Review: Women, Diamonds & War

Against the Current, No. 127, March/April 2007

Bettina Ng'weno

“Diamonds, Guns and Rice”
Jan Haaken, Caleb Haaken Heymann, Alan Shea Anderson-Priddy (Producers), 2005.
Speaking Out: Women, War and the Global Economy
Jan Haaken and Ariel Ladum, Seiza de Tarr, Kayt Zundel, Caleb Heymann, Portland OR: Ooligan Press, Portland State University, 2005, $19.95 for both.
Order through Ooligan or through Teaching for Change (

HOW CAN WE we understand women’s roles in wars and the effect of war on women today? The DVD “Diamonds, Guns and Rice” and companion text/workbook Speaking Out are a multimedia educational tool, created with the aim of providing education material about women, war and the global economy to the high school and university level.

This case study focuses on Sierra Leone to illustrate the connections among international habits, companies and policies and the lives of women in Sierra Leone during and after war. In particular it sets out to give us an idea of two related things: 1) the changing role and effect of women and war, and 2) the intimate ties of the global economy (ranging from structural adjustment programs to small arms and diamond trade), to war, war atrocities and the perpetuation of war.

Jan Haaken et al. present this material to enable us to understand the war in Sierra Leone as one that was produced locally and globally, and one that has a particular gendered effect. The text/workbook and the DVD are structured around the question; “What happened in Sierra Leone?” To answer this question they use a variety of formats to speak about Sierra Leone, women, peace efforts and war.

The film “Diamonds, Guns and Rice” is a combination of footage taken from Sierra Leonean refugee camps in Guinea, interviews with women from Sierra Leone living in the United States and old photos, film and war clips from Sierra Leone.

The text/work book Speaking Out goes into much greater detail through careful, although not always deep, research into history, culture, economics, politics and global connections of Sierra Leone, and is structured as a teacher’s guide with activities that relate the book and the film.

Speaking Out innovatively uses testimonies, stories, interviews, games, maps and role-playing to encourage serious engagement with the complexities of the topic. Both book and film are divided into sections that introduce the country, the war, the international actors and the efforts for peace. These three areas are more or less woven together in an effort to produce an analysis of the Sierra Leonean conflict as situated within the daily life and history of citizens of the United States.

Beyond “Blood Diamonds”

In the United States the issue of the war in Sierra Leone and its connections to the diamond trade has recently been brought to the attention of the general populace in the form of the Hollywood film “Blood Diamonds.”

“Blood Diamonds” illustrates my personal peeves about films set in Africa (the only two exceptions I’ve come across are “Hotel Rwanda” and “Lumumba”): They use the black African characters as environment, through which the non-black characters find their humanity, not as characters in their own right.

In the films pertaining to Kenya and East Africa, the area I know best — “Constant Gardener,” “Nowhere in Africa,” “Out of Africa,” even “Mississippi Masala” — the black African characters never develop, remain blank slates unmemorable and unimportant, while the non-black characters go through profound life transformations, because after all life is about them.

“Blood Diamonds” is a story of two Africans, one white one black, one a mercenary one a fisherman, one in search of diamonds, the other in search of his son who was abducted into the RUF (the gangster militia in Sierra Leone — ed.). The overriding story is about the world trade in diamonds and the toll of lives it produces. The secondary, much more subtle story is about child soldiers.

This is told both through the abduction of the child and his entry via terror and drugs into becoming a combatant, and in the hinted-at story of the white character who became a soldier as a child after the murder of his parents.

The whole film, however, is very male-focused with glorification of violence and military know-how, and no female African characters except maybe a few token minutes that show the fisherman’s wife.

Arms, Gender, Youth

In contrast, although Haaken et al. do discuss diamonds in detail in Speaking Out/ “Diamonds, Guns and Rice” they also bring up more surprising and often ignored conclusions about the war in Sierra Leone that have to do with arms, gender, and youth. Particularly striking is how the possibility of children as combatants is greatly enhanced by the proliferation of small firearms.

To make the argument that small arms are the real weapons of mass destruction today, they weave the issue of the legitimate trade in small arms from the United States, together with small arms as the principal weapon in almost all of the wars of 1990s, the terrible toll on civilian life (90 % of war casualties), to the verification of child soldiers (of which there were at least 5,000 in Sierra Leone) during demobilization as those who can dismantle automatic rifles and machine guns.

This use of small arms skill as a tool of verification of combat status also enables the sidelining of female child combatants from the provision of reconciliation benefits. Although girls made up almost half of the abducted or recruited child soldiers, tragically they make up only 5% of the child soldiers in the formal programs of the Interim Care Centers, which provide counseling and skills training to help former child combatants reintegrate into society.

Haaken et al. argues that girls are less likely to receive integration help because their roles as combatants are often not those recognized by the programs as constituting child soldiering and in addition, they are stigmatized by their communities for having been raped or getting pregnant.

At the same time Speaking Out/”Diamonds, Guns and Rice” stress the changing gender roles in Sierra Leone and the need for women’s organizing, rights and participation — an unexpected consequence of the war. They also document women creating alternatives to returning to community and to prostitution in the city through the creation of farmers’ unions for demobilized girls. It would also have been nice to have more information about women’s organizing before, during and after the war from people who remained in Sierra Leone to provide a different perspective from those who left.

Generational Perspectives

In combination with its analysis of gender, Speaking Out/”Diamonds, Guns and Rice” also look at the issue of youth. Thus they address the main and tradition lines of social stratification and power in Africa: gender and age. As so many of the combatants in Sierra Leone were youth, peace initiatives are trying to address the disparities of power along age lines that contributed to the mobilization of youth for war.

The special features segment of the DVD speaks to this presenting different youth efforts for peace and particularly poignant and moving examples from the Sierra Leonean Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Speaking Out/”Diamonds, Guns and Rice” is limited in a few ways by the available footage, the effort to connect global actors to the war and the particular approach of wanting to make a statement about women understandable to audiences in the United States. As a result there are jarring parts to both the book and the film.

For instance, the book relies on longstanding Western ideas of African customary law that are ahistorical and apolitical, ignoring the substantial way gender and youth relations demonstrate international, local, regional and rural-urban interactions. As such, African custom is highlighted while class within Sierra Leone and regional politics in Liberia are overshadowed.

While overall I like the effort to draw global connections to the war, the book and film would benefit from a more in-depth analysis of these connections; in particular between structural adjustment and the war and between the war and past slavery.  For instance, in the film the use of photos from the Congo during slavery to demonstrate a history of bodily mutilation and to set up equivalences with Sierra Leone was surprising since the Congo was not referenced.

While providing a strong critique of international participation in the war in Sierra Leone (through small arms, diamonds, structural adjustment and trade) Speaking Out/ “Diamonds, Guns and Rice” also missed analysis of one other aspect of international trade, one with devastating consequences — the drug trade.

Haaken et al. describe the use of drugs to produce child soldiers and in the carrying out of atrocities. I would have liked to hear more about the international movement and trade in drugs in relation to wars, the continued addiction of ex-combatants and in particular as a gendered side effect, drug-dependent babies. Even with these limitations, Speaking Out/”Diamonds, Guns and Rice” provides a diverse and innovative basis from which to ask more questions about Sierra Leone, international economic structures, women and war and thus serves as an important educational tool.

ATC 127, March-April 2007