Joseph Kaifala, wearing a short-sleeve white button-down shirt and khaki pants, stands and speaks at a wooden podium topped by a laptop.
Inaugural Projects for Peace Alumni Award winner Joseph Kaifala delivering his keynote address as part of Middlebury College’s “Summer Convening on Experiential Learning and Conflict Transformation” (Photo by Devin McGrath-Conwell).

As part of Middlebury College’s recent “Summer Convening on Experiential Learning and Conflict Transformation,” inaugural Projects for Peace Alumni Award winner Joseph Kaifala visited campus. 

While a student at Skidmore College, Kaifala was a member of the original 2007 Projects for Peace grantee cohort. He has since gone on to earn his master’s in international relations from Syracuse University, and his juris doctorate from Vermont Law School. All the while, he has built a life and career focused on peace, human rights, and rebuilding in his home country of Sierra Leone after a brutal civil war of which he is a survivor.

Joseph Kaifala, wearing a red and white striped shirt and jeans, stands in the middle of a seated circle of female students with a female student dressed in a blue uniform
Joseph Kaifala with students from the Sengbe Pieh Girls Excellence Academy which he founded (Photo courtesy of Mr. Kaifala).

While visiting Middlebury, Kaifala met with students, faculty, staff, and other community members across various events to discuss conflict transformation. One of these events was a workshop entitled “Responding to Conflict as Engaging in Community.” Held in the Davis Family Library, attendees gathered in person and over Zoom to listen to Kaifala deliver a keynote address before breaking into small groups to discuss topics around conflict transformation and community engagement. 

The event concluded with a panel discussion featuring Kaifala alongside Projects for Peace Director Betsy Vegso, Center for Community Engagement Director Kailee Brickner-McDonald, and Davis Collaborative in Conflict Transformation Executive Director Sarah Stroup. 

You can watch a recording of Kaifala’s keynote address below. If you would prefer to read it, the full text can be found by scrolling down this page past the video. To learn more about Kaifala, you can visit his website at this link.

Responding to Conflict as Engaging as Community - Joseph Kaifala Keynote Address

Joseph Kaifala delivers his keynote address during the “Responding to Conflict as Engaging in Community” event.

Full Keynote Address:

It is an honour to be the first recipient of the inaugural Projects for Peace Alumni Award. This honour, though, comes with a small impediment that there is no one ahead of me for me to live up to - I have become, again, a trailblazer, or is it a guinea pig, Betsy? The person who comes after me will either be guided by the exemplary standard I set here today or simply receive a textbook case of what not to do.

Whatever way this turns out, I am honoured and delighted to be both at Middlebury College and in Vermont—my favourite state in these United States of America. As you may have already heard, I went to law school down the road in South Royalton, and I have often tried to calculate the hours I spent studying law and those spent tubing down White River. I must admit, I am legally embarrassed by the result.

When I was not tubing, I was often late for class because every Vermont farmer I met on my way to class wanted to tell me about his/her marvellous new tomato or Zucchini—I graduated with a fantastic knowledge of vegetables and little understanding of the law. However, I often earned my class participation points when neighbours with micro-breweries made me try whatever new concoction they had invented with the misnomer of a beer. Those were the times my kind professors simply responded with a, “that’s an interesting point - can we hear from someone else.”

I grew up in West Africa where my childhood was consumed by wars - the result of years of conflict that could no longer be resolved through peaceful means. While the signs were there, those who could have prevented or resolved those conflicts merely inflamed them, and they ultimately culminated into more than a decade of war in both Liberia and Sierra Leone, and spread over to Guinea, the roots of my childhood.

As a child I was arrested by Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) rebels with my father and thrown in jail. At a time when I should have been enjoying primary school, I was sitting in rebel-controlled prison with adults, a witness to death, torture, and other forms of human suffering. Charles Taylor had launched a civil war in Liberia in 1989 to overthrow President Samuel Doe, and the involvement of West African peacekeepers led him to instruct his rebels to arrest and incarcerate West Africans living in Liberia - especially Sierra Leoneans - children like me included.

