The rebel who taught me Art in Sierra Leone

James Fallah-Williams: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 27 August 2021:

Painting and drawing is a part of me; I grew-up with them and they are intricately intertwined with my writing. I was largely self-taught; I was only ever taught by one art teacher, at The Methodist Agricultural Secondary School, Bunumbu. She was called Mrs Agnes Deen-Jalloh. Let me tell you a bit about her.

Mrs Agnes Deen-Jalloh was Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front (RUF)’s most prominent senior female rebel officer. She was also the older sister of President Julius Maada Bio, who was my teacher in Form One; he briefly became a pupil teacher at my school after completing his secondary education at Bo School in the mid-1980s.

Before she achieved the accolade of being the most prominent senior RUF female rebel, Mrs Deen-Jalloh was a quiet and introverted teacher. She had come to the school in the 1980s when her husband, Dr Deen-Jalloh, moved to work in Bunumbu, which was a small but very strategic chiefdom headquarters town in Eastern Sierra Leone and the location of the renowned Bunumbu Teachers’ College.

Photo: At the edge of the table: You are only two feet away from this bowl and tomatoes on a coffee table. Oil on canvas paper.

In her capacity as a teacher, Mrs Deen-Jalloh, who was in her late thirties, specialised in arts and crafts, and she was well-trained and highly qualified. As a fourteen-year-old, I enjoyed arts and crafts to the point of insanity. I drew caricatures and made crafts at school and in my spare time at home. I even had teacher-training college students coming to me for advice on their art assignments.

I always looked forward to Mrs Deen-Jalloh’s lessons. She only ever spoke in a formal, lengthy manner to students during lessons and didn’t engage in conversation. She demonstrated how to draw precision matchstick men with eggheads, and showed how to enhance their structures with form and face. Her demonstrative drawings worked extremely well for me.

Mrs Deen-Jalloh’s apparent introverted outlook and quietness have often made me reflect; I have wondered whether her manner was a ploy to hide what was to befall the country in subsequent years, and whether she had any prior knowledge about it at all. I can only answer this by looking at one specific art exam question in which she asked us to draw a thief at a marketplace. I was excited about this; I drew a two-dimensional image of a thief running away from a market scene with a stolen tape recorder under his arm. He was being screamed at by market women and chased by stick-wielding men with punitive intentions.

Everyone, including Mrs Deen-Jalloh, liked my drawing very much, and I got a very good mark for the work. In 1991, just over a year after I left the school, the Sierra Leone Civil War broke out. By then, Mrs Deen-Jalloh had left the school and was teaching at the college. As the war progressed, she became known internationally as one of the leading figures of the RUF rebels.

I have carried my enthusiasm for art with me through my life and have managed to hold small exhibitions of my own paintings in Bristol, Greater Manchester, and Hampshire. But over the years I have reflected deeply about that art exam that Mrs Deen-Jalloh gave us.

And, as rationality and a detailed understanding of our national political structures and the events of the rebellion seeped into my thoughts, I considered Mrs Deen-Jalloh’s exam question as an allegory of the national political system. The marketplace she had asked us to draw was the country, the thief was the president, and the men and women who were shouting and running after the thief were the people of Sierra Leone. I was gripped; Mrs Deen-Jalloh had used art in a seemingly cunning and very powerful way to get her students to express their anger at and downright abhorrence for thievery in politics and for the overall political and economic rot that was so emblematic at even the very highest echelons of the nation’s leadership.

She was a very clever woman. Very clever, but seriously constrained by her powerlessness to exercise what was brewing in the minds of most professionals of the day. She and other professionals could see that pernicious corruption went hand in hand with the devastating effects of the Structural Adjustment Programme of the 1980s, which downgraded education, health, and the general standard of living across the country.

Successive school strikes in the country defined those years, as ideology and radicalism were implanted into us through the various covert means deemed necessary by those who couldn’t openly express their views. It was under such circumstances that we were all very highly radicalised in one way or another; we were finely tuned as to how to become positively or negatively radical, and we were enabled to pick out gross institutional failings such as corruption, tribalism, and ill-defined policies that were doomed to fail.

As the economic situation became dire, teachings became fiercely radical. There were persistent sit-ins by teachers and other public sector workers. They called their protests ‘GO SLOW’. And in support of the teacher’s sit-down strike, we used to chant ‘Go slow’. For us pupils, it was an acronym for ‘Government Of Sierra Leone Offends Workers’.

So, when the government failed to pay its employees after many months of waiting, the slogan became ‘Workers on Low Salaries Organise Go-Slows’ (the same acronym backwards).  Even billboard advertisements were turned into anti-government slogans.

