Sierra Leone’s Kamajors wear silly hats that make them invincible. Photo: Getty Images.
With the recent and totally unexplained attention of the Bush administration on war-torn Liberia, the world’s eyes are once again on the happy sands of West Africa. The scramble to make heads or tails of a situation that has neither heads nor tails has left us with the familiar confusion of information glut, conflicting reports, and amorphous Bushisms. We have heard about illegal uranium purchases, rebel armies, warlords, drugs, diamonds and even slavery, but in the center of all this mayhem one question keeps popping up that no one can seem to answer: What are they wearing? Well, you’ll be happy to hear we went down there and had our minds so blown that we look like the invisible guy from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. West Africa is a place where death and war are the hot new looks and mortality is an irrelevant accessory.
You see, just because Americans have gotten used to our own military storming through the desert in rigidly uniform dress doesn’t mean all wars are fought in a fashion vacuum. Hello, people! In Liberia and neighboring Sierra Leone, two countries stuck in seemingly endless civil wars, combatants have pushed the military look to the edge of the envelope and then put a land mine into the envelope and mailed it to God.
In the late 90s, Sierra Leone (considered by the UN to be the worst place to inhabit in the world) took “thug life” to a new level, and in so doing showed us what humongous pussies our rappers are. This isn’t a place where you get mugged for your $200 Jordans; it’s a country where you get shot in the head for your hand-me-down Notorious B.I.G. shirt so someone can use it as a uniform (in the B.I.G. Army—no joke). It’s a place that just capped off a ten-year civil war, establishing a tenuous peace that will probably last for only a few days. There’s just too many fucking armies for any kind of peace to last.
The indigenous rebel army, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), began as a loose confederation of quasi-communists looking to liberate the enormous wealth of the local diamond trade and put it back in the hands of the common people. Their seemingly redeemable political agenda went out the fucking window, however, once they started handling piles of uncut ice. A “real niggas do real things” aesthetic took over, helpfully illustrated by the mid-90s American rap music that was filtering into West Africa thanks to the arrival of the Internet. RUF members became easily recognized. They identified themselves as the Tupac Army by only wearing Tupac shirts. They smoked Philly blunts, sported gold hoops, and were often trailed by boombox-toting lackeys (children who’d been press-ganged into service). As “California Love” played in the background, villages were sacked and looted, women were forced into slavery, and the arms of would-be foes were hacked off to prevent them from exacting revenge. All the Kiss Army ever did was elbow their way to the front of the stage and go “yeaaaah!” Pshaw. If Sierra Leone’s soldiers can be said to be analogous to Bloomingdale’s shoppers (safe, proven fashions), then the warriors of next-door-neighbor Liberia are strictly Lower East Side boutique habitués (willing to take tasteful risks). The most notorious and fashion-daring Liberian faction was the Butt Naked Gang [Ed. note: This is not a joke. We know you don’t believe us but we swear to God this is serious], headed by the Vivienne Westwood of West Africa, Gen. Butt Naked. According to a phone call he says he received from Satan as a teenager [again, this is fucking TRUE], Butt and his boys would be invincible in battle so long as they fought nude. Understandably emboldened, the general and his followers waged a campaign of gruesome combat. Some chose the undeniably timeless look of birthday suit, fake Chuck Taylors, and rifle. Others went for more chaste ensembles of powdered wigs, purses, and floral dresses. It takes a real man to wear a blouse into combat, but as Butt Naked has said, “We were nude, fearless, drunk, and homicidal.” Today reformed, he pastors a congregation in Monrovia. Can we shoot the words “ooooooh kaaaye” out of a rocket launcher so our reaction can do this guy’s life justice?
Actually, we know of a group that would happily oblige. On the more traditional side of Liberian warlord fashion we have our favorites, the Kamajors. A loosely knit bush society of tribal hunters, they pluck their style directly from their favorite film, Conan the Barbarian. Animal skins and loincloths go surprisingly well with AKs and British-supplied FN rifles, but you haven’t lived until you’ve seen an ancestral face-mask accessorized with a rocket launcher. Quel sauvage! If you were ever in the neighborhood while the Kamajors were getting ready to fight, you’d have been treated to copious amounts of ganja, animal sacrifice, and chants in the native tongue offering immunity to enemy bullets. If you weren’t, sucks for you. You missed a killer party and the chance to have your very own invisible forcefield.
