Links to all my published pieces in Awoko

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The following are links to all the pieces I wrote for Awoko newspaper (though one or two of them never ended up online). In the first section are the daily columns I wrote, and in the second section the news and feature stories. Pieces in bold are ones I’m especially happy with. I’ve also put notes under some of them to explain or expand on things, partly for those curious and partly so I don’t forget.

Columns:

Three firsts in Freetown
My first impressions of Freetown, when I was still a bit overwhelmed by everything

Elections in Lunsar, part 1
Part one of my account of a reporting trip to Lunsar, north of Freetown. I went on this trip with two of my colleagues just a few days after I arrived. After I wrote this, my colleagues — partly joking but also serious — called me out for heavily quoting and paraphrasing them in the column, and basically broadcasting to the world everything they’d said. Worryingly, in the next few days other colleagues at Awoko, some I was just meeting for the first time, told me they were hesitant to answer my questions about things in Sierra Leone because they didn’t want to end up in a column. Luckily, everyone’s caution disappeared before too long. Using conversations as fodder for writing might kind of a creepy thing to do…but it’s definitely a journalistic thing to do, too!

Elections in Lunsar, part 2

On talking about American police killings with Sierra Leoneans
Soon after I arrived in Sierra Leone, international news carried stories of the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille by police, followed by the murder of several cops. It was interesting to hear reactions to these incidents from Sierra Leoneans

Belief in black magic is the only thing that gives it power
I wrote a blog post explaining more about how this column came about. For a few days after I sat in on a trial for a case of ritual murder for black magic, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was most disturbed by the fact that such a tragedy wouldn’t have happened without the strong belief in black magic common in Sierra Leone. This month, two suspects in the case were sentenced to death by hanging. According to Amnesty International, Sierra Leone hasn’t executed anyone before this for ten years. An ominous quote from this article: “I have called on the Director of Prisons to clean the gallows so that we will not be found wanting when the situation arises.” You can read some interesting local reactions to the verdict here. I think the way the media covered this case says a lot about how entrenched belief in black magic is here. News articles would mention that it was a ritual murder, but not make a big deal about it, almost as if it was a normal cause of murder like robbery or jealousy. Of course, people believe all kinds of things around the world, many of them more outlandish than black magic (see: Scientology). But I’m still fascinated and disturbed by how apparently widespread these beliefs are in Sierra Leone.

I don’t know how to write about Africa
As I wrote in a blog post, this column was inspired by a piece in the Humanosphere which mentions the great essay “How to write about Africa.

No easy solutions in Freetown or Seattle for people living in squalor
This was a response to this column from Awoko writer Beny Sam. I compared the situations in Freetown in Seattle when it comes to solutions for homelessness

Does Sierra Leone really need oil?
I wrote this after my first visit to Parliament. It was surprising to see MPs so excited about oil drilling. My knee-jerk reaction was to think this is a bad idea, and though I tried to back up the column with some research, I realize it’s a complicated issue and moral question. Of course the human species needs to stop extracting more oil, but if any country should get the chance to drill for oil to better its economy, surely Sierra Leone should. I can see both sides of the argument

Exploring Freetown

Being vegetarian in Sierra Leone
The inevitable column. For more about being vegetarian in Sierra Leone, check out the blog post I wrote about it

Repeal Salone’s criminal libel laws
The Sierra Leone Association of Journalists has long called for a repeal of Sierra Leone’s draconian libel laws. I thought I’d use my column to add to these voices. I wrote more about this in another blog post

Paramount Chieftaincy must be made more democratic
Sierra Leone is partly governed by 149 regional Paramount Chiefs. Though these positions are elected, it doesn’t seem particularly fair. Candidates must come from a ruling family that can be traced back to before independence when the system was created. Also in some areas, women are barred from the position

China’s role in Sierra Leone deserves more scrutiny, less blind praise
Some of my colleagues weren’t happy about this piece. I wrote more about how it came about on this blog. The piece seemed to have gotten a response, as well. Like so many issues I wrote columns about, China’s role in Sierra Leone is clearly a complicated and deep subject, and I’d only feel really confident writing a column about it if I got to study it extensively. Still, I think it’s important to turn a critical eye toward China’s actions in Sierra Leone, something the papers didn’t seem to be doing much of

Witnessing Salone’s medical crisis
A column I wrote after reporting on a young girl who needed treatment abroad for a back injury. I wrote more about this and other stories I wrote about healthcare in Sierra Leone in this blog post.

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

America’s presidential election could be a catastrophe for Salone and the world
This column came about after watching a lot of CNN’s coverage of the 2016 election, which, along with the Olympics, was always playing on the TV in the Awoko newsroom. I had plenty of discussions with colleagues about the election and our thoughts on it as we watched the RNC, DNC and all the coverage and commentary on them and their aftermath. It was disheartening to see CNN’s terrible coverage broadcast around the world

A walk to the hospital

There’s more rotten than just chicken
A shipping container full of chicken imported from Brazil, which had become spoiled in transit, was poured into a dump in Freetown. Shockingly, tons of people flocked to the dump to dig up the rotten chicken from the mud and trash to take home and either eat or sell to others to eat. So many came that police came and fired rubber bullets to control the crowd. It was disappointing to see the disparaging attitudes some columnists and media coverage took to the story, with several articles scornful of the people who came to take the chicken home. The column came from thinking about what it would take for people to be desperate enough to see spoiled, muddy chicken as worth rescuing from a dump

A visit to Kroo Bay slum
More about my visit to one of Freetown’s roughly 60 slums in this blog post. You can also watch a video I shot while walking out of the slum.

