John Caulker, like thousands of ordinary people in Sierra Leone, knew the reconciliation process in his country was doing little to heal the real wounds of the civil war. By 2007, millions of dollars had gone into a Special Court that was prosecuting nine men; and the Truth and Reconciliation Committee – while it served to help catalogue the broader story of the war – never reached beyond the district capitals to the ordinary villagers most impacted by the war. John had a vision for the kind of reconciliation really needed at the community level. And as a long-time human rights activist in Sierra Leone, and founder and Executive Director of human rights NGO Forum of Conscience (FOC), he had established networks and community connections throughout the country that could facilitate this kind of a process.
In July of 2007, Libby Hoffman’s foundation, Catalyst for Peace (CFP), began gathering stories of forgiveness and reconciliation in post-conflict African settings. A collaboration with award-winning documentary photographer Sara Terry, Catalyst launched Seeing Africa in Sierra Leone. As Sara witnessed, documented and shared the powerful stories coming from Sierra Leone, she and Libby agreed that these stories had much to offer the world.
While in Sierra Leone, Sara interviewed John, who spoke of his frustrations with the way reconciliation was (or, in reality, wasn’t) happening in his country, and outlined his vision for what a more just, effective and sustainable reconciliation process should look like. Libby and Sara began to realize that perhaps there was a whole new level of reconciliation just waiting to emerge in Sierra Leone.
A human rights fellowship at Columbia University brought John to the US in the fall of 2007, where he and Libby finally met in person. They discovered a perfect synchronicity between their beliefs about how reconciliation best happens; a clear sense that the timing was ripe for such a process in Sierra Leone; and that together they could bring complementary strengths and resources to making that happen. They began to design a program for community reconciliation in Sierra Leone – soon named “Fambul Tok.” The initial program design for Fambul Tok was completed in November, and John was back in Sierra Leone to begin the implementation in December, 2007.
Fambul Tok begins
Fambul Tok began in Sierra Leone with consultations with community leaders in all the then 14 districts (12 districts plus Western Urban and Western Rural) to determine the communities’ needs and hopes for reconciliation. Based on the results gleaned from the consultations, the pilot implementation of the program began in March, 2008 in Kailahun District, where the war started in 1991. The program has now expanded into Moyamba, Kono, Koinadugu, Bombali and Pujehun Districts by 2014, and a planned national rollout over the coming years.
In Kailahun, Kono Moyamba, Koinadugu, Bombali and Pujehun extensive community reconciliation structures have been established, and there have been dozens of sectional level ceremonies in which thousands of people have participated. During the ceremonies, scores of perpetrators have come forward at bonfires in front of their communities to confess to their victims, to ask for forgiveness – and to be forgiven. With the support of family, neighbors and elders, victims and perpetrators have been embraced by the community, and cleansed as part of a traditional ceremony held the next day. Learn more about these reconciliation ceremonies.
The Fambul Tok process in Sierra Leone continues with the development of community farms to provide a space for victim and offender to work side by side to provide for their village. FTI-SL also supports the dedication of peace trees, where issues and conflicts are addressed, community-wide social events, reconciliation football matches for both boys and girls, commemoration activities, and discussions about preparing for development. All these initiatives have one goal: to provide the tools for communities and districts to move forward sustainably with Fambul Tok on their own. In Kailahun, the establishment of the first Fambul Tok community-based organization (CBO) has already begun the gradual phasing out of paid staff involvement. This model will be replicated in other districts.
The transition to FTI, then FTI-SL
The success of the program in Sierra Leone generated a substantial amount of interest throughout Africa and beyond. Fambul Tok has been contacted by individuals and organizations from Liberia, Guinea, Uganda, Kenya, Zimbabwe and others inquiring about the applicability of the Fambul Tok model in those settings. This groundswell fueled the transition from Fambul Tok as a program of FOC and CFP into an independent NGO, Fambul Tok International (FTI), incorporated in October, 2009. Under the leadership of John and Libby, FTI continued its flagship program in Sierra Leone but also began to lay the groundwork for expanding its practice of community owned reconciliation into other countries, training others who want to work in this way in their own settings. After two years of operating with corporate headquarters in the US and global program headquarters in Sierra Leone, Fambul Tok transitioned in January, 2012 to a fully Sierra-Leone based, international organization, Fambul Tok International – Sierra Leone, or FTI-SL. FTI-SL, under John’s leadership, is partnering with Catalyst for Peace, under Libby’s leadership, to continue sharing the stories that emerge from this work so that all may learn from the individuals and communities on the front lines of peace.