IWM Junior Visiting Fellows’ Conferences, Vol. XXVII
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Preferred citation: Carpenter, Shelby E. 2011. Trust Building in Post-Conflict Sierra Leone. In: Themes of Displacement, ed. Shelby E. Carpenter, Vienna: IWM Junior Visiting Fellows’ Conferences, Vol. 27.
Trust Building in Post-Conflict Sierra Leone
Shelby E. Carpenter
My first morning in Freetown, Sierra Leone, was punctuated by literally running
over a boy’s body. Eager to check out the beach, explore the neighborhood,
and stretch my legs after my flight the night before from Banjul, The Gambia
(my other field site), I decided to jog the 1.5 miles to Lumley Beach from
Lumley Road where my temporary host family lived. As I approached the busy
roundabout near Lumley Police Station on this bright, crisp morning of December
23, 2004, I saw a boy lying face down on the side of the road. At first glance,
he looked about 12 years old and was wearing only shorts. It was about 8:00
and morning rush hour was in full swing. People were bustling back and forth
to catch the poda poda (public transport) on their way to work. I
asked a man if he knew what had happened. He thought the boy was passed out
and said something about drinking and youth. I too thought perhaps he was passed
out and sleeping, and I continued jogging through the intersection to the beach.
When I jogged past the roundabout an hour later, the boy was still there.
That is when I realized he might be seriously hurt. I was confused about how
so many could walk right past or around him as he lay sprawled half in the
street and half on the sidewalk. I asked people if they thought he was dead
but they seemed uninterested. I said that we should check whether he was still
alive and that we should get help. A man bent down to listen to his mouth and
chest and announced that he was not breathing. One woman said that it was not
good to touch a dead body. I asked why no one was moving him and whether they
knew anything about the accident. It was getting hotter and hotter as the sun
rose, and his exposed body had been in the sun for at least an hour and a half.
A neighbor came out and said he knew the boy. He said he had seen him wandering
around the night before and that he was crazy. That he lacked sense. I wondered
how being mentally troubled could kill him. I said that maybe he had been hit
by a car at night and left to die on the road. But others kept saying that
he was known in the neighborhood as a kraz pikin (a crazy child),
and indicated he might have been taking drugs. At the time, I was unaware of
how prevalent cheap street drugs like brown brown (crack-cocaine)
were in Freetown. Still, nobody seemed interested enough to get involved. In
fact, when I asked if anyone would go with me across the street to the police
station to report the death, a few people protested that it would be a very
bad idea because we might get in trouble since we knew nothing about the circumstances.
Finally, a man volunteered to go to the police station and tell them there
was a body in the street.
That was my first day in Freetown. I was profoundly shocked by seeing the
dead boy. I wondered how common such a sight was and if I would see more corpses
in the street during my field study. When I got home I told my Sierra Leonean
host family. The mother of the family said, “No, it isn’t too common,
but after the war anything can happen.” Then she launched into stories
about kidnappings and disappearing bodies sold for organs and killed by outsiders
as sacrifices. She told me to be careful and never to go out at night alone.
My anxieties were not calmed by these stories, but I was familiar with similar
stories of witches and jiins (evil spirits) that come out at night
to do unknown harm. I thought perhaps her stories were more urban myths especially
well suited for young children and outsiders.
What troubled me more was the fact that dozens of people walked around the
nearly naked boy’s body for hours and did not stop. What did that say
about personal responsibility? What did it say about their sense of trust in
the authorities that they were unwilling to go to the police station to seek
help or report the body? Why were they reluctant to acknowledge that he was
dead and lying in the middle of the road? In some ways, Freetown is the hallmark
city of over-crowded war-torn urban West Africa, which Robert Kaplan so famously
described in his introduction to The Coming Anarchy.
The civil war (1991-2002) had ended only two years prior to my arrival, and
it had touched the lives of everyone in some way or another. Perhaps this story
tells about the erosion of the bonds that bring people together. Death usually
galvanizes the living into cooperative action. In this case, it did not. It
led only to indifference.
If common humanity and death were not strong enough to unite people, then
I wanted to know what ties of commonality could make a difference in Freetown.
