A 10-year-old child, whom we will call Blessing, has just made an upsetting confession about her captivity in the Sande bush, which she feels was a result of her own actions. Little does Blessing know that there is a law that prohibits and protects girls from being exposed to cultural traditions that inflict the mental, physical and emotional abuse she had to go through one sad day four weeks ago.
According to the child, who sat timidly and worried at the thought of her experience, her capture had nothing to do with anyone at all; she believes it was all her fault.
“My mother sent me with a plastic bag and said I should go and call one man. When I went to call the man and was standing up, that’s how one girl called me to her. That’s when I went to her, and they caught me. Dah one woman, Ma Musu took me in and sat me down and that’s when they said I must join the Sande Bush. Other women were there, baby mothers were there too, I did a lot of washing dishes because we were never allowed to come out so we stayed inside there,” Blessing fearfully recalled.
Blessing once played cheerfully as any other 10-year-old child would, and spoke of how she was recently featured in an unreleased non-fiction short film about a child, who was raped in 2012, behind the same house in the Caldwell area where Blessing was held captive.
“One woman put me in a show about a little girl who was raped, it didn’t stay long Ma Musu caught me behind where they say it happened ever since,” she narrated.
Now aware of everyone around her and unsure of who she can trust, Blessing says in fear that she could be caught again, and doesn’t blame her mother for being put into the Sande Bush but in fact blames the strangers who forced her against her will.
“She [my mother] sent me but the people saw me and that’s how they grabbed me. It was not my ma,” she explained.
Asked to describe what happened to her during the weeks she was under the charge of the Sande Bush, Blessing recalled a moment that she says she will never forget.
“I mainly washed dishes, but when I first got there, they cut down on me. The time they grabbed me, we were three, me and my friends, we were all crying. They closed my eye with a head tie; they cut it and put the leaf there. They mashed the green leaf and did it like this (she demonstrated) and it dried the sore, the thing they cut from me was inside a pan, I couldn’t use the bathroom, and there’s nothing there now. Since they moved it, I feel different but the sore is better now,” Blessing boldly explained.
In as much, there was a period in which Blessing’s mother, who has asked to stay anonymous, had to ask for financial assistance from neighbors and a reporter for this paper to free the child after her 4-week ordeal, an ordeal she claims was not her doing.
“Blessing just coming but she’s not feeling alright, she’s sick and taking treatment. She has low blood, I’m giving her medicine and tomato, but she was in the Sande bush when it started on her.
They didn’t treat her there, it’s now I’m treating her. I’ve used all my money to free her from there and I’m broke now,” Blessing’s mother explained.
“Children younger than Blessing were there because that’s culture and our own thing. I didn’t put her there though. It happened by mistake, I didn’t have anything to do with it; you can ask the people there. It’s herself that put herself inside. The people were beating drum and dancing and she went there. I paid everything to get her out, and it’s my money I’m trying to put back by selling doughnuts now,” she added.
Many Caldwell dwellers wonder whether or not the drum beating that usually surrounds the community where the Sande Bush is located could be a way to lure smaller girls.
According to Madam Tryphena B. Gray the principal of AGOM, an elementary school located right next door to the Sande Bush, she says the drum sounds are persistent and an every day occurrance.
“Whole day they are beating those drums,” she stated; adding: “they used to be right here by my yard and school, but they moved right over there just a house away now.”
Madam Gray expresssed her frustration not just at the noise of the drum beats but more so the culture of what happens when one goes to spy where those drum sounds are coming from.
“I blame the government because they know about it (Sande bush). You can’t go near the Sande when drums are beating or they will catch you; and it’s bad,” stated Madam Gray.
Meanwhile, as Blessing reminds herself not to go near any drum sounds, normally a jublilant sound that characterizes most ceremonies, weddings or other festive cultural activities, there’s also significant information coming from the Ministry of Gender and Development that concurs that people have indeed been lured into the Sande Bush through the sound of beating drums. But above all, there is a law that should prevent that from happening.
