Sierra Leone’s harsh libel laws


This story in Awoko newspaper inspired me to write a column against Sierra Leone’s criminal libel law the next day. On the right, Awoko editor in chief Kelvin Lewis, also the president of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, is at a detention center where a journalist was released after a weekend in jail

Sierra Leone’s libel laws are always mentioned in world press freedom rankings as a major reason why the country has such a mediocre score.

There are two types of libel laws on the books, and for years journalists here have been calling to an end to the one that makes seditious libel a criminal offence. As far as I understand (and I could be a little off as I’m not a law person), this law makes it easy for journalists to be put in jail for “libel” — and libel is easy to prove. In practice seditious libel can mean writing something a government official doesn’t like. The ridiculous justification is that it’s libel because it would put the government in contempt of the public. And even worse, according to one commentator I read, truth is not a defense (I know it isn’t a bulletproof defense in the US either, but it does help). In fact, the greater the truth, the bigger the libel, because it would put the government even more in contempt of the people.

This law dates back to around 1700 and it’s essentially a remnant of the libel law Britain used to have back then,  designed to protect powerful people from criticism. Sierra Leone’s version was modified slightly into the Public Order Act of 1965, which is what journalists here want reformed.

I don’t want to delve into the legal details, but the effect, my colleagues told me, is that journalists are often detained over a weekend after committing “libel,” the idea being that this will teach them a lesson. And it can be worse. A man was jailed last year for implying on the social networking site WhatsApp that the president had killed someone, and for calling him a “wounded beast.” Imagine if anyone who made some unsubstantiated comment comment about Obama on Facebook or Twitter, or even talked about people killed by drone strikes, was immediately imprisoned. In 2013, two editors were arrested for comparing President Koroma to a rat.

My colleagues say that journalists here want the criminal libel law to be changed to a civil one (like in the United States), so that the penalties would be fines instead of jail.

During the four weeks I’ve been here, I’ve seen at least two statements from the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) in newspapers calling for a change in the Public Order Act, and a few op-eds saying the same. So the column I wrote isn’t anything new, but I thought I should use my platform to add to the voices calling for an end to the law.

I always knew I would eventually do this column, but what prompted it was a story the previous day about a journalist who was detained over the weekend for asking a question a government official was not fond of. He was also randomly held on bail 20 times higher than normal. Awoko editor-in-chief Kelvin Lewis, who is also president of SLAJ, can be seen in a photo picking him up at the detention center. You can read a speech Lewis gave on World Press Freedom Day earlier this year here.

Here’s my column:

A Sierra Leonean journalist was detained last weekend because he asked a question a government official didn’t like. As Awoko reported on Tuesday, journalist Sam Lahai asked the Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs, “how Mr. Sengu Koroma’s work as Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs relates to the running of the Kenema District Council to the extent of summoning the Kenema City Council’s Chief Administrator…to his house, and threatening them with police arrest if they fail to obey.” For this, he was held in a detention center for two days and released under a bail amount 20 times higher than the normal maximum bail, according to lawyers.

As much as I and my journalism classmates back in the United States worry about the future of the field we want to enter, and sometimes gripe about the challenges of getting enough experience, we’re some of the luckiest journalists in the world.

I know this because, unlike my colleagues at Awoko, us American journalism students don’t have to work under the shadow of Sierra Leone’s cruel criminal libel laws, which should have no place in a modern democracy. These 300-year-old laws were introduced to Sierra Leone by the British, but they’ve long since been repealed in Britain. The versions of them that survived in the United States, another former British colony, have since been transformed into something far more protective of freedom of the press.

You can read the rest here.



Vegetarian in Sierra Leone


Yes please

It’s not easy being vegetarian in Sierra Leone, especially if you want to eat what local people eat, or get three quick and easy meals every day. People like their meat and fish here, and I’ve been told that basically all the traditional dishes are made with one or the other, even if they’re just called potato leaf or cassava leaf stew, no mention of meat in the name. Everyone seems to know the word “vegetarian” — but like most places in the world it’s not common here, and so people don’t necessarily know what it entails. From my experience people often don’t realize that just taking the meat out of a finished dish, or eating around it, isn’t going to work for strict vegetarians.

