“The Social and Cultural Context of Child Soldiering in Sierra Leone”



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The Social and Cultural Context of Child Soldiering in Sierra Leone


I claim that, for a number of reasons, Sierra Leoneans understand child soldiering quite differently than Westerners do. In this section I address how and why child soldiers are understandable in the Sierra Leone context. There are continuities that render the “child soldier” intelligible in the Sierra Leone vernacular, continuities of practice and discourse. I will focus primarily on the situation of boys, since girls face a much different set of cultural expectations.16

What is “youth” in Sierra Leone? Some definitional issues.

One of the main tenets of the burgeoning field of “youth studies” is that the definition of youth varies from culture to culture, and furthermore that youth is a category made in relations (Stephens 1995; James and Prout 1997; Boyden 1997; Malkki and Martin 2003). The question then becomes: Given the constructed nature of youth generally, how is youth constructed in Sierra Leone? My goal is not to come up with one definition of “youth” in Sierra Leone. Rather, the goal is to show some of the complexities of the category, and to show that it is a category with a great deal of explanatory power for Sierra Leoneans themselves.

A youth is someone who is no longer a child,17 but not yet a “big man” or “big woman.” It is nearly impossible to assign exact age ranges to these terms due to the multiplicity of possible trajectories in Sierra Leone, varying by gender, region, ethnic group, class, and other considerations. The Sierra Leone National Youth Policy, recently unveiled, defines “youth” as anyone from 15 to 35 (Government of Sierra Leone 2003).18 The key point is that the determination of who is a youth is not based simply on age; as elsewhere in West Africa, the transition from child to youth involves certain relations and activities. Some activities are fairly universal, for example almost everyone goes through initiation into the secret societies that serves as a formal marker between childhood and adulthood. Yet given that, there are a range of different trajectories from childhood and adulthood.


In the following section, I work through four important aspects of youth in the Sierra Leone case: child labor, fosterage, apprenticeship, and secret society. I will explore each aspect as a set of practices and relations and then, for each aspect, I will discuss how ongoing practices of youth were continuous with the recruitment and participation of children in fighting forces.
1. Child Labor

Children work in Sierra Leone. When the economy was more agriculturally based, men who could afford it would have large families in order to have a large workforce. This meant marrying several wives, bearing as many children as possible, and including members of the extended family and even outsiders as part of the household. Some of this still remains today: certainly, polygamy is still practiced in Sierra Leone, there is still a cultural bias towards having a large number of children, and the pattern of housing members of extended family and others is deeply embedded in the culture.

Child labor almost defines childhood in Sierra Leone. A child who does not work is a bad child. A child might have to sweep the house and compound, get water for the household’s morning baths, find wood in the forest and bring it home, maybe go to school, if not school, then work on the farm or garden or help the adults with whatever work they are doing. Children are responsible for driving birds from the fields. He or she might have responsibility for caring for a younger child. He or she might be sent on errands. He or she would have to do laundry (by pounding clothes against stones at the river). Children are often the sellers of small items; they wander around with head pans full of onions, bananas, or other produce on their heads. Boys wander around at nightfall with a gallon of kerosene and a funnel selling it to fill up lamps. Young boys might walk many miles to get five gallons of palm wine to bring back to sell. The child of a fisherman might have the task of caring for the nets. An urban child would have a slightly different set of tasks, but would still be required to work.

Child Labor and Recruitment and Participation

It did not seem unusual to Sierra Leoneans that child labor would be essential to fighting forces. Importantly, there are certain types of work that are primarily children’s work. The rebels needed someone to fetch water, they needed someone to do their laundry. If we think of a traveling band of rebels as a small community, they would need children to allow the community to function. But this is not just the case with rebels. Even the government army needed children to function.

The majority of the population of “child soldiers” were children who did average daily tasks: fetched water, cooked, cleaned, carried things on their heads. And even those children who did more soldierly things—shooting guns, chopping hands—were doing it within a system in which it made sense for children to be part of adult activity.