In other words, what ties people to other people? When do Sierra Leoneans decide
to act together, to trust one another, and why? What do those threads of trust
look like in Freetown and in urban Gambia among Sierra Leoneans?
I had come to Sierra Leone and The Gambia on a Fulbright-Hays grant to research
my dissertation thesis that Sierra Leonean emulations of Hunting,
that is, young men’s masquerade societies borrowed from the Yoruba in
neighboring Nigeria, represent an urban ritual response to trauma in the face
of low institutional social support. I wanted to investigate how refugee identity
and ritual performance are linked to Sierra Leoneans’ chronic adjustment
difficulties and profound sense of alienation from their own culture, a condition
Eisenbruch terms “cultural bereavement” .
When I arrived and started talking to people, however, they were not interested
in discussing the “trauma” of war. In fact, trauma was a not a
word used by Sierra Leoneans to describe their emotions or feelings of frustration
about the war and about life. It was not an indigenous phrase in the Krio language
but one they had learned to use when talking to non-governmental organizations
(NGOs) to show their distress and request financial support. It had become
a buzzword. They had learned that “trauma” meant something significant
to the West, and could be used as a magical appeal for help. But when the aid
agencies were not around, or had met their quotas, locked their doors, and
gone home, Sierra Leoneans were much more interested in discussing their dilemmas
and frustrations through the vocabulary and cultural lens of trust.
Clearly many Sierra Leoneans had undergone significant “traumatic” episodes
during the war, but the vocabulary of trust and mistrust immediately took on
greater significance in my research because it was the way that Sierra Leoneans
described the world around them. It was the way they often understood their
interactions with the State and with one another in personal relationships.
Distrust was a topic of constant chatter and concern. Whom to trust? How to
trust? They described a world where virtually no one can be trusted, not even
fathers. In such a context, how do people live their lives and how does anything
get accomplished? My dissertation therefore examines the development of trust
in two settings: Freetown, Sierra Leone, and the greater Banjul suburbs of
Serekunda, The Gambia. It involves Sierra Leoneans who have been marked by
long-term endemic warfare where distrust has been characteristic and trust
hard to find.
Literature Review on Trust and Distrust
A central problem with conceptualizing trust and distrust is that they are
essentially cognitive and emotional assessments of the trustworthiness of the
other party and may therefore be mistaken. Trust
usually refers to a judgment that one can rely on another party’s word
or promise at the risk of a bad outcome should the other cheat or renege. On
the flip side, distrust is a judgment that one cannot depend on the other’s
actions or promise because the other has an interest in cheating or wishes
to cause one harm. Contrary to the conventional view of distrust as an irrational
reaction, distrust is often a sensible response to potential dangers. Distrust
may also be an emotional response that coincides with unease and fear. Distrust
and trust are culturally filtered expectations, judgments and emotions that
are historically pre-conditioned. By this I mean that cultural values and history
play a role in society’s judgment of trustworthiness. In the case of
Sierra Leone, there were real potential dangers during its 400 years of slavery
in the region, coupled with real cases of kidnappings and beliefs in witchcraft
and poisonings during colonial times and post-colonial independence. The
11-year civil war added to these high levels of distrust and served to exacerbate
the cultural norm of distrust. In these incidences, distrust was often a safe
collective response before acting.
Trust and power have a close relationship. If neither party to a relationship
had power to withdraw from the relationship, their necessary mutual reliance
would be sufficient to explain their cooperation, and neither would need to
trust the other. Often this is the case in small, face-to-face societies in
which kinship ties are very strong and binding, and people are more or less
stuck with one another and are subject to sanctions, such as shunning from
all others, if they behave badly. Evans-Pritchard
famously explained witchcraft among the Azande as a socially sanctioned practice
used to control and organize small-scale societies to cooperation. It seems
that many small-scale societies can achieve mutual cooperation without trust,
as Barth has argued among the Swat
in Pakistan. Barth notes how men agreed to join the leader’s army in
exchange for rewards such as the use of land, other material awards, and hospitality
from landlords, who in turn owed fealty to the leader or Wali because of his
role as a mediator in their disputes. According to Barth, few people in Swat
society trusted anyone or acted on the basis of morally grounded decisions.