Additionally, a mysterious, unnamed group of fashion mavericks was often seen around the capital city of Monrovia with tennis racket cases slung sportily over their shoulders. This would seem harmless enough had tennis not fallen out of favor during the popular ascendance of killing. It was a great look for concealing AKs with collapsible stocks, though––very jaunty and Dynasty. These soldiers always had a spring in their step.
In fact, the only faction that seemed down in the dumps during VICE’s time visiting West Africa was a large contingent of Nigerian soldiers who fought on behalf of the officialgovernment—booorrrrriiiiiiinnng. Broke from not being paid in several months away from home, they never smiled and worestandard military uniforms. You could make a case that it was their drab look that led to their unpopularity with the locals and not the endless rape, extortion, and civil rights abuses exacted by them and so widely reported in the media––because, after all, everyone does that.
In light of recent developments in the Iraqi occupation (growing underground resistance and mass resentment), perhaps there’s a message here for our own boys in uniform. Loosen up and have some fun with it. Death is out this season, so it’s time to go out in a blaze of colorful glory. Express yourself! It’s a soldier who believes in his mission that’ll patrol the streets of Baghdad in a strapless Gucci number, or perhaps even nude, carrying only an As Four bag and an M-16. It may not change the outcome of the conflict or the posture of the locals, but it seems a nice break from the monotony of droning lulls and endless desert vortices. Come on, troops. Live a little.
CHRIS PARACHINI & PETER CUSHING
10 STEPS TO BECOMING
A SIERRA LEONEAN WARLORD Ready to turn that little nest egg into an early retirement? Sierra Leone’s illicit diamond trade may be the opportunity you’ve been waiting for. All you need is a good stash of cash, a healthy plan, and balls the size of Gen. Butt Naked’s. Here are ten tips to help you on the entrepreneurial endeavor of a lifetime: 1 Raise some capital—the bigger the initial wad, the bigger the final haul. Figure on buying uncut stones at 10–20 percent of market value. You’re only going to want to do this once, so come prepared. 2 After you’ve rounded up the loot, go round up some more. You’ll need it for “tips.” You’ll be greasing palms from Africa to Israel and back, and the level of greed and corruption you’ll encounter will be staggering. 3 Buy a gun so you can learn how to shoot. One of those ridiculous NRA courses will do to get you started, but it’s a good idea to get hooked up with a militia for access to advanced training. 4 Do not go it alone. Grab a few people you can trust with your life (good luck in 2003) and make sure they are as well prepared as you. 5 When you arrive in Sierra Leone, cautiously approach the first unofficial-looking Westerner you see and ask him about arranging a deal. If he’s white and not working for a government, you can bet he’s got his hands in the diamond trade and is looking to make a few bucks on the side. Don’t forget his gratuity––these guys make French waiters look like pushovers. He’ll also arrange for some guns to be bought. (You didn’t think you’d be getting on a plane with yours, did you?) 6 You’ll really want to do the deal in the ironically named Freetown, but if it can’t be arranged and you need to travel up-country to the diamond mines, YOU MUST FLY. By road, ambush is a 100 percent probability that will likely end with you tied to a stake, watching dogs consume your intestines. Charter a helicopter from any number of private aviators in the city. 7 OK, you are in the middle of nowhere with the world’s scariest African gangster about to sell you glowing piles of uncut rocks. Be cool while your new business associate gives you the once-over. He doesn’t know that he conjures up your worst nightmares about being hacked to pieces in the middle of the jungle. Remember, he’s just as scared of you as you are of him. 8 Yes, you know how to shoot. You are fearless, remember, and have nothing to lose. But don’t go “capping” anybody. Those guns are the last resort and only so you can take a few of the other guys with you if it comes to that. Always buy your way out of a jam. That’s what all that extra cash you brought is for. 9 You’ve done the deal. Two suitcases of diamonds are sitting on the bed in your hotel room. Now you just have to get them past security at the airport (your boy from step five should have already arranged this), onto a plane, and into Israel, where any number of shady diamond dealers will gladly take them off your hands for 70 percent of market value. 10 Return to the States, declare your enormous bankroll to customs, pay your taxes (Uncle Sam could care less as long as he gets his money), and live the rest of your fat and lazy life the way you always wanted to. Good luck and Godspeed.