The Paradox of Forgiveness | Hidden Brain Following 11 years of brutal civil war, perpetrators and victims are forging peace around bonfires across Sierra Leone.
NPR logo

Fambul Tok: Forgiveness And 'Family Talk' In Sierra Leone

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Fambul Tok: Forgiveness And 'Family Talk' In Sierra Leone

Fambul Tok: Forgiveness And 'Family Talk' In Sierra Leone

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Thousands of children under the age of 15 have been directly involved in the conflict in Sierra Leone.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The United Nations Refugee Agency says it believes soldiers loyal to the former military regime are holding many civilians as hostages.


For more than a decade, the West African nation of Sierra Leone was ravaged by a brutal civil war.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: The fighting was triggered by the refusal...


RENEE MONTAGNE, BYLINE: In the struggle for control of the West African nation since last month's brutal rebel attack on the capital, Freetown...

VEDANTAM: Children as young as seven were given machetes and machine guns and forced to become killers.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: From systematic amputation of limbs to mass rape, murder and enslavement of the civilian population...


STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Some election days are more momentous than others - for example, today in Sierra Leone. The West African nation is attempting to elect a legitimate government after a decade of brutal civil war in the first multiparty election there in 25 years.

VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Today, we're talking about reconciliation. Now, when we talk about forgiveness, we usually mean forgiving minor violations. It's one thing to forgive someone who says something offensive or steals your purse or accidentally crashes a car into yours. But could you forgive a neighbor who kills your father or cuts off your hand? Could you continue to live next door to that person? Could you go back to being just neighbors?

OEINDRILA DUBE: I was always fascinated by this question of how we can restitch the fabric of society in the aftermath of war.

VEDANTAM: This is Oeindrila Dube. She is an assistant professor of political science and economics at New York University. And here is the question she set out to answer. Can there really be reconciliation after atrocities on the scale seen in Sierra Leone?

DUBE: Over 50,000 people were killed. Thousands more were raped and amputated. And a lot of this violence was actually neighbor-on-neighbor. So when a conflict like this came to an end, you could find yourself living next door to someone who was responsible for amputating you or for hurting your family members. And, you know, the question that I really wanted to ask is how does a community move on from something like this?

UNIDENTIFIED PRODUCER #1: (Reading) I was a small boy when the war entered my village.

VEDANTAM: This is Nyumah. He's from a small village in eastern Sierra Leone.

UNIDENTIFIED PRODUCER #1: (Reading) Everyone packed their bags and began to flee to Guinea. We met the rebels on the road. They looked at me keenly and said, no. They would not let me pass. I was captured. While I was with them, they also captured my friend by the name of Sahr. I knew Sahr very well. We grew up together.

VEDANTAM: And here is Sahr, Nyumah's childhood friend.

UNIDENTIFIED PRODUCER #2: (Reading) This war really destroyed me. When the rebels invaded, they captured me in the bush and my father too.

VEDANTAM: You're hearing two producers read subtitles from a documentary made by a nonprofit group called Catalyst for Peace. The rebels asked Nyumah to do something terrible. It was part of a systematic pattern they were using to turn friend on friend, neighbor on neighbor and destroy the social ties that held communities together.

UNIDENTIFIED PRODUCER #1: (Reading) They commanded me to beat him up. I refused and said, this is my friend; I won't do it.

VEDANTAM: But the rebels weren't making a request. They were issuing a command. A rebel fighter raised his gun and aimed it at Nyumah.

UNIDENTIFIED PRODUCER #1: (Reading) Then they shot me.

VEDANTAM: The bullet pierced Nyumah on his right side, just at the hip. Nyumah felt he had no option. He turned on his childhood friend.

UNIDENTIFIED PRODUCER #1: (Reading) I beat him.

VEDANTAM: The rebels handed Sahr a knife.

UNIDENTIFIED PRODUCER #2: (Reading) They gave me a knife and told me to kill my father. But I told them I wouldn't kill my own father.

VEDANTAM: The rebels handed the knife to Nyumah. At gunpoint, they ordered him to kill Sahr's father. Fearing for his own life, Nyumah took the knife. He slit the throat of his friend's father.

UNIDENTIFIED PRODUCER #1: (Reading) But in my mind, I thought my friend would not blame me. I was forced to do it.

VEDANTAM: After the war was over, a nonprofit group named Fambul Tok began to organize reconciliation ceremonies in different villages.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Fambul Tok is Creole for family talk. And it's an old tradition. It's as old as Sierra Leone itself.