They instead used fear and respect to make others obey. Most importantly, they
acted strategically to increase their power over others by making others dependent
on them. They distrusted those with whom they cooperated, but they cooperated
as long as they perceived they would eventually individually benefit from the
relationship. They also used strategic and minute readings of other people’s
facial cues, physical body language, voice, stance, and movement to decipher
whether someone was trustworthy. Indeed,
in many small-scale communities and societies high levels of distrust are the
Societies in which distrust is prevalent may share some other similar characteristics;
they may be societies that are fragmented, with scarce resources and no protective
social net, effective authority or legitimate political institution, and in
which violence is rife, fear pervasive, and hope rare. When confronted with
these characteristics we find that trust is, after all, a luxury.
In contrast, there is a relationship between power and trust: if one partner
has a reliable networking resource pool available and a panoply of alternative
partners or little need of the other partner’s continued cooperation,
that party’s power must disrupt the possibility of trust and trustworthiness
and may even instill distrust. Modest power entails the possibility of trust,
while great power asymmetry may commonly entail active distrust, and lack of
power by either party blocks concern with trust altogether. This
is particularly relevant in voluntary associations in which membership roles
are hierarchical but allow for movement either up or down the ladder. If associational
participation is based on merit, a philosophy of brotherhood, and is open to
all economic classes and ethnic backgrounds, then the open spaces created allow
for a certain creativity to defy cultural norms of distrust and may actually
work in favor of building trust.
Moreover, if there is a moderate asymmetry of power, the powerful party may
be able to trust the weaker party more (and over a wider range of issues) while
the weaker party can also trust the more powerful one. This is one way that
power is important in almost all relationships of trust. For example, senior
Hunters can entrust junior Hunters with a variety of tasks and skills, because
their reputation and goodwill are on the line. Trust is useful not only in
coercive relationships but also in fairly straightforward exchange relationships.
In West Africa, there are many examples of patron-client relationships that
help to build either healthy, protective relationships of trust, or coercive,
destructive relationships of distrust. The restriction of resources among patron-client
relationships is often described as one of the reasons that the Sierra Leonean
government was weakened and destabilized to such an extent that it was unable
to effectively govern and prevent the civil war from occurring.
In contrast, modest power within associational life, such as occurs in Hunting
societies, means that there is
protection to be gained if individuals stay in the relationship. Farrell  essentially
measures the cost of withdrawing from a relationship as inversely proportional
to power. Low cost of withdrawal implies high power; high cost implies low
power. And this may be one of the many reasons why Sierra Leoneans decide to
initiate and often remain members throughout their entire lives. The power
offered through associating with hunting is hard to find elsewhere in the fragmented
society and so members stay put, enjoying and working toward building greater
trust and reciprocity. In return they gain valuable access to a network of
brothers as well as protection. Understanding
how trust develops in situations where mistrust is endemic is critical for
the mitigation of ethnic and religious tensions.
One thing that is key to understanding relationships of trust is reciprocity.
Multiple studies tell us that cooperation is not essential to the foundation
of trustworthy relationships; rather, reciprocity is key. There
is an intimate relationship between trust and expectations of reciprocity.
In this regard, I am using the sociological definition of trust networks as
those “based on achieved role expectations, united by organic forms of
solidarity where the obligations of mutual reciprocity are based on contractual
relationships rather than status attributes.” These
networks may have a greater chance of longevity when they are based on reciprocal
bonds, because trust is the forging of unconditional bonds with entities that
are by their very nature actually highly conditioned either by time, the nature
of the relationship, or the object or labor of exchange. This paradox is disguised
in multiple fashions to appear as unconditional faith even though, in reality,
trust is far from unconditional. According to Seligman, we trust others as
a result of our knowledge about the others’ reputation and act accordingly.
Defining trust by reciprocal obligations of relationships predicated by certain
customs and conditions makes the nature of reciprocity a key element to understanding
how trust is formed.
