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