Listen to Krio, Sierra Leone’s English creole


I wish I’d learned more Krio before I left for Sierra Leone. Although most people in Freetown are able to English — some haltingly, many very well — Krio is the language people use in all but the most formal situations. It’s a really useful language for visitors to know, or at least be familiar with.

Krio is captivating to listen to and has a fascinating history. As an English-based creole, English words form the basis for most of the vocabulary. It started out as a pidgin language used for basic communication. But despite the similarities Krio is not pidgin or simplified English — it’s a separate language with a consistent and full grammatical system.

Originally the language of the Krio people, who were black settlers of Freetown who came from Britain, Canada, the United States and Jamaica and other African countries, Krio was influenced by the English dialects of all these people, especially Jamaican Creole. It was also influenced by African languages, both local and those brought by settlers, and by Portuguese.

You can hear what it sounds like in this song in Krio from the Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars:

I recently wrote a column about Krio linked to below:

Beguiled by the Krio language

Even though there are a lot of commonalities between English and Krio, it’s hard to understand the full meaning of Krio sentences, especially when people speak fast. Once I got more familiar with the pronunciation system (which makes a word like “but” sound like “boat” or “like” sound “leck”), and learned some of the grammar and words specific to Krio (they have a word for second person plural: “una”), I was able to understand a lot more — but still only about 50 percent most of the time. The percentage understandable depends on how fast people are speaking, and how much I know about the subject.

One thing I like about Krio grammar is the way it marks tense. A particle pronounced “day” is used before verbs to indicate present tense. “Ah day go” means “I’m going.” The particle “go” before a verb indicates future. And there are two particles to mark different kinds of past tense: “done” and “bin.” They’re obviously from English, but the way they’re used is different.

You can hear Krio in a more understandable form in the clip below. It’s selections from an interview conducted by one of my colleagues with the chairman of a slum in Freetown. The interview covers how the slum is preparing for flooding, the destructive floods last September, and life in the slums, including what kind of business people do, whether the children go to school, and how the police work in the slum (basically, they don’t go there — the slum has its own law enforcement, my colleague said).

I’ll also post this clip I linked to in an earlier post, of a man giving a speech to children at an orphanage. The speech was mostly in English, but about 21 seconds in, he switches to Krio for about 25 seconds to speak directly to the children, before going back to English. It’s interesting to hear the contrast, and it’s possible to understand some of what he says in Krio given the context of the English before it:


Video: Kroo Bay slum

On my first visit to Freetown’s Kroo Bay slum, I turned on my camera as we were walking out of the slum and into the street outside. I didn’t want to make it obvious I was filming, so I put my camera around my neck, and just held it so it didn’t knock into too many things. It’s not the smoothest video for that reason, but I’m happy with the angle. In the video you can see some of the houses in the slum, a lot of rain, and a good many seconds of a woman carrying something on her head:

A response to my China-skeptical column?

Two weeks ago I wrote a post here explaining my earlier column in Awoko that expressed skepticism about China and Sierra Leone’s relationship — mainly the idea that it should be thought of as a “friendship.” I’m sure there’s a lot going on with the business relationship between the two countries that would require many in-depth investigations to tease out. My column didn’t speculate on that, and mostly focused on reasons why China and Sierra Leone’s relationship has some problems (which I backed up with some limited research I found online). I also criticized the rhetoric of “friendship,” saying the relationship is more business than the enduring brotherhood the Freetown papers wax poetic about constantly.

A piece published in Awoko earlier this week (without a byline) seems to be a direct response to my column, and if so, declares me to be “ignorant and short-sighted.”

Here a some quotes from my column:

“…Friendship is not the right way to describe the relationships between nations, and certainly not that between China and Sierra Leone. China and Sierra Leone are more like business partners….The basic problem with China’s investments, unlike other aid, is that they are not intended to better the country as a whole as much as they are to make money. These two goals don’t always align.”

And here’s some of that piece:

“Chinese Ambassador Zhao Yanbo has debunked reports that the China-Sierra Leone relationship is more of business than friendship…[Chinese Ambassador Zhao Yanbo said] ‘When someone says that China is in Sierra Leone for business purposes, shows how ignorant and short-sighted he can be, because since 45 years ago when both countries signed the friendly relationship, we were not doing any business in Africa or Sierra Leone, we were in Sierra Leone to show our appreciation for what they did and to work as brothers….’

