The morning began with a visit to Detective Inspector Alhaji Sensesie who is the regional commander for the Family Support Unit (FSU). The FSU originally started as a pilot scheme called the Domestic Violence Unit in the aftermath of the war 2002/3. The FSU operate from regional divisional centres in SL. The Makeni FSU office is part of the Northern Province regional set-up. The Makeni office covers 10 districts. Unlike many of the other FSU offices across the country, the Makeni office benefits from the services of a social worker to help support the victims that they work with. We spoke with him about the work that the FSU have been doing in Makeni. I asked about obstacles that the unit face in trying to prosecute individuals who have perpetrated intimate partner violence.
Detective Inspector Sensesie stated that individuals might be reluctant to come
forward because they are fearful of reprisals from the perpetrator or other
members of the community. He stated that victims of sexual assault often
couldn’t afford the medical tests to provide forensic evidence to support their
claims. There are also limitations in SL about whether someone can be prosecuted for crimes if they have moved away from the jurisdiction where the alleged crime took place. An important consideration is the financial security of the women reporting the abuse, their husband might be jailed – and the victim is left to wonder who will provide financial support for her and the family. There is currently a large backlog of cases waiting to be heard in the SL. It was interesting to reflect on the extent to which this conversation mirrored what we had discussed with Amie Kandeh earlier in the trip.
Beate asked Detective Inspector Sensesie about the possibility that police men could be complicit in miscarriages of justice e.g. Accepting bribes or not taking approprite steps to ensure that there was a case to answer. He said that there was anti-corruption unit (CDID) that was working hard to minimise the risk of corruption. In addition, in order to safeguard the safety of individuals prepared to testify against alleged perpetrators of Intimate partner violence, the FSU offers witness protection. The FSU also has a remit to combat female genital cutting – a practice that has been widespread in SL and in some areas has been an important pre-requisite for a women to find a husband. In 2007 the ‘Child Initiation Act’ outlawed actions such as these that are associated with ‘secret society’ action against children.
The conversation turned to the possible reasons why men engage in Intimate Partner Violence (IPV). Detective Inspector Sensesie does not believe that it is related to poverty per se. Instead he believes that societal attitudes are an important contributory factor e.g. the belief among some men that they ‘own’ women that they marry. This can lead to men believing that they act with impunity. On several occasions during our visits to SL, local people have suggested that in Themne culture it is a ‘sign of love’ to physically abuse women. Detective Sensesie was categorical about stating that no sane person could ever claim that this was the case. He was also very clear in saying that this was absolutely no defence in law.
Detective Inspector Sensesie talked about the important outreach to communities that the FSU is involved in: talking to school children; television adverts and radio programmes to campaign against domestic violence; and liaising with the permanent chiefs who have great power and authority in rural areas. The Permanent Chiefs are instruments of the central government. Regular meetings are held with them to discuss how IPV should be dealt with in the absence of the FSU and police in their areas.
Detective Inspector Sensesie also highlighted how new legislation passed in SL has outlawed the rape of women by their husband. Our final question focused on how the FSU will develop in the future. There are plans to make FSU independent from the police to protect confidentiality and guard against corruption. A priority issue is enhancing the Forensic examination aspect of their work.
As we left the FSU we passed a young lady sitting nursing a 5 day old baby and wearing a solemn look on her face. She was accompanied by numerous extended family members who thronged into the waiting area of the FSU building. It transpired that the baby had been snatched from her mother when they had been staying at the Regional Government Hospital. The suggestion is that another woman who had recently been admitted to the hospital following a miscarriage had taken the baby. On fleeing from the hospital with the baby this women returned to her home. Her family, aware that the baby could not be hers, provided information to the police and the baby was safely recovered. Unfortunately, before the alleged perpetrator of the abduction could be taken into hospital, members of the family of the baby took the opportunity to exercise summary justice on her. She was badly beaten. Dramatic, shocking and tragic events but on parting from Detective Inspector Sensesie, we got the sense that this was just another day for the FSU.