I’m sorry to say I can’t offer too much advice for vegetarians on things to eat here, because frankly I haven’t been able to eat much of what local people eat. I’ve been to a Lebanese restaurant in the downtown area a few times — it’s called, straightforwardly enough, Downtown Restaurant and it has a bunch of vegetarian Middle Eastern options including falafel. There are more upscale restaurants on the western side of town, but I haven’t been to any because they’re no doubt expensive and pretty far from the downtown area.


Menu from the Lebanese restaurant downtown. There’s been a Lebanese community in Sierra Leone since the 1920s

In the evenings I cook a lot of meals with basic ingredients from the supermarket and market stalls (lentils, couscous, onions, garlic, potatoes), and at lunchtime, one of my colleagues at the newspaper, who makes meals to sell to the other staffers everyday, has been bringing rice and vegetables for me to the office, which is awesome and so thoughtful.


Plantain I fried up!

I’ve had a lot of good snacks here though, including fantastic banana bread, biscuits and muffins from a bakery downtown. There are people everywhere selling boiled or roasted peanuts (I’m not sure why they’re boiled, but they’re great that way), and all kinds of fruit, as well as plastic bags of plantain chips (which taste just like thick potato chips) and popcorn. There are also stalls with roasted corn. It’s purposely kind of dried out and chewy, but tastes a lot better than that might sound. Today I was given one wrapped in a page from an illustrated book on flowering plants.

I wrote an inevitable column for Awoko about my experiences being vegetarian here. It was something my colleagues told me I should write pretty much since I got here.

It’s basically an account of what I’ve been eating while I’m here, along with a little about why I’m a vegetarian, since most Sierra Leoneans reading would probably wonder (it’s a question I’ve gotten a lot here, as vegetarians do everywhere). I also couldn’t resist putting in one of my pet peeves about something people always say about being vegetarian — the idea that you just have to abandon it if it’s culturally “insensitive” to not eat meat if it’s offered to you. I personally don’t subscribe to that notion. Here’s the column:

I’m a vegetarian. I eat dairy products, but I mostly don’t eat eggs, and never meat or seafood. Before I left for Sierra Leone, one of the questions I was asked the most from people in Seattle was, what would I eat there?

Being vegetarian is not the norm in Sierra Leone. Though everyone seems to know the word, I often have to explain exactly what it means, and which foods I do and don’t eat (which also happens fairly often in the US). I’ve been told that practically all Sierra Leonean food is made with meat or fish. In the first few days after I arrived, before I’d yet been able to eat a full meal, multiple people said to me, “I don’t know how you will survive.” Not exactly comforting.

The good news is, I’ve survived, and I still follow my vegetarian diet.

An unavoidable reality of being a vegetarian is being asked why. Why follow this diet? This is especially true somewhere like Sierra Leone, where it’s highly unusual. I’ve been vegetarian all my life, and I continue to be mostly for ethical reasons. In my opinion, there’s no justification for taking animal lives  which are a lot more similar to our own than most people appreciate — for food, when we really don’t need to. Plus, being vegetarian is less wasteful and has less of an impact on the environment.

You can read the rest here.

Visiting a home for orphans of Ebola and the civil war


Ibrahim Tommy (left) and from left to right his wife, daughter dressed as Elsa from Frozen, and their son

Last Friday I got a message from a man named Ibrahim Tommy, who said he loved reading my columns in Awoko (I was glad to hear at least one person in the country reads them!) and he wanted to arrange for me to cover a donation ceremony at an orphanage for children whose parents died during the Ebola crisis. He was donating to celebrate his daughter’s 10th birthday. I was excited for the opportunity to do the story, as horribly selfish as that sounds in the context. (Jon Ronson was definitely right when he wrote that journalism is sociopathic).

