Several years ago I watched a documentary that stunned me. It's called Fambul Tok, and it’s about profound forgiveness and reconciliation.
From 1991 to 2002, Sierra Leone was wracked by a terrible civil war. The conflict was known for the widespread use of child soldiers, but brutal violence was carried out by a number of different factions at the community-level. The United Nations established a costly and long-running special court to try the top leaders and instigators of the violence but this left a problem: the top-heavy justice imposed by the court was not trickling down to impact the lives of victims and perpetrators who lived side by side after the war.
Enter Fambul Tok International – Sierra Leone. The local organization (whose name means “Family Talk” in Krio) was created to facilitate community-wide meetings where, after difficult preparatory work, perpetrators would confess what they did and seek victims’ forgiveness in public gatherings.
How could such a seemingly disastrous and painful plan work? The film explores this question, and offers a Sierra Leonean proverb as a partial answer: “There is no bad bush in which to throw away a child.” It means, in short, that an offender is not to be cast away and exiled but rehabilitated and restored. It’s a deeply held cultural value that seems quaint to jaded westerners but, as the film demonstrates, the results of these fire-side meetings speak for themselves.
Even though the film is filled with remarkable true stories, I decided to write a short story called No Bad Bush that uses this backdrop to explore the interior lives of Dema and Musa, a woman and a man divided by an unspeakable act committed during the war. After years of silence, they arrive at one of these community meetings and face an impossible decision about their secret past that will change them forever. You can buy No Bad Bush here for just $.99.
What lesson does FTI-SL’s work toward reconciliation in Sierra Leone have to offer the world, especially for those of us in the West where justice is harsh, recidivism is high, and offenders’ rehabilitation is too quickly dismissed as a pipe dream? Even in the U.S. context there are glimmers of hope for humane reform in the restorative justice movement, efforts to reduce mandatory minimums, and to abolish the death penalty. But we still have much to learn from brothers and sisters who have already found liberation from painful pasts through the power of forgiveness.
Watch the trailer for Fambul Tok, and then find a way to watch the full film:
Beasts of No Nation, a new film available on Netflix starring Idris Elba and directed by Cary Fukunaga, explores the life of a child soldier in a nondescript West African country. It is based on the book of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala.