Just spoke to my mummy on the phone who is caught up in Gbonge village, Bonthe District, a bauxite producing town and a largely farming community and I am caught up in Freetown, Western Area of the Republic of Sierra Leone. With the inter district lockdown, we are not seeing each other any time soon.
Let's just say until the restrictions are lifted. She says I should visit them when the war is over! These words of hers left me asking are we in a war situation? Her request for a visit after the war took me down memory lane.
In the 1996-1997 academic year, I was at the Bo School as a freshman. It was during this era that President Kabbah was overthrown by the AFRC. There were unofficial lockdowns all over the country. If you are in a rebel held area you stay there and if you were held up in an area controlled by the ousted government or it allies you stay there. Everybody had to maintain their lanes or maintain their graves. So, that's how we got caught up in Bo. My mum had come back from Masanga where the rest of the family resided on a visit to her family members in Gbonge, Bonthe District. As the business woman, she was worried that the restrictions birthed by the lockdowns had kept her in one place. The danger to that is we were slowly and steadily chopping the ‘head money’ or her capital, without any income in return. She devised a mechanism for us to be making money and from the said profits we will use same to survive day in, day out. So we took to Towama village where we bought firewood which we brought to the city Centre in Bo to sell! We did that for almost a month until we were allowed to move to the village in Gbonge.
At Gbonge, she was buying and selling garie and palm oil while I was charged with selling kerosine. These brought in income and cushioned the economic hardship.
The Civil Defence Forces (Kamajors in this case) were in charge of the Bonthe District area up to Bumpe Chiefdom in Bo District. The Sobels were in control of the city Centre, Bo. My mum being a business woman, had to risk her own life to ensure she took palm oil to Bo to sell! Because of the said lockdowns the prices skyrocketed in Bo. So if you were able to take the risk to enter Bo you will return smiling. Then the one five gallon Palm Oil was sold at Le100,000 and they paid people who carried the palm oil on their head from Gbonge to Bo town. They were the vehicles used to transport the oil! She had to walk behind them and also held hers. These men carried two ‘barter’ and some even four to make more money. Leaving the Kamajor zone to the ‘Sobel’ held areas was a huge risk and vice versa. But my mama was willing to take that risk to put food on the table, save some cash for the reopening of school and to help other close relatives. Here is a woman who only had a defunct primary school education. To cross the checkpoints was a difficult thing. I want to believe palms got greased for them to cross borders. I was not there, so I can’t confirm this.
When in Bo she will buy certain goods needed in the area occupied by the Kamajors where we lived and then come make some more money. She is an entrepreneur without the hype that comes with the word. In fact we didn't even know a word like that existed at that time.
These were difficult days. Then the lockdowns were later lifted.
Fast forward, we came to school and we were promoted to JSS2. After the first term break my Dad asked that I come visit them in Masanga where he was a Physiotherapist working at the Masanga Leprosy Hospital. When in Masanga, where I did my pre and primary studies the Revolutionary United Front took control of the said area around 1998-1999. They were in control of Magburaka and Masanga where we lived.
Men were mostly left at home while the women like my mother will face the risk of reaching out to the other areas in search of food and other essential items missing in our own area. The Gender roles changed dramatically.
On one occasion, my mum and I travelled to a Koranko Community called Montambaya (I don’t think I got the spelling of the village right) in search of rice. We travelled on foot for days and finally arrived at the place where we would end up getting food at an affordable price. It was not a rebel controlled area nor was it controlled by government or any group of persons, save their chiefs. These people were far removed from the everyday hassles of expecting government to provide them good roads, food, water blablabla. They are literally on their own. Coming from a community ravaged by famine, we were baptized with a bowl of rice I have not seen all my life. We ate greedily but were unable to make any inroads in eating half of what was offered us.
We came back from the said village and unfortunately we fell in an ambush -a bloodless one though- as the RUF members had come from Magburaka in search of food. They came to loot, pure and simple! We came in at the right time for them and the wrong time for us. They took the food from the head of my Mother and took mine too and then asked me to carry same. As a young lad then I was just not too strong to carry that heavy load. They had to hit me with the back of the gun threatening that I carry it while they matched behind us or they will pull the trigger. My mum hearing this says no “give it to me I will carry it and please if you have to kill anyone kill me and spare my son as he has so much to do for humanity that you cannot abort now”. With the help of God, they agreed. Some of the guys spoke Mende and the others spoke only Themne. Lucky me I spoke both. They took us to their commanders who were waiting two miles away. When we arrived, they took all of the food and everything they met on us save our tattered clothes. Then the guys ‘cocked’ (the gun was now put on a standby to pull the trigger) their guns and asked us to flee. But this woman, I mean my mum, was brave enough to speak to the head and cried at the same time. “This is all we have for food. My son and I have been out of this town for the past two weeks in search of this food. My husband and the other kids are at home waiting for us. Please give us some of the food” I’m sobbing right now as I reminisce on those tough days.
