Lives Well Lived

7. Alimamy Rassin (1825-1890)

Alimamy Rassin was a Fula chief from Sierra Leone, who devoted his life to making peace. Raised in a warrior culture during the 1800s, he was a pacifist from an early age; he harbored an innate hatred of war and all forms of violence. He showed the strength of his conviction by refusing to train as a soldier when he was a young man. This was an unthinkable choice for a future leader—most chiefs in the area saw themselves as warlords who were only in a minor way responsible for the well-being of their people.

When Rassin inherited the chiefdom of his tribe from his adopted father, he allowed a small army to exist in Mafonda solely for self-defense. He set up a fund for the promotion of peace, to be replenished from fines levied in his court. This was another unprecedented idea; prior chiefs had kept this income for themselves. Rassin regularly traveled beyond his kingdom on peace-keeping missions, intent on teaching neighboring villages that non-violence was the best option. This wisdom seemed abundantly clear to him: most villages suffered from food shortages because their men were constantly at war. When local tribes ran out of food entirely, and came to Rassin for help, he made them promise to avoid war for five years in exchange for his assistance. After much negotiation, when the chiefs reluctantly agreed, an entire region of people who had never even considered life without war were obliged to experience it. The climate of Sierra Leone became fundamentally more peaceful, and that change was due to Alimamy Rassin.

Rassin’s commitment to peace was indicative of his great independence of thought. He was unafraid to go against the current way of thinking, or challenge the status quo. When the prior king, whom Alimamy had loved, passed away, the citizens wanted him to take the crown immediately. But he felt that more time was needed to honor the prior king, so he deferred. He led his people for twelve years before officially taking the crown; in the meantime, he simply did the work without the pomp and circumstance. He endeavored to live up to his own ideals, and no one else’s. He required neither praise nor recompense. He believed that the only way for his people to flourish was for them to put aside weapons and focus on education and trade, so he devoted his efforts to making that happen. When the Mandinka army of Samori Toure reached Mafonda in 1885, after systematically occupying many areas of northern Sierra Leone, the invaders were so impressed by Rassin’s wise rule that they chose to withdraw and leave Mafonda alone. The British in Freetown also admired Rassin’s leadership; they offered the chief an annual stipend to keep peace between the surrounding tribes—a job he was already performing—and were shocked when he turned down the salary. He argued that it was unethical to accept payment for the promotion of peace. This choice, which few would have had the strength to make, helped keep his people independent of the British rule that was fast swallowing the surrounding villages.

Despite the increasing prosperity and peace within his tribe, Rassin was rarely satisfied with his efforts. He labored from dawn to dusk to do more, and to do it better. His diligence and excellence as a young scholar was admired across Sierra Leone. And when he took on the role of leader, he made a point of continuing to work in every part of his kingdom. He took part in the farm work and hunting himself, and conducted all of the trade negotiations. He regularly visited the schools and encouraged the young children to apply themselves to their studies. When there was unrest in a neighboring community, he went himself or sent his sons. The older inhabitants of Mafonda joked that their chief seemed to be everywhere at all times.

Rassin increased his own workload in response to the needs of the people around him. As the prosperity of Mafonda grew, payments were frequently made to Rassin in slaves. The ordinary practice would have been for Rassin to sell those slaves for a profit. He hated the idea of selling men and women to brutal slave-dealers, though, so Rassin chose to keep the slaves, and employ them on his own farms. Soon, he had taken on so many slaves that he had to build a village for their accommodation. And as their numbers further swelled, he had to considerably expand his farming operations; he understood that if he had been unable to give the men and women work, it would be considered unacceptable to allow them to stay in his chiefdom. In return, the slaves were deeply loyal and committed to the chief; most of the slave songs that were passed down from that era celebrate Rassin as their savior. The breadth and depth of affection for Rassin ran deep across social classes and across Sierra Leone itself; when the legendary chief died, men and women who had never laid eyes on him grieved.

Mafonda was a very small chiefdom in a part of the world that has received very little attention in our history books. There is, in fact, only one biography of Alimamy Rassin, and it is difficult to find. But his lack of fame does not quell his significance. In a tiny corner of the world, Alimamy Rassin surveyed the society around him, noted the unhappiness and strife, and said, I can make this better. And he did.

Share This