I sat in prison for months, where I witnessed every horror of man’s inhumanity to man, and those experiences scarred me, but even at that young age, they also offered me valuable lessons pertaining to the human condition that have transformed me into a peacemaker. An important lesson I acquired about human existence is that we are not innately good or evil, we come into this world as a clean slate waiting for socio-cultural and political inscriptions.

Therefore, we are a collection of values acquired from the community in which we are born. We automatically belong to society because no one is born alone - there is always someone else there when we arrive into this world - and our education begins right there and then. It is this idea of us as creatures shaped by our communities that made that revered African leader, Nelson Mandela, state that if we could be taught to hate, we could learn to love.

The precept here is that war and peace, hate and love, division and unity, are choices that are within human control. Since no one comes into this world hating another, we must ask ourselves, then, how do we come to hate, divide, and wage wars against one another? Given the choice we have, why do we not always choose love, unity and peace?

The answer to these questions is what I have described as the fault lines of conflict - the factors that force individuals or societies to deviate from values of peace and descend into conflict, which may sometimes become violent. Therefore, to foster community peace we must identify fault lines of conflict and take preemptive measures to prevent them from possible rupture.

It is difficult to find an individual or a society that is simply interested in conflict - we are always fighting over something. In my experience, three major fault lines of conflict are, unfair resource distribution, dishonesty, and othering. It is easy to understand unfair resource distribution when one lives in a country or a community where profits from community resources benefit one sector while the other sector lives in squalor.

The situation of unfair resource distribution is even graver at the international level when one considers diamond or oil-rich countries where people live in extreme poverty while their resources benefit other countries. There was a time when Sierra Leone became synonymous with “blood diamonds” because the world profited from its diamond resources while its people slaughtered one another in a civil war that lasted 11 years. Any society that practices unfair distribution of wealth, pitches groups against one another, and hinges on conflict.

The other factor, dishonesty, seems so cliché on the moral paradigm of human society that even mentioning it as a fundamental fault line of conflict appears obvious. But why is it that a factor so obviously responsible for the disharmony of society appears to elude us? This is so because while the truth could set us free, lies and deceit seem to offer far more material benefits and opportunities for self-aggrandizement to individuals than the collective moral good offered by honesty.

Bless our primary school teachers who gave us honesty badges, but as our afrobeat friends in Nigeria say, watin wi gain - what did we gain. Dishonesty, as we have seen in many elections around the world, can purchase real political power and place people into leadership positions they do not merit, further expanding the fault lines of conflict and keeping society divided.

These days dishonesty compels individuals to preach as right things that are incontrovertibly wrong, and as wrong those things that are sacred truths. The unfortunate truth, if truth be told, is that no conflict can be fully resolved if the parties are not honest about their grievances. The apartheid regime in South Africa fooled the world for so long by simply stating that a system of one of the most brutal racial oppressions was merely a “policy of good neighbourliness.” I reckon what is there to settle between good neighbours!

Here in America we used separate but equal to keep racial groups apart for quite a long time. One of the reasons the conflict between Israel and Palestine has become a protracted conflict is because the parties, including mediators, have not been fully honest about the factors involved. Many years ago I wrote an article basically saying we need new mediators in that conflict because current mediators have sides. That piece went up to the Federal Government and made a reappearance in Wikileaks files - therefore I say no more on the matter. Though when I told my law school friend Billy that my name was in the Wikileaks files - his reaction was - that’s so cool.

The third factor, othering, seems far more sinister than the others, because it dehumanizes and diminishes others to nothing - it is what Aimé Césaire referred to as thingification - reducing those who are different from us to things, in which capacity we can disrespect, oppress, brutalize and in extreme cases exterminate them. Some of us are old enough to remember when in 1994 Hutus in Rwanda reduced Tutsis to cockroaches and in 100 days 800,000 Tutsis were slaughtered.

A few years ago we heard the phrase bad hombre, which duly induced animosity against Mexican immigrants in this country. The words and phrases of othering are embedded with elements of hate and bigotry that lead to division and conflict. When one blames the so-called bad hombres for the ills of society and promise to build a wall to keep them out, it becomes easier to obtain popular votes and win an election, but the suspicion and hate created linger for a while.

