Faith in Chaos
“If they could have gotten their hands on God, they would have killed Him, too,” Sierra Leoneans say about the rebels. The civil war in Sierra Leone, 1991 – 2002, is labeled the cruelest in Africa’s recent history. Tens of thousands of civilians died, and hundreds of thousands more were raped, burned, tortured, enslaved, and mutilated. The Sierra Leonean amputees, their limbs cut off by rebels, became this war’s heart-wrenching icons.
For five years, I have been documenting the lives of youth in Sierra Leone as they create chances for themselves in a land where opportunities are rare. Before the war, Sierra Leone was the poorest country in the world (according to UNDP figures). It still is, and now it’s in shambles, too.
I first visited Sierra Leone one year after the peace agreement was signed to produce a photo essay on “Faith” for the World Press Photo Master Class. I connected with the kids who were the most affected by the war but who had emerged as the strongest: young people, amputated and blinded, bouncing back to demand the chances that were stolen from them. Former child soldiers and members of rebel gangs were transforming themselves into police and security forces. Even kids who lost their minds in the war and living in a mental home, succeeding in returning to the world of the sane.
I returned three times, each for months on end, to document the struggle of these youngsters. It’s a story that sheds light on a side of Sierra Leone (and of Africa) that we don’t often get to see — of stamina, pride, and self-confidence... Victims of war and poverty? Yes. But their determination humbles us all.
Bonet was born in la Colònia de Sant Jordi, Majorca. In 2002 Bonet was selected to the World Press Photo Master Class with his work titled Faith from Sierra Leone. That same year he was nominated one of the top 30 young talents of the year by the New York photography journal PDN. He was also selected by Photoespaña for his work on Procession of San Lazaro in Cuba. In 2003 he won the Kodak Young Photographer of the Year in Visa pour l'Image in Perpiñan. He also won first prize for FotoPres, first prize in the Fujifilm Europress, and first prize for the Zilveren Camera Holland. In 2004 the Luchetta Foundation in Trieste nominated Bonet the best press photographer of the year and he was also a finalist for the W.Eugene Smith Award for Humanitarian Photography, an award he was to win the following year in 2005. In 2007 Bonet won the second prize in the World Press Photo in Sports for his work on the amputees football league in Sierra Leone.
Bonet is a founding member of the photo agency Noor.
Faith in Chaos Lesson Plan
Pep Bonet and Sara Terry are the two artists who have contributed their photographs to this section. Their images illuminate both the toll that the eleven-year civil war took on the civilian population and the human capacity for resiliency and courage.
War amputees soccer team. Murray’s Dream Team is a football team entirely made up of players with one leg. This soccer team was established in February 2001 and is made up of 22 players, all residents of Murray Town Camp for Amputees in Freetown. Most of the players were amputated by roaming rebels with machetes and handsaws. Their powerful football skills transform them into true athletes. A player kicks the ball during the game. June 2002.
• What is the subject of this photograph? What does the photographer want you to notice?
Football players from Murray’s Dream Team training on the beach.
What does the central figure’s body language communicate? The players on the team are all victims of forced amputations. Do they look like victims?
A football player from Murray's Dream Team is seen here celebrating a goal scored during a match being held to mark the team's commemoration day.
• Where are your eyes drawn in this photograph? As you examine the picture, what stands out?
The title of Pep Bonet’s project is “Faith in Chaos,” and he notes in his artist statement that these images capture “the lives of youth in Sierra Leone as they create chances for themselves in a land where opportunities are rare.”
• In viewing these three photographs together, what words or feelings come to mind to describe these young men, given Bonet’s title and description of the project?
• How does the composition of each image speak to the idea of “faith in chaos”?
• Pep Bonet suggests that “these images shed light on a side of Sierra Leone (and Africa) that we don’t often see—of stamina, pride, and self-confidence.” In your view, what are the ways in which these images explore or convey those characteristics?
• How does the common theme of football (soccer) in these photographs help to explain something about life in the aftermath of civil war,
violence, or genocide?
Tamba Ngaujah was the first amputee of the war in Sierra Leone, which featured brutal amputations of civilians by all three fighting forces. Rebels from the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) captured Ngaujah on November 21, 1992, and cut off both of his hands. He has chosen to forgive the perpetrators because he believes that taking revenge would lead to generational conflict.
• Consider the significance of being recognized as the first amputee of the brutal, decade-long civil war in Sierra Leone. How does knowing this fact about Tamba Ngaujah impact your viewing of his portrait?
• In the caption for this portrait, photographer Sara Terry notes that Tamba Ngaujah “has chosen to forgive his perpetrators because he believes that taking revenge would lead to generational conflict.” What do you think of his comment—does it fit with your understanding of justice? In what ways might forgiveness help prevent generational conflict? Some would argue that forgiveness without punishment lets the perpetrators off too easily. Do you agree?
• Do you believe that there are specific elements of a community or characteristics of an individual that impart the capacity to forgive or the inability to forgive? What might these be?
Six days a week, eight hours a day, Ngaujah goes to “work”—standing on the streets of downtown Freetown. He does not beg. He waits, hoping that those who recognize him will slip a few thousand Leones (50 cents) into his pocket. Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world.
• What do you think that Tamba Ngaujah is doing in this image?
• How does this photograph challenge your idea of “going to work”?
• In the caption, Sara Terry notes, “He does not beg. He waits, hoping that those who recognize him will slip a few thousand Leones (50 cents) into his pocket.” What does the image tell us about Tamba Ngaujah? What do we learn about him by reading the caption?
One of Ngaujah’s sons wraps his father’s arms with the white bandages that he wears when he goes out in public. His wife makes sure that his navy blue suit is always clean and carefully pressed.
• How would you describe what is happening? How might Tamba describe the same scene?
• The caption for this photograph offers information we would not otherwise know from viewing the image. How do these new details impact the way you look at the photograph?
Ngaujah takes a break at a local restaurant, where he often rests during the day to escape from the heat on the streets. Usually he does not eat or drink during the day, saving the money he receives for his family. The only reason he is having a drink on this day is because a visitor bought it for him.
• What elements of this photograph stand out to you?
• Do you think the photographer chose the background deliberately? What does it mean to take a picture of Tamba in front of advertisements for Coca Cola, a product marketed with such slogans as “It’s the real thing” and “Things go better with Coke”?
• What does this image suggest about the aftermath of violence in Tamba Ngaujah’s life?
• What might the photographer be suggesting about the aftermath of violence in Sierra Leone?
Ngaujah stands on the hillside above Freetown, where he has been able to build a house of zinc metal on a small piece of land given to him by the government. He does not plan to return to Kono, the district where he was born and grew up (and where he was captured by rebels), because he believes that there are better opportunities for him and his family in Freetown, the nation’s capital.
“What has been done, has been done,” he says. “Nothing will bring back my hands . . . When I was amputated, during the three days after that [when] I was wandering in the bush, I was asking God to take my life. But God has a plan. At this time in my life, I think God has a plan.”
• In the foreword to the second volume of War is Only Half the Story, Sara Terry writes, “The stories of aftermath are the stories of what it means to be human—in contrast to the stories of war, which all too often are the sad summary of what it means to be inhuman.” How does this image communicate the larger mission of the Aftermath Project?
• “What has been done, has been done,” Tamba Ngaujah says. “Nothing will bring back my hands . . . When I was amputated, during the three days after that [when] I was wandering in the bush, I was asking God to take my life. But God has a plan. At this time in my life, I think God has a plan.” What does he mean? What is he suggesting about the aftermath of war? What is he suggesting about how he carries on?