Sergeant Felixon Musa stands tall, arms raised in front of a group of 100 Sierra Leonean soldiers, taking them through a yoga routine he thinks is as important as any arms drill.
He learned the moves from a yoga teacher who died in West Africa’s Ebola epidemic in 2014.
Determined to keep his teacher’s skills alive, he persuaded his superiors in the army to hold regular training sessions to help troops deal with trauma left over from the deadly outbreak, and from other disasters, including the 1991-2002 civil war.
“Yoga is not about the past, but about living in the present moment,” Musa said. “You have to leave everything on the mat. Ebola, the war, all those things have passed, and through yoga we are learning to let them go.”
Among the trainers at the Freetown army yoga session is Lance Corporal Michael Kargbo who first joined in 2014 to try and cope with his past as a child soldier.
Rebels kidnapped him when he was 12 and forced him to fight in the civil war – a conflict that killed 50,000 people and left lasting wounds on the nation’s psyche.
“I was with them until I had grown big,” Kargbo said. “I continued to fight with them, building up trauma, killing innocent people.”
After the war, Kargbo tried to move on, joined the regular army and took up boxing – but the memories kept haunting him until, he says, he tried yoga.
“It’s taken me from a trauma-filled person to someone who isn’t bothered by his trauma anymore – a real somebody.”
Next year, Musa is planning to roll out the yoga programme to emergency responders and hospital workers.