The work of spying was often done by children. Children move around in the process of selling. Children selling can move around almost anywhere, they can pass through public and private spaces, they are hardly noticed. Also, there were a lot of children manning checkpoints. This fits into the pattern of child labor as well. The adults might have been inside a baffa, drinking palm wine or smoking marijuana, and they would send the young boy to deal with the passing vehicles. Even now, at government checkpoints, it is the young driver’s apprentice who most often comes down from the back of a vehicle to pay the ubiquitous bribe to pass.

Thus, within a vernacular in which the labor of children expected and even required, the use of children as workers in the pursuit of war is not surprising.19 In interviews with former child soldiers about their time “in the bush” this kind of labor was so unremarkable as to be not worth talking about. Furthermore, when I was interviewing them, safely after their participation in the fighting forces, they were all still routinely doing such labor, even those under the care of child protection agencies.


2. Fosterage

Fostering can be defined as any time a child’s primary caregiver is other than the biological parents. The practice of fostering is quite common and is written about extensively in the anthropological literature on family structure in West Africa (see Schildkrout 1973; Goody 1982; Bledsoe 1990, 1990, 1993). Fostering is an umbrella term for a number of different types of relationships. Traditionally, fostering is an exchange; it is not simply a family taking in a child because the child is in need of care. The other key point is that fostering is not something that happens only in periods of turmoil, it is an ongoing system.20

Fostering is done for a number of reasons. According to the circumstance, a child may be perceived as an asset or a burden: an asset who can work and provide for the home but a burden that costs money for school fees, clothing and food. Fostering relationships within an extended family might not even be considered fostering, but it is an important place to start, because it is the model for other types of fostering relationships. Among family members, fostering is done to cement family bonds and create alliances. In addition, fostering can spread out the burden of child raising across the family. If a family member is childless, he or she may need a child for household labor and in return will bear the cost of raising a fostered child. In addition, there is a belief that children raised by their own parents are in some way weaker than those fostered and those fostered are somehow tougher or more socially adept.

A child may also be fostered to a family member who can help with that child’s schooling. If a child of secondary school age lives in a town without a secondary school, he or she may be sent to a relative in a larger town. Although it is normally assumed that parents will be responsible for the cost of formal education, if they cannot afford it, they will sometimes pass on the burden of school fees to a more successful family member. That family member will then expect some minimal labor around the house, but more importantly will expect that when the child grows up and gets a job, he or she will in turn support other children of the family in need of help. Paying school fees for someone is a kind of cross generational exchange (Bledsoe 1990). As Danny Hoffman put it at the 2003 African Studies Association meetings, in Sierra Leone, children are the unfinished products of social networks.



Fosterage and Recruitment and Participation

The language of fostering was sometimes used in RUF abduction. Pa Kamara of Rogbom21 had two children abducted. In both cases, the rebel who took the child, “asked” for the child. Pa Kamara said at one point the rebels were threatening to cut his hand. They had his hand on the block and the machete in the air. His children were crying and begging for them not to cut their father’s hand. That is when one of the rebels saw the ten-year-old boy and said he wanted him. Abductions often took place under this rubric. Of course, the parents or guardians were forced, the rebels had guns after all, but it is interesting that the individual rebel had to go through the motions of “asking” for the child, holding up the cultural forms of fosterage arrangements.22

Then, once away from home, there was a certain ease of making pseudo-family arrangements that grows out of the practice of fostering. When children talk about their time in the bush, they frequently talk about a commander as a sort of father figure. The commanders’ “wives” would boss the boys around as would wives in a fostering relationship. In fostering, the bonds between child and carer are not easily broken and are long lived. For example, a rebel commander and an abducted youth may feel that there are certain bonds that exist between them even after demobilization, because their relationship can be understood as a type of fostering.

It was unusual, but occasionally families would go to the RUF directly to negotiate for the return of their abducted children. They could draw on the rules of fostering to get children back saying, “you didn’t pay the price for this girl.” Sometimes they could pay the abductors to take the children back. From the Western standpoint, it could be understood as a ransom for a hostage, but in a system where children are routinely exchanged and money sometimes changes hands for their care, these negotiations take place within an already existing system of exchangeable children.