The next appointment on our schedule was a meeting with Carmen Valle at the University of Makeni. Carmen spoke about the work that the University of Makeni had been doing to develop the curriculum for the Certificate and Diploma courses in Mental Health that has been offered to a select number of psychiatric nurses in SL. Allow the University of Makeni (a private university) developed the curriculum, the courses themselves are delivered by the College Of Mental Health and Allied Sciences which is part of The University of Sierra Leone in Freetown. Carmen spoke about the ‘Sociology of mental health’ teaching that she had delivered to the students on a visit to Sierra Leone. The conversation with Carmen was fascinating. We spoke about efforts being made to train staff in de-escalation techniques to reduce the need for restraints and chains to be used on patients at Kissy Psychiatric Hospital. We also spoke about plans being made to support the supervision of graduates from the certificate and diploma courses. Carmen and her colleagues have been organising a supervision meeting that will bringing people together in Freetown in March. This will be followed up in April by visits to the graduates in their own community to talk about cases that they have been working on. This pattern will then alternate on a longer term basis. Carmen also spoke about capacity building opportunities that will increase knowledge about mental health in other professional groups. This essentially advocates a ‘training for trainers’ model that will focus on Public Health Unit staff and Community Health Officers.
Carmen is hopeful of getting the opportunity to start some mental health related programmes at the University of Makeni; including an undergraduate psychology degree programme. It will be great to stay in touch with Carmen and support her with the important work that she is doing.
Our final appointment of the morning was to visit Abdul Conteh. Abdul is a nurse working at The Holy Spirit Hospital in Makeni who graduated from the Certificate in Mental Health programme and recently attended our workshop. The Holy Spirit hospital has a trauma and emergency unit. Currently, a retired hand surgeon from Glasgow Dr Martin is working there doing micro-surgery through a project called Resurge. Abdul took us on a tour of the Mental Health Counselling Centre that sits adjacent to the hospital building. Registration for counselling service opened in 2007. Unfortunately it closed down 4 months ago due to lack of funding. However, if Abdul feels that a patient at the office could benefit from a counselling session he will take them over to the building and offer support. The most recent of these appointments happened on the 19th February. If there is an emergency, the person is taken to Freetown. The initiative has been supported in the past by visiting Psychiatrists such as Dr Price from America and Dr Pino from Spain. Abdul spoke about the types of patients the counselling service would have seen. These included people with substance abuse, psychosis, anxiety and victims of trauma. He spoke about the involvement of experts by experience – people who have recovered from substance use problems talking to groups organised for substance use disorder people. It was kind of Abdul to show us round and take time to talk with us. We wished him well for the Diploma course and went on our way.
We stopped for lunch before leaving Makeni. This gave us an opportunity to talk with Pious about how he feels the country is progressing. Together we talked about some of the unethical practices of multi-national companies who are operating in SL. There are suspicions that contracts can be secured through the payment of incentives to key individuals. This can result in large volumes of the natural resources available in SL leaving at cut-prices. There are so considerable disparities in the wages paid to ex-pat workers employed by mining companies and their SL counterparts employed by the same company. On hearing about these stories, it was hard not to feel outraged. A sign in the lobby of the MJ Motel where we were staying in Makeni lists of Mahatma Gandhi’s version of the 7 deadly sins. Number 6 of these is particularly pertinent for our lunchtime discussion. This deadly sin is listed as: ‘Commerce without morality’.
After lunch we set off on the trip to Bo. The initial stage of this journey took us along the bumpy and dusty Magbraka Road. We were rattled about the inside if the jeep as we negotiated the pot-holes and uneven road surface. It was interesting to observe the dense foliage that lined the road. After an hour or so of travel along the Magbraka Road we reached the Mile 91 junction where we joined the smoother main road to Bo.
It was great to arrive in Bo; Hannah’s home-town. We settled in at the accommodation where we are staying and we immediately headed to Hannah’s house. She had been away from her husband and her three children for 10 days. It was great to see them all reunited. Our arrival caused a big stir in the local community. A nearby school was finishing up its late afternoon session.
As we got out of the jeep, we were spotted by the children. They all started shouting ‘Bumueh, Bumueh!’ (which is Mende for ‘White person’), as they ran towards us. We were literally swamped by at least 60 children all smiles and shouts. Great craic. Once things had settled after a while, we sat outside Hannah’s house and watched a beautiful sunset.