Ashley: Kambia district is comprised of seven chiefdoms; each chiefdom is made up several small, sleepy villages. Chiefdoms, not surprisingly, are headed by several ranking chiefs, the most powerful of which is the Paramount Chief. The Paramount Chief presides over the entire Chiefdom and a Deputy Paramount Chief is second in command. With the absence of an effective and pervasive police force in the rural areas of Sierra Leone, law enforcement and basic governance is essentially the domain of the Paramount Chief (or the Deputy in his/sometimes her, absence). Each village has its own Chief who is usually accompanied by the village elders and religious leaders. Domestic disputes and misdemeanor crimes are brought to the Village Chief for adjudication; matters of critical importance go to the Paramount Chief. Suspected felons will be handed over to the police.
Lineage is the determining factor in the succession of chiefs and the position is held until death. Once a chief dies, his/her successor is elected from a pool of eligible family members by the village constituents, which suggests the title is somewhat merit-based. Factors such as education, political affiliation, ideologies, work experience/inexperience has little, if nothing to do with who is elected as Paramount Chief. Once in a while, a woman is elected chief. The position commands great respect and authority; it is considered treason to challenge or overthrow a chief and the consequence of such action is prison. Moreover, legislators’, government ministers’, and NGOs work is contingent upon the approval of the Paramount Chiefs in their respective districts. Without this support, the government’s capacity is weakened. This is particularly concerning in matters where harmful traditional practices, such as FGM, are sought to be abolished on a national scale. Without the endorsement and enforcement of laws by the Paramount Chiefs regarding longstanding traditions, there is little chance the law will take root. Many Paramount Chiefs are well into their 70s and 80s, religiously and culturally conservative, and protective of traditional values and practices. The notion of change is not always a welcome one.
When we first arrived in Kambia, Arun, the AMNet Office Coordinator immediately sent us on a whirlwind meet-n-greet tour of the important community members. Moments after dumping our bags at the AMNet office, Arun told us that it was very important for us to introduce ourselves to the Village and Paramount Chief and explain our purpose for an extended stay in Kambia. Admittedly, I felt a little nervous about being thrown in front of the Paramount Chief without any briefing on formalities or expected behavior while visiting him. How do I address him? Sir, Chief, Excellency, Your Highness? Am I expected to chat with him, or just listen and smile? I’ve never met a Paramount Chief, how am I supposed to know!?
The Chief’s house was a modest structure, nothing suggestive of power or status. The building was bright green with a blue trim, and from the street, you could see that the room inside was filled with people. I approached the house cautiously, not knowing what to expect. We entered the main room and shook hands with many men dressed in long Islamic robes, faces expressionless and voices hushed. It was not until we were told to take a seat that I actually discovered which of these men was the Chief. He was a portly man, dressed in full Muslim garb, staring blankly at the faces in front of him. Arun gave a quick introduction with little said to induce the conversation. “Here are the two Americans that will be working with AMNet for the next few months.” It was a long, awkward minute that went by where we waited for the Chief to speak…Jonah and I glanced back and forth at each other wondering who would have the guts to say something first. After mumbling a few words in Temne, he began to address us, though never once did he look us in the eyes. In a subtle and reflective tone, he spoke of the effects that the world economic downturn had on his community; the farmers were suffering and the cost of food was soaring, people were hungry. He chose his words with care and spoke with the type of eloquence you would expect from the man they call, Chief. He thanked us for coming to Kambia and urged us to help the farmers by educating them more on sustainable and effective agricultural practices. He stressed the importance of international awareness of Kambia’s struggles and humbly solicited America’s help. When we were sure he was finished, Jonah and I uttered a few words of thanks for his warm welcome, and that we were happy to be in Kambia to help in any way possible. I found myself rather tongue tied in front of the group, struggling to match his articulacy. So that was it. We had the Chief’s approval to work in Kambia, and we were free to go about our day.
We visited four of the seven chiefdoms in Kambia to help conduct a workshop on the Child Right’s Act (CRA) in Sierra Leone. The objective of the workshop is to form a Child Welfare Committee (CWC) in each Chiefdom; the CWC’s responsibility is to monitor compliance with the CRA and advise on any such violations within the community.
Most of the Chiefdom centers were out in the middle of nowhere. To get to Mambolo Chiefdom, we rode over thirty six miles on motorbikes through the thick jungle, passing numerous little villages, so small it’s hard to imagine they could be found on a map. After hours of dodging muddy potholes on rain eroded dirt roads, we finally emerged from the bush to find the rudimentary building that served as the Mambolo Community Center. There were around 50 community members inside waiting for the workshop. They were sitting on benches, looking up toward the stage where the Chief, religious leaders and elders sat above them. After we were introduced to the group on the stage, Arun began the workshop.
Every village, town or chiefdom meeting begins with gracious introductions and prayers. The introductions are particularly painful to sit through. Much time is inefficiently spent with such meticulous observance of title and stature in the introductions. Sierra Leoneans are very proud of their titles…this has been made abundantly clear in the long preambles at each meeting where every noteworthy person must have their standing within the community verbosely celebrated. It’s quite draining and I find myself getting more and more impatient with so many formalities. Its main purpose, it seems, is to make sure everyone is well aware of their standing within the community; you’re important, or you’re not.
We’ve had the privilege to meet many Chief’s over the past month, every one of them as different as the communities they serve. Some are Muslim, some are Christian. All show extreme religious tolerance and respect for differing beliefs, a very admirable aspect of Sierra Leonean culture. Some Chiefs are educated, others are not. Regardless of these facts, the Chiefs play an important role in enacting social change and development in Sierra Leone. It is my hope that NGOs like AMNet will continue to work directly with the Chiefs to promote the social welfare of the rural communities and vulnerable populations, especially women and children. Because there is such a limited (and corrupt) police force (especially in the rural areas) effective monitoring and reporting of human rights abuses must be the responsibility of the Chiefs. If the Chief’s enforce the Child’s Right’s Act and enforce laws against domestic violence, for example, there is more reason to believe that positive change can occur.