Agnes Deen-Jalloh, the Revolutionary United Front’s most senior female rebel officer, and sister of SLPP’s leading politician and former president of Sierra Leone, Rtd Brigadier Maada Bio, was my teacher. Mrs Deen-Jalloh, as we used to call her at Bunumbu Secondary School, was a quiet and introvert teacher. She had come to our school when her husband, Dr Deen-Jalloh, moved to work in Bunumbu, a small but very strategic chiefdom headquarter town in Eastern Sierra Leone where the renowned Bunumbu Teacher’s College was located.
In her capacity, Mrs Deen-Jalloh, who was in her early thirties, was a well-trained and qualified teacher who specialised in arts and crafts. As a fourteen-year-old in the late 1980s I enjoyed arts and crafts to the point of insanity; I drew caricatures and made crafts at school and in my spare time at home. I always looked forward to Mrs Deen-Jalloh’s class. For the older boys, however, they appreciated with smiles and gestures when she turned to face the blackboard; she was bestowed with a generous feminine figure that was crowned with a beautiful face. Alas, she guarded them with a severe look and strict demeanours. She only ever spoke reasonably lengthily during lessons, demonstrating how to draw precision matchstick men with eggheads, and showing how to cover them with body and face. Her demonstrative drawings worked ever so well for me.
Mrs Deen-Jalloh also had a younger brother called Stephen Bio at the school, and he was three years ahead of me. Steve was a fine athlete at relays, but he later joined the army upon completion of his secondary education.
Mrs Dean-Jalloh’s introverted look and quietness often wondered me, and, later, led me to ask whether it was a ploy to hide what was to befall the country in subsequent years, and whether she had any prior knowledge about it at all. I can only answer this by looking at one specific art exam where Mrs Deen-Jalloh asked us to draw a thief at a market place. I was excited about this; I drew a two-dimensional image of a thief running away from a market scene with a stolen tape recorder under his arm. He was being screamed at by market women, and chased by stick wielding men with punitive intentions. Everyone, including Mrs Deen-Jalloh, liked my drawing and I got a very good mark for the work. Two or so years after I left the school the Sierra Leone civil war broke out in 1991. As the war progressed Mrs Deen-Jalloh’s name became known internationally as one of the leading figures of the Revolutionary United Front.
I literally carried my enthusiasm for art with me and have managed to hold exhibitions of my own paintings in Hampshire, Bristol, and Lancashire in the UK. But over the years I have pondered greatly over that art exam that she gave us. As rationality and detailed understanding of our national political structures, and events of the rebellion seeped into my thoughts, I considered Mrs Deen-Jalloh’s exam question an allegory of the national political system. The market place she had asked us to draw was the country, the thief was the president and the men and women who were shouting and running after the thief were the people of Sierra Leone. I was gripped; Mrs Deen-Jalloh had used art in a seemingly cunning and very powerful way to get her students to express their anger and downright abhorrence for thievery in politics, and the overall politico-economic malaise that was so emblematic at even the very highest echelon of the nation’s administration. She was a very clever woman, but she was seriously restrained by the powerlessness to exercise what was brewing in most professionals of the day, following the devastating effects of the Structural Adjustment Programme of the 1980s that downgraded education, health, and the general standard of living across the country. Successive school strikes in the country defined the late 1980s, as ideology and radicalism was implanted into students through various covert means that were deemed necessary by those who couldn’t openly express them. It was under such circumstances that students were highly radicalised, and finely tuned to become anti-establishment, enabling them to pick out gross institutional failings, corruption, tribalism, and ill-defined policies that were doomed to fail.
My radical drawings got me into trouble once when I caricatured a student during a French lesson. The drawing had already done a desk-to-desk round in class and when it got to the student in question he was so upset that he gave it to the French teacher who was known for his tempestuous relationship with his students. The teacher was also a stiff-upper-lip type who showed little or no soft face or smile. But the drawing was of such grotesque form that, upon seeing it, he couldn’t restrain his snigger; he burst into a sudden hysterical giggles that triggered the whole class into a mass laughter. Nevertheless, he called me forward and excluded me from his class. I walked out feeling a little panged like a dog with a wooden spoon tied to its tail, perhaps a bit remorseful for the poor student.
Mrs Deen-Jalloh left the school and became a lecturer at the Bunumbu Teachers’ College. I never met another art teacher again, so I became self-taught. And as I grew older my radical drawings and paintings changed considerably into some subtle aspects such as still lives and landscapes/cityscapes, sometimes using old, Dutch style. My gradual change of direction was the result of me finding another way to lay into the rotten and abusive political system through writing.
In the 1990s, indeed, two of Mrs Deen-Jalloh’s very own younger brothers, Maada Bio and Steve Bio, became deeply associated with politics and rebellion in Sierra Leone, with the former, now a Brigadier at 32, becoming president in 1996 with the help of a military coup. He returned the country to civilian rule in the same year. It was during the same period that my older brother, Steven Fallah-Williams, an army officer in Maada’s company, was killed.
As for Steve Bio, he had his own desire of becoming president of the republic. In December 1996, eleven people were arrested for an alleged plot to overthrow the Tejan Kabba government. Those arrested included Steve’s father-in-law, two Russian helicopter technicians, and six soldiers. Steve, however, escaped to Ivory Coast.
Before then, Steve had established his own companies, Soruss Airlines and Tilda Atlantic Transport. These two companies helped to move cargo around the country using helicopters and trucks during the civil war. Steve’s escape to Abidjan enabled his reunion with Foday Sankoh, with whom he had secret links to supply arms to his Revolutionary United Front fighters using his helicopters. Steve was also providing the same service for the Sierra Leone army. He was effectively a double agent. In early 1997, after his return from Russia, Steve lured Foday Sankoh to Nigeria where he was arrested by the Abacha administration, thereby opening a huge gap at the head of the Revolutionary United Front.
As a representative of the Revolutionary United Front, Mrs Deen-Jalloh became one of the key negotiators of the Lome Peace Accord between the Sierra Leone government and the rebels. Upon the arrest of Foday Sankoh in Nigeria, Mrs Deen-Jalloh became instrumental in provoking a daring change in rebel leadership. This backfired and, after returning to the rebel’s camp in Eastern Sierra Leone, Mosquito, Foday Sankoh’s brutal fighter, put her delegates under arrest for betraying their leader.
James is Sierra Leone’s Human Rights activist and Journalist.