Les Roberts – “P.S. Realizing our Chiefs hide deaths for exactly the same reasons”

Les Roberts – Chicago, USA – April 23, 2015

What a lovely trip to Sierra Leone I have had. I worked with the coolest people… medical students, now contact tracer supervisors, having the education of a lifetime and not yet realizing it, former students and friends of former students. Being there in the era of panic and fear last fall and being back now was a wonderful contrast. Seeing schools start up again 10 days ago with that burst of joy accompanying quiet households and traffic jams for the first time in months was magical! But, what I wasn’t expecting is that the gifts of the trip keep coming even after being home.

I wrote a bit on April 9th about the chief’s lying or hiding deaths. I did not get into all the complexities then but with regard to reporting deaths and testing all bodies for Ebola, the chiefs are in a tough spot.  There are about a dozen dozen chiefs and thus at least a dozen dozen cultures across Sierra Leone, but in general, in the crudest of terms, the chief sits at the pivot point between the ancestors and the traditional forces of the universe and mundane world in which I walk. According to an amazing anthropologist named Joe Opala (who came to SL with the Peace Corps in the 1970s and never really escaped http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Opala ), the traditional belief system tends to believe that the ancestors and the forces of the universe only want peace and calm. That is, unlike Christianity or Islam, their god-like forces have no capacity of wrath. I had never thought about this but if your god(s) only wants peace and calm, and you live in a world with tangible injustice and threats and things to fear, you need something other than your god to cope. In the traditional village, that is black magic, and most typically is controlled by secret societies. The secret societies have all kinds of beliefs about what needs to happen when an elder dies, or when something special or scary happens. Typically, the chief is the one who calls the secret societies to meet but is not an active member. On rare occasions a chief needs to be removed and they might poison him. The village women’s society tends to perform the female circumcisions, the men’s society that of males. In some real sense, the chief gets his standing within the village, and thus his power, by keeping the secret societies on his side. Thus, when the government says he will be breaking the law when he does not report the death of an elder but the secret society has other plans, he is in a tough spot. No wonder the chiefs often lie!

So, getting to the ongoing gift part… I had an interview a couple days ago with Jerome MacDonald at WBEZ in Chicago. I botched a couple of things (called the ancestors elders, got confused with my own double negative…) but it was by and large the friendliest interview I have ever had. He had followed this blog and he just kept asking questions which he already knew that I knew the answers. He was fascinated about this notion of the chiefs being in a tough spot and hiding deaths and that was mostly what we discussed. As I walked out of the studio, I had an image pop into my head from two days before that made me realize President Obama does the exact same thing as those chiefs. He never discusses how many civilians are killed by drones thus far. He ran a campaign to be elected in 2008 largely in opposition to the war in Iraq, but when discussing the costs and benefits, he and almost no leader, will ever admit how many Iraqis have been killed by us. And the reason is, because if they admit the truths about deaths they will lose support from a key constituent (the defense community) that is needed to maintain power. So again and again, spokespeople and elected officials avoid or lie about deaths for exactly the same motive as those Sierra Leonean chiefs. While however grim the topic of denied deaths anywhere, here is where the story gets nice for me.

When I was five or six years old, one day I accompanied my mother into the small dry cleaners’ shop that my parents used. Being an ignorant little kid, I thought nothing of it when I said to the shop owner, “Mr. Bergman, why do you have that number on your arm?” My mother was mortified and told me to hush… and Mr. Bergman just smiled and went on with his business. In the car afterward, my mother scolded me to never probe into people’s body issues or personal matters because you might offend them.  She told me that the tattoo on his arm was because he had been a Nazi prisoner, and that it was hurtful of me to have brought that up. This was exactly why I should not stare at deformities or ask about people’s personal things, because one never knows what will bring pain to a person. I have not thought of this experience for years, until the last couple days.

On my last day in Freetown, I bought some cloth bags from a guy whose hands had been severed off, I am sure in the war. That was a famous method of punishment in the war in the late 1990’s. He was about 40, we bartered a bit, he was good at it and lighthearted in his bartering. When I agreed to buy six, he separated the bags by untying a sting with his teeth. When I handed him money, he dropped some so I picked it up and held it on a railing until he could take a stump and push the money into his elbow joint to hold it. Then he pushed the money from his elbow joint with the other arm stump into a sack he had on his side. As I held the money and helped him re-sort his bags he was giggling with the struggle of it all… and I think it was genuine lightheartedness as he had now sold almost all of his bags.

As I walked out of that radio station, I suddenly had an image of that man with no hands and I instantly was reminded how recently the war was, which made me realize keeping the black magic happy for the chiefs was exactly analogous to keeping the military happy for the Commander in Chief. I wish I had that insight minutes earlier while I was on the radio! Then I realized, maybe for the first time, that I had touched the stump of the bag seller in Sierra Leone and I had not cared or noticed at the time. I had become the person my mother hoped (but never could have believed would happen) I would become 47 years earlier. I had encountered someone with perhaps the ultimate deformity associated with torture and was able to not have it get in the way of our interacting as two humans.

What a blessing that Mr. Bergman was there to sow thoughts and feelings in the impressionable mind of a six year old. What a great mother I had. What great luck that one of the last people I saw in Sierra Leone seared such a visceral image of how recent the war was, making me realize I was hypocritical to think chiefs hiding deaths was anything other than universal political dynamics. How lovely that in this crisis, unrelated to any legacies of colonialism or abusive capitalism or any political crap, the world stepped up in a big way and I got to be one of that world’s tools of compassion.  What a lovely trip to Sierra Leone I have had!



Life back to normal: This kind of crowded activity has only been visible the last couple weeks since school restarted.

Life back to normal: This kind of crowded activity has only been visible the last couple weeks since school restarted.

Finally, it is true!

Finally, it is true!


2 thoughts on “Les Roberts – “P.S. Realizing our Chiefs hide deaths for exactly the same reasons”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s