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Decades old friendship survives Sierra Leone’s civil war

Bondu Manyeh’s story of helping others heal in the aftermath of Sierra Leone’s civil war is a remarkable testament to one woman’s…

Bondu Manyeh’s story of helping others heal in the aftermath of Sierra Leone’s civil war is a remarkable testament to one woman’s dedication and determination.

Manyeh, who is currently in the Yukon on a fundraising trip, is the founder and director of Graceland Counselling Services, an organization she set up in 2000 to provide psycho-social support to female victims of the war — those who suffered multiple rapes, prostitution, and mutilation.

The nine-year-long war, which began in 1991, resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and more than two million displaced persons—almost one-half of Sierra Leone’s population.

But perhaps even more remarkable is the story of a friendship forged more than 20 years ago between Manyeh and members of the Yukon development education community.

It’s the story of how two Yukon women from that community found Manyeh again after losing touch with her during the war, and how their determination to help their friend brought her back to the Yukon for an emotional reunion.

The tale begins in 1984, when Manyeh first visited the Yukon through Canadian Crossroads International.

She spent four months in Whitehorse, living with a host family, experiencing her first canoe trip and meeting with women’s groups and other community organizations to share ideas and experiences.

Manyeh was also introduced to a Yukon First Nations family—whose name she regretfully doesn’t remember—who taught her how to bead.

Little did Manyeh know at the time that it was a skill she would put to use many years later in conditions that she could never have imagined.

In the fall of 1984, Jan McKenzie — one of the women who had become friends with Manyeh, and now a social worker in Whitehorse — went to Sierra Leone as a Canadian Crossroads volunteer.

McKenzie taught in a village not far from Manyeh’s own, so she was able not only to reconnect with her new friend, but to meet her family.

“It was a great experience — it was so peaceful then, and people were so kind and patient,” McKenzie recalls.

McKenzie and Manyeh subsequently stayed in touch, despite the difficulties of corresponding with Sierra Leone in those pre-internet days.

Another close friend from Manyeh’s Yukon days, Aileen Horler, also stayed in touch, visiting Manyeh in England while her husband was completing postgraduate studies there.   

It was after Manyeh’s family returned to Sierra Leone that the civil war broke out.

“We lost contact with the outside world completely for at least 10 years,” says Manyeh.

McKenzie, meanwhile, never forgot Bondu and her family.

“But I felt that helplessness you feel when you see something going on somewhere else and there’s nothing you can do.

I couldn’t even get any information on the war.”

Five years ago, McKenzie decided to try googling Bondu’s name.

“It came up with her work out of World Vision, something to do with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And I thought, ‘It’s got to be her.’”

But that first hit didn’t lead anywhere, sending McKenzie on a three-year virtual search for her friend.   

“I would just send e-mails to any place in Sierra Leone where there was an e-mail address, saying, ‘Do you know this person?’ “Eventually McKenzie tracked down a former Canadian Crossroads representative from Sierra Leone who had moved to the United States, and who knew that Bondu and her family had survived the war and were alive and well.

“That was the first time I knew she was OK,” recalls McKenzie. “I phoned Aileen and told her, and we both burst into tears.”

But it wasn’t until McKenzie was able to pass a message to Manyeh’s husband through the president of the University of Freetown that she and Manyeh finally connected.

“One day I was on the computer, and it binged with a message, and it was Bondu’s name. I was really nervous about opening it, but there it was. She was found!”

That was two years ago, and although at first McKenzie wanted to visit Manyeh in Sierra Leone, eventually she and Horler decided that they had to find a way to bring Manyeh to the Yukon.

“But I didn’t know if it would even be possible — if Bondu could get a visa, if she could leave Sierra Leone….” says McKenzie.

They approached the Yukon Development Education Centre to co-sponsor the visit by officially inviting Manyeh to participate in their speakers’ series.

Getting the paperwork in order to obtain a Canadian visa proved to be another challenge, especially when the nearest consulate was in Ghana, but again the internet came to the rescue, enabling Manyeh to download the documents she needed.

“You know, to reconnect with your friends — I call them my Yukon family — it was really exciting,” says Manyeh, who arrived on March 28.

“It was really important for me, because I rarely get people to listen to my own stories. Most of the time I’m listening to others. It gave me a sense of belonging, that people really cared.”

“What Bondu has been through has been life-altering in a way that we haven’t experienced,” adds Horler.

“But we were able to pick our connection up again immediately and not feel like strangers.”

Manyeh will spend two weeks in the Yukon, giving talks and networking with women’s groups and other community agencies.

She explains that she founded Graceland Counselling Services — although she had no formal training as a social worker at the time — because she felt there was a pressing need to break what she calls “the culture of silence” and allow people to heal by recounting their stories.

Manyeh and her six staff members — all of whom receive only stipends for their full-time work — now run four centres around the country.

Here the girls and women not only receive counselling to deal with their traumas but are taught to read and write, since many were unable to attend school during the war years.

They also learn life skills such as sewing and beading — the same beading techniques that Manyeh learned in the Yukon over 20 years ago, and now passes on to her clients.   

“You have to engage the people. You have to back up the counselling with life skills,” she says.   

Manyeh also participated in Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, helping to debrief and counsel witnesses from around the country who gave testimony, whether they were victims or perpetrators.

Now her centre in Freetown needs more space to expand, and there is always a demand for school uniforms, shoes, learning materials, sewing machines, and other equipment.

A fundraising dinner for Manyeh’s work in Sierra Leone, featuring African food, is being held tomorrow, April 3, at 6 p.m. at the Association franco-yukonnaise, 312 Strickland.

Tickets are $50 and can be obtained from Jan McKenzie at 633-3445. All proceeds from the event will go to Graceland Counselling Services.

Anyone who is unable to attend but would like to make a donation, or sponsor a Graceland client, can also contact McKenzie.   

As for Manyeh, “I really don’t have words to describe how I feel about my sisters here in the North,” she says.

“After 22 years, to see someone go in search of you, it’s amazing. No relative did that for us. They’re heroes in my life. My husband told me to tell them that they had made us feel like human beings again.”

Patricia Robertson is a Whitehorse-based writer.