4th letter, July 2000

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I have been promoted to an inept cultural director of West African dancers and drummers while still holding down my job as an inept basketball coach.  My qualifications this time having more to do with my inability to keep any kind of beat yet still insist on dancing and organizing others to move their bodies.  It seems that nothing is funnier than watching me try to play a drum and nothing more amusing than a white man trying to organize a stage show for a bunch of wild and crazy child combatants.  Yes, that is right… a stage show.  I have organized that they perform for the Canadian Ambassador and other Canadian expats for 'Canada Day' which we are holding three days from now…

Of course, I announced all of this, in confidence, without actually knowing if it could be pulled off and now it looks like it will indeed happen, simply because everyone seems to believe me that it is happening.  This is dependent on getting our stage act together in time, hauling 25 kids down to the Hotel in Freetown and getting them to the 'cocktail hour' of a bunch of diplomats sipping margaritas.  Monday is only three days away and we missed one practice this week.  I asked Father Chema about the transportation and he said "no problem" we can take them in the thirty person 'container' which is actually the most abused beat up six person Toyota mini van you have ever seen.  I peered under the hood this morning to see what the crowd of 'mechanics' was looking at.  The tool of choice for refitting the fan belt was a piece of volcanic rock and I had to admit that it was impressive that an engine stripped of every unnecessary carburator fitting, extraneous valve, pump or part could function with such pride under such duress.  When the fan belt was fitted on and the alternator pounded back into place two young boys wrestled a jug of water into the radiator which was spurting a tiny stream of liquid that kept hitting the fan and driving tiny drops into my face.  This leak was well known and of no concern whatsoever.  Every morning the kids ceremonially push the beast across the parking compound to kick start their day and the poor tired engine.  I guess the battery is dying.  Father Chema tells me not to worry as they got thirty people into the jeep once… so we will get there on Monday.  The humidity here is intense and I write to you soaked in sweat wondering if this computer will hold up in this air.  It was an evening such as this about a week ago that I decided to buy some more musical instruments as this place needs some music in the night to break the rain and heavy air.  Music, somehow seems the quintessential opposite of war, so why not let it heal in this place where war has left such a terrible legacy.  Father Chema said they already had a couple of drums and a cultural group but because of the rainy season and a lack of organization they are only playing on special occasions.

They danced and sang on the weekend as two of the kids here chose to get married. There was a big party.  The couple met in the jungle and were quite pleased to get properly married with a real party and the recognition of 130 other kids.  Of course, there was a spurt of proposals as people understood the idea might be a lucrative one worth taking up.  The problem was that the cultural group was feeling a bit abused because someone legitimately threw an appreciative one thousand leone bill into their midst .  Some of the children, taking the queue the wrong way assumed that throwing garbage and sand and mango seeds would be just as appreciated.  Jeneba, who is one of the caregivers and perhaps the most talented singer, dancer and teacher of 'culture' I have ever seen was rather dejected.

I decided that they did not really have a full complement of instruments anyway so we went off in an ambitious delegation to purchase the correct shakers, drums, marimbas and instruments with the hope of cheering things up.  My goal was to get more kids playing instruments whereas Jeneba's goal seemed to be to dress as many of the dancers up in fancy clothes as possible.  I quickly realized that, for the girls, looking snappy in fine clothes, including the proper grass skirts known as raffia, was far more important than having more drums for the boys to beat on in a mad fervor.  Indeed, the number of dancers has now doubled to fifteen, so there is once again a shortage of fine clothes and with the addition of a balangi player, four drummers, four shakers and three older women singers it is quite a large unmanageable group. 

Our first practice was something that I am quite sure did not happen on this planet.  Knowing full well that the addition of so many instruments and an official performance on the horizon would stir a lot of excitement we organized to get together at 3 P.M. the following day and move into the 'Assembly' room where we could shut the doors and try to organize things a bit in a civilized manner.  We also organized an order and who would sing and who would dance.  Three o'clock came and went with not a singer or dancer in sight with the exception of Kinda, Titti and Lambrana.  None of the boys, of course, would be the first to admit they were going to be a part of the cultural group until we started banging on the drums and announcing that entrance to the Assembly room was now 'restricted'.  When we pulled out the Balangi, it was all of a sudden very cool to be a part of the whole show and fights broke out over who got to carry the instruments.  I quickly ran to the door of the Assembly room so that we could try to control who would get in and who would not.