‘We have helped Sierra Leone with so many permanent structures from stadiums to hospital, from agriculture to education. Are all of these supports based on business transaction? What are we gaining from Sierra Leone that we should be spending millions?’

‘These projects have nothing to do with business, but clear friendship and respect between the two countries. Those that give conditions before they help us are the ones in Sierra Leone for business not China.’

The Minister admonished the Ambassador not to listen to detractors, but continue to work with the government as they believe in the friendship and trust because China understands what it means to be victimized and bullied, so helping Sierra Leone is very important to all.”

I don’t think it’s too narcissistic to think this was a response to my column in some way, especially since as far as I can tell my column was the only “report” arguing that the relationship between the two countries is more business than friendship. In fact I haven’t seen anything remotely critical of China’s intentions in Sierra Leone in any of the Freetown papers.

What indeed is China gaining from Sierra Leone from the millions it’s spent? I guess there’s no possibility it could be access to Sierra Leone’s vast mineral wealth. I’ll link again to this briefing from the South African Institute of International Affairs, which  gives a good overview of the relationship between the two countries and areas of concern.

Sure, I can’t deny that I’m “ignorant and short-sighted,” when it comes to most things, but the amount of spin in this response piece (if it is a response) is amazing.


Photos: Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary


Several weeks ago I got to see chimpanzees in Sierra Leone, and even better, write about them. My colleagues and I visited the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, which is about 45 minutes away from Freetown. It’s the most popular tourist attraction in Sierra Leone, according to the founder, Bala Amarasekaran. He established it in 1995 to rehabilitate chimps that had been orphaned after their parents fell victim to habitat destruction or the bush meat trade. It started with just one chimp that he and his wife bought from some villagers who were keeping it as a pet. Eventually, Amarasekaran and his wife were looking after several chimps at once. The government was able to set aside land for a sanctuary to house the chimps. The sanctuary continued operations through the Sierra Leone civil war, when it was occupied and robbed by rebel troops.

Now the sanctuary houses 75 chimps and continues to take in new orphans to rehabilitate and hopefully eventually return to the wild. The sanctuary also does extensive outreach in the surrounding community, which is mostly made up of subsistence farmers, to stop the problem of orphaned chimps at its source. The sanctuary educates people on how to change aspects of their lifestyle so as not to harm the forest — for example, by raising sheep instead of looking for bush meat. It also hosts chimpanzee researchers from around the world, and of course is a popular tourist attraction.

The drive to the sanctuary quickly brought me and my colleagues out into a more rural part of Sierra Leone.


On the way to the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary

At the sanctuary we got a tour from the sanctuary’s longtime chimpanzee expert Moses Kappia, and then we interviewed employee David Momoh and founder Bala Amarasekaran. My colleagues and I wrote several stories between us on the sanctuary, linked to below. I also wrote a column (on one of my slower days) about why the government should invest more in the sanctuary.


Tacugama Sanctuary a refuge for orphaned chimpanzees

Tacugama Sanctuary educates local people to help save chimpanzees

Salone government just received millions. Why not invest in Tacugama Sanctuary?


The observation area. Rescused chimps spend some time here so that staff can learn their personalities and know if there will be any problems once they’re eventually released into a larger area



A fight broke out while we were there. Moses Kappia, head of care staff at the sanctuary, said it was over food. “They have that habit of jungle justice,” he said.



Inside the visitors center overlooking the observation area. The bush meat trade is responsible for poaching and, indirectly, orphaned chimps, many of whom end up at Tacugama to be rehabilitated. 


Snares and bullet casings recovered from around the area. I was wondering how easy it is to hunt chimps, since they seem so fast and tough, but Kappia said it’s not too difficult


Kappia explaining chimp behavior


We saw some chimps being fed. These were all chimps who had progressed in the rehabilitation process



Bala Amarasekaren, who founded the sanctuary in 1995


Me with two of my colleagues and another intern who was in Sierra Leone for a few weeks

A visit to Kroo Bay slum


Kroo Bay slum

Over a week ago, on August 5, I went with my colleague Betty to Kroo Bay slum, one of the estimated 61 slums in Freetown. Last September, the rainy season caused flooding in slums throughout the city which killed seven people and made thousands homeless. Many of the homeless were temporarily housed in the country’s national stadium, and the government eventually resettled some in the Six Mile community 20 km outside of Freetown.

