Teeth and Tongue Jammed Together. DPhil Anthropology. Oxford University

“Teeth and tongue jammed together” - Gender, relationships, emotions and violence in Freetown.


Gendered subject positions are one of the main foundation stones upon which Sierra Leonean culture is built. Between historical trajectories, especially the civil war and the Ebola pandemic, the cultural traditions and the influence of global trends, there is a renegotiation of gendered standards and relationship practices that is taking place in Sierra Leone.

At the time of writing, I have completed one year of intensive ethnographic fieldwork among men and women from various backgrounds and walks of life in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and have focussed on the various cultural dimensions of gender identities. From my interviews and observations, it has become clear that to understand the relationship between men and women, it is necessary to navigate cultural attitudes towards gender-based violence.

I am therefore researching sexual relationships to map the complex interconnection between gendered expectations generated by social, economic, and cultural conditions, and the daily lived reality of men and women. Based in Freetown, the capital city, my DPhil highlights how relationships are negotiated between new urban dynamics and forms of relationships and older local ideals of woman- and manhood that are firmly grounded in a concept of gender parallelism.

The complex foundations of gender-based violence.

During my interviews, the stories of love and relationships were diverse and encompassed a wide range of sexual interactions and dynamics. Gender based violence, on the other hand, was a ubiquitous concern, and a central theme that united many of these narratives. Social pressures to perform expected roles of masculinity and femininity, along with the insecurities attendant upon what these ideals now mean in a rapidly transforming social landscape seem to lie at the heart of forms of violence, and the endurance of those who suffer it .

My research into the area of gendered expectations in modern Sierra Leone must ask questions about the role that violence plays in these new dynamics. Which violent actions are ‘normal’ to my subjects and which constitute unusual or unacceptable levels of violence? How is violence executed against both men and women and with what consequences? To what extent is gender an influential force in the endurance, expectation, and acceptance of violent acts? What coping mechanisms and strategies of prevention are developed?

Gendered violence was certainly not unknown in Sierra Leone prior to the civil war. Historically, gender-related violence has shaped the country, not only during colonialism and slavery, but also after independence. Additionally, it played its part during the civil war and the several health emergencies of recent years. Yet the focus of much research into this area has been on sexual violence during conflict . Studies that consider the role of gender related violence in times of ‘peace’ have received significantly less attention . Peace-time violence is, of course, related to wartime violence. The high levels of rape committed during the war made gender-based violence a central concern after the conflict ended. This led to the reformulation of laws and the establishment of different organizations which brought gender-based violence from the private into the public sphere leading to complex negotiations over its acceptability and consequences.

My research will aim to discuss the difficult issue of how gendered violence functions, not as a disruption of the norm, but as the norm. Not warfare through rapes, but gender-based violence carried out within a system of social acceptance. Only by understanding dynamics of gendered bodies, sexualities and behaviors in Freetown can one start to grasp the complex foundations gender-based violent actions are built upon and work to dismantle them.

Theoretical contribution:

I contextualize my research historically through drawing from early histories of Sierra Leone , the post-independence moment , the civil war and the post-war context , the Ebola pandemic and its aftermath . My research is firmly grounded in an analysis of the current social, economic, and political situation in Sierra Leone. I furthermore work with local statistics, case files, archival documents and data bases from courts and NGOs working on gender based violence in Sierra Leone. This study of relationships and gender-based violence — its execution, mediation, and regulation — in post-war and post Ebola Freetown advances works on gender based violence in war and peace , works on masculinities and femininities as well as studies of love, marriage and (transactional) relationships in Africa today .


I started my DPhil in October 2015, completed my transfer of status in April 2016 and started fieldwork in June 2016. I am currently in the final stages of my fieldwork and will return to Oxford in June to start the writing-up phase of my research. I have been accepted as a paper presenter at several conferences , published a paper in Ethnography (2016) and hope to be given the chance to teach while writing up. I am expected to hand in my dissertation between May 2018 and September 2019.

A note on Methodology

Though it is not appropriate to describe my methodology in depth here, the following outline may prove useful. To draw a holistic picture, I have been working with focus groups from different economic, social, cultural, ethnic, and professional backgrounds. Although my focus lies on young people, I continue to involve different age groups (from 16 to 70) and demographics. Among my respondents are boys and men working at a garage, a welding shop, a carpenter shop and coffee shops, market women and girls, women and girls working in beauty salons, traders, caterers, drivers, business men and women, journalists, social and humanitarian workers, politicians, legal practitoiners, the police, social clubs for men and women, sex workers, elders, people frequenting the streets, families, high-school and university students, members from the ‘Ghetto’, imams, priests, traditional people and individual members of secret societies. I have also worked with people accused of and convicted for sexual and gender-based violence. Furthermore, I am conducting research with the Family Support Unit (FSU), and the magistrate court and high court in Freetown, which deals with cases of gender related violence. Atop of this, I have participated in family life at Allentown and have become increasingly involved in the day-to-day activities of the 11-person household. I am also consistently attending community festivities and masquerades by different societies and social and religious rituals and rites de passage. All of this has allowed me to operate as an integrated member of the Freetown community. I have visited several NGO’S and institutions who work on gender and relationships. Although my work focuses on the lived experiences of men and women in Freetown, I found it necessary to benefit from the experience of such institutions as well as the media (especially culture radio and AYV). Additionally, I am part of several Whatsapp groups in which conceptions of gender and relationships are heavily discussed. Whatsapp has become a major channel of communication for young people in Sierra Leone, so participation in these chat groups is essential.

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