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Dr. Alpha Mohamed Lavalie: Honouring a rare gem in Nongowa Chiefdom, Kenema District

1 December 2021 at 15:39 | 922 views

Dr. Alpha Mohamed Lavalie: Honouring a rare gem in Nongowa Chiefdom, Kenema District

By Professor Joe Alie, Department of History, Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone

A Citation Read During the Commissioning of the Dr. Alpha Lavalie Memorial Park in Kenema on Saturday, 27 November 2021.

Nearly 28 years ago, a gigantic tree was violently uprooted in Nongowa Chiefdom (ngulu waa gulailo). This is how the Mende refer to the passing away of an icon and it is an apt description of the sudden death of Dr. Alpha Mohamed Lavalie. This fateful event occurred on 8 February 1994 some 15 kilometres north of Kenema city.
The significance of a massive shrub in Mende culture cannot be overstated. Such tree positively impacts the lives of people in diverse ways. It provides, among many others, shelter, and protection for the people. The late President Nelson Mandela of South Africa once remarked that *“what counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”*

We are gathered here this morning to memorialise a legend, a rather unique individual, someone who put country above his own personal safety and convenience, a patriot through and through. Alpha Lavalie was born on 1 May 1946 in Tissor, Nongowa Chiefdom, Kenema District, Eastern Sierra Leone. He received his primary school education in Hangha and early secondary schooling at the Government Secondary School, Kenema. For a variety of reasons, young Alpha was forced to leave school prematurely though with a burning desire to succeed academically in later years. Not surprisingly therefore, Alpha subsequently enrolled at Magburaka Teachers College where he attained the Teachers Certificate (TC). A 4-year scholastic sojourn at Fourah Bay College (FBC), University of Sierra Leone earned him the covetous Bachelor of Arts with Honours degree in History.

Alpha Lavalie was awarded a Master of Arts (MA) degree in History from the same institution and thereafter, joined the academic staff in the History Department. He taught me African History in my Intermediate Year.

His MA thesis, which chronicled the challenges faced by the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) during the autocratic rule of President Stevens, was a masterpiece. Alpha Lavalie subsequently elaborated on this theme for his Doctor of Philosophy (PHD) dissertation at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. I am informed that Dr. Alpha Lavalie was the first indigene of Nongowa Chiefdom to attain a PHD. What a remarkable achievement for someone who was not born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth.

Dr. Alpha Lavalie returned to the History Department at FBC after his PhD programme, *but at a time when the general security situation in Sierra Leone was fast deteriorating. A devastating civil conflict, ignited by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels in March 1991, was running the country at an alarming rate. Filled with rage at the wanton destruction of lives and property in his homeland, Dr. Alpha Lavalie began to seriously consider the establishment of a people’s militia that would effectively confront these marauding rebels with the possibility of completing eliminating them.*

The rebel war represented a classic if dastardly manifestation of the decay and rot that had characterized our national political life especially during the 1970s and 1980s. The war was as unprecedented as it was heinous. The unparalleled destructive behaviour of the RUF rebels aside, the “sobels’ that is, the rogue elements in the Sierra Leone Army, also displayed the crudest form of “ Macbethan treachery” during the war. These soldiers who should have shut the door (i.e, protect the civilians) against the murderers (rebels), not bear the knives themselves, rather treacherously turned their guns against the very people they were paid to protect. An unholy alliance had been struck between the RUF and the Sobels.

After much soul searching and consultations with many stakeholders, Dr Alpha Lavalie took the brave decision to leave his prestigious job in the university and return to his birthplace where, in collaboration with Regent Chief Sam Hinga Norman ( a retired army captain) and others helped to mobilise a group of young and determined male fighters to defend their territory. This saw the birth of Eastern Region Defence Committee (ERDC) and Dr. Alpha Lavalie easily became its undisputed leader.*

All of this happened shortly before my return to FBC where I had been a junior lecturer in the History Department before proceeding to the United States for my PhD programme. My homecoming was quite timely for I helped to fill the space created by Dr Alpha Lavalie’s resignation.

In the interim, Dr. Alpha Lavalie had travelled to the UK and other places to raise additional funds for his movement. For the initial training of the ERDC Units, Dr. Alpha Lavalie with his team utilized the dexterity and services of experienced Mende traditional hunters (Kamajoisia) who were believed to have mystical powers.

The successes of the ERDC seemed to frustrate the evil enterprises of the Sobels and believing that if they murdered Dr. Alpha Lavalie it would eventually annihilate the ERDC, the Sobels plotted his murder. They had previously assassinated the head of the Koranko traditional fighters who were collectively knowns as Tamaboro fighters, and with the death of their leader, the Tamaboro fighters vanished into thin air.

However, the sobels grossly miscalculated the resolve of the ERDC units.

On 8 February 1994, Dr. Alpha Lavalie’s vehicle was involved in a gruesome road accident around Mano Junction, when it hit a roadside bomb close to Sierra Leone Army Regiment. He died almost immediately. His death was shocking but not entirely surprising. Earlier, the civil defence units in Kenema in Kenema town had clashed with soldiers, resulting in some casualties. Contrary to the expectations of the Sobels, Dr. Lavalie’s demise acted as a powerful magnet that attracted more determined and highly motivated young men into the ERDC fighting machine.

While we are still deeply saddened by the loss of a great son of the soil, we can buoyed with the fact that while he was alive, Dr Alpha Lavalie characteristically and pleasantly displayed *Sengbe Pieh-like qualities,* by heroically confronting his adversaries in the quest for freedom. He was an exceptional loyalist and bold politician who uncompromisingly upheld democratic principles and practices. He firmly believed in the philosophy and tenets of the SLPP and above all, Dr. Alpha Lavalie was a family man.

These are therefore his legacy. And legacy, we are told, is not what’s left tomorrow when you are gone. It is what you give, create, impact and contribute today while you are here that then happens to live on. The American Country Music singer, Randy Travis, put it this way in his tract “Three Wooden Crosses”…it’s not what you take when you leave this world behind you; it’s what you leave behind you when you go.”

Dr. Alpha Lavalie physically left Mother Earth many years ago, but his works and memory live on. We are reminded that:
Death takes the body; Allah takes the soul
Our mind holds the memories, our hearts keep the love
Our faith let us know we will meet again.

The commissioning of his Memorial Park by Dr Alpha Lavalie’s family, an event that is fully supported by the elders and people of Nongowa and far beyond, is a testament to and an appreciation of Dr Alpha Lavalie’s valiant role in defending the country and especially the chiefdom of his birth.

*The Park should provide visitors with an atmosphere of natural beauty, peace for quiet meditation and a sense of dignity and honour to his memory.*

In closing, therefore, let me re-echo the words written on the tombstone of Sir Christopher Wren, who died in the 1720s. Sir Christopher was a famous English architect who designed several churches, the most famous being St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. The epitaph reads “if you seek his monument, look around you’, in Latin SI MONUMENTUM REQUIRIS CIRCUMSPICE. In like manner, if you see Dr. Alpha Lavalie’s monument, just look around you.

I thank you very much for your attention.

Photo: Kamajor fighters during the civil war in Sierra Leone. Photo credit: Council on Foreign Relations.

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