On our first visit, Betty and I wanted to interview people in the slum about how they were preparing for the floods this year. We were turned down, but it was still a really interesting experience. On another visit a few days later, we managed to talk to Saidu Turay, who has been Chairman of Disaster Response Management in Kroo Bay slum for over ten years. You can read about what it was like visiting the slum in my column — I won’t go over all the details again here. The interview we did with Turay will hopefully make it into a longer story I’m working on — and if it doesn’t I’ll post it on this blog.


Saidu Turay, Chairman of Disaster Response Management in Kroo Bay slum 

On our first visit, the chief of Kroo bay told Betty in Krio that they didn’t see the point in doing another interview with the press, because none of the many media interviews they’d given had yet helped their community.

At this point in my internship, I’ve gotten used to being denied interviews due to bureaucracy. Just today, for example, I was turned down for two interviews, one at an office I’d trekked up to up a steep hill for the second time in the same week. Yesterday I tried to get two interviews, my colleague tried to arrange a third one for me on the spur of the moment, and he wanted to nail down one himself. All four fizzled out, or were “postponed.”

But the people in Kroo Bay slum – the chief and the youth representative — gave us reasons for why they didn’t want to be interviewed — which is a lot better than being given, “come back tomorrow.” Basically, nothing had changed in the slum for ten years. And they’d given a lot of interviews in that time.


Left: The chief of Kroo Bay slum

I appreciate their honesty, but I’m still torn between frustration that they turned down the interview, and sympathy with their choice to turn it down. I guess this shows the importance of building real trust with sources in vulnerable communities, so they don’t feel exploited by coverage that doesn’t benefit them at all.

Still, I couldn’t help but think — how does it help them to be completely voiceless?

I have to admit that I always thought of Third World slums as kind of hopeless, desolate places, maybe crime-ridden and always unsanitary, where people were constantly dying of disease. I know that betrays my ignorance, but it does seem to be the mental image you pick up in the west if you’re not careful. And to be fair, I’m sure this accurately describes some slums to a certain extent.

But I was surprised at how…normal Kroo Bay slum seemed on the surface. No one came to us begging us for money, and it didn’t exactly feel like a sad, hopeless place. Sure, there were trash and very dirty pigs everywhere, but it seemed like a functional community, where people worked and lived much like people anywhere.


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Although maybe “functional” is too positive a word. As I learned, the folks in the slum are vulnerable to disease and flood, there’s a high level of unemployment and poverty, parents can’t pay for their kids to go to school, people live in rusting tin shacks, and the muddy river serves as trash dump, toilet and water source all at once.

Deforestation in the hills above Freetown — often to make room for more houses — intensifies the risks of floods, according to disaster response manager Turay.

After I visited the slum I read a report from the Africa Research Institute on slums in Freetown that gives an interesting explanation for why people choose to live in them even if they’re not fit for human habitation:

Informal settlements may fall short when it comes to design, legal status and comfort but they generally tick many boxes that are critically important for inhabitants. They are well located in relation to economic and transport hubs, provide space for home-based economic activities, possess longstanding community support systems and are affordable. Forced relocation is therefore disruptive at many levels. This is not to say that slums provide acceptable living conditions; rather that slum communities exist where they are for a reason.

Many of the slum dwellers are from upcountry outside of Freetown, and the slum provides housing they can afford.


I’ve been learning that some Sierra Leoneans have harsh, disparaging and arguably elitist views of slum dwellers. One newspaper columnist scorned people for living in places unfit for human habitation, and longed for the old days when people would be evicted from such places. Yesterday my colleague shared a similar view, saying the slum dwellers had no reason to complain about being relocated to Six Mile.

