Stuck in Time: Sierra Leoneans and Corporal Punishment.

Rattan Canes
Corporal punishment is simply defined as the infliction of physical pain as a retribution for an offense or to instill discipline in the recipient of the punishment. The hope or goal is that this physical infliction of pain will deter wrongdoing, encourage compliance and discourage unacceptable behavior.

During our school days in Sierra Leone, the use of corporal punishment was pervasive at all levels of education, as it was deeply rooted in the cultural mores of Sierra Leone society. All ethnic groups in Sierra Leone use corporal punishment as a way of installing discipline in children.  Children, it is assumed, would otherwise be wayward in the absence of this physical brutality. 
A Better Use for Rattan

The use of corporal punishment was and is still part and parcel of Quranic education in our culture. We were expected to memorize entire Surahs of the Holy Quran, before even being allowed to know the meaning of the passages we were memorizing. Those who were not blessed with the gift of memorization only had themselves to blame, as they were caned until even the dullest amongst us knew that there was much more to Arabic than, Alif, BA, Ta, Tha. There was no need for special education then, as the slower you were to learn, the greater the amount of beating you were bound to have.

Going to Christian schools did not help much to take the cane off our backs, as somewhere in the Book of Proverbs, wise king Solomon had once reportedly said that "If you spare the rod, you spoil the child," and unfortunately that was the only passage in the bible some teachers cared for.

In Sierra Leone, rattan grows as fast as grass and as thick as an overhead electric cable. In those days we would see market women in Krootown Road Market with rattan rods tied in bunches of a dozen on top of their heads shouting "Rattan dae!" We prayed to God that our teachers would not buy the rattan canes while they were still fresh, as the fresher the rattan, the more potent was its sting as it bore into your back, leaving blood filled welts and inflicting considerable pain and misery.
The Prodigal Son Would have been
Flooged in Sierra Leone

In my hometown Segbwema rattan was not used to flog us. We had a type of wild shrub that had a very short stem which suddenly divided into many branches about 4 inches from the base of the stem. I still do not know the English name of the plant, but bore small yellow flowers and no child born those days in Segbwema would forget it, as it was the staple of our primary school teachers. Each single branch of that small plant gave pure, concentrated unadulterated pain and a single whack felt like a hundred bees stinging your back and buttocks all at once.So awful was the pain that it started from the base of your feet and travelled straight up your back, leaving you writhing in agony. That was the favorite tool of the primary school teachers at Methodist and RC schools in Segbwema. A dozen strokes of that modified cane on your buttocks ensured that you would not be able to sit comfortably on the hard wooden school benches for at least one week, unless your skin was as tough as the hide of an elephant.
Secondary school was no better. In Bo School we had a teacher whose name I never really remembered as he never taught me. We simply knew him as (TYT) or "Touch Your Toes." This fellow would have you stand in a circle touching your toes while he used fresh cane to pound away at your buttocks as if there was no tomorrow. Moving out of that circle invalidated the previous strokes, meaning that even if he had given you 7 strokes out of 12, you had to start all over again. Such was the sadistic pleasure with which some teachers employed the rattan.

Growing up in Sierra Leone, we grew to value corporal punishment and were taught to believe that it was an effective and necessary ingredient in the proper upbringing of children in order for them to become responsible and serious adults. Wayward children, we were led to believe or made to assume, were those who did not have sufficient parental discipline, through the judicious and frequent use of the almighty cane

My first rejection of the effectiveness of corporal punishment was my later realization that one of the people who I valued and feared most growing up was my father.  Yet I never saw my father raise a hand to hit a child, let alone use a cane. His stern look of disapproval was all that was necessary for you to behave properly.
Honorable Foday Jibani Manka

Years later,I had an argument about corporal punishment with a former Gambian teacher Mr. Foday Jibani Manka, a friend of mine,  who is now a member of Parliament in his country . The now honorable Manka told me that corporal punishment had nothing to do with the real behavior of people and that there were far more effective ways to raise children than with the brutality of the cane. The Sierra Leonean that I was, I vehemently disagreed, as I had been brought up to believe that sparing the rod would only lead to the destruction of the child, together with the majority of the citizens of my country.

It was only years after more education on the negative effects of corporal punishment that I became convinced that physical beating was good for nobody, neither children nor adult. An essay I wrote against Corporal punishment titled "Forced Confessions" was published in the International Stories Magazine of North Hennepin Community College where I started my American undergraduate education.

Unfortunately over 80 percent of people in Sierra Leone still believe in 2013 that corporal punishment is an essential part of human development. On the Facebook forum "Voices of Sierra Leone", one of the administrators  Zee Tunkara Clarkson posted a picture of a young boy in severe pain being given a sound thrashing, and it was simply amazing to realize that over 80% of the more than 130 responses to the post were in favor of corporal punishment.

Some of the respondents were grateful to their parents and teachers for flogging them when they were young, as they were convinced, that had it not been for this flogging, they would  not have been the good people they turned out to be today. Others blamed the lack of corporal punishment as the main reason why children in Western countries were wild while those back home in Sierra Leone were very disciplined. The fact that it was this same group of over flogged and over disciplined bunch of human beings that had been responsible for cutting off the hands of their fellow citizens during the war in Sierra Leone seems to have suddenly disappeared from the minds of the corporal punishment advocates. It was almost as if the argument was that the greater the beatings you got earlier in life, the more successful you became as a human being. I will have to ask Obama.