For example, STAR, which was a very popular larger beer for the well-offs at the time, was turned into an anti-government slogan for ‘Stand Together and Revolt’ and, with the acronym read backwards, ‘Revolt Against The State’.

As a teenager, I became gripped by this seamless intermingling of art and radicalism. My radical drawings got me into trouble once when I caricatured a student during a French lesson. The drawing had already done a desk-to-desk round in class, and when it got to the student in question, he was so upset that he gave it to the French teacher, who was known for his tempestuous relationship with his students.

The teacher was also a stiff-upper-lip type who showed little or no soft face or smile. But the drawing was of such grotesque form that, upon seeing it, he couldn’t restrain his snigger! He burst into sudden hysterical giggles that triggered the whole class into mass laughter. Nevertheless, he called me forward and excluded me from his class. I walked out looking panged, like a donkey with a broom tied to its tail – perhaps a little remorseful for the poor student.

Photo: Self portrait. Oil on canvas.

As mentioned earlier, Mrs Deen-Jalloh left us to become a lecturer at the Bunumbu Teachers’ College. I never met another art teacher again, so I became self-taught. As I grew older, my tendency towards radical drawings and paintings changed drastically, and I took my work in more subtle directions, creating still lives and landscapes/cityscapes and using a variety of styles including Old Dutch and impressionism.

My sudden change of direction was the result of me finding a different direct way to lay into the rotten political system in my country; the investigative and feature newspaper articles I write for national and diaspora papers.

This change was also triggered by other radical women entering my life. One was a medical missionary from England, who was also ex-Royal Navy personnel. At five-foot-two and of petite build, she was a live wire; a no-nonsense woman with some of the most brutal writing skills I have ever seen. Her letters to authorities hardly went beyond one page. ‘Anything beyond that is nonsense!’ she would say. Her writing skills were so brutal and devastating that they unsettled the receiver, triggering a rapid response with the promise to address the matter raised. She adopted me.

‘My son, this is England – you have to speak if you want to be heard!’ she would say to me, and ‘Don’t look at your toes when speaking to people!’. She didn’t stop there; she made sure that I understood exactly what she meant. She directed me to some of the toughest institutions England could offer. These were places where I learnt my other trade in social and public policy.

Another radical woman in my life was my landlady while I was at university. She was a retired academic – a physicist. Her speciality was polymers; a substance which has a molecular structure built up chiefly or completely from many similar units bonded together. Her hobby was ornithology, which I also came to like.

We lived in a five-bedroomed house with two sitting rooms, a kitchen, and beautifully trimmed gardens. We had only one small TV, which she had planted in one of the sitting rooms, and I thought this was a ploy to discourage me from spending unnecessary time watching it. In the sitting rooms, there was also a generous collection of books about artists including Cezanne, Constable, Peploe, L.S. Lowry, Van Gogh, Rousseau, etc.

On the walls were original British paintings that her husband, who was also a retired academic, had collected. I responded; in my spare time, and on weekends and holidays, I went through the books and thoroughly imbibed myself with colours and techniques. I picked up my easel, paints and brushes and transformed my bedroom with still lives and landscapes/cityscapes. That was the first time I ever used oil paint; I had always used water colours until that point, and I was not turning back! I had found L.S. Lowry on the shelves!

Photo: Texting on a wet winter’s day from Manchester Piccadilly. Oil on Canvas.

As for Mrs Deen-Jalloh, she profoundly changed anyone who could listen to her. But, like many women during the Sierra Leone Civil War, she was abducted by the RUF rebels when they attacked the town. And, as the rebels became aware of her devastating intellectual capabilities, they never let her go. They held on to her, and she transformed them.

In the mid-1990s, indeed, two of Mrs Deen-Jalloh’s very own younger brothers, Maada Bio (my pupil teacher), and Steve Bio (who was Maada’s younger brother and three years ahead of me at the school), became deeply associated with politics and rebellion in Sierra Leone.

Maada Bio, a brigadier at thirty-two, became president in 1996 in a military coup. Steven Fallah-Williams, my older brother, who was also a military officer in the Sierra Leone Army, worked with Maada before and during his short presidency. It was during this that my brother Steven was killed.

Steve Bio, also a military officer, was driven by his own desire to become the president of the republic. In December 1996, eleven people were arrested for an alleged plot to overthrow the democratically elected government of President Tejan Kabba, which Brigadier Maada Bio had handed power to. Those arrested included Steve’s father-in-law, two Russian helicopter technicians, and six soldiers. Steve, however, escaped to Ivory Coast.

Photo: Entangled – Long Red Marconi Peppers on a stool. Oil on canvas paper.