Six Mile, as far as I understand, is a new community that was created to house slum dwellers who had lost their homes in flooding. Turay from Kroo Bay told Betty and I that people didn’t want to move there because it was far from the city where they could find work or send their kids to school. But my colleague dismissed this, saying it was the slum dwellers’ responsibility to build up the area into a habitable community. They could practice agriculture, build a school and so on.

“But They just don’t want to do the work,” he said. Instead, slum dwellers want to be near the wharf, where they can take in smuggled shipments of goods from Liberia and Guinea, he said. Youths who are up to no good and a lot of sex workers come from the slums.

I don’t know if the smuggling is as foundational to the slum economy as my colleague said, but I doubt it’s the only reason people want to stay in these communities.


These arguments reminded me so much of the rhetoric in Seattle about the homeless. So many people blame them for their predicament in a weirdly tautological way. They’re homeless because they’re criminals, drug addicts, or incapable of hard work — and because they’re homeless, they must be one or more of those things, and so shouldn’t be allowed anywhere the community of “normal” people. They should just…stop being homeless, and we would all be better off.

This attitude seems to be behind that newspaper columnist who criticized people for choosing to live in places unfit for human habitation. No, we shouldn’t improve their lives, he wrote — the slums are inherently unlivable, no matter how livable we make them. Also, some of the slum dwellers have TVs!

As I wrote in my post on visiting an orphanage a few week ago, it’s disheartening to come across these elitist attitudes in Sierra Leone, of all places, where almost everyone could use help from a social safety net.

If these attitudes are also common among government officials, it would explain why the government decided, without consulting with the actual people who would be affected, to send them to a community they didn’t want to live in. As Turay put it in his interview with us, planning for disaster response in the slums should involve everyone, especially those most affected.


A visit to Kroo Bay slum




Part of Kroo Bay slum from above


This sign was by the side of the street above the slum


The road leading down into Kroo Bay slum

Awoko turns 18, and unbelievably, I’m halfway through my internship


Awoko newspaper celebrated its 18th birthday on August 10. And it just so happens that the 9th, the day before, marked the exact mid point of my time here in Sierra Leone. I can’t believe it’s gone by so fast. As of today I have just four weeks and two days left before I fly to Morocco for a week of travel, and then back home to Seattle.

I can’t deny it’s sometimes been challenging and frustrating here, but overall it’s been an amazing experience. Just being in Sierra Leone is such an eye opening life experience in itself. But being able to see and understand how things work in Sierra Leone — a country unique in so many ways, but similar to so many around the world in the traumas it’s experienced and the need for development — through the lens of journalism is just the opportunity of a lifetime. I’m convinced that every American should at least visit sub-Saharan Africa (and the Middle East), and preferably not in vacation mode. When Americans remember that Africa exists at all, it’s usually in the context of so many stereotypes. If people understood what it’s actually like here — and in so much of the world — our discourse as a country and relationship to the world would be so much richer and more reality-based.

Anyway, my ramblings aside, Awoko newspaper deserves a lot of credit for thriving as a rare independent newspaper for 18 years in Sierra Leone, through civil war and the ebola crisis, the threat of harsh libel laws, and an environment for journalists way more difficult than what most American journalists have to deal with.

Congratulations Awoko, and here’s to many more years!

I wrote a column for the occasion, if you’re curious. I wanted to interview a lot more members of the staff about what they like best about their newspaper, but as is typical of journalism, I was struck with a deadline and I had to just turn it in with only one interview. The next day my colleague asked why he was the only one quoted. Sorry Ophaniel!

Awoko newspaper turned 18 years old on Wednesday, which was celebrated in the office with food and a huge cooler full of ginger beer. “It’s like a boy who’s all grown up,” one of the staff said. As it happens, Tuesday this week marked the midpoint of my time here in Sierra Leone. I’ve been here five weeks, and I have five more weeks to go. Working at Awoko has been an awesome way to spend five weeks in Sierra Leone, and I’m looking forward to the rest.

Early in my internship, I asked one of my colleagues what makes Awoko newspaper different from the other roughly 100 other newspapers in Freetown. He told me Awoko speaks for itself  read Awoko, and then read how the others cover the same stories, and it’s plain to see, he said.

Full piece: Happy 18th birthday, Awoko Newspaper!