Another important item having to do with fosterage is that we in the West think that children should live with their nuclear family, and they often do. So, part of the trauma of child soldiers from our perspective is the experience of being taken away from the mother and father. That trauma does not exist as such in Sierra Leone (or isn’t understood to be traumatic) since so many children are sent to live in families without their mother or father. In fact, living away from one’s mother or father can be seen as good for a child, strengthening him or her through emotional hardship but also bringing him or her closer to members of the extended family. Family is extremely important, but nuclear family is not.


3. Education

Education is a powerful component of youth in Sierra Leone, and has been, since at least colonial times, a site of political struggles over futures (Shepler 1998; Bledsoe 1992). Even though jobs for the educated are quite scarce, there is still an astounding demand for schooling in Sierra Leone. Aside from formal schooling, apprenticeship is a vital institution for the training of young people into adulthood and often involves fosterage to a master. Scholars of rural West Africa have noted that elders seeking to solidify control over youth try to place tight controls on information they construe as valuable, and protect it through rituals and powerful associations based on secrecy (Bledsoe 1992: 190). In particular there is in Sierra Leone a notion of knowledge (and especially secret knowledge) as power, and gaining that knowledge is seen not simply as filling an empty vessel, but as a powerful transformative experience — not just acquiring knowledge but forging a new identity.



Education and Recruitment and Participation

The idea that there is a continuity between the educational aspirations before the war and RUF recruitment is not my own. In fact, that is one of the central arguments of Richards’ Fighting for the Rainforest (1996). According to Richards:

In a patrimonial polity, where clientelism is a major means through which intergenerational transfers of knowledge and assets are achieved, young people are always on the look out for new sources of patronage. Where they joined the rebels with any degree of enthusiasm it was to see training. The arts of war are better than no arts at all. The army was simply seen as a new form of schooling. Where recruits were gathered together for training in the field, in advance positions, the commander in question would take young volunteers as personal ‘apprentices,’ rather than as formal recruits (Richards 1996: 24).

He continues,

For many seized youngsters in the diamond districts functional schooling had broken down long before the RUF arrived. The rebellion was a chance to resume their education. Captives report being schooled in RUF camps, using fragments and scraps of revolutionary texts for books, and receiving a good basic training in the arts of bush warfare. Many captive children adapt quickly, and exult in new-found skills, and the chance, perhaps for the first time in their lives, to show what they can do. Stood down boy soldiers in Liberia have spoken longingly of their guns not as weapons of destruction but as being the first piece of modern kit they have ever known how to handle (Richards 1996: 29).


Another piece of this argument, which Richards doesn’t discuss, is that RUF commanders may have wanted a large set of apprentices to enhance their own standing. Some of the former RUF children I interviewed told me that one of their duties was to serve as “bodyguards,” or a kind of entourage. In any activity, the more apprentices you have, the more important you are. “Rebel sehf lehk foh bluff” (even rebels like to show off), they told me.

However, not just the RUF drew on pre-existing models of training. The Sierra Leone Army (SLA) also recruited large numbers of young men in a similar sort of patronage move. This grew out of apprenticeship models as well. A man serving in the army might want to include his son in his daily activities. Given the nature of learning in apprenticeship, it makes sense that young men would be involved as “legitimate peripheral participants” (Lave and Wenger 1991). It might mean cooking or cleaning for army men, or sometimes carrying weapons or other equipment. Still, these duties involved young boys in army life.23 When the RUF and some elements of the SLA merged into the AFRC, some of the army camp followers became indistinguishable from rebel boys, and carried out some of the same atrocities.