Exploring West Freetown (but not the touristy parts)

Do we need to settle for incremental change?
This came out of thinking about politics and the 2016 election, as well a the many times I thought about whether I should be deeply pessimistic or cautiously optimistic about things in Sierra Leone. Maybe Sierra Leone is incrementally moving toward success — or maybe it needs and deserves immediate improvements in key areas that shoud have been improved ong ago. Two ways of looking at things — maybe both are right to some extent

Happy 18th birthday, Awoko Newspaper!
More on this happy occasion

Gender injustice is a problem on the world’s conscience
I got to see a really good talk by Zainab Bangura, the UN Special Representative of the Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict. A Sierra Leonean, she’s traveled around the world in her UN job. On the day of the talk, several newspapers ran articles speculating on whether she’ll run for president again. If she won, she’d be Sierra Leone’s first female president, and the pieces noted the timeliness of the US coming close to electing its own first female leader as well

From one rainy city to another

Bureaucracy is more than just a nuisance — it hurts journalism
I wrote this after some frustrating experiences with bureaucracy. My colleagues said they also frequently had to deal with this

Beguiled by the Krio language
More on the fascinating and delightful Krio language, including some samples you can listen to, here

Police shooting of protesters in Kabala is a shameful blight on their record
A Sierra Leonean guy living in Ontario sent me an email after I wrote this column. Here’s some of what he said:

As a young person, I am sickened and appalled at the death of innocent civilians, especially at the hands of officers whose duty is to serve and protect the citizens. There is no justification for using firearms in a post-war nation that is still trying to surpass those dark days of the civil war. Here in Canada, I can’t remember the police ever using more than pepper spray on any demonstration in the past 15 years. I hope there will be an unbiased investigation into these shootings and hope such incidents are not repeated in the future. I wish the police were better trained and better educated.

Visiting Culture Radio, Sierra Leone’s “attack dog”
I interviewed Theophilus Gbenda, host of a Rastafarian radio station in Freetown, about his experiences being imprisoned and threatened for things he said on air, as well as his thoughts (pessimistic) on the state of journalism in Sierra Leone

The bias of my camera
Before I came to Sierra Leone, I vaguely remembered reading something about how camera equipment is biased against dark skin, but taking lots of pictures of people that never seemed to turn out right made me realize just how true it is.

What will it take to end FGM in Sierra Leone?
At first I didn’t want to write a column about female genital mutilation (FGM), which is shockingly prevalent in Sierra Leone. It just seemed like a difficult and probably pointless undertaking to try to write a persuasive column on it. But after reading about the tragic case of a girl in rural Sierra Leone who died after undergoing the procedure — and an apparent attempt to cover up her death — I thought it would be wrong not to say something. I’m strongly opposed to cultural relativism when it comes to issues like these, so there’s a bunch of that in the column

On travelling to supposedly risky places like Sierra Leone
In response to this great article from Aeon, which lays out how perceptions of how risky it is to travel somewhere are usually based more on prejudice than good evidence. As I mention in the column, the health precautions I was advised to take before I left made Sierra Leone seem a lot more dangerous than I think it is

Looking forward to my trip upcountry

Trip to Bo, part 1
This three-part column is about my second trip upcountry outside of Freetown, this time to Sierra Leone’s second largest city, Bo

Trip to Bo, part 2: All about recycling

Trip to Bo, part 3: Okada drivers

What Sierra Leone can teach the United States about religious tolerance
Sierra Leone is mostly Muslim — between 60 and 78 percent according to Wikipedia, with the rest following Christianity or indigenous beliefs (or probably both, as traditional beliefs are common among people who also consider themselves Muslim or Christian). Sierra Leone is also known for its religious tolerance and lack of religious tension. It seemed to be while I was there that though people are very religious, and every public event opens with prayers, people don’t seem to mix religion with politics, identity or daily life too much — or at least that’s how it seemed. This column is about that, as well as the time I went with one of my colleagues to a Bible study session held at her church. A Sierra Leonean who has been living in the United States for ten years wrote me an email in response to this column. Here’s what he wrote about religious tolerance in Sierra Leone:

One of the things that I am proud of my country is the religious tolerance, something that is absent in many parts of the world including the Middle East as you mentioned in your recent blog. There are some parts in the U.S as well where religious intolerance is very high especially at this time of elections, making it difficult for some of our fellow Americans to practice their religion.
When I arrive in the U.S, I was shocked to see on the news people being killed for having a different faith and it was difficult to discuss this experience with other people. Well, you can now understand why many of us from Sierra Leone find it difficult to understand any senseless sectarian war whether it is in Nigeria, the Middle East, or some part of the world.  As you know in the U.S, many Americans perceive Africa to be a huge country (Sarah Palin is good example of such shameful ignorance) and the portrayal of the continent is mostly based on negative stereotype. So when I told some of my college mates that our religious tolerance in Sierra Leone is far better than the U.S, you can conclude about their reactions, and they quickly points to Nigeria or C.A.R, which are two countries out of fifty-four or so and their conflicts are far more complicated than religious base.

