Ker Kwaro Acholi, September 2005: 30.
James Ojera Latigo. “Northern Uganda: tradition-based practices in the Acholi region.” In Reconciliation and Traditional Justice after Violent Conflict: Learning from African Experiences, edited by Luc Huyse and Mark Salter (Stockholm: International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2008)
Similar types of rituals have been documented in other contexts, such as Angola, Guatemala, Peru, and Cambodia.
Reintegration ceremonies (called “Community conferences”) have also been organized to reintegrate juvenile offenders in New Zealand and Australia; these were very ritualistic in nature.
Photo Fambul Tok International