Sierra Leone: Using psychosocial tools to heal wounds in divided communities

By Kemo Cham

“I am Jenneh Foray, I am faith,” says a slim, elderly woman, reading from a piece of paper in hands. Foray, in her forties, was one of about 40 participants gathered in a small hall in Brookfields, a community in the Sierra Leonean capital Freetown, which is struggling to recover from the effect of political violence in the just concluded general elections.

Foray and fellow participants, mostly elderly women and men, were attending a wellbeing session, organized by a group of young volunteer social workers from the Social Workers Sierra Leone (SWSL).

This particular session, ‘Know Thyself’, is a tool used by psychologists to help clients describe themselves in an attempt to identify positive qualities around their social, religious and economic lives, which they wouldn’t ordinarily recognize in themselves. It’s all part of a long and interactive process of diagnosing the psychological mood of the clients.

The participants were asked to list down six words that best described their present social life. Foray, like the rest, had favorable descriptions of herself: Patience, Prayerful, Hard Working, Love, Faith, and Attentiveness. But despite her predicaments, faith is what best described Foray, she said, hence her strong feeling of faithfulness to God.

Then there was the session on ‘Grievance Stories,’ which sounds out grievances in the clients. On the piece of paper handed to each of the participants, they poured out their feelings, their stories bordering on relationship betrayal, loss of loved ones, domestic violence, and political disputes.

“I feel sad whenever I remember my brother who was killed by a policeman,” one wrote. Another one, a female participant, said she was constantly haunted by the betrayal of her fiancé, who left her waiting in a mosque, only for someone to inform her later that the man she was supposed to marry was in another mosque tying the knot with another woman.

And then there was this participant who was constantly tormented by the thought of his ex-wife who abandoned him in search of job. These and many other stories depict deep-rooted grievances, from disputes with neighbors, to sad experiences in the hands of greedy landlords across Sierra Leone.

These sessions by SWSL are part of an initiative designed to address a largely uncharted issue in a country inundated with a chain of stressful events – from natural disasters to recurrent political violence fueled by a divisive ethnic-geopolitical system. This, say observers, has left a vast portion of the population susceptible to various mental health disorders and, consequently, prone to a vicious circle of recurring violence.

SWSL is an association of social workers who, mainly through volunteering, strive to improve the wellbeing of the people of Sierra Leone. They provide psychosocial counseling to vulnerable communities and partake in national responses in distress situation. The organization, founded in 2012, notably work with deprived and neglected communities.

Hassan Koroma, its founder and coordinator, said this project, designed under the psychological model of forgiveness, appreciation and gratitude, was conceived in the context of the post-election violence that erupted around the just concluded general elections.

Koroma said this model is a tool used to address stressful traumatic situations. Brookfileds, situated in the west end of Freetown, is known to be a hotspot for violence even in normal times. But the trend can get uglier during events like elections.

Brookfields Hotel, located at the heart of the community, was the scene of violent clashes between rival supporters of the country’s two main political parties – SLPP and APC – during the elections, resulting to the stabbing of at least one person.

And after the announcement of the final round of results of the presidential election, video footages of rival party supporters attacking each other went viral on social media. At least one of those videos was shut in Brookfields.

Koroma says the community is just one among many across Sierra Leone which experienced similar occurrences, which have left wounds in relations among families, neighbors and communities. He noted that since such violent occurrences are linked to the state of mind of the people, failure to attend to them poses an even more dangerous implication in the long run. “Political differences among party supporters, especially between APC and SLPP, which resulted to violent confrontations and bitter arguments lead to enmity among community people and this needs to be addressed so that they can live in unity and harmony,” he said.

The SWSL coordinator said the whole project is centered on three principles, with the goal of promoting healthy lifestyle and stable happiness, which is good for every human being to enhance their psychological wellbeing.

About seven sessions were conducted within a three-hour period. SWSL volunteers took turn to administer them. Chief Ya Alimamy Fofana, the local chief responsible for the communities of Brookfields and nearby Congo Market, was among the participants. She said this is the first time such a session had been held in her community. And she believes the experience will revolutionize her approach to community issues henceforth.

“These are everyday life things. These are the day to day live problems I deal with,” she said in an interview after the sessions. “What we have learnt will help us live amicably with our people,” she added. Funded by the Lemondaid Fund, a US-based charitable organization, the Brookfields wellbeing session, held on May 9, was the first of six such sessions earmarked for similarly vulnerable communities in Freetown and its environs.

According to SWSL, the sessions were designed to help the beneficiaries take control of their feelings and respond appropriately to prevent them getting serious problems.

According to Koroma, a total of six communities were targeted. But he said available funds only cater for the four communities. Koroma says as social workers, they respond to psychological issues which people often are not aware of but which have potential threats in their lives. He said some of these issues have the potential to lead to more severe health impact if the necessary interventions are not taken.

“The most important thing is how basically we can help people to realise that emotional wellbeing needs to be taken care off. How emotional stress needs to be addressed, especially when we are dealing with different people, neighbors, family members…,” he said.

Sierra Leone is in no shortage of traumatic events that call for constant psychosocial services like these: from the country’s eleven years civil war, which left many drugged youths in unbalanced state of mind, to the outbreak of the deadly 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic which claimed the lives of some 4000 people, leaving nearly the same number as survivors of the dreaded viral disease. These survivors, alongside thousands more who went through the trauma of watching their loved ones battled a disgracefully fatal disease, and many more who lost their livelihoods due to the economic disruptions caused by the epidemic, are natural consumers of such psychosocial services.

While social workers are considered a crucial part of this, the profession is highly neglected by the government. This neglect is what brought Hassan and a few of his colleagues together to form SWSL, after he graduated with a diploma in social work from the Milton Margai College of Education back in 2010. Like Hassan, many of SWSL’s membership left school at least five years ago, yet they remain jobless.

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