[This post will be background on the story I wrote, which you can read here or at this URL:]

The man arranged for someone to drive me from my hostel to the orphanage, which is about ten miles outside of Freetown. On Saturday morning, we proceeded up the steep hills that tower above Freetown, passing a waterfall and near the top, several graffiti tags saying “Gaza Gang” spray painted on the small sections of fencing on the edge of the drop. I’d gone a similar way the day before when I visited the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary (a blog post about that is coming soon).

We drove out into the countryside, dominated by greenery, hills and buildings that were either simple shacks, large gated compounds or still unfinished. My driver asked around a few times to find the right place. At once point we drove through what seemed like the market street of a small village, with stalls on either side of the road. I still find it amazing how quickly Sierra Leone becomes rural outside of Freetown.

We eventually parked at the orphanage, a yellow building with a low tin roof. On the porch of the orphanage building, the donated items were stacked. There were 20 bags of rice that said “Product of Pakistan” on them, along with sardines, rice, and something else I couldn’t identify. A tiny kitten was slowly climbing among the sacks.


The orphanage. The red sacks are the donated rice

I was there pretty early, though I didn’t realize it, as I wasn’t sure there would be a formal ceremony. This was fortunate, because I got to interview people: a politician and another community figure, and Margaret Tucker, a woman in her 50s or 60s who lost her husband in the civil war and now acts as caretaker of the orphanage. After her interview, Margaret asked the children who among them wanted to be interviewed. The only one brave enough, (or in the mood) was a guy in his late teens or early 20s who said he had arrived as an orphan of the civil war and had lived there for 15 years.

I hadn’t had any expectations for what it would be like to meet and interview people for this story, and had no idea how to prepare, so I went into it like I would any other story. But this wasn’t like any story I’ve ever covered. After asking this guy about his background, I found myself drawing a blank. I couldn’t think of what else to ask him, even though, on another level I had a million questions, and one major, impossible one which is…what is your life like? I settled on asking about what daily life is like at the orphanage instead. In retrospect, I should have also asked if there was enough food at the orphanage. It would have been good to get his perspective, because as I soon learned, there isn’t enough food and so much else besides.


Marageret Tucker, center, who became caretaker of God’s Will Children’s Home after losing her husband in the civil war

The orphanage looked clean and new on the outside, a testament to how well it was cared for. There was nice metal water pump on a concrete foundation, and in general it didn’t feel have the feel of squalor. But despite appearances, I was told there’s a major lack of infrastructure, schools, medical facilities and food in the area. This place, around the town of Grafton, used to be the site of a camp for internally displaced people during the war. I learned that the shacks not far away, which I’d glanced at without a second thought, were remnants of this camp. It was a reminder that so many places in Sierra Leone once saw the horrors of the civil war. It’s so strange how easy it is to forget this, and how normal things look now.

After I’d interviewed everyone, the kids went back inside and the adults went about their business, and the driver and I waited a bit outside for the donor to arrive and the ceremony to commence. I stood under my umbrella as it drizzled on and off, and watched the thin dogs resting and looking for food. At one point Ms. Tucker hit a dog, that looked like it had just grown out of puppy-hood, with a sandal to shoo it away, and the dog cried and scampered. Despite the infinitely worse human story, it was easy to feel sorry for these dogs — one had an ear injury which flies buzzed around, and it looked constantly irritated and pained. But I realized Ms. Maragaret probably took pride in the orphanage. This was the only place for her and the children she had taken on, and so dogs like this were just a nuisance. It’s interesting that I’m culturally programmed to see dogs as adorable, but most people around the world aren’t.


Around the orphanage. I’m not sure if these kids lived there or not

Eventually the donor Ibrahim, his wife and young daughter and son arrived. They were all dressed in shades of turquoise, presumably to match the daughter’s Elsa from Frozen costume, which was complete with tiara and wand.

