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Fambul Tok: Forgiveness And 'Family Talk' In Sierra Leone

Nyumah (left) and Sahr, just a few days after the dramatic bonfire ceremony that restored their friendship.
Sara Terry
Catalyst for Peace
Nyumah (left) and Sahr, just a few days after the dramatic bonfire ceremony that restored their friendship.

Sahr and Nyumah were barely teenagers when rebel soldiers from the Revolutionary United Front stormed their villages in Sierra Leone. The two friends fled with their families and neighbors — Sahr to the bush and Nyumah to the road leading to Guinea. But both were captured.

Rebel soldiers forced Nyumah to beat Sahr, and to kill Sahr's father. It was part of a systematic campaign to turn neighbor on neighbor, friend on friend, and damage the social ties that held communities together.

For the 11 years between 1991 and 2002, civil war ravaged every part of Sierra Leone. Spurred by political unrest, government corruption and disputes over natural resources, the conflict ultimately claimed more than 50,000 lives. Many more people were tortured, raped or displaced.

When the war finally ended, perpetrators and victims on all sides returned home to try to rebuild their lives alongside one another.

In this week's episode of Hidden Brain, we explore forgiveness in a country recovering from a war that pitted neighbor against neighbor, child against parent, and friend against friend. We peek into the lives of Sahr and Nyumah, whose story of reconciliation is told in a documentary called Fambul Tok ,meaning "Family Talk" in Krio.

Fambul Tok takes the name of a ceremony carried out around bonfires across Sierra Leone, where perpetrators confess to their crimes and victims forgive them. It was during one of these ceremonies, facilitated by Fambul Tok International and Catalyst for Peace, that Sahr forgave Nyumah, and they became friends again.

We talk to Oeindrila Dube, whose research shows that, while these ceremonies are successful at restoring devastated communities, forgiveness may come at a personal cost: Is reconciliation worth the pain of reopening wounds?

The Hidden Brain Podcast is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Kara McGuirk-Alison, Maggie Penman and Max Nesterak. Follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, @karamcguirk, @maggiepenman and @maxnesterak, and listen for Hidden Brain stories every week on your local public radio station.

Please note the clips are from the filmFambul Tok , (c) Catalyst for Peace.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.