Staying here has convinced me that we humans are in a constant struggle between identifying with ourselves and with our groups.  The desire to 'belong' among these boys is pronounced in everything they do.  In the way they strut, in the way they run to join others, in the way they imitate things and in their fear of being alone or singled out.  Walkmans and strolling like bad guy 'rappers' is very cool.  Several times I have walked up to kids with headphones who were proudly holding a cheap plastic walkman made in China and asked them what they were listening to.  More than once they have not had batteries or the walkman was broken but the desire to stand around and look cool was more appealing than admitting they could not hear anything.  Today, I asked one of the girls what time it was but she sheepishly admitted the watch she was wearing was broken.  Her desire to be someone hopelessly locked in the idea of wearing a watch even a broken one and who can blame them.  They have been compartmentalized and labeled until they are either victims or culprits.  Some have even been physically branded.  Little Titti is all of twelve years old and has had the letters RUF carved into her chest with a knife.  It turns out many of the girls are scarred or branded in this way so that they can forever be recognized as the property of the rebel forces.  Some of them have used caustic soda to try to burn away their œbrands based more on the fear of being recognized if they are recaptured than the shame of a scar.  What some of the girls have been through is not worth repeating.  The point is that they have lost so much.  Their connections with family, with friends and security destroyed.  Here they have created another community and the fear associated with belonging is like a balancing act.  The more fear the more need - the more need the more vulnerability.  So they act out.  And they act in ways that would be funny if it were not so tragically catalyzed.

There is a group of boys around 12 years old, for example, that have taken to walking in a gang for the last couple of days. They strut around the compound and bungalows with their chests out, elbows back and put a little hop in their steps.  They try to look mean and tough and stern.  They have started to avoid looking at me when they are in this mood as I keep breaking out in an unavoidable smile when I see them.  Unfortunately this has caused a couple of them to also start laughing which is the very definition of uncool when you are trying to look mean.  Today I listened to them argue feverishly, pushing and shoving, about the magical power of the Kamajors.  One of them picked up a pipe and started shooting and talking about how they have witches who can steer bullets and transparencies to protect them and they are fearless.  There was shouting and pushing and shoving and arguing and then they would suddenly break ranks and start following someone around looking for trouble.  It would all seem like typical boyish behaviour if not for their underlying deadly history.  There is a good deal of superstition involved as well. I awoke several nights ago to yelling and screaming and put my shoes and clothes on hastily.  There was a huge commotion which turned out to be caused by an owl.  However, it was not just an owl but a bad spirited owl and soon there were 100 boys in the middle of the night chanting and circling the compound in a queer raving that went on for a long time.  Father Berton, in his own quiet way explained that they will keep this rhythmic rant up until the spirits have been exorcised from the compound.  He went back to bed and I sat on the porch listening to the waves and the ancient sounds of fear. 

I am glad to report that when they want to they can turn this into singing and dancing that would blow your socks off.  The trick seems to get them in one place at the same time.  When we finally did get them into the Assembly room for example and extracted the instruments from their pounding hands to set up a stage it turned out that we had no legitimate drum players.  I called for the dancers one by one and assigned one of the confused looking boys to the main drum.  Pleased as punch he began wailing on it making the dancers break ranks and pound him in turn.  Finally someone suggested amongst the screaming that so and so could more or less hold a beat and another eight year old was pushed from the back to play.  It was clear that two of the girls had decided that if anyone touched the Shagures but them they would die by sever beating and one boy had made a claim on the Balangi that seemed to include similar death threats to anyone that came within two feet of his flailing.  The din outside the assembly room was deafening as the other kids wanted in.  Finally an actual drum player did show up but about eighteen kids spilled through the door with him.  Solomon and two other adults were running around trying to catch them amidst the dancers.  The bamboo door was finally slammed shut when the pitiful scream of a child in pain rose above the din.  It is strange how the real sound of a child in pain is so different then the general screaming of kids.  Little salami, who is on a single crutch, caught his eye in a bamboo sliver so when we opened the door he spilled into the room pushed by the crowd of kids pressed against the door.  He was holding his eye hysterically and screaming and with all the blood I was quite alarmed.  I grabbed his eight year old wrist and looked at his eye, which was fine.  He had just caught his eyelid but all the blood was fearful enough to make him projectile vomit all over me.  Whatever he had been eating it was quite the sight and I could not help laughing at myself amidst all the pandemonium.  It was just too funny a moment!  Solomon hauled him off to an Italian doctor who happens to visit on Tuesdays.  I loudly pronounced that 'the show would go on' which only meant something because I was still laughing at the absurdity of it all and my smiles seemed to mean we were not going to quit just yet.

Our opening was supposed to begin with Kinda walking on stage and turning to the audience and welcoming them to the St Michael's Cultural Group Show.  Kinda, however, was captured from one of the Northern provinces and is not sure what a stage is so when she walked onto the stage she turned to all the drummers and dancers and welcomed them to the group.  This seemed to meet with everyone's approval except the few people who knew what was going on and another fight broke out.  I could see why nobody understood why I thought this was so funny. 


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