Children Need Love
Corporal punishment may in particular instances deter momentary bad behavior, no argument about that, but so does simply firmly telling a child to stop whatever bad behavior they are doing. In the medium and long term, counseling and an attempt to make children see that their behavior is wrong without resorting to brutality is way more sucessful.

Corporal punishment assumes that children are mindless morons without proper mental faculties and that one of the main ways to get them to see reason is through the infliction of physical pain. This concept is wrong on so many levels. 

In the first place when children are two or three years old, they act out, always say no and behave in a stubborn manner, that is exactly the way in which children at that age are supposed to behave! If  a child at that age is compliant, quiet and very well behaved, there is something not right somewhere. The problem usually is not with the children, the problem is with adults who think that children should behave like adults.

 Psychosocial development is a field of human development which studies the relationship between the chronological age of human beings and the behavior expected of human beings at each age range. Children in their early years are curious, adventurous, inquisitive and seemingly stubborn. They like to try things out for themselves and unless they are being a danger to themselves or to others this curiosity should be nurtured and encouraged as it is very essential for their mental development.

 I can remember growing up in Freetown. We had an old radio and a black and white Television. For years growing up we were not allowed to even turn up the volume on the radio let alone touch the Television. As children it was considered rude to ask questions. If a boy went about asking too many questions,  he was described as being too "big man," an accusation that was usually accompanied by a slap around the ears.

 In the Western countries where we have found ourselves, children are encouraged to be inquisitive, to be curious and to question facts. The result is that most of the greatest inventions we see around us today were conceptualized by their inventors when they were still children.
Participant Intel Science Fair

Go to any school science or technology show and it will be mind boggling to see the inventions and creations of children who have been brought up free to use their imagination and exercise their curiosity. At the 2013 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, the results of which were announced on May 17, 2013,  a 19 year old kid from Romania got first pace and a prize of $75,000.00 for using artificial intelligence to create a model for a low cost self driving car.

The second prize went to an 18 year old from California who received $50,000.00 for the invention of a small device that fits inside cell phone batteries enabling them to be fully charged between 20-30 seconds. The third prize of $50,00.00 went to a 17 year old by developing a model that simulates thousands of galaxies allowing astrophysicists to understand the workings of the universe better.
Winners Intel Science Fair

But in Sierra Leone creativity and curiosity at that early age will probably result in an accusation of idleness or an assignment to sell ice water on the streets of Freetown. That is why I was so happy to hear the story of the Sierra Leone whiz kid Kelvin Doe (DJ Focus)who has wooed inventors scientists all over the world, and is now more popular in the technology world than all the graduates of the Engineering Faculty at Fourah Bay College for the past twenty years or more. If that boy was born in some of the villages where we came from he would have been deployed long ago on his father's farm hauling bags of coffee to compensate for his idleness, with the occasional thrashing to motivate him to behave better.

It is truly sad to read fully grown and educated Sierra Leoneans in 2013 ascribing their successes in life to the thrashings they received as children. Love, care, attention and devotion works much more in nurturing children than flogging the hides of their back.
This Is Simply Primitivity

Children are violent in Western Societies not primarily as a result of the lack of flogging, but the fact that in these societies many parents are too busy trying to accumulate material acquisitions to pay attention to their children. Much of the waywardness found in Western Societies is not the result of the lack of corporal punishment, but mostly because parents having to pay house mortgages, car notes and credit car bills may have to juggle two or more jobs, leaving children to grow up in gangs or associating with other neglected children and developing their own codes of conduct.

 There are many children in Western societies that are cultured and well behaved, yet people have this tendency to look at the few violent ones and draw general conclusions.

I know and expect that many people from Sierra Leone may disagree with my view, but I also know that there are the few who know that inflicting physical harm is no good way to raise a child. To all my Sierra Leone brothers and sisters still beating their children for each and every offense, don't get stuck in the past, love your children and nurture them to be good citizens, stop treating them as if they are just defenseless punching bags. Get with the program, welcome to modernity.


Coolieforde said…
A bold and much inspired analysis of a fundamental cankerworm in our society that must be addressed, and very soon. Sierra Leone has signed up to various human obligations, but continues to nurture this practice. It is still rampant in our schools, and I was proud that the Old Prince Walean Associations took conscious decisions recently to tackle this negative practice at the POW School. However, the custom and culture is so deeply ingrained that it will still not be easy to eradicate the habit quickly. In the meantime, you must circulate this article as widely as possible to begin to overcome the reaction received on this Forum, so far. This is Grown Up discussion, which is so lacking in our modern country. Sqn Ldr Winston Forde RAF Ret'd
AGB said…
Moi Segwema, that is a well put and thorough analysis of how cultural beliefs play a pivotal role in shaping the life of especially the African child. My take is that the excessive use of corporal punishment is to a certain degree a thing of the past in contemporary Sierra Leone. Its prevalence had more to do with the influence of the Islamic culture and thank God we are gradually shying away from that. Yet, it worked for some people who used it in moderation. Too much of anything is not good and I think that is where the use of the cane lost its’ credibility.

I am particularly impressed that you made reference to young Doe whose invention epitomizes that good things come from SL. I am sure there are a few more of his kinds and I think his publicity will help those still kept behind closed doors to come forward. I don't know if you ever met with a fellow called "Monkey Boy." I started seeing that fellow around in the 1970s when I was in Class 2 at Kingtom Police School. He imitates the Kunfu fighting and as recent as 2012 I saw him still entertaining people with karate skills. I don't think his parents ever flogged him for being idle. It just happened that he was not as lucky as Doe. Had he been in this part of the world, he would have been another Bruce Lee. But ah yah! No one invested in him.

Andrew B.

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