The ceremony was very choreographed. First the mother gave a speech, talking about how hard working the daughter Hanan was in school and around the house, and how she wanted to be here with the kids of the orphanage today on her birthday. The mother made it seem like it was Hanan’s idea. Some parts of the mothers speech made me cringe. She suggested her daughter, who works hard in school, might be an example to the orphanage kids to work hard. “You’re in a difficult position, but you can still achieve a lot — it doesn’t matter your circumstances,” she said (I’m paraphrasing). Basically, it came across more as “Things may be hard, but there are no excuses for you to not succeed because others in the same situation have,” than, “It may be hard, but I know you are capable of great things.”

The father Ibrahim’s speech struck a similar tone. He also urged hard work, saying he achieved everything in his life this way, although of course God got some of the credit too. I don’t know this man’s background — maybe he worked his way up from nothing, maybe not. But it was troubling to see him basically presume that the orphans wouldn’t work hard. He did say, “You will be our next doctors, lawyers, politicians, presidents,” but overall it came across as a slightly tone-deaf “tough love” message.


Hanan, dressed as Elsa from Frozen

“Play hard, but work hard — in fact, work harder,” he said. At one point, he switched into Krio when addressing them, and then back into English. I wonder if his whole speech should have been in Krio. Did the orphans understand English? Many uneducated Sierra Leoneans don’t. The English may have been for the six of so journalists like me (among us some videographers). I’m posting a clip of that moment when he switched to Krio here, for no other reason than that I think it’s linguistically really interesting. Pardon the digression. You can hear him switch from English to Krio about 20 seconds in:


Ibrahim giving his speech

The daughter recited a rehearsed speech that the journalists present were later handed printed copies of. One line from it stood out: “I will always remember you.” I don’t want to criticize a ten year old kid, especially when she almost definitely didn’t write the speech, but it was clear there was no genuine interaction between her and the orphan kids. They lived in different worlds, she a middle class kid and they orphans of horrible circumstances, and it didn’t look like they said anything to each other. Again, I’m sure it’s totally normal 10-year-old behavior, but it was a good example of how the parents seemed to make the event more about their daughter than the children orphaned by Ebola and the civil war.

But it struck me at the same time that the father seemed genuine in his desire to reach out to the disadvantaged. He made the point several times, in his speech and in interviews later, that more middle class Sierra Leoneans like him could and should chip in to help survivors of Ebola. They shouldn’t wait around for the government and NGOs to help when there’s so much they could do with just small donations. After all, his 20 bags of rice and cans of sardines was the biggest ever food donation this orphanage had ever received. And Margaret talked about having to beg in the streets at one point to feed the kids. (This was in her speech, given in Krio; I only picked up on it after Ibrahim mentioned it in an interview, and I listened back to my recording and sure enough that’s what she said — the gist of it was understandable).


A prayer during the donation ceremony. There were both Christian and Muslim prayers recited. On the left are Hanan, her mother and one of her friends

A few days later when I talked to my colleague about the event, she had a pretty cynical take on it. She was sure Ibrahim paid the journalists to cover it, and he only wanted me because he knew I wouldn’t ask for money. This was a bit of a blow to the ego of course, because I was still under the naive impression he’d wanted me to cover it because he liked my columns. But more importantly, if true (and I mean, because my colleague obviously understands her country far, far better than I do), it was pretty disappointing. Because as staged as the whole event was, I did sense some genuineness from Ibrahim. He seemed well-meaning.

Covering this story was an experience I won’t forget. I saw more of the effects of Sierra Leone’s recent traumatic history than I ever had before before, and an interesting glimpse into class differences in Sierra Leonean society. I realized as I was writing the story that it was about a middle class African Muslim family, whose daughter likes to dress as Elsa from Frozen, donating to an orphanage and urging their fellow countrymen to do the same. Where does that fit into the conventional narratives and stereotypes about Africa, Islam or the developing world? It runs circles around the stereotypes. This is why I wanted to come here — to see what things were really like — and every day I’m seeing things that expand the possibilities in my own mind of what life in Africa is like.

Here’s a link to my story if you’re curious. And you can donate to the orphanage here. They need all the help they can get; remember that their biggest ever food donation was 20 bags of rice, and the caretaker has had to beg in the streets to support the orphans there.