Before then, Steve had established his own companies, Soruss Airlines and Tilda Atlantic Transport. These two companies helped to move cargo around the country using helicopters and trucks during the civil war. Steve’s escape to Abidjan in Ivory Coast enabled his reunion with Foday Sankoh, the RUF rebel leader with whom he had links – Steve supplied arms to Foday’s RUF fighters using his helicopters.

Steve was also providing the same services to the Sierra Leone Army. He was effectively a double agent, commonly referred to in Sierra Leone as sobel (soldier/rebel). In early 1997, after his return from Russia, Steve lured Foday Sankoh to Nigeria, where Sankoh was arrested by the Nigerian government under President Sani Abacha, thereby opening a huge gap at the head of the RUF in Sierra Leone.

Mrs Deen-Jalloh was way ahead of her time, and, in a deeply traditional society, the wrong gender. She would have been a far better head of state than Maada, but what she couldn’t achieve herself, she imparted into those who could listen; she had brought her brothers up, as their father had died when they were young.

Of course, going through the hands of tough and disciplined people has its own downside – it makes you susceptible to relinquishing your responsibilities to less capable people when you become an independent and responsible adult yourself.

This is quite evident in Maada’s leadership; looking at the roles his wife, Fatima Bio, and the now demoted Chief Minister, David Francis are playing. These two people are the de facto leaders, regardless of David Francis’ current role in the administration.

Both Fatima and Francis have also allegedly siphoned billions of Leones form the state’s account. Fatima at one time went on social media to say that she would ‘unleash mob-justice on anyone who criticises’ her husband. This sort of untamed peevishness could only be expressed by those who lack the simplest understanding of contemporary democratic values and character. The very mobs who are being invoked here to unleash ‘justice’ upon those who are rightly critical of her husband’s scandalous incompetence and failings are those unemployed young men who rely on food handouts and drugs!

Sierra Leone is at a critical crossroads

Maada is incapable of making independent decisions without Fatima Bio and David Francis. As a result, his leadership style has been publicly exposed by the ferocious winds of indirection, non-assertiveness, endemic child poverty, wretched unemployment, disgraceful  infant and maternal mortality rates (the highest in Sub-Saharan Africa, to be precise!), terrific corruption spearheaded by his ministers, a failing education system, inexcusable blackouts, a lack of safe drinking water across the nation, unacceptable food shortages, and the dire economic situation of the country in general in the past three years. ‘Money nor dae na bank!’ is the common phrase you now hear in Sierra Leone.

It is painful to hear Maada defending such a bleak record, which has mostly pointed towards memorandums of understanding. Watching Maada on national television gleefully signing useless memorandums of understanding after useless memorandums of understanding of nothingness is as farcical as watching a drunken fly, whose feet are wet with ink, staggering hopelessly on a spread of plain white papers. If this is the New Direction, then we are heading for a cliff!


  1. I personally believe that this long comment or documentary about the Bio’s is all about subliminal messages . This added nothing, but it did ramble around and landed nowhere in particular.

  2. You are spot on, Mr Matturi. To a reader who is no admirer of President Bio’s sister, she will always be a former RUF operative: brutal, sadistic, uncaring, unwomanly – whatever the last descriptive word might mean – and so fit metaphorically speaking, to be hanged, drawn and quartered whenever her name comes up, in particular in the arena of inter party squabbles. However, to think of her or imagine her only as an RUF insurgent is to reduce her to a flat, unidimensional figure. That is a complete reversal of the more rounded and ultimately warmly sympathetic figure that Mr Fallah-Williams has exquisitely portrayed.

    A rebel she was factually. Did she rise to a position of trust and influence within the ranks of the insurgency? Most probably, given her abilities. The fact still remains that she was as Mr Fallah-Williams reminds us, herself a victim in the first place. A very unfortunate one at that, being caught in spite of herself in a deadly game of fratricidal bloodletting, masterminded and directed by men.

    To understand and do justice to who she really is means seeing her in the round, in particular this other side, where her humanity burns bright: a teacher and nurturer of young minds, an elder sister and carer who bravely faced the challenge of bringing up her little brothers most probably alongside her own children. One of the little brothers is now not only an adult in his own right but also and above all the president of our country. His successes and failures as a leading politician are his alone. The praises and criticisms he receives are a measure of the man and of the public figure he has grown into, not of his sister, who is a private citizen.

