Swords into ploughshares

Jonathan reports from Sierra Leone where he finds much hope in place ravaged by recent war

For a good number of us, an important part of living at Findhorn is leaving it from time to time in order to make some money. This is more or less inevitable for a community with a population of around 450 people living in one of poorest parts of Great Britain.

We have been able to do a lot in terms of strengthening our local economy – a study undertaken a few years ago by our local enterprise company estimated our contribution to the economy of the north of Scotland as being over 400 jobs and around £5m per annum.

Still, as long as we have a global economy distorted so as to make it more profitable to cut down forests than nurture them back to life, we will be obliged to look outside for some of our income. Not that I am complaining. Self-reliance in its more purist form is greatly overrated and all healthy systems need flows of information and exchanges with their surrounding areas. Plus, it is fun to get out of the hothouse that is intentional community once in a while.

This is especially true if, as in my case, such trips take you to truly interesting and inspiring places. So it is that I find myself in the second city of Sierra Leone, Bo, doing an evaluation of a Comic Relief-funded project being implemented by MAPCO (Movement for the Assistance and Promotion of Rural Communities) with support from its British-based partner, APT – Enterprise for Development.

The words ‘Sierra Leone’ and ‘war-torn’ have become more or less inseparable in recent years. The country was engulfed in an atrocious civil war for the duration of the 1990s, fuelled by puppet-masters outside the country competing for access to its huge diamond reserves.

In some areas, between 70 and 90 per cent of the buildings are reported to have been destroyed, and there is plentiful evidence of this in the villages that the evaluation team moves through.

Times of hardship bring people together in most wonderful ways. (I find this insight most cheering when considering the kinds of changes in lifestyle that the coming energy famine will impose on us all in the near future.) Here in Sierra Leone, something akin to the ‘blitz spirit’ prevails.

This is best reflected in a resurgence in cooperative, community-wide initiatives.
Much farming is now done cooperatively, as the villagers realise they need large teams working together to re-claim land that has been lost to wilderness over the lost decade of the war.

Great work teams are also engaged in re-building the community infrastructure.

One of our meetings is curtailed when someone arrives from a neighbouring village to say that they need help laying the floor of their new mosque. All hands are needed – even pregnant women and those with young children – and within minutes, the village is empty.

Revolving savings funds generated by the villagers themselves are allocated among the members to help pay for hospital bills, funerals and school fees. Tools and equipment are shared between all.

There is an air of happiness in the communities we spend time in – that great vibrant sense of well-being that will be familiar to all who have spent time on this astonishing continent.

Until recently, hunger was daily reality and the terror of war only recently passed. So many child soldiers. So many young women with children resulting from rape. So many that have lost limbs or parts of limbs in the gruesome conflict. So many stories of people fleeing their homes in the dead of night for the safety of the forests as the word passes through that the rebels are coming.

Now, all that is ended and the process of reconstruction, supported by organisations like MAPCO, is in full swing. MAPCO’s team of workers is as devoted to their work and to the communities they are serving as any that I have seen in 25 years working in Africa. The extension workers are often away from their families three weeks out of four, out in the villages teaching new farming techniques or how to operate the new soap-making equipment, weaving looms and other small enterprise technology that MAPCO’s engineers have designed and built.

Just in front of MAPCO headquarters in Bo, there are the half-dismembered carcasses of what was a fleet of armoured personnel carriers operated by the UN Peacekeeping force. Over time, this is being cut up and converted into agricultural implements, village-level food-processing equipment and tools for local enterprise. Swords into Ploughshares indeed.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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As the Johnny Depp domestic abuse claims reveal, we are too quick to make excuses for men we admire

The backlash received by Amber Heard for claiming she suffered abuse by her estranged husband is yet another reminder that men are always given the benefit of the doubt over the women they are said to have hurt.

Maybe he didn’t do it. Maybe that man you care about didn’t do that awful thing to the woman you don’t care about very much. Maybe this time, of all the times, is Gone Girl in real life and that man you like – the sports star one, or the actor one, or the musician one, I’m not going to specify – really is the victim of a vicious feminine plot to destroy him. After all, you’d know the real thing if you saw it, wouldn’t you? You’re no rape apologist. You’d never harbour liking or admiration for a man who was abusive or violent to women. We all know that this is at the core of your moral thinking, because you’ve been extremely careful to say so, explicitly, before declaring that this time – this one time – is different.

Well, maybe he didn’t do it. We know that 1.4m women in England and Wales experience domestic violence. We know that one in five women has been the victim of a sexual offence since she turned 16. We know that the volume of violence against women is under-represented in statistics. None of that means that this one man – sports star, actor, musician – did what he has been accused of. Perhaps you have excellent and compelling reasons to believe in his innocence. But, just so we’re completely clear: the fact that you like him is not an excellent and compelling reason to believe in his innocence.

I will let you in on a secret now. A sensational true fact about abusive men. Here goes: pretty much every man who has ever harmed a woman has been liked by someone. Even the ones who aren’t famous have someone to have a pint with. Extraordinary I know, but the ability to be popular with other men – or with other women – has never stood in pristine opposition to the ability to go home and shove your girlfriend against a wall, taking care to focus only on the parts of her body that will stay clothed and covered. Or the ability to tyrannise your girlfriend by jealously monitoring to whom she speaks and what she eats. Or the ability to take a woman to a hotel room and neither know nor care if she’s saying yes or no, or is even capable of saying yes or no.

All the men I’ve known who’ve harmed women have had friends. Sometimes, I’ve been their friend: because one of the strategies of abusers is to isolate the women they victimise, it’s actually easier to be friends with an abuser than with his victim. Unpleasant, I know, but true.

And even when we know what men have done, we don’t like to talk about it. It seems crass somehow to say “that man hurts women”, when he is surely a fascinating and admirable character in so many other ways. William Burroughs shot his wife in the head and Leo Tolstoy raped his wife repeatedly and Roman Polanski sodomised a drugged 13-year-old, but weren’t they geniuses, and wouldn’t it be a shame to let these sad lapses overshadow the genius?

And then, wouldn’t it be an injustice to restrict such generosity to brilliance and condemn the ordinary man? So that guy you work with gets the benefit of the doubt besides.

Because it’s not really about the fact that they’re talented or charming or successful. It’s about the fact that they’re men. There is a quiet conspiracy of power compelling us to preserve every crevice of doubt where a man’s reputation can hold on. It’s true that women are not believed when they come forward with allegations, but even the disbelief has an insultingly shallow quality – if her story becomes impossible to deny then the criteria for her dismissal can be easily changed, and the charge of “liar” replaced with one of “slut” or “gold digger” or “asking for it”. The reason women’s words count for so little is that women are counted for so little.

Hating women is a bonding ritual for men. The locker room chat about who they would and wouldn’t do. The communal rite of shared pornography. The trips to strip clubs, where men perform their pleasure in having women submit. The stags in brothels urging each other to feats of penetration.

Being liked is not just compatible with misogyny: misogyny can be the social code that cements the liking. Patriarchy would have fallen apart a long, long time ago otherwise. So maybe this time, this sports star or actor or musician didn’t do it. It’s possible. And maybe this time, like so many other times, she’s telling the truth. Maybe her life matters at least as much as his career and reputation. That is possible too.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.