Youth Culture and Rebellion: Understanding Sierra Leone's Wasted Decade

Article excerpt

Abstract

This paper deals with the centrality of rebellious youth culture in understanding Sierra Leone's wasted decade, 1991-2000. The paper discusses the fusion between the mainstream and the unacceptable youth cultures, the emergence of an imagined community consisting of rebellious youths, and the inauguration of a counter-insurgency discourse based on pan-Africanism and violence.

Introduction

On 18 January 1967 a high school student by the name of Louis Farmer was stabbed to death by his peers. The accused, all high school students in Freetown, were arraigned in a celebrated murder trial that ended in acquittal or imprisonment. Six years later a group of working-class youths in the 'West End' were convicted and hanged for the murder of the proprietor of Travelers' Lodge, a low-priced motel in the city centre. Less than twenty four hours after the execution of those involved in the proprietor's murder, another murder took place at Mammy Yoko Street in the rough and densely populated 'East End'. The victim of the fatal stabbing was a bartender named Unisa Sesay. All six accused were found guilty of murder, lost their appeal, and were hanged, their corpses displayed outside the maximum-security prison.

These events could be read as instances of violence among youths, but they are also about what different categories of youth did or could do under certain circumstances. Murder or violence was something youths engaged in irrespective of class or cultural differences. The three murders implicating youths from middle- or working-class families are a window through which we can begin to understand the complex connections between youth culture, criminality and violence. The first murder involved high school students, the second, working-class youths in their twenties, the third, youths in their late teens and early twenties, some of whom were high school graduates or dropouts (Daily Mail,1967, October 10; 1973, June 9; 1974, March 1).

The murder of Louis Farmer took place after an athletic event--a high school track and field competition--an important component of mainstream youth culture in Freetown. The murder of the Travelers' Lodge proprietor was a botched operation; the accused were not hardened criminals but marginal or working-class youths with regular, low paying jobs. The principal accused, Johnny Grant, was a road transport worker. The third murder took place shortly after midnight when some youths in the 'East End' casually strolled from their popular rendezvous to the pub on Mammy Yoko Street. Their intention was to get a few drinks and, if possible, some cash. Their adventure ended in the death of the bartender.

These three events represent different layers of an evolving youth culture. They bring together the motley experiences of youth--from the mainstream high school student, to the dropout in the neighbourhood--and their collective relationship to 'the other',--the external world of adulthood and of authority. As the murders demonstrate, these were different categories of youth--high school students, dropouts and working-class youths --occupying seemingly different social and cultural spaces. The socially constructed borders marking these different sites, I argue, began to shift, to collapse, in the late 1960s and 1970s under the strains of political repression and the emergence of an 'imagined community' constructed around the odelay, the pote and the neighbourhood. The result was a kind of fusion, a hybrid of sorts, which brought different categories of youth together, and inaugurated a political conversation anchored on the use of violence. My central argument revolves around the role of subaltern culture in the making of an alternative political route to power in postcolonial Africa. The first part of this paper discusses the origins of rarray boy culture; the second is a sympathetic reading of aspects of their cultural practices as strategies of negotiation from without; the third outlines the path leading to the 'revo[loot]shon' of the 1990s--the wasted decade. …