The CDF is another important example of apprenticeship models leading to child participation in war. Kamajohs, Tamaboros, and Gbethis took in and initiated large numbers of young boys and gave them training and status. As Richards himself explains it: “Would-be applicants received military training only after initiation as a kamajoi (Mende ‘expert hunter’, lit. ‘master of marvels’). Such hunters belong to a craft association or guild (Muana 1997). Initiation requires money, or a sponsor to cover the costs. This—it hardly needs pointing out—is rather different from joining an army through the usual routes (volunteering or through conscription). To enroll through initiation into a guild is conducive more to a notion of fighting war as a craft. Warriors tend to see themselves as craftsmen specialists, jealously guarding their individual rights and privileges. CDF fighters became ‘professionals’ in the sense we might apply that term to a lawyer or doctor in private practice” (Archibald and Richards 2002: 355).
4. Secret Society

Sierra Leone is well known for its secret societies.24 Secret societies play an important role in the transition from childhood to adulthood. No one can be fully considered an adult without being initiated, and especially in rural settings, everyone is initiated.25

In earlier times, youth would be “in the bush”26 with adults for months to learn skills specific to their sex. Adults were in charge of training youth for several years before they were fully initiated. So secret society initiation can be understood as a kind of educational institution. Initiation into the secret societies ties initiates to a locale. With the increased mobility of people, including youth, there are still ties to specific locales, but now one of the main functions of secret society initiation is to tie children to the location of their parents and their tribe. Even before the war, the initiation process had undergone tremendous change over earlier times. As more and more children attended formal Western style schools, there was less time for them to be sequestered for initiation training. Now training in the bush is usually a matter of days rather than months. Students may come home from school for their initiation during school holidays. In urban places, initiation practices have particularly eroded and the mix of ethnic groups has led to a syncretism and crisis over what constitutes authentic traditional practices. The war has further shattered these traditions, while reconfiguring others.

Secret Society and Recruitment and Participation

The CDF recruited child soldiers through secret society connections. It was the strength of the society and the affiliated elders that brought the members.27 Less obvious, perhaps, are some of the ways RUF abduction was like secret society initiation.28

First of all, the dramatic script of initiation is that children are taken away from the town (the site of social order) to go live in the bush (the site of powerful forces, both destructive and generative) to be molded into responsible adults. Similarly, when children were abducted by the RUF, they were taken to “the bush” for a kind of remaking. In Rogbom, the children who were abducted by the RUF were called (in Krio) “di wan den we den bin kehr go” or “the ones they took away.” That is also sometimes the coded name for initiates who are in the bush. An old man in Rogbom made the comparison explicit when he explained (in Temne) that when the children were taken away “it’s like when the society comes and takes children to be initiated—with no warning and there’s nothing you can do to stop them.”29 Michael Jackson makes a similar point:

Indeed the RUF leadership sometimes invoked initiation rites in justifying its revolutionary method of preparing young boys in bush camps for the violent, but necessary, cleansing of corrupt towns under such code names as ‘Operation Pay Yourself’ and ‘Operation No Living Thing.’ For many of the kids who went to the bush and joined the RUF, this desire for initiatory rebirth as men of power (purified of the taint of childhood) may have been stronger than their commitment to the RUF cause (Jackson 2004: 159).
When initiates come out of the bush, they have a new relationship to their parents. There are stories of RUF abductees being forced to kill their parents or other family members to distance them from their former selves as civilians and take on the new identity of RUF soldier. Again, Michael Jackson noted the same similarity:

The abduction of children by the RUF, and their adoption by rebel leaders—who were regarded as fathers, and called Pappy or Pa—recalls the initiatory seizure of children, whose ties with their parents are symbolically severed so that they can be reborn, in the bush, as men. This idea that war—like initiation, or play, or an adventure—is a moment out of time, spatially separated from the moral world, may also explain why many combatants anticipate a remorse-free return to civilian life (Jackson 2004: 159).


In addition, when initiates are in the bush, they operate under different rules than in their normal lives. They are separate from the community, and are fattened up in preparation for the circumcision ordeal by eating great amounts of the richest foods their families can afford. The RUF boys I met talked about a similar kind of plenty in the RUF bush. They told me, “We ate meat every day. Whatever we wanted we took.”

Finally, secret society initiation includes circumcision.30 Rebel abductees, both children and adults, sometimes had “RUF” or “AFRC” carved onto their chests with razor blades and then had ashes rubbed in the wound to form a scar. This marking is similar to a circumcision in some ways. People with the scars told me that it was done to mark them irrevocably as members of the rebel factions. In practice, it made people afraid to escape captivity, fearing identification and retribution if anyone found the markings on them.