The orphans posing for a photo for journalists


Hanan reciting her speech


The speech


First day at Sierra Leone Parliament: MPs criticize youth, are eager for oil drilling


Last week I went on my first visit to Parliament with the reporter who covers that beat. We went to observe the proceedings and get a story or two out of it. It was interesting — I’ve never seen Parliamentary proceedings in any country before. And given that Sierra Leone is a relatively recent democracy, which has suffered from war and several one-party states in the recent past, I was really interested to see that democracy in action.

Sierra Leone’s parliament is on top of a hill high above the city, with amazing views of the sea shore (I’ll update this post with a photo next time I’m there and remember to take a picture). From above, you can see an assortment of colorful houses mixed in with a lot of green.

When we walked into the Parliament building and were about to go to the chamber, security people called after us, asking my colleague and I who we were, what we were doing. “Wi na journalists” (“We’re journalists”), she said sounding amused and exasperated. She told me this was unusual — it was because of my whiteness that they suddenly wanted to know what we were doing.

We arrived pretty early, so the room was mostly empty. The chamber has three seating tiers, and the seats are coated in cracked blue paint. Before the proceedings, a procession of men came in, one carrying a huge trumpet. Five others, including the Speaker and others who held important positions in Parliament, wore tuxedo-like formal wear, and blond wigs of the type I’ve seen a lot in the Freetown courtrooms. The session opened, like so many things here do, with a prayer thanking God. It didn’t mention Jesus, as many Sierra Leoneans are Muslim.

There were two things on the agenda (which was available printed out on a slip of paper) that day: a vote on whether to ratify an amendment made to an agreement that would allow a foreign company to extract oil offshore, and the approval of three nominees for government positions (I know, I know — but please don’t fall asleep just yet). I wrote a story and column on the oil drilling issue —  more on that below. My colleague wrote a piece on the government nominations.

The people assembled were either MPs or Paramount Chiefs, which is a hereditary position established by the British, and functions as one level of local government in the country. They were dressed in a mix of suits and ties and traditional Sierra Leone clothing, with colorful cloth and caps.

The first part of the session consisted mostly of testimony about why the nominees — for Minister of Youth Affairs, the Corporate Affairs Commission, and one other position, were qualified for the job (as interesting it was being in Parliament, this was as much of a snooze fest as it sounds). A lot of MPs or Paramount Chiefs stood up to talk about the candidates, how they knew them in college and they were very hard working and member or this and this club and group etc. et al.


Here are some other random observations from that day in Parliament:

  • It felt like there was a lot of camaraderie between members. People, including the Speaker of Parliament, would make jokes and laugh
  • When someone stood to testify, people would often talk through it. There was a lot of chatter in the room, and the Speaker had to bang his gavel down a lot
  • People would pound their fists on the table when they agreed with something
  • At one point, someone said MPs should be provided more security, and that he himself had once been physically threatened outside Parliament
  • At one point (my colleague explained, because it escaped by notice), the speaker called on MPs who were not in the chamber to get in there. Apparently a bunch were on the premises but not in the chamber while the session was going on
  • When one MP stood up to say how grateful he was that there was still a company in Salone that wanted to extract oil, the pounding on the table was deafening. People were very enthusiastic about the idea of oil extraction
  • There was a lot of off topic rambling, and I don’t understand why, or if this is a normal thing for Parliaments. When they were taking testimony about whether to approve the nominee for Minister of Youth Affairs, one guy talked about youth unemployment, and wondered who was to blame — could it be the youths themselves (he seemed to think so). You can listen to 30 seconds of that here:
  • At the end, Parliament was suspended indefinitely while everyone went on vacation. I asked my colleague when it would resume, and she said no one knew yet (???!)

I wrote a piece covering the ratification of the amendment to the oil drilling agreement, which you can read here. It was kind of hard to write, because I didn’t understand much of the larger context, and a document we had access to about the amendment was so full of jargon it was basically impossible to understand (I mean, give it a try).