DUBE: There is an actual reconciliation ceremony that takes place which is a two-day event where people from these 10 villages in this community come to participate.

VEDANTAM: Oeindrila was working with another nonprofit group called Innovations for Poverty Action, which was active in Sierra Leone. When Oeindrila heard about Fambul Tok's work, she was immediately intrigued. Steeped in tradition, the reconciliation ceremonies call for community members to confront one another in a public setting, admit to wrongdoing and seek forgiveness from people they have hurt.

DUBE: And in this ceremony, where there's a bonfire, around this bonfire, victims actually testify to the atrocities they experienced. Perpetrators admit to crimes and seek forgiveness. But a very important component is no one is prosecuted or otherwise punished for participating.

VEDANTAM: Nyumah and Sahr attended a Fambul Tok gathering. By now, they were young adults.

DUBE: One of the boys who stepped forward and testified talked about the experience that he had during the war when he, his friend and his father were taken into the backwoods by the rebel groups.

VEDANTAM: People clustered around a bonfire. Sahr stepped forward to speak.

UNIDENTIFIED PRODUCER #2: (Reading) The man that did this to me is here. I saw him. The man that beat me and killed my father is here. The man who did this to me is here. He is right there. This is the man.

VEDANTAM: Sahr points to Nyumah.

DUBE: At the time that he said, the person who did this, he's here in the audience, he became quite emotional. And he actually approached the other boy seemingly in a kind of moment of anger. And one of the others in the village stepped forward, pulled him back a little bit to ensure that they didn't actually engage in some sort of, you know, physical tussle. So there was a very tense moment where they were very close to each other. And the boy who had actually committed this crime then admitted.

UNIDENTIFIED PRODUCER #1: (Reading) They gave me a knife to kill his father. I took that knife and cut his father's throat. But what I did was not my choice. Please forgive me.

DUBE: And then the boy whose father had been killed said...

UNIDENTIFIED PRODUCER #2: (Reading) I have accepted, and I have agreed to forgive him.

DUBE: So this was one of the most, you know, kind of striking examples that has always stayed with me. And there are many other accounts like this. Sometimes they're not always so easily resolved. There's more tension that flares up as accounts are being told. And emotions are on high. So this is the type of account that takes place.

VEDANTAM: When we come back, we'll tell you more about what happened to Nyumah and Sahr and also examine the counterintuitive effects of the reconciliation ceremonies in Sierra Leone.

DUBE: Going through these memories of war in a short, intense fashion can actually reopen some old wounds.

VEDANTAM: Stay with us.

This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. We're talking with Oeindrila Dube today. She's an assistant professor of political science and economics at New York University. Oeindrila finds that traditional forgiveness ceremonies after brutal atrocities can achieve the kind of reconciliation between neighbors that many of us might consider impossible. The ceremonies don't just affect the individuals involved. They have a big impact on community ties and cohesion - what researchers would call social capital.

DUBE: You know, what we find is that the reconciliation process was inordinately successful in healing the community. So we've talked about forgiveness in this particular anecdote. But when we look at the data, we find that it actually fostered forgiveness on a widespread level. We have these measures from the psychology literature that we use to gauge affect toward former combatants. And we find that, you know, people report nine months or up to 31 months later, after these bonfire ceremonies, that they have forgiven their perpetrators to a greater degree. But they don't just feel differently. They're actually behaving differently as well. There are more friendships in the community. People say they rely on each other more for help. They participate more in civic associations like PTAs and village development committees. They also contribute more to their communities. They give more to families in need. They spend more time and resources building schools and health clinics. They have really changed the community orientation of their behavior.

VEDANTAM: So you find that there's this extraordinary effect as much as almost two-and-a-half years after these ceremonies - that the ceremonies have brought people together. People are cooperating more. People are not just cooperating with the perpetrators, but in general displaying all kinds of other ways in which social capital and social cohesion has increased. But you also are finding that there's a potential downside. Can you talk about that?

DUBE: What we find is that, you know, this process of talking about the past is actually painful and personally difficult for people, as manifest in worsened psychological well-being in these communities. So we have, you know, three different measures that we look at - measures of anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder and depression. And we find that all three outcomes are actually worse in the communities that have gone through this process. And we think this is consistent with the idea that going through these memories of war in a short, intense fashion can actually reopen some old wounds.