The beauty and ugliness of Christianity in Salone


This won’t be a detailed post, as I know very little about Christianity in Sierra Leone and haven’t had much experience with it. I thought I’d just write about two different times I’ve brushed up against it, one ugly and one beautiful.

One evening not long after I arrived in Sierra Leone I was riding on a the shared van/taxi they call a poda poda. The man I was sitting next to stood up, holding a heavy Bible in his hands. For a minute I thought he was getting off – but no. It was time for a sermon.

He launched into a formulaic routine for all the passengers. It went something like, “Are you a murderer? In the eyes of the Lord, that is a sin and you are a sinner. Repent in the name of Jesus Christ before it is too late.” And then, using that as a template, he proceeded to rail against all the “sins” you can think of: theft, rape, corruption, cross-dressing, , drunkenness, using tobacco, marijuana, or cocaine, homosexuality, masturbation, pornography, unmarried couples living together…and I’m probably forgetting a few. As you can see, for every actual reprehensible act he mentioned — corruption, theft, rape — there was a matching one that’s totally harmless. I was almost expecting him to say that men and women talking to each other was a sin, or something — it would have fit right in.

He would constantly say, “I don’t know the sin you are into,” and “I’m repenting — what about you?” He really emphasized the immanence of the Rapture, and how you don’t want to be left behind. At times he would say “Amen,” and several people in the bus echoed it. At one point he asked people to repeat after him. “Jesus, I pray for your strength…” etc. One man repeated, sounding a bit obligatory.

At the time, it was actually really annoying because I wasn’t feeling great, and more noise was exactly the last thing I wanted. I wonder if most of the people who said “Amen” also believe that homosexuality and all the rest are sins? What would it be like to be an LGBTQ Sierra Leonean — or anyone who was even slightly a social nonconformist — in an environment where these sentiments are as common as air? I can’t imagine.


As mentioned, I also had a more positive encounter with Christianity. It was soon after the poda poda sermon that I visited St. John’s Maroon Church in Freetown. It was originally built in 1820 by the Jamaican Maroons, one of several groups of freed black people brought to Sierra Leone, whose descendants are known as the Krio minority (who were originally in conflict with the indigenous Temne and Mende tribes which most Sierra Leoneans belong to). Other groups included freed slaves from Britain (including some who had fought on the British side during the American war of independence), Nova Scotia and other African countries.

The church and greenery around the Maroon Church are enclosed in a metal fence, like a bubble surrounded by the gritty city outside. It was beautiful inside. When I visited, one of the church caretakers showed me around, pointing out places in the rafters and some church pews that were made out of the timber of a slave ship. The man said there are plans to try to reinforce the integrity of the building, but they’re very careful not to change it too much, as it’s a historical site. The church gets a lot of visitors on Sunday services, he said.

I’m fascinated by religion in Sierra Leone. Most of the country is Muslim, with a large Christian minority, and there’s basically no religious conflict between them whatsoever. I was surprised to learn that someone with a name like Abu Bakr can be a Christian. I wonder if the lack of conflict is partly because so far, extremist versions of Christianity and Islam haven’t penetrated into Sierra Leone too much like they are in so many places (Nigeria being a good example), polarizing people and destroying religious harmony.

At the same time, most of the population subscribes to traditional beliefs, including light and black magic, and many people are members of secret societies like the Poro hunting society. In rural areas, these extremely secretive clubs (the punishment for spilling secrets is death) are the bedrock of society, according to Tim Butcher in his book Chasing the Devil. But the secret societies aren’t necessarily confined to the bush where they originated. A Spanish grad student staying in my hostel told me he heard that most political figures in Sierra Leone are members of these societies — in fact, they would never have gotten where they are otherwise — even if they live in urban Freetown.

There has been a rise in “born again” Christianity in Sierra Leone — the billboard you see in the first image is a good example. I’m not sure if that means more fundamentalist, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the poda poda preacher was born again, given how much he talked about the coming Rapture. There’s a couple staying in my hostel while they work on finding housing for a year in Freetown. They follow some new, alternative form of Christianity they want to help spread in Sierra Leone.

This is yet another subject I wish I could learn more about — and I’m curious how it will change in the future.