Meima Sirleaf Karneh, Assistant Minister for Research and Technical Services at the Ministry of Gender and Development, has highlighted the reality behind many issues facing children and the Sande Bush.
“We also want to look at forced initiation or joining of the Sande Bush; it’s a big issue around the country, and when it comes to the Ministry of Gender, who is working closely with the Ministry of Internal Affairs and through the head Zoe, people should not be forced into joining the Sande. For instance, the beating of a drum and a child going to look, if that child had kept on walking, they wouldn’t have seen anything. That child has a guardian a parent, if such things happen, that child should be reported to the community leader and advised so that next time they will not go to a place because of a drum,” Madam Karneh highlighted.
Moreover, reports of recent news clippings show that the practice of female “circumcision,” is altogether difficult and controversial. Though some consider it a human rights violation and have asked the Ministry to step in, others see it as an important part of culture that should remain accepted.
“The Ministry of Gender and Development is not dealing with the issue of FGM as you call it, we’re looking at the protection of the girl child, and we’re using education as an entry point. We’re looking at refining and reforming the Sande school system. After several confrontations and things, we came up with looking at the issue of the Sande School as a traditional school system in Liberia, but we have the formal school system that oversees the Sande school system. It’s through the formal school that we have formal education; we get to work and are able to develop ourselves, expose ourselves and other things. We are saying that when the formal school is open, the Ministry of Gender is working with the Ministry of Education so that the Sande system cannot operate. Because we do not want clashing of systems in one country, so our girls can be educated; so that they can be empowered in our society,” Madam Karneh stated.
Also, what Blessing claims happened to her may or may not be considered a crime, but what’s clear from the Ministry’s point of view is that Sande school has a policy that needs to be abided by before it can operate in any community, and there have been violators.
“The Sande should be several miles from the city centers. Sande schools are not supposed to be around residential areas, it should be far away at least 25 miles. It should be far away from areas where people can’t hear the drums, especially children who want to see what’s happening there. So that’s why we said it should be far away from residential areas so that you will not just grab somebody’s child, and then say the person was spying,” she emphasized.
Madam Karneh also highlighted very essential information that will protect schools such as AGOM elementary, and its students, a policy that is clearly being violated by two Sande Bushes located in the market and upper Caldwell areas.
“Sande Bushes should also be far away from the formal school areas. You can’t have a school building around here and somebody says they have a Sande bush right over there. Sande bushes are not supposed to be operated in cities,” Madam Karneh further stated.
With the information gathered from several witnesses, all of whom fear being “dealt with” if their names are mentioned, a serious violation is at hand in Caldwell, and Madam Karneh has highlighted how violators can be stopped and exposed.
“For internal affairs, it’s a policy; the issue of the distance and where it should be is a policy. If somebody is operating in a residential area, the citizens from there can report to Internal Affairs or the Ministry of Gender. They can also go to the Ministry of Education because we coordinate. Besides the forced initiation, even before you put the Sande school down, Ministry of Internal Affairs says there [are] policies regarding all institutions in Liberia. The location should be inspected. It shouldn’t just be, ‘I’m just going to put a school here’.”
Meanwhile, Madam Karneh has also articulated that if there is knowledge of a Sande bush in one’s neighborhood, community leaders, traditional leaders and community dwellers should be engaged and informed.
“One of the things we are saying is we have to do a lot of engagement, if we do that with our traditional leaders and our community leaders, I think we’re going to go far. For us to look at the issue of Sande in Liberia is to reform the system. We are all from traditional and cultural backgrounds, so we’re not saying at Gender that we should stop the other culture, what we are saying is these are modern days, lets modernize things to conform to present day reality,” she concluded.
For Blessing and many other girls and women who have had to face such terrifying initiations, knowing they have these rights and protections rights could come as a relief, albeit for girls like little Blessing, too little too late.