VEDANTAM: But when you've forgiven someone, and you've made the effort to forgive someone, you would think that has a healing effect on you - that you basically, yes, you are reminded of the terrible thing that happened, but you have found a way to master it. Why is that not happening?

DUBE: It's complicated to think about how forgiveness translates into, you know, personal psychological well-being. On the one hand, it might have this healing effect. On the other hand, these war memories are so potent and so powerful, and now they have been re-invoked. So you might feel better toward the person. You might be able to forgive the person for the things that they have done but at the same time be coping with these traumatic events. We think that it's the way in which these memories are brought up in this kind of short, intensive manner without follow-up for dealing with the negative images and feelings that actually lead to this worsening of the psychological outcomes.

VEDANTAM: Say a little bit more about that. You're saying that there's something about this process - this very dramatic process - that might be good for social cohesion but not so much for individuals.

DUBE: The reconciliation process allows people to collectively acknowledge what's happened and allows them, in a sense, to be able to move on. Prior to going through this process, you know, many people avoided certain places and certain activities on account of the fact that they knew that the perpetrator - the person who was responsible for either hurting them or hurting their family members - would be present in those areas. After going through this public acknowledgment and this process of, you know, confronting what's happened, many people have been able to, you know, find closure in that event in a sense, and now are ready to interact with other members of the community. This is a sense in which reconciliation can serve as a powerful force for societal healing. But at the same time, these negative consequences on the individual psyche are still there. And I think the question now is how can we harness these very powerful societal benefits and conduct the reconciliation process in a way that mitigates the psychological impact? It may be possible, for example, to couple these types of programs with ongoing counseling so that people are able to better cope with the negative memories that are re-invoked.

VEDANTAM: I'm wondering if you have a sense on why it is there has been this persistent view - maybe this is just a layman's perspective - but there's been this persistent view that forgiving other people is psychologically healthy for you. That idea that it's not just good for the perpetrator but it's actually good for the person who's doing the forgiving is such a widespread view. And I don't think your study basically says the two things can't go together, but it says the two things don't automatically go together.

DUBE: That's exactly right. So in fact there's been work in the psychology literature that shows that forgiveness is a positive psychological force. But, you know, one has to think about the positive benefit that comes from that and weigh that against some of the negative benefits that comes from re-invoking these memories.

VEDANTAM: And I'm wondering in terms of your recommendations -so when you think about this, do you think this is - it's one study, probably would have to be replicated again in maybe a different context to see if the same result holds up - but are there implications that you think we can draw from this study in how we're thinking about reconciliation in other contexts?

DUBE: Absolutely. So, you know, every reconciliation process has some elements that are unique. But this one has all of the core elements. So, you know, this is a context in which victims are sharing their accounts, in which perpetrators are admitting to crimes, in which no one is prosecuted. In that sense, it has the core elements that we think of as common to a wide range of reconciliation programs. So, you know, I do think this is something that applies to a wide range of conflicts - not just Sierra Leone, not just civil wars in Africa, but any context in which, you know, people have gone through tremendous acts of violence and now are at a point where they need to find a way of re-stitching together the fabric of society.

VEDANTAM: I wanted to know what happened to Nyumah and Sahr. They reconciled more than five years ago. What happened afterwards? Did Nyumah and Sahr remain friends? Anthony Mansaray at Innovations for Poverty Action helped Oeindrila work on the reconciliation project evaluation. He recently tracked down Nyumah and Sahr. A few weeks ago, he went to their hometown in Kailahun district in eastern Sierra Leone. Anthony found that Nyumah and Sahr have not only stayed in touch, but they have remained friends.

DUBE: The friend who killed the father now occasionally helps the boy whose father was killed doing some farming and some other activities because he's not able to do this very well given the injury to his leg.

VEDANTAM: We don't know the personal psychological effects the reconciliation ceremony has had on Nyumah and Sahr. What we do know is that Nyumah helps Sahr plant cassava. They attend church together. Sometimes they joke with one another. They are, after all, old friends.

HIDDEN BRAIN is produced by Kara McGuirk-Alison, Maggie Penman and Max Nesterak. Special thanks this week to Sendhil Mullainathan, to Libby Hoffman with Catalyst for Peace for clips from their film "Fambul Tok," to Anthony Mansaray from Innovations for Poverty Action who tracked down Nyumah and Sahr, and to Kevin Leahy and Ammad Omar for their voice work. You can find more of HIDDEN BRAIN on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Sign up for our newsletter by emailing us at I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.