Religion helps Sierra Leone ‘forget’ brutal civil war
A religious movement that took root during a long and bloody civil war is helping inhabitants of Sierra Leone make sense of their experiences. In a paper published earlier this year in Cultural Anthropology, Rosalind Shaw, associate professor and chair of anthropology, wrote that many young survivors of the conflict are using Pentecostal Christianity to turn their horrific experiences into something meaningful.
Pentecostal Christianity has, especially over the past few decades, developed concepts of “spiritual warfare” that involve battles with the devil and demonic forces. It has been a growing presence in Africa, but became even more popular in Sierra Leone during and after the civil war that pitted several different rebel groups against several pro-government groups from 1991 to 2002.
The war began against the backdrop of the lucrative diamond industry in this small, agricultural country on the west coast of Africa. The conflict was fueled by a civil war in neighboring Liberia. Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, helped sponsor and arm one of the groups fighting in Sierra Leone, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), partly to control mining of Sierra Leone’s diamonds. (The Oscar-nominated film “Blood Diamond” chronicles how the RUF traded diamonds for arms.)
To gain control of territory, including the Sierra Leonean diamond fields, combatants on all sides brutalized the civilian population by burning villages, mutilating people and using sexual violence. Children were forced to become soldiers, and thousands were killed. After a peace accord started to unravel, the war ended when British peacekeeping forces were able to reinforce United Nations peacekeepers and stabilize the country.
Shaw, who has been studying Sierra Leone for 30 years, wanted to find out why Pentecostalism had become increasingly popular during the war. One important strand of Pentecostalism, she said, focuses on battling the devil and “a whole universe of demonic forces.”
“They could fight spiritually, though prayer,” she said, “and felt they were also contributing to the growth of peace.”
While Sierra Leone joined other countries with a violent past, including South Africa, in instituting truth and reconciliation commissions to understand and resolve conflicts, Shaw discovered that more healing took place in churches and other religious sites. Many “exorcised” their war experiences by writing and performing church plays, which allowed them to act out the conflict in an alternative form and gave them the power to fight back.
“Although they do not lose their memories of terror and violence,” Shaw wrote, “they learn to transform these in ways that allow them to create a moral life course in which they are much more than weak dependents.”
Shaw has devised the term “social forgetting” to explain cultural practices in Sierra Leone in which, after the war, people sought to keep the violence at a distance by discouraging direct discussion of it. “Through the history of Christian Catholic confession, psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, we tend to assume that the only way to separate traumatic, painful memories from ourselves is by speaking,” she said. “I found other ways in Sierra Leone.
“I didn’t regard Pentecostalism very positively before I did my field work,” Shaw said, “but having seen what I saw, I came to understand that Pentecostalism takes different forms in different places and in different circumstances. And when your life has been destroyed, when you’ve lost your family, lost everything, what were, to me, very unappealing ideas of spiritual warfare could become a powerful form of reconstruction.”
Shaw first went to Sierra Leone as a doctoral student working on her dissertation. As a young anthropologist, she was drawn to the country, in part because little work had been done in the northern region. But she soon came to love the tropical nation, which is slightly smaller than South Carolina. She fell in love with the people, their culture and their language, Krio, which, she said, makes some Shakespearean plays sound even richer and more beautiful than they do in English.
Much of Shaw’s scholarship has focused on how people make sense of difficult experiences. Her book, Memories of the Slave Trade: Ritual and the Historical Imagination in Sierra Leone (University of Chicago Press, 2002), looks at how four centuries of slave trading are remembered today. One of the ways rural Sierra Leoneans remember what happened to their ancestors is through ritual and visionary experience, in which spirits take on many of the characteristics of slave raiders, ambushing villages, tying people up and forcing them into servitude.
Shaw is currently working on a book about how people in northern Sierra Leone remake their lives after experiencing horrific violence. The book, she said, focuses on “social repair through reconciliation rituals, Pentecostal churches and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”
Marjorie Howard is a senior writer in Tufts’ Office of Publications. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.This story ran in the September 2007 issue of the Tufts Journal.