This brings me to a discussion about friendship networks and trust in urban,
poor West Africa. Keith Hart writes
an astonishing portrayal of how trust works among the Frafra community in Accra,
Ghana. The Frafra migrants face the problem of establishing economic forms
and durable relations of partnership and hierarchy in the city slum. Traditional
means offer little confidence in outcomes established by contract or through
kinship networks, and instead the Frafras fall back on associations, most notably
the act of goodwill through the sphere of social life that people, perhaps
friends, make out of their free-floating associations. At
times the Frafras organize themselves along friendship ties, sometimes for
illicit purposes, or in order to receive and collect loans. Overall, they use
friends as a means to create an informal economy in a society where their marginal
status excludes them from other forms of participation.
Hart’s article draws upon two points that I wish to make concerning
my research of networks of trust in Sierra Leone. The first is that not all
forms of trust are necessarily good in themselves or good for society. The
trust established among bands of thieves and mafioso families are but two such
examples of networks of trust that are socially corrosive. Nonetheless, thieves
and Mafias require relations of trust in order to carry out economic transactions
from simple to complex. Without trust, the success of their enterprises would
be improbable. Sierra Leonean activities in secret urban Hunting societies
have been (dubiously) portrayed as negative and have been linked to State corruption
and state-sponsored violence, as well as to fighting during the recent war
to protect civilians. For them too, mutual trust is an important aspect in
all of their activities, from sharing secrets to masquerades and obligatory
My second point is that sometimes secret societies are friendship associations
and relations of trust offer alternatives to kinship and contract. If these
secret societies are well entrenched in cultural norms and leak into political
and economic structures (illicit or not), then they in turn create potential
networks of trust – providing a convincing institution for both bonding
and bridging forms of trust. This is a line of argument I will flesh out in
Being unable to trust someone need not imply active distrust. One might lack
enough information about someone to make a decision, and therefore simply not
act. Time is also an important factor and generally we find that trust, like
reciprocity, is an on-going, cyclical process that tends to repeat itself.
If there is a lag or conflict, the trusting relationship suffers. In Sierra
Leone, familiarity with someone, even a family member, is not sufficient to
enable trust. This is due in part to the deep feelings of disappointment many
Sierra Leoneans experienced with the breakdown of traditional family structures
because of long-term forced migration and war. During the 11-year civil war,
more than half a million people died in the fighting, victims of systematic
mutilation. Rebels raped, pillaged, and cut the limbs off of thousands of civilians.
Out of a total population of 4 million Sierra Leoneans, two-thirds became refugees
outside the country’s borders or were forced to leave their villages
to escape the rebels. As a result, families were separated over and over again
in the episodic guerilla warfare. An estimated 100,000 children were abducted,
drugged with crack-cocaine, and forced to become child soldiers. During the
war, no one really knew who was a rebel or a child, who was a civilian or a
killer. Soldiers changed sides to join rebel forces, and Nigerian Peacekeepers
raped and killed civilians.
In the most brutal form of “dirty war” the “civilian stands
at the heart – and on the frontline – of war”,
and mass confusion and the struggle for survival prevail. Nordstrom writes
that in dirty wars combatants do not gain victory through military or battlefield
strategies but through terrorizing the civilian population to enforce political
acquiescence. The torture and killing of one person are not intended solely
to destroy an individual’s body but to destroy the whole ‘body
politic’. Rape, mutilation, and murder are used as public performance
to inspire dread and construct a “culture of terror”. Thus,
the absurdity of Sierra Leone’s own dirty war was heightened by the merging
of victim and perpetrator and the uncertainty of who the next victim might
be. Many civilians did not even know what the fighting was about or why it
was directed against them.
In the environment of Sierra Leone’s civil war and the post-war context,
children grew up either running from every stranger, or challenging every stranger
to see what they could get from the often dangerous, short-term relationship.
Many families were split in the years of fighting and even after being reunited
with kin, the economic and psychological strains were great and indefinite.
