June 9th, 2010

As I pondered the options of this inaugural Blog I thought about the influences in my life, the bounty of family, friends and life in Canada.  I reflected upon the gifts of people I have met and the places I have travelled to over the years.

The concept of responding to a kindness with another kindness, reciprocity, emerged as I reflected upon these travels and meeting a former child soldier in post-war Sierra Leone, West Africa.

I met James three years ago during my first visit to Sierra Leone, where I was working with CDPeace , documenting and photographing an international education project. While in the midst of a very vibrant community celebration I noticed a boy separated from the others; he was void of emotion, looking hollow and deeply saddened, resistant to any interaction.

I learned from one of the villagers that James had been kidnapped at 7 years old and forced to become a child soldier in the civil war that brutalized Sierra Leone for 11 years.

Gently, and through a translator, I approached James.  Eventually, he shared with me his story, something he had never done before. The tremendous hurt and burden welled up from inside this 14-year old boy and streamed down his face, as he revealed his experiences of being both the abused and the abuser.

James carried tremendous remorse for the acts of violence he was forced to inflict on his own people.  He felt there remained no future nor hope for him.  He said he struggled beyond words and did not know how to handle such incredible guilt.  As I listened, I struggled with my own emotions.  I searched to find the humanity in his experiences, in the memories he shared, in our time together.

I asked James if there could be anything that might bring him some hope – any hope. He sat silent for a very long time before responding that he believed only God, and possibly education, could lessen his pain.  As James explained that his family was too poor to send him to school, I decided I would find a way to pay for his education and I told him so.  In return, I asked James to think about doing one thing; I asked him for an act of kindness towards another.

I hoped that in doing something for others James might again find his own humanity and the beginning of healing.

What James did with his experience evolved into an extraordinary act of reciprocity.

As his act of kindness, James began by visiting several nearby villages, each severely impoverished.  He began engaging the youth, challenging them to do something positive. James then guided them through creating a communal farm where each of the youth worked to plant, harvest and sell cassava (a starchy root and dietary staple). From this work they, the poorest of the poor, generated funds to send their poorest to school.

James’ act of kindness created an opportunity for others and continues to change lives. He has changed his own life, and mine through knowing him, as well as the lives of twenty-nine other children to date.

It is this gift, the reciprocity of James, that I would like to leave with each of us in hopes that we may each find our own catalyst for inspiration and incorporate such forgiveness, of ourselves and others, and generosity of spirit, into our daily lives.

View images of Sierra Leone