Displacing Violence: Making Pentecostal Memory in Postwar Sierra Leone

Peer Reviewed


In this article, I seek to locate the anthropology of social recovery within the work of memory. Following a decade of violent armed conflict in Sierra Leone, displaced youth in a Pentecostal church write and perform plays that are silent on the subject of the war, but renarrate it in the idiom of spiritual warfare against a subterranean demonic realm known as the Underworld. Ideas of the Underworld are part of a local retooling of the Pentecostal deliverance ministry to address Sierra Leone’s years of war. Through their struggle against the Underworld, these Pentecostal youth reimagine Sierra Leone’s war, reshaping experiences of violence that have shaped them and thereby transforming demonic memory into Pentecostal memory. Just as their own physical displacement is not an entirely negative condition, their displacement of violent memory is enabling rather than repressive. By “forgetting” the war as a direct realist account and reworking it through the lens of the Underworld, they use war itself to re-member their lives. Although they do not lose their memories of terror and violence, they learn to transform these in ways that allow them to create a moral life course in which they are much more than weak dependents.

"No Peace for the Wicked." February 2007 via Rosalind Shaw.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published multiple essays on violence, including: Arafaat A. Valiani's "Physical Training, Ethical Discipline, and Creative Violence: Zones of Self-Mastery in the Hindu Nationalist Movement" (2010); Didier Fassin's "The Humanitarian Politics of Testimony: Subjectification through Trauma in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict" (2008); Charles L. Briggs' "Mediating Infanticide: Theorizing Relations between Narrative and Violence" (2007); Danny Hoffman's "The City as Barracks: Freetown, Monrovia, and the Organization of Violence in Postcolonial African Cities" (2007); and Anne Allison's "Cyborg Violence: Bursting Borders and Bodies with Queer Machines"(2001).

In addition, Cultural Anthropology has published multiple articles on memory, including: Ann Laura Stoler's "Imperial Debris: Reflections on Ruins and Ruination" (2008); Joseph Masco's "'Survival is Your Business': Engineering Ruins and Affect in Nuclear America" (2008); Christina Schwenkel's "Recombinant History: Transnational Practices of Memory and Knowledge Production in Contemporary Vietnam" (2006); Carole McGranahan's "Truth, Fear, and Lies: Exile Politics and Arrested Histories of the Tibetan Resistance" (2005); and Andrew Orta's "Burying the Past: Locality, Lived History, and Death in an Aymara Ritual of Remembrance" (2002).

About the Author

Rosalind Shaw is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Tufts University. She is the author of Memories of the Slave Trade: Ritualand the Historical Imagination in Sierra Leone (University of Chicago Press, 2002) and co-editor of Localizing Transitional Justice: Interventions and Priorities After Mass Violence (Stanford University Press, 2010), Syncretism/Anti-Syncretism: The Politics of Religious Synthesis (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), and Dreaming, Religion and Society in Africa (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1992). Recent awards and fellowships include a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research and Writing Grant, a Jennings Randolph Senior Fellowship at the US Institute of Peace, and a Carr Center for Human Rights Policy Fellowship at Harvard University. She is a member of the Editorial Board of the International Journal of Transitional Justice. She is currently writing a book manuscript on practices of postwar memory, justice, and social recovery in Sierra Leone.

"Rosalind Shaw." February 2007 via tufts.edu.

Interview with Rosalind Shaw

Elizabeth Lewis: What drew you initially to the topic of youth?

Rosalind Shaw: It arose out of my focus on Pentecostalism. I returned to Freetown in 2001, when Sierra Leone’s 11-year civil war seemed to be coming to an end at last. I was interested in how people were rebuilding their lives and relationships after the conflict, and wanted to look at Pentecostal churches as one kind of site for this work of social repair. A friend of mine was a member of the Pentecostal church I call “GP Ministries,” and took me along. I found that young people—especially those displaced by the war—were the most active members. They had forged alternative homes and families through the church. I was especially intrigued by how they used prayer and the idiom of spiritual warfare both to work on painful memories of violence and to remake themselves as moral actors.

