Freetown’s freewheeling graffiti

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The World

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — It was "Posh Money Makers" that caught my attention. Glimpsed as I whizzed through the Freetown traffic on the back of a motorcycle, the scrawled graffiti tag evoked an image utterly at odds with the gritty scenes flying past.

Roadside generators charging phones by the dozen. Cardboard signs advertising diplomatic plates for hire by the hour. Roadside mountains of ex-thrift shop T-shirts. Walls of tacky Obama badges and belt-buckles proclaiming "Hope." There were myriad ways to make money in the streets of Sierra Leone’s capital but none of them struck me as posh.

I soon began to see similar tags everywhere. I asked Med, my guide, a few questions, and began to understand — these were the labels of Freetown’s "social clubs," youth collectives organized within neighborhoods and schools.

The vibrant social club scene focuses on music and carnivals, but carries drugs and occasional violence as undercurrents. With their focus on belonging and allegiance, the clubs help boys orphaned by the country’s recent civil war to build surrogate families within the chaotic city’s fractured society.

Sierra Leone graffiti
Sierra Leone’s social clubs are producing graffit across the capital, Freetown.
(Tadhg O’Sullivan/GlobalPost)

Sierra Leone has a deep history of youth organization. "Rarray boys" — the unemployed urban youth — have long been part of Freetown’s multi-ethnic mix. From as far back as 1917 there are nervous press reports of territorial gangs on the social margins with names like the Foot-a-Backers and Arms Akimbo.

Rarray boy culture evolved through dance-hall scenes and local carnivals before becoming politicized in the 1970s, according to Ibrahim Abdullah’s "Youth culture and rebellion: Understanding Sierra Leone’s wasted decade."

While the carnivals and their music became a vital and unique outlet for protest against the one-party rule of the time, the violent, fragmented opposition that grew out of this culture was a factor in Sierra Leone’s descent into devastating civil war in the 1990s.

A series of bloody coups and counter-revolutions led to the death of some 50,000 people in that tragic, pointless war. Its bitter legacy has been the brutalization of a generation of children and young people, many of whom were conscripted to its numerous factions.

In the post-war Freetown of today the culture of youth organization remains strong, varying radically along a spectrum ranging from the violent — such as Blood Unit and Bullet Crackers — to the socially conscious.

One small club at the latter end of the scale is Flash Money. Its young founder, calling himself simply Salio, was keen to explain their aims.

"We just want to unite the youth and street children [of the area]. … [G]ive them things to do," said Salio.

At 24, Salio says he is a veteran of other groups. "I had a club before — California Social Club — at Wilberforce, but when I came down this side [of the city] I see plenty of youths around — careless, they have nothing to do, like street people. So I called some of my friends, to build up this club, Flash Money."

The name is not in an evocation of bling but a reference to slang for the crisp notes seen in the banks, as distinct from the grubby, flimsy currency that passes from hand to hand in the street.

But despite Salio’s noble ambitions, there is a widespread fear that the existence of social clubs represents a dangerous infrastructure, riddled with rivalries, that could take a dark turn should civil unrest ever return to the country.

Indeed, a dark element within the scene came horrifically to light last winter when a young student, Mohamed Juana, died after an initiation rite into the Island Club in Fourah Bay College, West Africa’s oldest university. The tradition of clubs is particularly strong at FBC but in the hands of the first post-war generations there has been a shift toward violent initiation and a more physical manifestation of inter-club animosity.

Government reaction to Juana’s death was swift — a total ban on social clubs operating in educational institutions.

While the measure was popular with a public phobic about violence, Anthony Koroma, director of youths at the Ministry of Education, Youths and Sport, has a pragmatic view.

"There are ways and means and institutional frameworks to identify those who are the troublemakers, rather than having a blanket [ban]," he said.

Himself a former leader of the Auradicals at FBC in the early 90s, Koroma sees the club system as a valuable vehicle for disenfranchised youth that can and should be engaged with rather than driven underground.

"If they [the youth groups] manage the opportunity properly there will be no need for anyone to talk about banning them," says Koroma.

And while a return to civil strife is possible, it is not likely while the trauma is so fresh in the minds of those who would be caught up in it.

"This war do plenty bad things to me," says Salio. "In my family, my mother born seven of us. Only two of us remain — me and my sister. I am the only man in my family."

In a country with such a tragically young population, youthful leadership must be nurtured where it has grown.

As Flash Money’s founder Salio puts it, "The youth are the future leaders … we just want to partake in nation-building."

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