Sierra Leone’s was a complicated war. One of the first post-Cold War conflicts, and seemingly one of the more intractable and bizarre, there is still no consensus explanation for what happened in Sierra Leone and neighboring Liberia throughout the 1990s. Scholars from political science, anthropology, history, psychology, and sociology have looked to this small West African nation and drawn often wildly divergent conclusions about what we should learn from its many stories of violence.
Catherine Bolten’s I Did It to Save My Life: Love and Survival in Sierra Leone is one of the more interesting contributions to this expansive field. Her ethnography, based on fieldwork in the northern town of Makeni shortly after the war ended, tells the story of the war through seven central figures. Each account is framed around some aspect of the main narrator’s identity (soldier, rebel, student, evangelist, etc.) though the biographical portraits are rich and expansive.
Bolten writes beautifully. More importantly she has an excellent editorial ear. The narrative chapters contain extensive direct interview quotes, and these are nicely stitched together and interspersed with commentary and historical detail. As a record of the many ways life is lived in a conflict zone, and the many ways people talk (or don’t talk) about their experiences afterward, I Did It to Save My Life is unusually powerful. While not the first book on wartime Sierra Leone to rely extensively on life histories, it is more successful than most at tacking back and forth between individual voices and the national political context. For readers unfamiliar with the history of Sierra Leone’s war, the book is an excellent introduction. Its details are harrowing, but they are given detailed and helpful context.
That context also makes I Did It to Save My Life an important work for those who are more familiar with the war. As the city most strongly associated with the RUF, Makeni has an unusual place in Sierra Leone’s national imaginary. Bolten doesn’t take Makeni for granted as a place, and does some useful work here exploring the town’s history and the unusual pressures its residents were under as they lived first through occupation and then the post-war challenges of a large ex-combatant population and a reputation as rebel collaborators.
Like most scholars of this conflict Bolten uses her narrative accounts of the war to make larger theoretical claims about the origins and character of violence. Bolten’s major theoretical term is “love,” and it is unfortunately the book’s one significant weakness. The book’s introduction begins with an important observation: that the Krio term “love” includes a dimension of “material loyalty.” As such these affective bonds can easily slide into relationships that are greedy and exploitative (p. 3). This is an important argument, and one that scholars like Achille Mbembe, Jennifer Cole and Jane Guyer have explored elsewhere in Africa with some nuance, often through keywords like “debt” and “value.”
The thick materiality of affective relationships is not, however, something Bolten does much with, though the book’s narratives give ample opportunity for thoughtful analysis. Instead “love” loses its heuristic value as the book progresses. At times it is a catch-all term describing virtually any relationship. At other times it appears as a redemptive saving grace, antithetical to war and violence. This romantic ideal runs counter to the subtler, context-informed argument Bolten suggests in her opening pages.
I Did It to Save My Life’s more important theoretical contribution toward understanding the Sierra Leone war lies in the way Bolten analyzes narration, and the very effective way she weaves many voices together to make her own story. The result is a work that should find a wide and appreciative readership among students and scholars who continue to look for ways to tell meaningful stories about complex histories of violence in Africa.