Rosalind Shaw, "Healing Exorcism 2." February 2007.

EL: If you were to write this CA article today, what arguments would you continue to make, and what would you change?

RS: I’d keep my core argument about the displacement of memory, my focus on the Underworld as a vehicle for reimagining the war, and certainly Matthew’s play as a vision of moral middle-class adulthood. But I think I’d also explore connections to my earlier work on memories of the slave trade and the colonial era in Sierra Leone, since—as Nicolas Argenti has demonstrated for the Cameroon Grassfields—youth were historically targeted for enslavement and colonial forced labor, and responded to recurring social exclusion through (among other forms) movements and memory practices drawing upon Christianity. I’d also like to examine whether “displaced” Pentecostal memory was reshaped by the direct, “literal” narrative memories sought by Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), since some GP youth were subsequently influenced by the TRC hearings and their testimonial memory practices two years after my initial fieldwork in GP Ministries.

Rosalind Shaw, "GP Ministries' Services." February 2007.

EL: Your article seeks to further "an anthropology of social repair," through its analysis of memory and reconstruction. Since the piece's publication, how has your research on social repair changed and developed?

RS: Over the three years after my GP ministries fieldwork, I carried out research on the reintegration of young ex-combatants by NGOs and local communities, on Sierra Leone’s TRC, and on a national post-TRC reconciliation initiative. My work shifted, then, from a Sierra Leonean church to national and international processes of post-conflict justice and reintegration, while my field locations moved from the capital city to smaller provincial towns and rural communities. But both memory practices and children and youth have remained central. For example, “truth telling,” the practice of publicly narrating remembered events from the violent past, was cast by the TRC and many NGOs as a practice that would help realize a desired order of relations between the state and its citizens, reconstituting the nation and give it a peaceful future. These ideas of “mnemonic citizenship” are inextricably enmeshed with those of children and youth, both because young people are regarded as quintessential victims, and because they are viewed as emblematic of the national future. In all the sites in which I worked, actors employed different technologies of repair based on intersecting (and often contradictory) memory practices and multiple discourses about childhood and youth.


Scene from a healing at Frontline Gospel Church, Benin City, Nigeria.

Mission to London service by Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, Pastor of the Word of Life Bible Church in Warri, Nigeria.

"Fire in the Word" (Nigerian film).

"Dwelling in Darkness and Sorrow" (Nigerian film).

Related Reading

Argenti, Nicolas. The Intestines of the State: Youth, Violence, and Belated Histories in the Cameroon Grassfields. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Cheney, Kristen. Pillars of the Nation: Child Citizens and Ugandan National Development. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Cole, Jennifer. Sex and Salvation: Imagining the Future in Madagascar. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Cole, Jennifer, and Deborah Durham, eds. Figuring the Future: Globalization and the Temporalities of Children and Youth. Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press, 2008.

Sommers, Marc. Fear in Bongoland: Burundi Refugees in Urban Tanzania. Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2001.

Rosalind Shaw, "Healing Exorcism 1." February 2007.

Selected Additional Work by Rosalind Shaw

2010. Localizing Transitional Justice: Interventions and Priorities After Mass Violence. Co-edited with Lars Waldorf and Pierre Hazan. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

2009. “The Production of ‘Forgiveness’: God, Justice, and State Failure in Postwar Sierra Leone.” In Justice in the Mirror: Law, Power and the Making of History, eds. Kamari Maxine Clarke and Mark Goodale, 208-226. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

2007. “Memory Frictions: Localizing Truth and Reconciliation in Sierra Leone.” International Journal of Transitional Justice 1:183-207.

2002. Memories of the Slave Trade: Ritual and the Historical Imagination in Sierra Leone. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

"Aerial view of Freetown." February 2007.

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