By Samuel Serry Jr. - Dec 2019
An Intriguing story of two Sisters with split loyalties to the British and Sierra Leonean Armies.
How did two Sierra Leonean sisters end up in military combat fatigues but with loyalties to two different countries? While one sister is serving at home, the other sister is serving the country’s former colonial masters in faraway Britain. In September this year, Hidden Voices, was among guests at an unprecedented graduation ceremony, which was witnessed by
President Julius Maada Bio and several other dignitaries.
No sooner had the 327 very neatly dressed graduating all-female officers and soldiers of the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces (RSLAF) stood at attention and waiting for the arrival of their Commander-in-Chief, then the skies opened to a torrential downpour.
After going through the rigours of training which started in March this year at the Armed Forces Training Center at Benguema, Lieutenant Mattu Moiwo was among the officers that the rain was heavily pounding. Like her colleagues, from the top of her beret to the sole of her boots, she was heavily drenched as if the relentless rain was saying – welcome to the military. Among the guests, was her sister, Lucy, a Corporal in the British Army.
In spite of the heavy downpour, the new female recruits were resolute to showcase some of their regimental skills in front of hundreds of well-wishers. It was the largest ever female passing out ceremony in Sierra Leone’s history.
At a time when Sierra Leone was in the throes of a ghastly civil war, Lucy and Mattu were less than three years old when they fled Kailahun town to escape Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel onslaught in 1991.
In the company of their mother and older male siblings, the two sisters were among hundreds of displaced persons who trekked through the night to the Sierra Leone- Guinea border village of Baoma. At one point, the younger Lucy had to be picked up by another relative who met her wandering among the crowd fleeing that night. She had accidentally dropped her doll, and an attempt to pick it up saw her losing her place in a long chain of panic-stricken displaced persons snaking its way through the jungle. Neither her mother nor her brothers could have yelled or announced her disappearance since that could have attracted RUF rebels believed to be lurking in the bushes. It was a terrifying moment for a two-year-old girl. Their father, a prominent cacao merchant, was on a rebel hit list. A secret source had advised him to flee ahead of his family to Guinea or risked being butchered.
The Moiwo sisters eventually arrived at the Moa River border crossing after a brief transit at Baoma, but crossing to Guinean territory was delayed by Guinean forces stationed on the other side of the border. There were rumours of a potential civil conflict in Guinea. So, the Guineans were naturally inclined to protect their borders. The Moiwo family and the rest of their displaced compatriots were left with two options: sleep on the river bank till morning and get screened, or attempt crossing and face the no-nonsense Guinean army who had reportedly threatened to shoot anyone daring to cross that night.
The following morning, the displaced persons were transported via dugout canoe to Guinean territory. Lucy, Mattu and the rest of the family were reunited with their father who was now struggling to ensure the family was safe and each member was registered as a refugee by a relief organization operating in the area. The refugees were allocated a piece of land to erect their shelter near Geleima, a Guinean village close to the border, but residents were notoriously hostile. A cholera outbreak – apparently fueled by the unhygienic conditions in the camp also killed hundreds of people.
The Moiwos would also regularly have to walk some miles to get food packages from Kangama where a relief post was stationed as vehicular access to the Gelema settlement was impossible. The criteria for receiving food aid at distant Kangama was that all family heads were required to present their children and wards for food packages physically. The two little sisters were thus part of the regular treks on inhospitable terrain.
Perhaps, an incident that the family would never forget was when the two-year-old Mattu, on their way from Kangama, innocently plucked a young cacao pod at a roadside plantation. She was apprehended by the owners of the cacao farm, and according to the local law, she was to be tied up and paraded through the village as a common criminal. Her father, who could not afford to see her daughter going through such sadistic savagery, volunteered to take the punishment instead. Appeals by some residents who knew the dad as a respected businessman from Sierra Leone got the local chief to change his mind for a lighter punishment and a fine.
After a month in Gelema, the family moved to Kangama where a larger refugee settlement had been established. The family erected a makeshift house made of sticks and grass. Access to food aid improved, but living conditions were still dire in the forested Guinean region.
Back home in Sierra Leone, the family separated with one group ending up in Freetown and another in Kenema. Their return was short-lived. In the aftermath of the 1997 AFRC military interregnum, they found themselves again in Guinea where their father served as a volunteer for a refugee aid agency. The dad later got an incentive job as an English/French interpreter for the World Food Programme (WFP).
In 1999, the Moiwos returned home. Lucy finished secondary school and later studied at the Milton Margai College of Education - graduating with a Diploma in Community Studies/Agricultural Science. She then travelled to the UK, where she was recruited into the British Army. Now a Corporal, based in Sandhurst, she is attached to the respected Army Engagement Group. Mattu finished secondary school and went on to earn a BSc in Pure and Applied Sciences and then a Masters in Environmental Management from the Njala University. She was part of a separate group of 44 cadet officers who answered the call to defend her motherland alongside 337 other women this year.
While Mattu and Lucy Moiwo’s separate enrolments into the Sierra Leone and British armies can be described as a distant coincidence, their story is simply awe-inspiring. It is clear that the two sisters, who had been confronted with the unimaginable challenges of life, had stood up with an intrepid determination to succeed. The military uniforms they would now be putting on daily are not just mere fabrics of identity – they will forever remain the climax of symbolic representations of a long-fought battle – a battle to survive an eleven civil war, social prejudices, and poverty. Yes, the Moiwo sisters were indeed fighters before they became soldiers.