Jimmy Tamba at the Rimini Meeting (Archivio Meeting)

Sierra Leone: the fruit of a friendship

From former child soldier to foster father. Jimmy Tamba recounts his meeting with Fr. Berton, CL and the Nembrini family. "They did not analyze what had happened to me, they made me see the good in the world."
Maria Acqua Simi

Jimmy Tamba is a former child soldier. Since he met Fr Giuseppe Berton (a Xaverian missionary who worked to save thousands of young men during the civil war that shook Sierra Leone from 1990 to 2001) and an Italian family from CL, his life has changed. Today he works in his country's schools to identify, together with teachers, the cases of vulnerable children to be included in AVSI's Distance Support programme. This is the same programme that welcomed him so many years ago. He does not like to dwell on the years he spent among the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front, men who – willing to do anything to take control of the gold and diamond fields – kidnapped some 40,000 minors to use in combat.

The wounds of that broken generation are still open, made more painful by the backwardness of the economic, educational and health system in which the country, among the poorest in West Africa, finds itself. Fr. Berton, who in 1985 founded the Family Home Movement (an association still supported today by AVSI that seeks to give the warmth of a home and family to orphans and the marginalised) passed away in 2013. His human parable still lives on in the thousands of young people and adults he met. Men like Jimmy, who bear witness to how the deepest wounds can be transformed into good. His experience not only led him to become a social worker, but also to support two little girls that he feels are his own today.

Who is Jimmy Tamba?
It is not easy to talk about. I am a former child soldier, kidnapped and trained to be part of an army and fight a war that was not mine and about which I understood nothing. Those who have gone through experiences like this can hardly get back on their feet. Some ended up being drug addicts; others became insane or depressed; others became vagabonds, sick and lonely. I was 11 years old when some men kidnapped me and other boys. I was assigned to communications, relaying messages from the fighting units. After two and a half years I was released, but I was very sick. I was taken to Freetown by a friend, but he was afraid because he knew that people who have lived through experiences like mine have serious wounds and repercussions, so he abandoned me on the road. In the end I was entrusted to UNICEF and they immediately contacted Fr. Berton to help me.

What do you remember about your first meeting with Fr. Berton?
I was 15 years old. When I arrived at the facility I did not see him immediately, because he was in Italy. When he returned, he immediately wanted to meet me: I remained in total silence for three days. Gradually, however, we started talking. He did not ask me anything about what had happened, he did not do any analysis. He just suggested we meet every day to chat. It was not easy for me to communicate and so he started to take me around, trying to show me the good things, the good in the world. He asked me to make a commitment to listen to others because, as he always said, healing also involves being aware of those around us. Only after a long time did he ask me my story, and I was finally able to recount it.

And you learned to listen?
Yes. Thanks to Fr. Berton and thanks to my friends from Communion and Liberation. In 2005, the Nembrini family came to Sierra Leone; it was a kind of Christmas holiday for them. We went out to Freetown, to the mountains, to spend a few days resting and there I got to know them well. We became friends. With them was their youngest son who was very quiet and reserved at the time, but there was an immediate connection between us! His parents were surprised, and meanwhile we became friends. A year later I was invited to come to Italy where I experienced first-hand what the movement was all about. I frequented GS and the CLU, I met extraordinary friends in Bergamo, and the same happened in Cesena, where I met Alberto Piatti and Arturo Alberti (two 'historical' figures in the history of AVSI,) I went to Emilia Romagna to learn more about the reality of AVSI's distance support. After all, it all started there.

And then you went back home...
Yes. I came back to study. I enrolled at university. At first, I wanted to be a journalist, but in my country, the risk of becoming a 'congosa' ('gossip') was high, and I did not want to become a person who knows everything and speaks ill of others. So I started studying administration and in the meantime I accompanied children who were having their first experience of faith in the wake of CL. Then, slowly, I became a social worker for AVSI. I changed course at university, enrolled in a politics course, but just then I met two young girls who needed help and who today are like my daughters.

Can you tell us about them?
They have a similar story to mine. When I met them they had never experienced happiness, they did not know what it was to have a family. The oldest, Mariama, is now 20 years old. At that time she was an orphan child, because her parents had died during the Ebola epidemic. She was left alone. She was approached by a man who said he wanted to take care of her, but who really only intended to marry her while she was still underage. She was only eleven years old. She went through a period of abuse, attended school but was always sad and angry. I met her as a social worker and simply started keeping her company, as Berton had done with me. After a while, she gave me a smile. Then, little by little, she started to tell me her story. And I listened, listened, listened. Today Mariama is a daughter to me. With God's blessing she has finished high school and will soon go to university.

And then there is Saleh...
Saleh, my other daughter, came into my life when she was three years old. She had been abandoned by her mother, her father is still unknown, and was living with her elderly grandmother, who was ill and could not support her. I was contacted by a teacher who was worried about this child who cried all day long. So I went to see her and discovered a complex situation: the grandmother struggled to walk, it was difficult for them to find food every day, there was no money to pay school fees. Saleh often lived on a few pieces of bread offered by neighbours. So I did what I did with Mariama: I started inviting her to spend time with me. She became my daughter. It has been seven years since then. And I am happy because they are happy. Happier than me.

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Happier than you? Looking at you smiling it seems hard to believe.
Yes. When I am angry or sad their encouragement is enough to get me going again. Saleh is fantastic. If I am sad about something, she always tells me: “If you get sad I will get sick, I will die, you cannot do this to me.” So she puts a smile on my face, and I start again. They have such great trust in reality, so great! There is one moment in particular that I will never forget.

Which moment?
One evening we organised a dinner, a party for Saleh because it was her birthday. Everyone was wishing her a happy birthday and she did not understand. She had never celebrated before. I told her that it was a beautiful, blessed day, because it was the day God had chosen for her to come into the world. She looked at me with wide eyes, she did not understand. The next morning, her grandmother told me that Saleh had come home happier than ever, she had chatted all night detailing the party, amazed that it was just for her. For the first time, her grandmother told me, Saleh was full of joy.

What is the most important thing you want to leave to your daughters, to the children you meet?

Joy. For me it is important to be able to listen, to share life. But what I want to leave them is the certainty that life is joy.