…a packrafting journey into the heart of Sierra Leone and Liberia's Peace Park…supported by the RGS Journey of a Lifetime grant

With Superstitious Minds

IMG_2794“Bro, it’s true, we don’t have any religious tension here!” my motorcycle driver was shouting over his shoulder, eyes off the heavily potholed road ahead, making his point in the most terrifying way imaginable. He then removed a hand from the handlebars so he could use his finger to point skywards:

“Up there bro, one God. Christian, Muslim, it’s all the same bro, no problem”

Except we did have a problem, I’d missed my stop by some significant distance and this man was driving like a complete mentalist.

“What religion are you?”

I hate that question.

Not because I’m ashamed of my atheism, but rather that admitting a lack of religious belief in countries where faith is extremely strong is sort of like saying you don’t believe you actually have a head on your shoulders. The question is never: “Do you have any religious belief?” because that is accepted as irrefutable fact. I hadn’t been in Sierra Leone long enough to know for sure if being a Godless heathen was acceptable and didn’t really want to drop the bombshell with a man who was hell-bent in engaging me in face-to-face theological conversation whilst driving his motorcycle taxi one-handed.


I felt immediately bad.

That was a big fat lie.

At least, I remonstrated with myself, I had been christened and had gone to church for most of my childhood. I was sort of part of the club, more Christian than Muslim at any rate. I gulped hard. That was a weak excuse. If my driver caused me to meet my maker now that answer was going to seriously cost me at the pearly gates. It’s one thing to openly deny God’s existence, quite another to pretend to be religious to curry favour with a motorcycle taxi driver.

“How about you?” I moved the conversation on.

“Christmus” he replied.

Ah ‘Christmus’. Neither Christian nor Muslim. An occasional attendee at a mosque that enjoys a Sunday service and Easter celebrations but has fundamentally accepted that there is just one God overall. A Christian Muslim: a ‘Christmus’.

Religious beliefs in Sierra Leone and Liberia were a constant source of fascination to me. By the end of my stay I observed that although the nations seemed to subscribe to one of two mainstream religions, beliefs were often underpinned by deep-set shared animist and supernatural tribalistic values. These were most obvious outside of the major towns but were by no means restricted to rural areas. Animinism, and particularly beliefs in magic and spirits, were widespread and absolutely unashamed. Many politicians think nothing of conferring with a juju man ahead of elections and many of the friends I made spoke of consulting witch doctors at times of strife and illness, then, of course, there was the presence of the black magic beliefs in the media, typified by the newspaper headline: “Lumley Man arrested with Witch Gun Becomes Snake, Escapes”.

As in my expeditions in the forests of West Papua it was the connection between animals, the forest, the spirits and the fate of man that captivated me above all. In Papua the majority of animist beliefs revolved around the notion that specific tribal groups could become their totem on death: the hornbill tribe would become a hornbill, the cassowary tribe a cassowary and so on, and those animals were afforded special protection from hunting as a result. In the bush bordering Sierra Leone and Liberia things differed slightly. It was believed some hunters, and especially during the war, some fighters, had the ability to shape-shift into certain species to avoid being seen. Most prevalent of all was the belief that certain animal parts could grant access to the very traits displayed by the creature itself. A local chief I met prescribed the scale of a giant pangolin to mothers whose children insisted on eating dirt: “just tie the scale around their waists, then, like the pangolin, when they put mud in their mouths they will remain free of illness”. I was told to ward my pregnant friends off eating monkey meat, lest they wish their babies to be born with the behaviours and looks of our primate cousins, but if they wanted a fat baby a necklace of the bones of the highly endangered pygmy hippo would sort it; bad harvest? No worries, just bury a special soapstone carving of a figurine: “with big head and lips” called a ‘Nomoli’, “if it doesn’t work we flog the stone,” explained my guide.

It is easy to pour scorn on these beliefs when your life isn’t under any real obvious daily threat. If I lived in the far eastern bush full time I’m absolutely certain I would place my faith in a spirit or object simply to stop myself from actually going insane with worry. However, there in lies a problem. In a society where, more often than not, illness, misgivings, bad luck and uncertainty are explained by black magic, curses and bad spirits, which can, in turn, only be interoperated by a selected few practitioners of the ‘dark arts’, the delay between receiving professional medical care is often extended well beyond the point of no return and paranoia and mistrust are rife. People die in West Africa and New Guinea every single day because they put their faith in the village witch doctor. The cycle is self-fulfilling. Death is not explained as a failure of the witch doctor, but a particularly tough curse, and incidental survival is lauded as a major victory for the dark arts. With local medical facilities woefully inadequate, or impossibly expensive, it seems many have little choice but to place their faith in the spirits and, as a result, suspicion of others can spread like wildfire. I once arrived at an internet café in Kenema just as a man was being accused of using black magic on another’s laptop. The entire place had erupted in argument till a young teenager remedied the problem with the old ‘switch it off and turn it back on again’ technique, but a horrible atmosphere hung over the room for most of the morning. It might seem comical but at the extreme end of the belief system is female circumcision, severe beatings in coming of age ceremonies, the coveting of albino body parts, and, especially in Papua, tribal war.

“There are some things Will. That you will never understand about our culture.”

The motorcycle driver was right of course.

I am just a judgmental outsider. A western reductionist searching for meaning when I don’t have the capacity or requisite experience to understand. The depth and intimacy of this aspect of culture was far more detailed and far more complex than I could ever hope to comprehend, also, in the case of initiation ceremonies, hidden from my view and conducted in secret.

“I was inducted to my tribe” he added, baring his scars: large welt like nodules right down his spinal column, “but I’m not having it for my son. It is not God’s way” he concluded as we screeched to a halt at my stop.

My personal interest in tribal spiritual beliefs began with a voyeuristic attraction to the complete ‘other’, yet, in Sierra Leone and Liberia, I also witnessed an inspiring open-mindedness when it came to religious and historical tolerance. This was exampled by the ‘Chrismus’, but truly personified by the collective capacity for forgiveness for war crimes. “Forgive but don’t forget”, I was told, moments after meeting a woman who could point across the room to the very man responsible for slaughtering her family.

Instead of fetishising and seeking meaning in alternative religious practise I should be focused on the bigger picture: this wide population who have transcended religion, geography and tribal identity to prioritise peace, acceptance and exoneration within nations that had previously been at the brink of destruction.

Tune in 11am on the 13th and 20th September for the BBC Radio 4 broadcasts of the live recordings from the expedition – http://bbc.in/1dSo54b 

Loved the blog? Come hear Will speak in London on the 3rd October for Street Child http://geckosuperstar.co.uk/thrills-and-spills/


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