How Sierra Leoneans understand Child soldiers

Most of the continuities I noted above are such common sense as to be unremarkable to most Sierra Leoneans. Neither they nor I would argue that it was their customs or practices of youth that led to the worst abuses of child soldiers. How, then, do Sierra Leoneans understand child soldiering?

In the section that follows, I examine some of Sierra Leoneans’ own ways of explaining the participation of children in war. First of all, they see child soldiering as part of an ongoing social breakdown, brought on, in part, by post-colonial economic and state breakdown. Second, they understand “violent youth” as a powerful historical category. I go into some detail about the history of the participation of youth in political struggles from the pre-colonial period on. Finally, I investigate some Sierra Leonean ideas about the nature of children—simultaneously malleable and unpredictable—that they often call upon to explain the worst atrocities of child soldiers.

Social and economic breakdown

Probably the number one reason given by Sierra Leoneans for the war is “wi no lehk wisehf” (we don’t like/love ourselves). This may sound unbelievable, but a public posting on peezeed.com—a web site for Sierra Leoneans in the diaspora—echoes what I heard many times from Sierra Leoneans about what they should do to help rebuild their country:

There is no sane reason as to why Sierra Leone should rank last in the community of nations in terms of human development while we are greatly endowed with such fabulous wealth and human resources. The first step in rebuilding our beloved country is to genuinely LOVE our fellow Sierra Leoneans and by extension our country. Within and without, we should all help fellow countrymen succeed in whatever ventures they engage in rather than jealous them or even try to bring them down (Saturday, August 2, 2003).


Isn’t this blaming the victim? Sierra Leone, and the rest of West Africa, has experienced centuries of unequal exchange with the West—from the slave trade, to extractive colonialism, to the policies of the IMF and World Bank—to blame for their position in the world. There is also the curse of diamonds (Smillie, Gberie, and Hazleton 2000; Le Billon 2003) and the war economies commodities like diamonds make possible (Reno 1997, 1998; Zack-Williams 1999; Nordstrom 2004). Yet in the simple focus on interpersonal relations lies a critique of the breakdown of a patrimonial political and economic system. What Sierra Leoneans are really saying when they say “wi no lehk wisehf” is that people in power don’t do enough to help people without power. In particular, the elders don’t help the youth, with jobs, education,31 or even access to corrupt political systems. The so-called “crisis of youth” is postulated all over Africa, where economic collapse has meant, among other things, that young men are less able to marry so they stay “young” longer. Consequently “Elders vs. Youth” are the battle lines of political struggle in much of modern day Africa.32 Of course, those political lines are not new in Africa, but they are taking on new cultural forms in the face of globalization and global youth culture.
Numerous scholars, both Sierra Leonean and foreign, have sought to understand the war as a “crisis of youth” (Richards 1996; Bangura 1997; Richards 1995; Abdullah et al. 1997; Fanthorpe 2001). Paul Richards is perhaps the best-known proponent of this theory. Richards and his student Krijn Peters conducted interviews with young rank-and-file combatants from three major factions – the RUF, the AFRC, and the Kamajoh militia. Their analysis shows that in one crucial respect it hardly matters to which faction a combatant belongs; “all tend to share membership in an excluded and educationally-disadvantaged youth underclass. Young combatants are clear about the specific circumstantial reasons they fight against each other. But they are even clearer about what they are fighting for — namely, education and jobs” (Richards 1996: 174). I heard the same thing many times from the young people I spent time with. A group of former CDF boys at the Brookfields Hotel gave me a litany of problems of Sierra Leone, mainly, “di big wan den wicked” (the elders are wicked).

Violent youth is a historically significant category

There is a long history of a connection between political violence and youth culture in Sierra Leone. In particular, there is a well-defined identity, shifting in name and shifting in political alliance, but always present. This participation has taken different forms in different eras, at times characterized as young people valiantly resisting oppression, and other times as young people working as the dupes of political elites or involved in violence only for self-enrichment.33 There is literature from different disciplines on the pre-colonial, early colonial, late-colonial, early independence, and late independence eras to show that the figure of the young warrior is not new in Sierra Leone.

