As a result of the conflict analysis exercise and a workshop conducted earlier this year by the Liberia Community Infrastructure Program, (LCIP), participants indicated a strong resentment of ex-combatants by the war affected community leading to traditional cleansing ceremonies. Sentiments from both tribes indicated a mutual approval/acceptance of the Zalakai/Zalayei traditional healing process; only being assisted by LCIP. Villagers spoke of not only their support of peace, but more so, the importance of cleansing the desecrated land where people were killed, but not buried; sisters with brothers, but not married. Although past programs have stemmed from studies of post war conflict in other countries, the inclusion of traditional ceremonies integrated into western theory are influencing the real life healing processes. “We must go back to our ancestors to cleanse the land and women can restore the customs of our secret societies and traditional sites.
Prominent citizens from Lofa County still displaced in Monrovia and VOWPEDE were also encouraged to participate in the cleansing ceremonies. The other Lorma communities that participated were the Kugbemai, Betajama, Kpademai, Borloso, Lobaba and Vezela totaling almost 1400 persons.
Reaching the village of Vonema presented challenges of mud sliding, rock climbing and intricate driving to reveal a southern side of Woka Mountain. Citizens were still bringing benches as the program rambled to a start with the arrival of a cultural group and Vonema’s own musician.
The anticipation of the day’s ceremonies created a mixture of emotions as Elders, Chiefs, Zoë’s, Karamors and Imans who had agreed to come together, talked in a quiet rumble in the town of Vonema. Vonema, approximately 13 kilometers from Voinjama, unlike Barkedu a Mandingo dominated society was one only two of the 26 villages, where Lorma and Mandingo ethnic groups live side by side as though the terrible years before have long since passed. The Mandingo representative spoke in Lorma, as a sign of respect for unity, gave his rendition of life in Vonema. According to him, Lorma and Mandingo had always lived together peaceably and had both been afflicted by the war.
Many of the comments at the ceremonies were proof that past meetings were beneficial to understanding what the war affected community expected from the ex-combatants in order to move forward. The ex-combatants agreed the absence of these processes is one of the main barriers to their return and reintegration. It was now about 3:00 p.m., and the LCIP delegates arrived to receive a traditional welcome of dancers, to the village of Barkedu. Mrs. Rachel Muiru, Reintegration Manager, and Ms. Mercedes Cabrera, LCIP’s Financial Manager were met with the singing and dancing of a traditional greeting from Zoe’s and other villagers.
The Imam had given prior permission for me to continue my reporting during the prayers inside the mosque. The worshippers were attentively perched on their knees as if to begin prayer as the introductions of the LCIP delegation and their functions received response to “Allah.
“The quiet wise voice of the old Imam, explained the morning’s prayer in the village mosque of Barkedu was to focus on the libations to ancestors and gods, sacrificial offerings, formal request for forgiveness by the offenders, discussion of reparations, the feast, the cleansing and reconciliation.
The Barkedu Imam opened by saying to the worshippers and guest in the mosque, “We should open our eyes and minds to what would take the American people from their country to bring us together. They show their love. Educated and uneducated must work as a team or the foreigner will come to take over this country.”
According to reports and stories from many sources, the stigma of the age old conflict between the Mandingoes and the Lormas stemmed from land squabbles, denial of intermarriages and lack of respect of cultural differences. These issues still play a major role in the natural ability of a once very organized society to heal relationships in the social structure.
The Imam used a “two tree” parable to demonstrate how the effects of war and conflict afflicted everyone regardless of tribe.
Later that day the Imam began a prayer as a signal to the start of the ceremonies in Barkedu. Prayers from the Holy Quaran would be recited the whole night to invoke the God’s blessings on the eve of slaughtering the black cow on the Lofa river bank. The waters would have enough force to carry away the impurities from the communities. It took several men to bring the cow to the ground, before it could be prepared for sacrifice. There was laughter as more people joined in to bring the cow to the ground.The Zalakai ceremony continued with the slaughter of the cow with a sheep waiting in the near field as people were still arriving from miles around. The day’s ceremonies were not finished as many were still awaiting the arrival of the US representative.
The anticipation on the arrival of the dignitary from the U.S. Embassy, Ms. Tracey Hebert, (pictured below), the representative of the U.S. Aid to International Development. (USAID), brought small children running to change their clothes. [Shown above, Ms. Tracey Hebert, USAID representative, Mrs. Rachel Muiru, LCIP Social Reintegration Manager, Ms. Mercedes Cabrera, LCIP Finance Manager]
Children and other citizens were on the lookout for the arrival of the guest kept the program organizers abreast of the arrival of the VIP. Villagers lined the road for almost a mile with a section of the welcoming party in all white from head to toe in anticipation of Ms. Hebert’s arrival. The gleeful crowd broke into dance and song at the sight of the white USAID/LCIP vehicle. Ms. Hebert exited the vehicle and joined in the long symbolic walk to town as casual greetings from awaiting villagers continued on the brushed dirt road to the villages’ most modern structure, a central palava hut, probably made of dead block and zinc. Ms. Hebert began her greeting in Arabic, “Al salaam alakaim ,” and the crowd pleasingly responded, as she continued her message of hope for lasting peace on behalf of the United States government to a large crowd seated on mats. At each pause, the citizens and other attendees of Barkedu answered with “Praises Be to Allah.” Then Mrs. Muiru, a native of Kenya and line manager for LCIP spoke in both Mandingo and English as she also wished sustained peace for them and their children. This time the skillful translator spoke in Arabic as the crowd listened attentively as the facilitator of these traditional cleansing collaborations continued to make emphasis on peace and reconciliation.
A soft-spoken woman from the Mandingo tribe gave a heartfelt description of Ma Kebbeh, a Lorma woman with the God given ability to “put people together.” She said, Ma Kebbeh is a woman capable of exuding the warmth of an old friend or family member is well respected by all in the community. Both women then presented the USAID representative with a white chicken and white cloth representing purity of heart, a traditional way of welcoming people in Lofa. White cola nuts were also presented from other attendees as a sign of purity.
Brief prayers were offered as songs and prayer often interrupted the program.
[Villagers at the Barkedu Palava Hut]
Finally just as the day had begun, the Imam once more offered a message of peace from the Koran, and the formal ceremony proceeded to the feast.
[Mrs. Rachel Muiru, LCIP Social Reintegration Manager and the Barkedu Imam] The Liberia Community Infrastructure Program (LCIP) is funded by the United States Aid to International Development (USAID) and The American People]
Mrs. Edith C. Bawn is retired from the U.S. Air Force, now living in Monrovia, Liberia, West Africa. Currently serving as a Media Consultant for an international agency. Also editor for http://www.thetrinitytimes.com