I am the Principal of the Center for Memory and Reparations in Sierra Leone, facilitating remembrance and collective narratives around the Sierra Leonean civil war, which occurred between 1991 - 2002. Two transitional justice mechanisms were established at the end of that civil war. The Special Court for Sierra Leone was a hybrid International Criminal Court established to bring to justice those who bear the greatest responsibilities for violations of international humanitarian law. This court had jurisdiction over a limited number of war criminals. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, on the other hand, was set up to provide an impartial historical record of the conflict and proffer recommendations.

The Center for Memory and Reparations’ work is grounded in what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission achieved - identifying Sierra Leone’s fault lines of conflict and offering recommendations as a path to healing and conflict transformation, which for the Center for Memory and Reparations means a clear acknowledgment and understanding of the fault lines of conflict that escalated into an 11-year civil war and introducing alternative values to prevent violent conflicts.

Conflict transformation after mass atrocities, therefore, is the process of emerging from conflict, through transitional justice, towards a reimagined society that is intentionally created to avoid errors of the past and strengthen community peace. Conflict transformation in transitional justice goes beyond conflict resolution towards entrenching values that maintain community peace and prevents disruptive conflicts. What we seek is a nonviolent and peaceful society, but peace is a collection of values, which means conflict transformation mechanisms should involve the inculcation of democratic values, non-violence and community peace.

However, conflict transformation in a post-conflict society cannot succeed without dealing with the legacies of mass atrocities, especially in the area of collective healing. It is only with a proper understanding of the fault lines of conflict that we can create an enabling environment for conflict transformation – in which regard conflict transformation should necessarily follow transitional justice. The Center for Memory and Reparations’ work focuses on healing wounds of the past and teaching the next generation of Sierra Leoneans values that can facilitate our conflict transformation processes.

Primarily, the Center for Memory and Reparations identifies, maps, and protects mass graves left by the civil war, and also grants communities the opportunity to offer traditional burial rites in memory of those they lost in the war. Burial rites are fundamental to the cultural existence of Sierra Leone, but during the war people were unable to give fitting burials to those who were killed because those who survived were on the run for their own lives. Therefore, the opportunity to finally bury their dead brings a certain amount of healing to communities. Putting the significance of traditional burial rites into perspective, a chief once told me that perhaps many of the problems in his community are linked to the fact that they had not offered sara or burial rites for community members they lost in the war.

These protected mass graves serve as sites of conscience to remind us of the brutal consequences of ignoring the fault lines of conflict for too long and also what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission described as a “prism through which to examine past and present and to prepare for the future.” The Center for Memory and Reparations is creating spaces and opportunities for reflection and dialogue because we believe in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s observation that “the very act of public acknowledgment of suffering contributes significantly to the healing process.”

This is important because many victims and perpetrators of the Sierra Leonean conflict live with internalized trauma, tormented by the agony of their victimization, with little opportunity for collective healing. We remain particularly concerned about former child combatants who experienced double victimization - through their conscription as children and their participation in gruesome crimes - losing the innocence of their childhood in a conflict that was nasty, brutish, and grotesque.

Another aspect of the Center for Memory and Reparations’ work of transitional justice and conflict transformation is directed towards transforming the next generation of Sierra Leoneans into adherents of non-violence and community peace by teaching them their civil war history in order to help them remain cognisant of where we have been as they create a new path, fully aware of the historical errors of their past in their attempts to build better. We visit high schools and colleges across Sierra Leone, helping students confront the violent past of their country, and guiding them towards respect for human rights, democratic values, and community peace.

In final analysis, therefore, the diversity of human societies makes conflicts inevitable, but what remains a choice is the manner in which we choose to resolve conflicts that may arise in any given society - whether we choose to stick to values of fairness, truth, justice, and ultimately forgiveness and reconciliation. In the aftermath of mass atrocities, including those in Sierra Leone, we always say Never Again, but we will remain prone to repetition if we fail to engage in conflict transformation by addressing the fault lines of conflict and amplifying positive values that encourage compassion, dialogue, and nonviolence.

Thank You.