Many Sierra Leoneans were left weary of trusting and relying upon family members
for support. Families that were able to reunite after the war were unable to
provide for even the most basic needs of their members. As in my own fictive
family in Freetown, most young adults and children had left their own families
in search of more reliable and stable relationships. The years of conflict
had not only broken down the political and economic institutions in the country,
but as I will argue, seriously challenged family structures as well. From my
own observations, by the time young adults reached 20 years of age, they were
already so disillusioned and disappointed with broken promises and failure
of kin relations’ to provide stability and safety that family became
just another example of a fragile and unreliable support network.
In fact, in Sierra Leone, sometimes the closer the kin the more dangerous
they are and the less likely one is to trust them with important information
and secrets. Often too much familiarity with extended family or kin prompted
distrust. Children are taught not to trust anyone, not even their parents,
in order to ensure safety and to protect themselves against betrayal. This
fear correlates with the prevalent belief in witchcraft and the pervasive fear
of jealousy. I was privy to numerous stories of witchcraft and use of “the
witch gun” by close family members in order to seek revenge or attack
other family members whom they feared or saw as successful. As the nearest
to you, family members know the most about you and become embroiled in deep
family secrets or battles and may well wish to do you harm. They also might
have more reasons to be jealous than outsiders or to carry a grudge or to harbor
ill feelings and resentment against you. If they decide to act on these feelings,
they are already in dangerously close proximity and can engage in witchcraft,
spells, and curses. These might be administered through your food or drink
or put on your person unbeknownst to you. Therefore, while extended family
members and siblings are probably the closest to you within the family, they
may also be the most fragile trustworthy relations as well because of potential
harm through witchcraft and because of potential betrayal through multiple
disappointments due to the uncertainty of life after the war.
Thus, trusting and trustworthy behavior and attitudes are not unchanging
and universal attributes of individuals or of families but are the result of
multiple contextual and individual attributes. Understanding trust and the
conditions that are conducive to trust in Sierra Leone is a challenging task,
but for many Sierra Leoneans trust is not predicated by kin relations, or contract, but
rather activated through a process of emotionally meaningful and reciprocal
relationships of friendship networks such as those found in the norms, values,
and practices of Hunting societies.
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1. Kaplan, 2000.
2. Eisenbruch, 1991, 1992.
3. Larson, 2004.
4. Deutsch, 1958; Luhmann, 1979:25,
1988:97; Coleman, 1990:91; Hardin, 1993: 516; Dasgupta, 1988:51-
52; Luhmann, 1988:97; Gambetta, 1988b:217.
5. Larson, 2004:35.
6. Porter, 1963.
7. Cook and Hardin, 2001; Hardin, 1999.
8. Barth, 1985.
9. Lindholm, 1982.
10. Gregor, 1987.
11. Farrell, 2004.
12. Richards, 1996.
13. I use the Krio term Hunting to
mean the urban hunting societies of the Yoruba diaspora. If I refer to traditional
hunting societies, I will use the Mende word Kamajors. Hunting adopted
its Krio name in the early 1800s from Odelay, translated from Yoruba
as lay societies of Odeh (literally animal or fish catcher). Trust
is also the Krio term used to describe roughly its English equivalent. Henceforth,
when referring to these societies or their members, I will use capital letters
to distinguish from the general categories of hunting and hunters.
14. Farrell, 2004.
15. Sierra Leoneans
view protection as both that which is provided from within the network and
protection from the Hunter’s herbal knowledge used to ward off evil
spirits or bewitching spells, and for medicinal purposes.
16. Ostrom and Walker, 2005; Seligman,
2000; Shipton, 2007, McCabe, 2005.
17. Seligman, 2000:4.
18. Hart, 1988.
19. Hart, 1988:189.
20. Nordstrom, 1991:6.
21. Nordstrom 1992: 263.
22. Most anthropologists
and sociologists who write about “contract” in opposition to “kinship” are
still grounding their distinction in Henry Maine’s discussion of “status” and “contract,” in
his classic Ancient Law (1861). To him, it meant (something like)
any sort of agreement you enter voluntarily, rather than being born into (this
is what he called a “status” relationship or position). I am using
a narrower definition of “contract” to mean a formal, written agreement
between individuals, or between individuals and institutions.