The Kamajors of Sierra Leone: A Model for Survival, by CYA

Those that are concerned with TEOTWAWKI scenarios, as we are, can find great benefit in looking to history for meaningful lessons on what to expect and how to plan and prepare. In many of these circles we often here of and reference the heroic exploits of bands of citizen warriors throughout history.

Rogers Rangers, the Minute Men of New England, The Green Mountain Boys of Vermont and other Revolutionary War militia, The guerilla fighting Comanche and Cheyenne warriors of North America,  and of course the various books, movies and television shows that constitute our survivalist-militia paradigm. I wish to add another relevant and realistic event and militia group to our lexicon and highlight a bit of recent history that took place just about 3,000 miles from North America. This true and well-documented period of time and events can be mined by our communities for numerous insights into preparedness.

The tiny African nation of Sierra Leone first won their independence from the British Empire in 1961. This was a joyous time for Sierra Leonians. Sierra Leone, a beautiful nation on the West African Coast, with beaches to make many vacationers jealous, became a vacation spot for Europeans and Africans on holiday.  The country was awash with valuable minerals, metals, and diamonds which brought the financial interests of global powers.  If you were a member of the elite ruling class and politically connected then times were good and money flowed; allowing you an increasingly comfortable lifestyle. But by the 1970s corruption was entrenched. Wikipedia summarized:

“…politics in the country was increasingly characterized by corruption, mismanagement, and electoral violence that led to a weak civil society, the collapse of the education system…”

In 1968, [Siaka Stevens,] a popular leader rose to power and would leave office 17 years later with the result of turning what was once a constitutional democracy into a one party state.
The Prime Minister’s 17 year term of office is described by Wikipedia as:

 “…the 17 year plague of locusts” saw the destruction and perversion of every state institution. Parliament was undermined, judges were bribed, and the treasury was bankrupted to finance pet projects that supported insiders.”

He stepped down in 1985 leaving a short list of ineffective leadership behind him. Wikipedia characterizes the social ruin that the country now found itself in only 30 years after its independence, with the following…

“With the state unable to pay its civil servants, those desperate enough ransacked and looted government offices and property. Even in Freetown (the capitol city), important commodities like gasoline were scarce. But the government hit rock bottom when it could no longer pay schoolteachers and the education system collapsed. Since only wealthy families could afford to pay private tutors, the bulk of Sierra Leone’s youth during the late 1980s roamed the streets aimlessly. As infrastructure and public ethics deteriorated in tandem, much of Sierra Leone’s professional class fled the country. By 1991, Sierra Leone was ranked as one of the poorest countries in the world, even though it benefited from ample natural resources including diamonds, gold, bauxite, rutile ([the] main ingredient in titanium), iron ore, fish, coffee, and cocoa.”

This became the foundation for the decade long civil war that would lay waste to the country and forever change its people.

A rebel army named the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) formed and funded by the criminal government of neighboring Liberia, under convicted war criminal Charles Taylor, grew and quickly took over many areas of the country. This rebel movement was a result of the intense interest in the diamond mines within Sierra Leone and Liberia, and also the large number of disaffected youth that were easily swayed by riches, power, and promise of adventure. The Government of Sierra Leone and its army were either unable or unwilling to effectively challenge the well-armed and funded rebel army. The RUF  tormented the cities and countryside forcing children to become soldiers, getting them hooked on hard drugs, and encouraging them to engage in unspeakable behavior aimed at terrorizing the civilians into subservience. The RUF would quickly become known for rape, murder, torture, burning, looting, and a terror previously unknown in the region.

Sierra Leone, like much of Africa consists of both dense cities and rural countryside.  People fled the cities for their ancestral  homes still occupied by family in their rural villages. Many of these families can trace their family histories in these villages back hundreds of years. This is their native land. These were agrarian villages where people were mostly farmers. It was West African slaves from these areas that would make the American colony and future state of Georgia’s largest export and cash crop rice, grown in the lowlands of the coast similar to their homeland. The average home was armed with only farming tools and instruments.