  3. Thank you very much, Mr James Fallah-Williams for sharing your experience, brilliant article and especially for including this statement – “But, like many women during the Sierra Leone Civil War, she was abducted by the RUF rebels when they attacked the town”. Many folks have always argued that President Bio’s sister, Mrs Deen-Jalloh, joined the rebels willingly. Most times, I get the heat from colleagues when discussing this issue. You can’t do anything when you join insurgents by force. The ultimate penalty is death if you refuse. Now, someone like you, who knows Mrs Deen-Jalloh very well, has cleared the air. I hope my friend who always reads articles from this news outlet will agree with me. Many Sierra Leoneans still think that way. Sad for them to continue thinking that way. It’s a shame.

    Furthermore, a powerful Mende woman, like Mrs Deen Jalloh, marrying a Fulah is one of the many examples that Sierra Leoneans should follow. Some of these intermarriages strengthen national cohesion and unity. I will not be surprised in the future if someone tells me he is Mr Mohamed-Bio Jalloh or Mrs Kadiatu Koroma-Matturi. The Sierra Leone central government could facilitate such intermarriages by shaking up the civil service. Don’t give civil servants jobs near their districts or where their parents live. If you are born in Kailahun, you go to Makeni. You go to Port Loko if you are born in Pujehun. Born in Bonthe, you go to Freetown. From Kono, you go to Kambia, etc. Such a practice will be fantastic for any government to follow, then national unity and cohesion will prevail as time goes on, in my view.

    Finally, I’m very proud of how my colleagues reacted to this fascinating article on this glorious platform. We should not attack family members who are not involved in the politics of their relatives. As I always say, we should exclude children and family members of our President and politicians from the political debate unless they force themselves into it as some do. God bless Mr Abdul Rashid Thomas and Mr James Fallah-Williams. Yeah.

  4. What a fantastic piece of journalism!!! Thoroughly enjoyed it, but read the foreboding warning behind it of which I agree totally with. I was just arguing with someone regarding the 1st Lady’s strategic behaviours, with regards to her husband’s presidency. I have already suspected that in my humble opinion behind the TikTok video was a celebration of an immense financial transaction that they were involved in. She couldn’t boast about it but she decided to celebrate it publicly right underneath our noses. Then days later the news of the $55million deal of the Black Johnson deal was released with all those unnecessary hectares of land given to the Chineseto develop (you only need 6-10 hectares to create a harbour). The overwhelming feeling of foreboding, that I’d witnessed this type of greed before in our country, filled my heart.

    We’re literally walking into a dictatorship and I am no fan of the previous government. But the behaviour of this 1st lady remind me of Grace Mugabe’s arrogance and how her husband was grooming her to become the next president…If she had taken over Zimbabwe imagine what she’d have unleashed. We got a taste of this when the unfortunate death of the 1st lady’s brother died and how she reacted In her grief, by making threats instead of issuing an autopsy. Imagine if she’d been president!!! Everyone in that club would have been jailed or worse, put to death! He appears to be unable to control his wife’s boastfulness and any good she does is always followed by boastful behaviour. It almost appears as if she’s the president and not him. Also her obsession with social media isn’t natural for a president’s wife.

    You can turn an actress into a president’s wife but you cannot take the actress out of the president’s wife. A man who cannot control his wife’s behaviour will find it very hard to control and be responsible for a whole country, especially if cannot see what is happening in his own household. God help us all and I hope I’m sincerely wrong. This article was very insightful.

  5. A glimpse of the real life stories behind the headlines. A trip down memory lane to remind us of a civil war that has defined our lives. Finally a lesson from history and a poignant reminder that we are still short of our goals. Kudos to the author

  6. Totally agree Mr Yillah.Mr Fallah Williams have managed to perform a forensics assessment of the contradiction that have existed in Sierra Leone since independence. For some of our fellow Sierra-leonean that have avoid looking at the big picture between royalty to country, Flag, family and tribe, and above all eles oneself is the ultimate slefharm that have with held our countrys future potential development prospects . In telling his story,in such unassuming way, without being boastful of his artistic success , interwoven with his own story of how he took advantage of the destiny meant for him, and by the manages to pull any punches,with a gripping account capable of holding the readers attention, in the process through his artistic talents, like he is holding a gaint mirror around Cotton Tree and asking us his fellow Sierra-leoneans to look at that mirror and ask ourselves, which sides do we support?

    Like many of us in this forum, he had picked a side called team Sierra Leone. His opinion piece have proved his royalty doesn’t lie with his tribe, or the party one belongs to , if any, but the party of wishing progress and development for our country. If only 60% of our population thinks and act like Mr Fallah Williams, today’s Sierra Leone will be in a better shape both economically, and politically.

