Syracuse University Magazine

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Joseph Kaifala G'10

Vision for a Peaceful Future

Joseph Ben Kaifala formed his view of human nature early in life, during the Liberian and Sierra Leonean civil wars. At age 9, he was imprisoned by the rebels of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia. Two years later, he encountered those same prison guards in Sierra Leone—where they were now fighting for the Revolutionary United Front. “The rebels who were prepared to kill us in Liberia were equally prepared to protect us from other rebels in Sierra Leone,” says Kaifala, who earned a master’s degree in international relations from the Maxwell School. “I believe there is goodness in all of us that is sometimes subdued for alternate desires, but avails itself under the right circumstances. Therefore, to achieve peace, we must seek and cultivate the dormant good in all of us. As Madiba Mandela put it, ‘Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.’” (Madiba is Nelson Mandela’s ancestral name, used as a sign of respect and affection.)

Kaifala is executive director of the Jeneba Pro­ject, which provides and promotes educational opportunities for students in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia, member states of the Mano River Union, an intergovernmental organization based on socio-economic improvement for the region. The project supports human rights in the region through research, fellowships, and publications as well. Kaifala also co-founded the Sierra Leone Memory Project, which is recording oral testimonies from survivors of that country’s civil war.

The Jeneba Project is currently raising money for a high school in Robis, Sierra Leone. “When the Ebola emergency is over, we will complete the construction as a pilot project for free fundamental education,” Kaifala says. “We have been advocating for free high school education in Sierra Leone. The government always argues that it is impossible, but we believe that, as Madiba used to say, ‘It always seems impossible until it’s done.’”

Kaifala is writing a history of Sierra Leone that will incorporate survivor accounts from the Memory Project. “The first group of victims we interviewed thanked us for listening to them, and for offering a dignified platform for them to share their stories,” Kaifala says. “The Memory Project believes that healing the country requires collective dialogue around forgiveness and reconciliation. We cannot enter a peaceful future without ironing the rough edges of our past.”

Kaifala speaks six languages—English, French, Kissi, Krio, Mandingo, and Mende—and in addition to his Maxwell School degree, he has a J.D. degree from Vermont Law School, with a Certificate in International and Comparative Law. A member of the Washington, D.C., bar, he wants to become a professor of international law. His goal is to serve on a judicial body like the International Court of Justice, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, or the Economic Community of West African States Court of Justice.

“This could permit me to influence legal changes to strengthen democracy and improve lives on the African continent,” he says. “My vision for the Mano River Union countries is formidable democratic institutions and respect for fundamental rights. This is a vision I hold for Africa as a whole, because without mature democracies and respect for individual rights, the people are limited in the realization of their human potential and their collective desire for peace.”     —John Martin