Making a living from the land for generations, extended families controlled large fields and swathes of land to graze their animals and grow food. They lived in tight ethnic communities where everyone knew everyone. These were not people that were concerned with national politics. They made little to no money from the diamonds, gold, minerals, and everything else that drove the international greed for the resources of their country. These were extended families living a peaceful existence in their ancestral land, practicing and maintaining their culture and history. These communities had strong men that were willing and qualified warriors but these men were the first targets of violence, and they were not prepared or trained for organized military threats on their communities.

Imagine the ease that a light rebel army would experience when pulling up to a sleepy farming village, rounding up the able-bodied men for torture or execution, the male children for conscription, and the women and girls for slaves or throw-away sex toys. Rural police stations were no match for the rebels and would flee, be killed, or join them. Many in these villages became entertainment for depraved rebels mad with drug use and traumatized by their own situations. Old men and women were chopped down with machetes or burned to death with kerosene or car tires. Babies’ heads were bashed in by gun butts or by soldiers’ boots. Sometimes the child’s own parents were forced to bludgeon them to death at the gunpoint of crazed men and boys in soldier uniforms. Pretty girls became a commodity traded by soldiers. People were shot indiscriminately in the street and in their homes.  Houses, farms and fields were burned.  The chopping off of limbs became an all too often exercise and horrific scene during such attacks. The movie Blood Diamond starring Leonardo Dicaprio used the backdrop of this war to tell its story and illustrated many of these documented atrocities. [JWR Adds: Blood Diamond provided some valuable insights into the depravity of man under the circumstances of civil war. The history of the 20th Century is replete with similar examples, worldwide. (West Africa was not unique!) It was a surprisingly good film, despite Dicaprio’s pitiful attempt at mimicking a Rhodesian accent.]

Resourceful and physically able people fled to “the bush”, their term for the thick untamed jungle wilderness. Their communities destroyed, families dead or dispersed. Many people had to rely on their wilderness survival skills or risk being caught in public areas looking for food and shelter. They had to learn to evade others in the bush that may alert others to their presence. One man on foot in the wilderness is no match for a mobile light army. He would easily be found, caught, and become a victim. A family would be even easier to hunt and track down.
Rebel armies had taken control of many areas and where they did not control, the government armies were often no better. They brutally purged villages looking for rebels and often accused the innocent and made them examples to others. They helped themselves to food, supplies, and women. They were feared by all and were rumored to be soldiers by day and rebels by night, earning them the name “sobels”. There was no one on the side of the regular people. These armies fought each other and used the communities as their battlegrounds. Civilians were collateral damage and/or simply resources to be taken, killed or abused by either side. Roadways were controlled by these forces so any resources such as food, medicine, or ammunition, traveling along them was subject to seizure by the armies. The best homes and structures were taken and used by rebels or government armies for cover, command centers, flophouses, storage, barracks, or other military needs.

This is the extreme of our human experience on Earth, my friends. I can’t imagine a more terrifying experience. It does not matter how bad-ass one man is, he could either evade these forces or become another casualty. Period.  Where was the humanity, you ask? How could they all behave this way, you say? Well how could the Germans behave as they did under the Nazi regime? Or Cambodians under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge?  The ethnic cleansing by Serbs under Slobodan Milosovic? These things happen. When people are pushed by extreme socioeconomic forces they are capable of unspeakable cruelty. In the midst of this turmoil and unimaginable violence a resistance movement grew in the south. A group called the Kamajors.

Wikipedia summarizes: “The Kamajors are a group of traditional hunters from the Mende ethnic group in the south and east of Sierra Leone (mostly from the Bo district).”

These hunters came from a long line of traditional tribal-warriors. In Africa each ethnic group is typically associated with a secret society. These secret societies teach the younger generations survival skills, cultural history, and prepare them for being an adult in their society. For the boys this would often include warrior training, hunting and trapping skills, wilderness survival and so on. These Kamajors came from this tradition. They banded together early on and protected their immediate communities. They had weapons that they had used for hunting along with warrior training and preparation. They had an intimate knowledge of the land and its people. And they had the not just the will to fight their aggressors but the means and know how. This was a modern day tribal militia.