    • You are right Mr Jalloh. Mr Fallah-Williams believes in a constituency called Sierra Leone. That constituency is of course a concrete geographical, political, social and cultural reality: it is made up of various regions, has many political parties and well over a dozen different ethnic groups and languages. And yet it is one and indivisible – a nation that has a history: a past that has shaped its immediate present, both of which should be understood and reworked constantly by those who call Sierra Leone home and believe in its unity, continuity and capacity to evolve and thrive.

      The country is at present not what it can be. And Mr Fallah-Williams understands this point very well, and the fantastic piece of self-writing that he has generously given us identifies elements of how and why that constituency of his is what and where it is, and suggests through the example of his personal trajectory of guided, disciplined self development and self-realisation, what can be done to make a difference.

      To put it differently, a way forward for the country is without doubt having in place a guiding hand – enlightened and disciplined leadership that will enable the country to achieve its full potential. Young Fallah-Williams needed a Mrs Deen-Jalloh to recognise and unleash his artistic potential and set him on his way. The rest as they say is history. Sierra Leone, imagined as a united, cohesive and successful polity, needs its own Mrs Deen-Jalloh.

  7. And Mr Fallah-Williams, I cannot resist the temptation of adding that even though ethno-regionally you have an affinity with our current president by virtue of the fact that you both hail from South-Eastern Sierra Leone, you have the honesty and integrity to put that affinity aside and call out unambiguously Bio’s inadequacies as a leader.

    To my mind, the presence of critical voices such as yours confirms the inanity of claims being made elsewhere on this forum that political criticism by Sierra Leoneans at home and in the diaspora is done exclusively on the basis of party-political and ethno-regional cleavages. Your voice is indeed proof that all is not lost: we are not all ‘untrue to ourselves and country’, meaning arrant hypocrites, when it comes to calling out the ineptitude of our political leaders.

  8. This is a master piece written by a Sierra Leonean artist that knew his trade, and how he use his talents to accomplish his dreams. For some people, discovering their natural talents will take them through the long road of self discovery. Some times they might get there, and in some cases they will need encouragement when self doubts creeps in and set up a road block to the very destinations you were hoping to reach by using your talents as a vehicle . And once such people over come their fears and self doubt, the road to success ahead is wide open. You have unlimited ways of accomplishing your goals . And in vast majority of cases like in the case of Mr Williams, they will identify what they are good at, and devote their entire working life on such projects not for material gains or for profit, but to pursue what they like to do and what they do best . This is the almighty catch 22 that majority of parents faced in helping to encourage their children discover their natural talents.

    In the case of Mr Fallah Williams, and his relationship with his mentor and teacher Mrs Deen-jalloh, it goes without saying her encouragement and commitment to him, was attributed to the natural talents she saw in him . And he was a lucky enough to meet the the British mentors that put rocket boosters to his his artist work and helped him realised his dreams. And the good news for Mr Williams, all the women he worked with ,saw the talents in him.His success has proved it was not a wasted journey that he and Mrs Deen – Jalloh under took all those years ago.

    • And now, with his God-fearing and loving wife, again, she believes more on written articles and expressed emotions on paintings. I knew it! To Sir James you’re so admirable! You are an amazing writer and painter!

  9. Brilliant and yet so poignant. The message and the delivery – a masterpiece – point to how much our society could benefit by having the author in our midst. Sadly, this particularly remarkable local talent is lost to the country because of intolerance, exclusion, and fear of exposure. Well done Mr Fallah Williams, we hope to get some more from you.

  10. A mesmerizing,and effortlessly brilliant piece of writing from Mr Fallah Williams that vividly highlights the benefits and results of nurturing young people through compassion,diligence and understanding. I applaud you Sir for boldly highlighting the role that resourceful, selfless women have already played in your life. Bravo!

  11. Another remarkable composition by a master of investigative journalism. A more complex, intergeneric piece this time though, in which art, political reportage and analysis and personal, family and national histories intertwine and interpenetrate, giving us a profound insight into the writer’s life and his take on some key events and personalities that have shaped Sierra Leone’s highly tumultuous and problematic political, social and economic scene over the last three decades or so.

    Mr Fallah-Williams, thank you so much for such wonderful admixture of visual and writerly craft and for sharing such absorbing details of your personal history and your knowledge of a family a member of whom now runs the affairs of our country. I find your portrait of the President’s sister, Mrs Deen-Jalloh, particularly striking. Your respect and admiration for her are unmistakable.

    Like the two other women (British) that have shaped your life, Mrs Deen-Jalloh is a truly remarkable person, symbolising undoubtedly why our Sierra Leonean society, steeped as it has been from time immemorial in patriarchal and masculinist values and assumptions, misses out on what women could offer by way of responsible and effective political leadership.

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