Regarding the pre-colonial era, Dorjohn claims that war-chiefs rarely accompanied their forces into battle, but instead would hire warriors of outstanding ability (ankurugba in Temne) to lead their army (Dorjahn 1960). Howard and Skinner studied the period 1800-1865 in Northwestern Sierra Leone and describe the process of war-leaders recruiting local boys as part of their networks (Howard and Skinner 1984: 8). Describing pre-colonial settlements in Sierra Leone, Siddle notes that “skillful warriors attracted to them bands of mercenaries from surrounding districts (“war boys”) who became bandits, terrorizing the areas they controlled” (Siddle 1968). According to Denzer, the occupation of warrior was clearly institutionalized. Boys were trained specifically for war duties through a system of apprenticeship (Denzer 1971). Kenneth Little, in his exhaustive study of the Mende people, details the changes wrought on Mende society by the encroaching style of warfare starting as early as the sixteenth century. “Within the town lodged the local chieftain and his company of warriors, or ‘war-boys’, who acted as his bodyguard and private army in the even of a dispute with his neighbors” (Little 1967: 29).

In the colonial era, we see youth mobilized in opposition to the institution of paramount chieftancy imposed by the British. Tangri focuses on chiefdom level violence from 1946 to 1956. Citing the Cox report of 1956,34 he says:

Bands of ‘youngmen’—persons other than those holding positions of power in their chiefdom—often counted in hundreds, protested against unpopular paramount chiefs, attacking and burning their property, often alleged to have been acquired illegally. … Moreover, although the disorders involved large numbers of ‘youngmen’, they were not popular rural revolts against the elders. There was widespread protest against the general mal-administration of those in power, but … the violence was often instigated and guided by elders belonging to opposition ‘ruling’ houses, who sought to have the incumbents ousted from their positions of authority in the chiefdom, and then to supplant them with their own nominees (Tangri 1976: 313).


Tangri further explains that the chiefdom level riots of the mid-fifties were based on, “A symbiotic relationship … between opponents of the local establishment, who wanted to further their own interests, and discontented ‘youngmen,’ who demanded an end to the abuse of power by the ruling elite” (Tangri 1976: 317).

This pattern of recruitment of young men for political violence continued into the independence era. Nunley, in a description of the urban masquerade societies of Freetown in the seventies, also discusses the political culture at the time. He notes that the early All Peoples Congress35 organizers recruited young men from The Firestone and Rainbow Ode-lay societies as thugs, used to rig elections and threaten voters (Nunley 1987: 59).

One can conclude that the phenomenon of groups of violent young men in the service of opposition political projects has occurred at least throughout the last two hundred years, and became more intense in moments of political uncertainty (of which there have been many). This history of groups of young men involved in political violence indicates continuity behind the identity “child soldier.” What is striking in these historical descriptions is the similarity to Kaplanesque descriptions of lawless bands of rebels today (Kaplan 1994). Clearly, there is a continuity in the practice of recruiting disaffected youth into violent political protest, and a tradition of youth violence as an expression of wider political discontent, and when Sierra Leoneans talk about “those rebel boys,” they do so in ways that reflect that continuity.

Ideas about the nature of youth

We must also look to Sierra Leoneans’ ideas about the nature of youth to see how they explained child soldiering. Some old Sierra Leonean friends of mine discussed the common wisdom on RUF recruitment of children:

If an older person went to go join the rebels (perhaps seeing all the loot they were getting) the rebels would feel his chin to see if he had any beard. If so, they would send him away saying “we no want you Papay” (we don’t want you old man). The rebels only want young boys and girls because they are more easily controlled. If you tell them to kill they will. A big man, “no get da maind de” (isn’t brave enough). “Pikin no get waif, he no get pikin den. Rebel den no de frehd dai” (A child doesn’t have a wife, he doesn’t have children. Rebels can’t be afraid to die).