I also wrote a column the same day, titled “Does Sierra Leone really need oil?” about my misgivings about all the enthusiasm these MPs and Paramount Chiefs seemed to have about oil drilling. I tried to do some research to back up my opinion, but like so any things, it’s a complex issue that I only understand partially. Here it is if you’re curious:

For a moment, the pounding in the room was deafening. “We must be happy that at least we have a company that is prepared to go the extra mile,” Member of Parliament Mohammed Sidi Tunis was forced to shout over the noise. The thundering of fists on desks came from a few dozen Members of Parliament and Paramount Chiefs who were showing their enthusiastic agreement for an amendment that would ease the ability of a foreign oil company, European Hydrocarbons Limited, to extract oil off the coast of Sierra Leone.

It was my first day in the Sierra Leone Parliament, and though I was just getting used to all the desk pounding, the enthusiasm for oil in the room was striking.

“Today I am very, very pleased that at least we have this one company…to continue the exploration and to see how they can work for the people of this country to benefit from what they call the black gold,” Tunis said.
I’ll take the enthusiasm at face value and assume that all the people in the room were excited by the prospect of Sierra Leone’s off shore oil resources enriching the country and its people.

It’s not that I can’t understand the excitement. Former Sierra Leone Democratic National Alliance Party candidate Mohamed C. Bah wrote in The Patriotic Vanguard in 2011 that producing oil would ideally allow Sierra Leone to decrease its reliance on foreign imports, and even bring in revenue by selling oil to Liberia and Guinea. A revived oil industry could provide much-needed jobs. Bah said reviving Sierra Leone’s oil industry should be “urgent” and would “[ease] the suffering on the people.”

Read the rest here:

Aid, development, and donations from the World Bank and US Embassy


Parminder Brar, World Bank Country Manager for Sierra Leone. Photo by my colleague, Awoko newspaper reporter Betty Milton

Last week I visited the World Bank headquarters in downtown Freetown to cover a press conference. It turned out to be the announcement of a new electricity plant for Sierra Leone. This is a big deal for a country without a full electrical grid. The new plant will be a little bigger than the country’s main plant, which is located along a river and is unreliable. I also went to cover a ceremony for the donation of a shipping container full of medical supplies to the Freetown military hospital.

It was interesting to get a glimpse of how development works here. At the World Bank press conference, World Bank Country Manager Parminder Brar said the new electric project would cost about $138 million US dollars. This is more than the World Bank’s budget for supporting agriculture, health and the social safety net in Sierra Leone, combined. Maybe it was a naive question, but I asked why the budget for this one electric project was more than these other sectors. He basically said that supporting electricity has to be a priority, because without it nothing else is possible. He also said that since basically everyone in Salone could benefit from help with the safety net, even if the whole World Bank’s budget for the country was dedicated to this, it would be a drop in the bucket. Again, it’s probably naive of me to not know that this is probably how a lot of aid works, but I was kind of surprised. It’s sobering.

I wrote a story covering the press conference — or rather two stories, because my colleague said it should be split in half, partly because there was enough material for two stories, and partly because my draft was apparently too long for the paper. Definitely a different way of doing things than I’m used to. Anyway the first story I wrote focuses on the new electrical project and the second gives context for how much the World Bank has donated.


Some of the supplies donated to the military hospital. They included lights, beds, chairs and medical equipment

On the next day, I think, I went to the 34 Military Hospital in western Freetown, where the US Embassy was donating two shipping containers full of $800,000 worth of various medical supplies. Several people gave speeches, including a Defense Attache from the US military. Apparently, this hospital had been chosen for the donation because of its good work in fighting Ebola. Here’s the brief story I wrote covering that ceremony.

These donations and development aid projects raised a lot of questions for me. First of all, I wonder what it’s like for the national morale to live in a country so dependent on aid (or is that just a meaningless question? I don’t know). I also wonder about accountability with these large sums of money. And in the case of the US Embassy donation, I wonder why it seems like just a drop in the bucket. Donating almost a million dollars is great, and it seems to be in a form that would do a lot of good, but the types of supplies being donated were really basic — things that most any hospital in the US would have. It’s kind of weird seeing such triumphant ceremonies for drops in the bucket. It’s a stark a reminder of how underdeveloped Sierra Leone is.