This is why, when I ask for peace I do so against the backdrop that violence could be destructive…it shows no mercy. As God was watching on while my poor and helpless mum was crying and begging them they took the food bag that I carried which had some dozens of cups of rice and gave it to us. Then while one aimed his weapon at us asking us to run or they will kill us the other without our knowledge aimed at a monkey and pulled the trigger. I heard the gun shot as I was running and I had to turn back to see if the bullet caught my mum. She dashed on the ground and asked me to do same. She was the military general and I was just an amateur. We ran into the bush as they laughed on and shouted, “you kill am.” This is no fiction my brothers and sisters. Those who did not witness the firsthand cruelty and brutality of the civil war may find this difficult to believe. For eleven years we maimed and killed one another.
There was famine in the land. Women had to be bread winners while men stayed at home to look after the kids. If you dare as a man like my mother did you were risking your poor life because it was possible any of the warring parties will accuse you of being a collaborator or a rebel or Kamajor as the case may be and that’s the end of your journey on earth. Many were killed as a result of this accusation.
Fast forward, we needed salt and the only place to get that was in Makeni. Mama and son had to travel to Makeni from Masanga on foot again. We arrived at Makeni and we resided at 3 Market Road at the home of Pa Yamba, a family friend. He was a ThemeneLimba and one of the few known and celebrated die hard APC members then. My dad was the ‘Doctor’ for one of their daughters and as a result they did not see us as Mendes neither did we see them as Themnes but as a family of one people and one nation. We knew the differences but we held on to the similarities. There is unity in diversity. In fact, they bought the salt and some more cooking stuffs needed. They told my mum that my dad has been very instrumental to their daughter and they will forever be grateful.There was a time we spent 6 months or more in their house without paying rent. They bought everything needed in a kitchen and bought me some fine clothes and shoes. It was an offence to smuggle salt. It was not a sin to take it along but they will take all from you. My mum then thought of an idea of smuggling the salt without the notice of the security guards at the different checkpoints. She had a young pregnancy then. When we arrived at this very checkpoint, the Rebel on duty asked my mum how old the pregnancy was. She lied “8 months”. The rebel called her to a room -he called the delivery room. My heart beat increased and I knew we were in danger. She asked them to give her the opportunity to talk to me for one last time. They agreed. “My son i believe in you more than any other of God’s creation. These words could be my very last to you. You are the head of that house so ensure you take care of your sisters and your dad. Ensure you take your education seriously. Lack of Money and the fact that my brothers were prioritized when it comes to who continued in school deprived me of education. But I made a promise that you will be highly educated and you will go places. So take your education seriously and be nice to all of humanity”. She held on to me as we cried when she was ordered to move into the labour room as they are going to help her deliver. She hugged me and was dragged from the neck. I sat outside crying. I was only hearing voices. Then she she told them she was pregnant but just three months and she had placed the salt on her stomach so she could smuggle it across the checkpoints for her family to survive. She told them if they had to kill her for this act they should please spare the life of her son. “He is my King” she boldly declares. I was mumbling litany of incantations to my God. I wanted her around. She is that one person who believes in me more than I do. She is an inspiration and the best mother in the world. My prayers didn't go in vain! Like a vision, my mother emerged from their den, whole and unscathed. Yet, it was sad that we lost our salt.
Fast forward, we are caught up in the fight against Corona. She calls it a war because we are caught up in the same situation. Same curfews and the inter district lockdowns. Recently, she was in Police net and she called me explaining to me what had happened to her. She is diabetic and therefore must treat her medication seriously. She travelled from Gbonge in Bonthe to Serabu Hospital in Bo District because she needed to replenish her medicines. In Serabu, she went to the hospital where she presented her card number and the medical practitioner in charge brought out her file and given the appropriate medical attention. She was given her diabetic medication and she left for her village.
The entrepreneur in my mum saw an opportunity that she leveraged on. She bought empty bags which she would use for the packaging of garie upon her return to Gbonge. She bought a total of 45 empty bags. On her way she was intercepted and then interrogated and thereafter arrested. She showed them the medicines but they saw the empty bags. She pleaded with them but to no avail.She was taken to the Mattru Police Station. And things could have gotten worse, thankfully she now has a lawyer. So, my intervention was timely. The lockdown guarantees her fundamental right to movement on medical grounds.
During the armed conflict there was no nationally recognized government as there were different splinter groups with their own form of government and their own form of decrees. But today there is a recognized and accepted national government with established rules. The constitution has not been suspended and the rights therein but our rights have been largely restricted. So she is in her village of Gbonge hoping to trek to Mattru this morning to cash out her airtel money and enjoy.
In the final analysis, her words" visit me when the war is over" is so surreal. It haunts me. What can I do on my part to bring this war to an end. What role can I play to flatten the curve and hopefully bring an end to the pandemic? It takes faith, it takes prayers, it takes conscientious efforts. Trust me, this too shall pass. Though we have to agree with my mum that we are indeed in a war situation.
Sierra Leoneans, especially fellow youth, I had to write this to remind us of how bitter the seeds of conflict are. Let us all jealously guard our peace and ensure we contiue to fight COVID-19 as a united nation.
Happy Mother’s Day Mama!! I appreciate all your words of encouragement, your belief in me and for helping me understand and appreciate the importance of education and for being altruistic.
I love you Mama!
About The Author: Alfred Kamanda is a Barrister and Solicitor at Law. Brewah and Co. Solicitors; Maiteh Chambers. He is the Pen Push of the Auradicals Club, FBC, USL.
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