On a warm late-March evening, with angry clouds in the sky fortune telling an unexpected storm, two young Sierra Leonean men stood before a bonfire, surrounded by their families, elders, and neighbors from surrounding villages. Once the closest of friends, Sahr and Nyumah had been brutally torn apart by Sierra Leone’s vicious civil war while still in their early teens—one boy forced by rebel soldiers to beat his friend and kill his friend’s father.
The two came face to face that night, with each other and with their pasts. One man testified about his suffering; the other admitted his guilt and begged for forgiveness, which—in an astonishing act of grace—was freely given.
Fambul Tok—Krio for “family talk”—is a national initiative that addresses the need to foster a lasting peace from the village-level up. Begun as a three- to five-year program and building on traditional methods of reconciliation at the community level, Fambul Tok represents a way of drawing all members of Sierra Leone—whether victims, offenders, or witnesses— back into the Sierra Leonean family. The community healing processes are designed to prevent traumatic experiences from driving people into passiveness or renewed aggression; to encourage them to reflect on the past rather than withdraw; and to empower them to deal with past, present, and future conflicts.
Under the leadership of Program Director John Caulker, executive director of Forum of Conscience, Fambul Tok launched four months of consultations across all 14 districts of Sierra Leone in December 2007. The districts designated a broad cross section of representatives of affected populations (victims, ex-combatants, women, youth, religious leaders, elders, cultural leaders, local officials, etc.) to attend the consultations, which were geared toward assessing popular readiness for forgiveness leading to reconciliation, and if the population were ready, what they perceived to be the key components of genuine reconciliation. Finally, the representatives considered what resources they already had within their communities for initiating and sustaining that process.
Though the populations had never had a forum for coming to terms with the past, the overwhelming response, in every district, was yes—they were ready to reconcile. Community representatives acknowledged the unhealed wounds of war, as well as the difficult realities of having perpetrators and victims living side by side. It was also clear from the consultation process that communities had local cultural traditions and practices of reconciliation, dormant since the war, which they were eager to reawaken for the purposes of social healing. The predominant characteristic of these traditions and practices was an orientation toward reintegrating perpetrators into the community, instead of alienating them through punishment or retribution. The cultural imperative of truth telling and forgiveness aims to address the wounds of the past in a way that makes communities whole again.
Fambul Tok is an example of what a political forgiveness process can look like. Through the workshops that developed space was created for individual and community healing. Community members decided what was needed, how to move forward and what their healing process would look like. Restorative justice, a justice that heals was the focus – not retributive justice. The lessons learned where shared with villages across the country who were interested in participating in a Fambul Tok program helping war-affected individuals reflect on the past and move forward in ways that averted the renewal of aggressions and influencing programs on a national level. By grounding forgiveness in traditional practices, it created healthy communities capable of building new foundations of peace setting a strong foundation for the entire country.