I guess this is all nothing remarkable in the world of development. It’s not a subject I paid a lot of attention to before, but it’s really interesting and obviously underlies so many other issues in Salone.




Exploring and making sense of Freetown

That’s a video of a drive from part of western Freetown — which is more spread out and contains the beaches and wealthy areas — over the the river channel toward the downtown area. Note the Ebola prevention sign near the end, and although the audio is bad, you can also hear my colleagues, a reporter and the driver for Awoko, talking in Krio. (A Krio sentence I heard someone say last week, and now can’t get out of my head, is “Omos o’clock i de stat?” which means “What time does it start?” I’m definitely planning on writing a post just about Krio soon.)

It’s been interesting exploring Freetown, even though it’s not necessarily designed for wandering around. There aren’t many “sights” and it’s not the most beautiful city on ground level, though from above it can look stunning. But it’s fascinating just because it’s so different from any city I’ll encounter in the US, and different from any I’ve seen even in the Middle East or North Africa. I’ll pause and show you some photos from downtown and west Freetown, with photos from eastern part of the city further down:


A mural plastered with posters downtown. It says, “What’s happening now?” or maybe “What will happen now?” but I don’t think so…my Krio is not good


Not far from my hostel. Scaffolding always looks worryingly flimsy here


Wandering along the highway, sort of toward the western area. It was a long way


And this is the view from the balcony of the Awoko newsroom

I’ve written two columns sort of about the city. The first was responding to another Awoko columnist who advocates for clearing out the slums — in my column I compared this to the city of Seattle’s recent effort to clear out the Jungle of homeless dwellers. The next column is just about my experiences exploring the city — downtown, the western and eastern parts.


Siaka Stevens street downtown

I’ll post the columns below. Here’s part of the first column, and a link to the rest:

Seattle, my hometown in the American state of Washington, has at least two major things in common with Freetown: a healthy amount of rain, and a large population of homeless people. Seattle and its surrounding County have such a problem with homelessness that it’s officially been ruled a “crisis.” Though many live in shelters or makeshift housing of some kind, it’s also quite common in Seattle to see homeless people in the streets, sleeping under doorways, begging, selling newspapers or playing music for money (and unfortunately, also the occasional alcohol or drug addict).

In a column yesterday in Awoko, writer Beny Sam decried the over crowdedness of many parts of Freetown, the houses springing up in risky locations such as under bridges, the risks of disease in places like Kroo Bay and Bomeh. Sam blames Freetown’s overpopulation for the problem, but also NGOs and civil society organizations who oppose evicting people from their homes, and instead aim to help people where they are. “What these Bodies forgot was that the locations are not ideal and will never be,” he writes. Sam instead praises the “khaki boys” from the days of the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) who evicted people living in “dangerous” places.

Read the rest here, or at this URL:

And here’s part of my column on exploring the city, followed by a link to the rest, followed by photos:

I never know what I’ll find when I turn a corner in Freetown. It’s unlike any city I’ve been to, and I’ve unexpectedly stumbled on so many things just walking around. In fact, there are too many to list. The paved street outside my hostel turns into to a dirt road through a cluster of makeshift houses, making the city suddenly look rural. There’s the scene I saw near Siaka Stevens street: a woman hawking sandals, baskets of charcoal on piled up on the ground, and an elderly man sitting in a tiny shack, with the words “Expert clock repairer” in faded paint. Nearby, past fruit and cigarette sellers, is the CD market that intermittently blares Bollywood songs in the evenings, overlaying an Indian soundtrack on top of the West African street and its beeping horns.

It’s hard for me to wrap my head around this city. The layout alone defies description. Just in the downtown area, crowded, slum-like areas made up of rusting tin roof houses fill out the city, adding bulk and masses of people to the old skeleton structure established long ago by its urban planners. Some streets in downtown Freetown are laid out in a grid and lined with sturdier-built houses and buildings. They can look brand new, faded and decaying, stuck in the early stages of construction, and everywhere in between. And that’s just downtown.

