Once war-torn Sierra Leone now leads the world in peace
When Anglican pastor Hassan John noticed a little girl hawking groundnuts in a street in Jos in Northern Nigeria, he became curious. She should have been in school since primary school fees are not very high.
He followed the little girl into her community and realized, too late, that she was Muslim.
Muslims kill Christians in Jos every day and Canon John, who is the former Director of Communications for the Archbishop, has a bounty on his head.
"It’s about £500 in naira – the equivalent of an iPhone." he told Sierra Leone’s Inter-Religious Council (IRC) meeting at the Family Kingdom Hotel in Lumley Road, Freetown.
He pressed into the community known quaintly as "Rayfield" (it once housed colonial-era British tin miners and is now 100 percent Hausa Muslim) and began something remarkable in a province riven by violence from the deadly Islamist group, Boko Haram.
The little girl’s mother was a widow - one of four wives of her husband who had been killed in what is called ‘the crisis’ - and had no work or food.
John set about trying to help. Despite initial reluctance from his Christian congregation, he was successful. Today there is a flourishing skills training program for more than 180 Muslim women and education for 150 children. His experience in that community is indicative of how trust can be re-built from the ashes of religious hatred.
He travels all over to tell his story at Freetown, in Bo in the south, and Makeni in the north, as well as to the President, Ernest Bai Koroma and the National Security Council. John's trip has been facilitated by the former British High Commissioner, Peter Penfold.
He has worked for seven years at the frontline of the Boko Haram insurgency which, according to Human Rights Watch, claimed 3,500 lives in 2015 and is now spreading through Niger and Mali.
After each atrocity, John would quickly respond to the scene with his camera and file footage for CNN (where he is known as the Nigerian "fixer"). His peace-making skills are working and even attracting the attention of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who paid for his flight to Freetown.
Sierra Leone is known for being a place with excellent relations between Christians and Muslims. Babies are often given one Muslim and one Christian name – similar to John himself – and Christians and Muslim children study at each other’s schools.
Intermarriage is also almost universal. Unlike Northern Nigeria, where the severe Wahhabi interpretation of the faith has filtered down from North Africa, Sierra Leone’s deadly civil war from 1991 to 2001 had no religious affiliation.
But that’s no reason for complacency.
"It was timely and well appreciated by the religious communities in Sierra Leone because of the election and because of the little skirmishes of religious intolerance we have started experiencing." said Rev Doctor Usman Fornah, Secretary General of Sierra Leone’s IRC who convened the meeting especially to hear John speak.
In a small poverty-stricken nation with a sixty-to-thirty percent Muslim/Christian split - looking towards the twin pressures of Al Qaeda in the Magreb (AQIM) to the north, and Boko Haram to the east - the last thing the country needs are enforcers of Islamic purity.
But extremists are infiltrating Sierra Leone’s tight-knit communities, destroying Ahmadiyya mosques (widely persecuted elsewhere in the Islamic world as "heretic" but only recently in Sierra Leone), banning women from the mosques, and brain-washing youth.
Some leaders fear this is just the beginning.
"Things are happening. We are seeing signs. Women are not allowed into mosques. It will spill over. Young people can be easily captivated for just $20." said Reverend Christiana Sutton-Koroma, Women's Coordinator of the IRCSL.
With elections in March, Sierra Leoneans are on the lookout for anything that could spark the violence that devastated the country for ten years. During that period, young people with too little to do and resentful of the wealth of corrupt officials fell under the spell of Liberian militants from across the border. Fueled by bush drugs and an alien ideology, they marched on Freetown, destroying everything in their path.
Many people are fearful of a return to the conditions that incubated the mayhem that became infamous for amputations of children and the targeting of all those in any kind of authority.
They look warily at the civil war in big brother Nigeria where successive governments have failed completely to stem the insurgency. Like the hydra, it has split into two with one faction led by Abu Al Barnawi, son of founder Mohammed Yusuf with links to AQIM; and the other led by Abubakar Shakau, wrongly alleged to have died, joining up with ISIS.
"Jos is now full of illegal weapons. The youth are not listening to their leaders. We no longer comment when we see dead bodies in the streets." Canon John told Sierra Leone’s leaders.
It got so bad that the young people have moved back to their traditional ways - including revenge attacks by former Christians and cannibalism of enemies to destroy their spirits.
John also notes the abductions of 15,000 women from across the region – far outweighing the 276 Chibok schoolgirls whose plight became briefly fashionable among Obama followers and celebrities in 2015.
Plans resulting from John’s visit include discussions at the regional level through the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the dissemination of more - and more current information possibly in partnership with the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and an improvement in intelligence.
"We cannot grow children in a war situation. We have lost control because we didn’t want to pay attention to the little issues in the beginning, and now we don’t know what to do," said Canon John.
To the room full of Muslim and Christian leaders, including the Sheikh of Freetown and Anglican Archdeacon of Christchurch, he added: "What you have here is beautiful!"
"If you up your game now, when the pressure comes, you will begin to teach the other African countries about where we need to go." he said.