The Kamajors  successfully repelled both the RUF/rebel army and the government army over and over again when they would approach their protected regions. They reacted swiftly to enemy threats in their patrolled areas and gained a reputation for being fearsome fighters and protectors of their communities.  Rebels and the government army, like any marauding groups, will choose the path of least resistance and focus on soft targets. They were reluctant to engage the Kamajor fighters, because a dust up with the Kamajors was certain to end in casualties and depleted resources. They fought fiercely for maintainable ground and quickly retreated and regrouped when outnumbered or overwhelmed.  They were light quick and effective. Youth from all over the affected parts of the country sought out the Kamajors for protection, and many joined their ranks, multiplying their strength. They suffered casualties and we can be sure they suffered their own defeats, but they remained the only alternative and safe haven for thousands.

These were hunters and family men that joined together to protect their families and communities. They were unflinching in their mission and quickly earned names for themselves as the only ones with the strength and knowledge to protect themselves and others from the new realities of their world. The Kamajors answered to their traditional tribal leadership who were often seasoned veteran elders, which was a true government of and by the people. Rebels and soldiers alike intensely feared these Kamajors and African superstition strengthened those fears. Claims spread of the Kamajors participating in sacred rites that would make them bulletproof. It was said that sexual abstinence made them fierce in battle. Stories of their being invisible and being protected by magic persist to this day. The Kamajors were so successful that when international will was finally strong enough to bring peace to the country the Kamajors were enlisted by international peacekeeping forces  to successfully return peace to the country with the help of the UN, an army made from a number of West African countries (ECOMOG) and private mercenary groups.

The war lasted more than ten years and ended in 2002. It is only now, ten years after the wars end that the economy of the country is picking up, experiencing international investment, and people are finally able to start putting the war behind them. Regular electricity to the nations capital, Freetown, and other major cities, was restored in 2007 due to international assistance and the construction of new hydroelectric facilities. Markets are booming and people have returned to the cities twofold. The nations’ future is bright and the worst is behind them but for a long time their future was in doubt.

So after a roughly twenty year period of economic and social decline, we have what was basically a twenty year period where a country was in a total state of war, economic collapse, depression and dysfunction. A messy war with no boundaries or clear enemy, caused by outside forces, political corruption and mismanagement. Caught in the middle were a peaceful people, largely of rural background, forced to find a way to survive a situation that quickly became desperate and deadly. Their ancestral farms and homesteads were attacked and burned. Local currency became worthless. Food was scarce. Resources were taken and consumed by the armies leaving little to nothing for civilians. Civilians became the targets of the new power structure, controlled by the ruthless and lawless armies.

A grassroots fighting force of hunters and family men rose as the only effective resistance force. They were effective because through their hunter/warrior culture and vigilance they were more prepared than others to defend their communities and way of life. These irregulars were the Minutemen of their time. If they had not been trained and organized ahead of time they would have been decimated early on and would not have had the strength to raise a defense later on. The Kamajor fighters were prepared from the beginning and when the SHTF they did what they were prepared to do without hesitance.

Many lessons can be drawn from this history, but a few themes are easy to take away here.  It was their community and culture that created the success of the Kamajors. They had a hunter/warrior culture that could be easily compared to our survivalist/prepper culture today. They also maintained a community within this culture that not only rallied when threatened, but had enough training to be organized when the SHTF to not lose too much ground or strength.

Could they have foreseen the situation that they found themselves in? Perhaps. Could they have done much to prevent it? Probably not. This is a relatively basic SHTF threat. It does not require asteroids, or volcanoes, or even Al Qaeda. Defense against lawless but organized armed personnel; that is what all preppers and survivalists should strongly consider when preparing for SHTF/TEOTWAWKI.

One armed man can’t effectively respond to such a threat of course, yet it is one of the most predictable and relatively common of social upheaval threats and one of the most terrifying. It is basically a home invasion on a regional scale. Some people behave as if these types of events or scenarios are ancient history, or unrealistic. Hurricane Katrina highlights this possible threat, so does the constant narcotics traffic violence in the southwest, the Rodney King Riots in Los Angeles, or even Pine Ridge in the 1970s. But for continued insight, moral support and inspiration we only have to look across the Atlantic to a little over 10 years ago when a resourceful group of hard-nosed warriors banded together to protect all that they knew. These were the Kamajors of Sierra Leone.

About the Author: CYA is the pen name of a first generation American on his father’s side, and a U.S. combat veteran. His father was born in the Northern Province of Sierra Leone in 1951, and his mothers’ family can be traced to colonial New England.