Read the rest here, or at this URL:

Here are a few photos from walking around eastern Freetown. I took them with my phone, and I’m pleasantly surprised at the quality:


This used to be a bus station, and the building here was built by the British


This clock tower marks the boundary between east and west Freetown (in this picture, west on the right, east on the left). That’s President Koroma in the poster. Oh, and the van with “Believe in the Almighty” on the front is really common. They’re called poda podas, and usually have a religious message like “Allah is great’ or “Fear Judgement Day”


This is one of the many tin-roofed house communities in east Freetown, which seem like slums, but maybe that’s not the right word 


Sunset I saw during my walk toward western Freetown

Why I don’t know how to write about Africa

The idea for the column I’m linking to below, which was published in Awoko on July 19, partly came from reading a piece in the Humanosphere covering the controversy over a Scottish actress who wrote about her experiences in Zambia in a way many took issue with (because it was apparently inaccurate and full of stereotypes). You can follow the controversy under the hashtag #LintonLies. The Humanosphere piece also links to Kenyan author and journalist Binyavanga Wainaina’s brilliant and hilarious satire “How to write about Africa,” which should be a required how-to guide for everyone, and which I’ll definitely be coming back to many times.

That piece gives me tips on what not to do. But my column also came from thinking about in the last two weeks, how I should write about what I see here in Sierra Leone, and still not being sure of the answer. I’ve been adjusting to being here so quickly, and as a result everything seems normal, even if by the standards of the US or the developed world, it’s not. Should I feel normal or even hopeful in Freetown — or depressed all the time?

It seems there are two ways to look at, say, a street in Freetown. One is to be very aware of and point out all the problems — a broken down gutter system, starving stray dogs, pollution, dangerous and ugly traffic, dilapidated buildings, kids who are selling peanuts instead of being in school, and who may not know how to read…etc. ad nauseum.

My instinct and preference is to not get lost in these problems, for a lot of reasons. Doing so puts a mental distance between the observer and the country and its people. I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say it can dehumanize the people who live there. This is what people who write off a whole country as hopelessly broken do. It’s also where the worst paranoid fears and stereotypes come from. It’s unfair to the people in the country who are well aware of the problems and working hard to fix them. For all these reasons, I feel like it misses the point — misses what’s fresh, nuanced and interesting.

But at the same time…I’m torn. It’s obviously not good to be overly positive when the situation really doesn’t call for it. What messes with my head is that there just seems to be a conflict between, say going into a slum, interviewing people and painting a picture of everyday life that seems…just normal, and one slice of human existence — and pointing out what seems undeniably true on another level: that such a slum is a failure and a sign of a broken process.

Maybe this is a false conflict and I’m overthinking it. If for whatever reason you want to read even more of my overthinking, here’s the original column I wrote:

I recently read an article that made me think twice about how I should write about Sierra Leone while I’m here. In the article, published in the online publication the Humanosphere, which focuses on global development and poverty, reporter Tom Murphy outlines the controversy over a recent piece in the UK Telegraph by Scottish actress Louise Linton, in which she describes her gap year volunteering in Zambia at the age of 18.

The piece, which was an excerpt from Linton’s memoir, was fiercely criticized on Twitter and in opinion columns all over the web for mixing outright inaccuracies and clichés into a patronizing and misleading stew. People also criticized how Linton presented herself as a “white savior” in the piece, swooping into Africa from Scotland to help fix the problems Africans can’t fix themselves.

Linton’s own problem was being oblivious about how her writing and perspective came across. As writer Matt Hershberger noted on the travel website the Matador Network, Linton thought her writing was doing good in raising awareness of issues in Zambia. In an apology on Twitter, she said she was dismayed that it angered so many people.

The Humanosphere piece I read also mentions a famous 2005 satirical essay by Kenyan writer and journalist Binyavanga Wainaina called “How to write about Africa.” The piece hilariously and mercilessly pounces on all the clichés, subtle and not so subtle, that Western writers use when they write about the continent.

Read the rest here.