This is a series of posts I will be making about my trip to Sierra Leone to teach with the US State Department-funded TechWomen program. See photos here.
Morning: Women in Leadership in Sierra Leone Forum
The forum began in a most Sierra Leonian fashion: a minute of silence for prayer, ending with “Amen / Amin.” Amen is the way that Christians end their prayers and Amin is how Muslims end their prayers. (Arabic-speaking Christians also say “Amin,” but Arabic is not one of the 16 languages spoken in Sierra Leone.)
We started the morning off with two panels: the first on lifting-up the next generation of women and the second on finding our voices. Whereas the first two days of this delegation were about future leaders, today was about current leaders. The room was packed with women leaders from Sierra Leone. We were sat in rounds, 8 of us at our table. All of the participants were impressive: they included businesswomen and social workers, models and marketers, women from a range of tribes and faiths.
One of my key personal questions for this trip to Sierra Leone is: why is this country so incredibly religiously tolerant? Many of the Sierra Leonians I have met are bone-deep proud of this tolerance — it comes up in cab rides and plenary sessions, during networking receptions and over the hotel breakfast table. Here are some thoughts on what distinguishes Sierra Leonian religious tolerance from the tolerance I have seen in the United States.
Deep understanding of each other’s faith cultures
The Sierra Leonians I have met have a deep knowledge of each other’s faith events, ceremonies, language, prayers and culture. This is a huge contrast to the clinical way we teach about different faiths in the United States, which too often emphasize the differences like we’re trying to make a pro-con list and not like we’re trying to understand how our fellow humans attach to the divine.
How does this manifest in practice? Today, one of the women at my table wore a tight cotton hijab. (Other women at the table were also Muslim and don’t cover.)
The young woman who covered made a rookie mistake and asked a group of older women for advice on marriage — our responses took the rest of lunch. The young woman specifically brought-up her fear that a husband might try to tell her it wasn’t acceptable for her to work. (While religious tolerance is strong, so sadly too is the patriarchy). Immediately, the women at the table, both Muslim and Christian, began disagreeing with this theoretical husband, reminding her that the Prophet’s wife Khadija had supported him and been a business woman.
This isn’t a novel come-back — I’ve heard it dozens of times from Muslim feminist friends from a dozen countries. But I can’t think of a time when a non-Muslim outside of the TechWomen community knew enough to say it. I also can’t think of a mixed group like this in the US, drawn randomly from the community of women leaders, that would have been able to so fluently discuss this issue in this in-community way. It was shocking in how fluid the discussion was, how obviously conversant everyone at the table was with not only the tenets but the memes of each other’s faiths.
A constant, unselfconscious assumption of inclusion
Starting the forum with a silent prayer that included both major faith traditions was just one example of this. I have seen others every day I’ve been in Sierra Leone.
- Our bus on the first day had a sticker above the driver’s seat that said: “Allah is Great” in Arabic and in English. Beside it was another that read: “God is Great” with a cross in the background. To the right, and a bit above either? A Manchester United sticker.
- A few others from my last trip to Sierra Leone in 2017:
View this post on Instagram
Just landed at SFO and wanted to share one of my favorite street photos from the trip before crashing. When I pray with my Muslim friends, some of the prayers end with "Amin," close to the English way we say "Amen." This van in Sierra Leone celebrates both of the country's major religions with one colorful paint job. Just one more external sign of the internal religious peace which was so striking to share in while in Sierra Leone.
These kind of reflexive, non-performative markers of inclusion are generally unremarked-upon, but they are startling to someone used to sects within the same faith tradition and separate faith traditions mostly communicating with each other via snarky jokes.
Nothing in the above explains why religious tolerance is so powerful in Sierra Leone; I’ve just described what distinguishes it from the US version.
But the results of this tolerance are everywhere: intermarriage is common; mixed-faith families educate their children in both traditions and let them choose; married couples negotiate compromises when their faiths conflict.
Our tour guide told a story yesterday about how he came from his village to Freetown; it was a long, delightful and meandering story, as the best ones are. But a key detail that stuck with me is that, when he was applying for secondary schools in Freetown, he (a Muslim man whose name begins with A) chose to go to St Albert’s, a Catholic school, because its name began with A, just like his. Of course, he was teasing a bit when he said that, but it speaks to the utter lack of interfaith angst here, the lightness with which people approach faith.
By lightness, I don’t mean to imply a lack of seriousness; in the two years since I was here last, I have watched my Sierra Leonian Facebook friends celebrate and mourn and live their lives. Their faiths — both Muslim and Christian — pervade their posts, which could sometimes be described as including a verb, a noun, and God or Allah.
When the 2017 mudslide killed 1,141 Sierra Leonians, including some of the cousins of some of my friends, my Facebook feed was filled with photographs of young bodies piled-up in apartment stairwells, waiting to be claimed. Those were hard days, even in just the small way they impacted me. My friends prayed online for their friends and family; for them to be found safe; for their souls to be accepted; for God/Allah to take mercy on them.
Faith is very serious here, very much a part of many people’s everyday lives. But it does not seem to be approached from a position of distinction — people don’t seem to proactively define themselves by a narrow, exclusive sect.
I’ll be asking my friends more in the coming days about why their country is so tolerant, because I can see so many spaces in American life that needs a dose of their understanding and peace.
For what it’s worth, our tour guide said he believed that the lack of outward expression of faith was a part of it, that you can’t tell from looking at someone what their faith is. According to him, traditionally Muslim women in Sierra Leone did not cover, and 95% of those I have met do not. I don’t know if this is the case or not, but I know I spent 5 minutes stalled by the side of a road as a funeral progression — complete with majorette and brassband — moved down the street and I could not tell the faith of the person being buried.
View this post on Instagram
We paused by the side of the road for a funeral. Kadie remarked to the taxi driver: “You can tell by the funerals you love your people very much.” He said: “Yes. We are a peaceful people. We don’t hate. We have high religious tolerance.” Kadie replied: “You must be very proud.” He smiled and said: “Yes.” #soundsofsierraleone #twsl
Back to the forum
Near the end of the forum, the moderator asked us to identify how we could raise our voices in the community. I stood and said that I believed in changing the culture in the smallest community we have influence in — whether that is our homes, our churches or mosques, our lodges, our schools, our workplaces, our cities, our states. Once we have an example, a firm place on which to stand, we expand to the next biggest group, and the next, and the next. I said we should have a clear vision of how we believed women should be treated and we should ensure that women are treated in that way in any culture we can control, ensuring we are not duplicating the sins of the dominant culture.
Being a geek, I said framed this up by saying that I believe social change is fractal, that every big change is made-up of millions of identical, tiny changes. If you change the culture of a church group, each member can take that cultural change with them to their other groups, and so it spreads, fractal-ly and mimetically.
Change society fractally to create respect for women – one small community at a time – create new places outside the dominant culture – says senior @TechWomen mentor @JessiDG #SierraLeone #twsl pic.twitter.com/7qqsQTRQv6— Katy Dickinson (@katy_dickinson) February 27, 2019