By 2007 I was frustrated and burnt out. I could not see a way forward. But just as I was about to withdraw from the scene, everything came together to create Fambul Tok (Krio for ‘Family Talk’). I met the head of the US foundation Catalyst for Peace, Libby Hoffman. She shared my vision of a grassroots process of reconciliation in which perpetrators and victims at the local level might come together, drawing on Sierra Leonean culture and tradition, and she offered to support a programme based on this vision.
Above all, we both agreed that the people most affected by a conflict are the ones who know best what their needs are – an insight often missing from the work of outside experts involved in conflict resolution work. In February 2008, Fambul Tok began in Kailahun District in the east of the country, where the conflict began. Today we are working in five districts: Kailahun, Kono, Koinadugu, Moyamba and Bombali. In future we would like to extend our work to other parts of the Mano River region, in partnership with Liberians, Guineans and Ivorians.
In Fambul Tok it is the people themselves who organise the programmes. Reconciliation processes led by the people are more sustainable. We do not go into a community with promises. We are careful not to be seen as NGOs going in with aid handouts. For us, the most important thing is building community ownership. While we do have a small, talented group of paid staff at district and national level, most of the day-to-day work of Fambul Tok is being done by volunteers within their own communities.
Before the conflict, Sierra Leoneans used to describe ourselves as one big family. “The family tree will bend but never break”, as we say here. In Fambul Tok, family is not merely biological, but the community as family, the district as family, and even the nation as family. We have found that there is little interest in Western notions of punishment at the community level. We have our own way of addressing justice, our own ways of disciplining people, but it does not involve sending them to prison. Nor do we send them into exile.
There is an adage in our local dialect that says: “There is no bad bush to throw away a bad child”, which means that when a person has done something bad the most important thing is to try and rehabilitate them, not simply throw them out of the community. Our culture is built around conversation, centred in storytelling, where people sit around the fire at night to talk about the day’s events.
Also, part of our tradition is in talking to our ancestors. If you do not please them, you will have bad luck. If you appease them, you are bound to have a good harvest. Fambul Tok communities have ceremonies that involve invoking the spirit of ancestors and asking for their blessing. This is a very important part of the reconciliation process. To sum up, the communities involved in Fambul Tok are drawing on our culture and traditions, sometimes adding some new elements, in order to promote grassroots reconciliation.