I Did It To Save My Life: Love and Survival in Sierra Leone

Joanna Lewis on how cultures and circumstances skew our passions more than we may realise

November 22, 2012

Love it. Love is the drug. Lovin’ your work. Love handles. Love To Love You, Baby. I?U!! XXX. Just some of the ever-shorter shorthand for the fundamental emotion that underwrites our lives, as lived or imagined. The beating heart; the twinkle in the eye; the lead in the pencil; the song of the soul: we believe love to be a universal emotion. Think again, advises Catherine Bolten in her fascinating book. We should not assume that love, loyalty, anger or grief follow the same logic for all human beings. Rather, she says, they are “culturally made practices emerging from and embedded in long histories of struggle and survival”.

Bolten is an anthropologist who spent months living in a town in Sierra Leone at the epicentre of the notorious West African conflict in the 1990s. Infamous for its child soldiers, sexual violence against women and girls, and the cutting-off of hands, the war in Sierra Leone was quickly used to support Robert D. Kaplan-like views of “the coming anarchy”: exit strong states, global-stage left; re-enter ethnic, resource-based regional conflicts. The violence in Sierra Leone also revived a racist view of Africa (aka the “heart of darkness”): a continent whose people were historically predisposed to slip back into barbarity; behavioural patterns as timeless as a wildebeest schlepping across the Serengeti.

It’s been a struggle to usurp these crude misconceptions. Anthropologists such as Paul Richards have long been arguing for alternative explanations centred on long histories of regional violence, slavery and exploitation by outsiders; on the marginalisation of youth; and on a loss of hope among ordinary people burdened by corrupt elites. Bolten’s research is an important, thought-provoking contribution in this tradition. Seven chapters contain extended conversations with seven people as they look back at their experience of living through the violence (soldier, rebel, student, trader, evangelist, father, politician) in the notorious town of Makeni. Occupied for three years by rebels supported by locals, even Sierra Leoneans considered it backward and morally lost.

Violence and suffering are interspersed with the memory of the ordinary and everyday. Rugiatu was with her pregnant best friend, working in the market, when government helicopters attacked civilians. “The gunship split her in two, and the baby was lying there, dead on the ground.” Ruthless rebel commanders ruled, including “Superman” - so-called because he liked throwing people off tall buildings.

Yet Bolten found a very moral world defined by love, Sierra Leonean-style: a concept of “material loyalty” whereby relationships are made and sustained through “complex, often compassionate acts of resource exchange”. And there is in this world a thin line, not so much between love and hate, but between love and - well - eating. That is to say, there are those who are greedy; who “eat up resources”; who fear and who are angry; who do not love. Thus the elite were despised for not loving their people; the Revolutionary United Front won support for not being greedy eaters. Love was “the logic of war”. Simples.

It’s a profoundly touching book. The naturalistic style and honesty of the author and informants also make it an excellent introduction for anyone who comes new to contemporary African conflicts - and it won’t leave you feeling like a thrill-seeking voyeur staring at a hopeless, far-away continent. It also invites questions about the changing culture of love, greed and social relationships in our own age of austerity. Does our lexicon of love measure up still? If Bolten examined us, would she find signs of refuge in old patterns of love - or just a new instrumentalism, a more materialistic exchange rate, and general superficiality? Surely not. BFN. Love you.

I Did It To Save My Life: Love and Survival in Sierra Leone

By Catherine E. Bolten
University of California Press
296pp, £48.95 and £19.95
ISBN 97805203788 and 73795
Published 7 September 2012

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