I met Tamba Ngaujah on the streets of Freetown in August 2006, after I'd spent a month shooting in Sierra Leone for an NGO. I'd been hearing about Ngaujah -- and the fact that he was the first amputee of Sierra Leone's 1991-2002 civil war -- from my driver, who was Ngaujah's cousin. During that month, I'd been puzzled by some of my encounters with locals who talked about the war and the cruelties that Sierra Leoneans had inflicted on each other. Often, people who had been victimized would speak about the fact that the war made neighbors do crazy things, things they never would have done in normal times. There was a willingness to see all Sierra Leoneans as part of one family.
I knew a lot about that war and the amputations and other brutalities that made for shocking headlines. But I didn't know a lot about the culture, and so I found these attitudes puzzling -- I thought they provided an easy out for offenders, who could shrug off responsibility for what they had done. And then I met Ngaujah, and I took the first step on a journey that would last years, one that constantly challenged my Western sensibilities and continually led me to new ways of seeing Africa.
“Revenge will do nothing,” Ngaujah said that day when we chatted briefly on a busy downtown street. “If I kill you, your children will kill my children, and my grandchildren will kill your grandchildren, and that is how generational conflict begins. We want peace. Forgiveness is the only way forward.”
For me, Ngaujah’s simple explanation was an astonishingly wise comment – all the more so because while he stood on the street, his handless arms wrapped in clean, white cotton bandages, and patiently told me his story, the latest war in Lebanon was raging, yet another cycle of violence in a seemingly endless state of conflict in the Middle East. I thought for a long, long time about what Ngaujah had said to me, about his choice to forgive – and I thought deeply about the irony of the West’s old perception of Africa as the “dark” continent, so backward in its ways, so in need of saving by outsiders. I was beginning to feel that perhaps we are the ones who live in darkness – deeply in need of the light of this African wisdom.