Times Past Under Fire: Fambul Tok and the Reinvention of Tradition in Rural Sierra Leone — Samuel Mark Anderson

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Post-conflict interventionists often call upon pre-conflict traditions in their remediation efforts, since such practices seem readily available resources for inspiring a return to normalcy and a restoration of destroyed social relations. Samuel Mark Anderson explores the efforts of Fambul Tok, a locally-based internationally-funded NGO, to bring reconciliation to the grassroots level by sponsoring a series of village bonfires meant to evoke traditional family customs of peacemaking. Their efforts ultimately emerge as inventions growing out of a mixture of Western psychoanalytic models of confession and witnessing, internationalist reconciliation paradigms such as Truth and Reconciliation Committees, and regional touring spectacles of variety performers. A visual analysis of the bonfire’s aesthetics reveals that, for locals, Fambul Tok’s programs are not so much a return to traditional politics of peace as they are exotic forms of entertainment and novel recourses for conflict resolution that have the potential to both reinforce and subvert longstanding systems of gerontocratic power. To the extent that Fambul Tok is embraced, it is because of its strangeness, not its familiarity. At the same time, the bonfires’ public shaming of former rebels may perpetuate their estrangement rather than encourage their reintegration. The evocation of traditional aesthetics, even when they seem to arise organically from local practices, continues to generate new social configurations rather restoring old ones.

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