On one hand, children are understood to be easily controllable and not afraid of death. This is not a consideration only for rebels. I interviewed Obia, the CDF commander in Masakane, at some length about his group’s decision to use child soldiers. All of the CDF forces had certain laws that couldn’t be broken, or a fighter would lose his magical powers. Obia told me that the young boys found it easier to keep to the laws of the society.
O: Then the laws now, the very small boys, if they’re small until about ten or fifteen, he will have understood all the rules. So, he won’t damage the laws. A matured person, if you join him today, the law that you give him, he won’t be able to carry that law for long. That’s why some of our people die at the warfront. But when he’s fully matured … we have things that you shouldn’t do. We have what you should do. So when they give them those laws, they go behind that [they break the laws secretly]. So when they go to the warfront, they die. If they had gone along with the law, they wouldn’t have died.
SS: So the child is more able to keep the laws.
O: Yes.
SS: More than the big ones.
O: Yes.
SS: Why?
O: For one, most of the important laws that we have, the things you are not supposed to do at all … the woman, the woman who you’ve not married, it’s not right for you to follow her. OK, that’s another problem. However you wash, that yanaba will still be on you, for forty days. So it’s not right to do it. So, a child who doesn’t do it …
SS: Mmm.
O: So that’s one point. We have some foods you’re not supposed to eat. Like nut oil for example [the cheaper darker oil from inside the palm kernel] you’re not supposed to eat it. Pumpkin, you’re not supposed to eat it. So, a small child will be able to control himself, but a big man, he’s not able. So if you enjoy that meal, if, like, the time when they attack, if you enjoy it today or yesterday, today they attack and they say everyone go there, when you see them follow, they go and stay there [they die]. … So, that’s our problem … But a small child, that law, he’ll be able to do it. Because for a small boy, even to have a girlfriend is not easy.

On the other hand, children are understood as being capable of inhuman acts. These ideas are echoed by an old friend of mine in Bo. He repeated the notion that young fighters were more ruthless because they had no wife or children to worry about. He explained further,

“the young ones, ‘na den danger’” (they’re the most dangerous). In the RUF they performed the worst atrocities. In the CDF, sometimes the young ones are the most powerful witches. A lot of the CDF power comes from witch (magic) and sometimes young people are even stronger witches than old people.”

In particular, in Masakane I heard about child soldiers as young as three, called “bao tchie” in Temne, who were brought into the society precisely because of the strength of their magical powers. This is a kind of child soldier we do not often think about, and it is these kinds of conditions of childhood (e.g. strength of magical power) that we do not take into account when discussing why factions decide to use children.


I noted in the review of NGO literature that one of the common causes cited for the use of child soldiers is their malleability and weakness. Sierra Leoneans have a more contradictory theory of childhood that sees children as liminal and unformed, and therefore more capable than adults of inhuman behavior. These theories of the nature of childhood might seem like a contradiction, but as Ferme points out, “Mende representations of childhood are fraught with ambivalence. Given that power is inscribed within an order of concealment, people who are most manifestly devoid of it, like children, might in fact conceal it in unexpected ways” (Ferme 2001: 197). She continues, “(I)t is precisely when children are regarded as insignificant—as liminal beings between the world of animality and madness—that they are perceived as most dangerous” (Ferme 2001: 198).

Although there are continuities, and in some ways child soldiering made sense within the Sierra Leonean vernacular understanding of childhood and youth, this does not mean that Sierra Leoneans weren’t dismayed by the phenomenon.36

In essence, the activities of children and adult combatants were not that different (though perhaps children performed the worst acts more easily). When Sierra Leoneans talk about the experience of facing child soldiers as the civilian targets of violence, in addition to the horrors they faced, they point to the added impact of facing an inversion of hierarchies. “The one who did this to me was just a little boy!” or “A abul bohn am” (I am old enough to be his parent). The “fityai” or disrespect involved was literally adding insult to injury.

Sierra Leoneans also worry about the long-term impacts of the war on child soldiers, and the idea that as they grow older, those troublesome boys will become troublesome men. This set of children has “bad training,” and may not be salvageable. This conclusion rests on another assumption about the nature of children, that they must be properly trained in order to mature properly. What is disturbing is not a lost innocence (as in Western discourse) but a separation from family and training, and the idea that the nation faces the loss of a generation.



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