Saying goodbye
I tried to convey my thanks and all the ways my experience in Sierra Leone affected me in one column. It was an impossible task, and as you can tell from the piece, I don’t think my thoughts were organized enough to write a good piece. I’m sure it will take months and years to really process all the ways I’ve learned and been changed by this experience

A tribute to Mr. John
I was shocked and saddened to learn that one of my colleagues passed away the day I left — Awoko deputy editor and veteran Sierra Leone journalist Samuel John, who everyone called Mr. John. My colleagues asked me to write a tribute. Read the many touching tributes written to him from colleagues and other Sierra Leonean journalists here. Reading them makes me wish I’d gotten to know him more and learn from his years of experience. Rest in peace Mr. John

News and feature stories:

Deputy High Commissioner to Nigeria speaks at State House
My first news piece, on the Sierra Leone diplomat who was kidnapped in Nigeria and released. It was one of my first press conferences, and my first taste of how things in Sierra Leone would be different in terms of politics and the press

DJ Cleff alleged murder…LAC refuses to testify
More about this here

Diana Konomanyi testifies in bigamy case

Salone is ready for a common tariff across West Africa

US Embassy donates $800,000 USD worth of supplies to 34 Military Hospital
More on this and the below two stories here

With new $138 million energy project, World Bank breaks record in supporting Salone

World Bank Country manager discusses natural resources and record breaking aid

Second amendment to petroleum agreement approved in Parliament
More on oil and Parliament here

Clerk accused of stealing from lawyers
My colleague laughed at my headline for this piece, and I agree

NEC Chair release books on elections in Sierra Leone
This was a lesson in how journalism is often practiced in Sierra Leone. A former elections official with years of experience was writing a book on election in Sierra Leone. I wanted to ask him about his perspectives on elections in general in the country, while my colleague just wanted me to do a plain story on the launch of the books. It was a bit frustrating, but I ended up doing both stories — the one I really wanted to do is below

Elections official reflects on democracy in Sierra Leone

Road around chimpanzee sanctuary needs fixing

“No support is too much”: Civil society employee donates to Ebola orphanage
I was happy with how this story turned out — more on the experience of reporting it here

Tacugama Sanctuary a refuge for orphaned chimpanzees

Seaweed is overtaking Lumley beach, driving away tourism
Here’s what that looked like:
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Wheelchair-bound girl needs treatment abroad
Reporting this sad story inspired me to try and do more reporting on Sierra Leone’s medical crisis. More on this here

Tacugama Sanctuary educates local people to help save chimpanzees
More on my visit to the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary here

Connaught Hospital needs staff, beds and funds, according to matron
It was hard to get this interview, and I don’t think it was as revealing as it could have been. More on that saga here. Here’s something from an email sent to me from a Sierra Leonean who has been living in the United States for ten years:

I have just started my master’s degree in Public Health and from your stay in the country and visit to Connaught Hospital or recent visit to Bo hospital, you can see that accessing quality healthcare is a monumental challenge.

Ministries of Defense, Fisheries and Health and Sanitation rated highly
The same press conference where I saw the president of Sierra Leone, Ernest Bai Koroma

Parliament denies allegation of misuse of public funds
An odd and troubling situation which made me think about how much is really going on under the surface in Sierra Leone. A colleague of mine said it would certainly be plausible for Parliament to embezzle funds…but in this particular case the accuser didn’t give enough evidence.

Montessori preschool will open in September
I and other journalists visited the site of a new Montessori preschool in Freetown, and were given a demonstration on how the educational model works, by a US trained educator originally from Sierra Leone

“The world has failed to invest in the human capital of its women”- Zainab Bangura

Real Power Systems brings dead batteries to life

Another declaration for SLPP Secretary General
I went to a press conference at the headquarters of the Sierra Leone People’s Party, the rival party to the ruling All People’s Congress, where they were announcing a new candidate

Officials celebrate Ebola vaccine trials
This press conference was held at one of Freetown’s more luxurious hotels in the west end of town, and there were a lot of American officials there. At the conference, they told about the struggle and eventual success in creating the Ebola vaccine. Though it hasn’t gone through all the necessary levels of approval and testing, Sierra Leone has stores of Ebola vaccine that basically work, in the event of another outbreak

With more floods expected in Freetown, slum dwellers fear relocation
More on my visit to Kroo Bay slum here. After what seemed like endless delays and misunderstandings, I finally got an interview with the Sierra Leone Environmental Protection Agency for the piece

Outcry over tax increase on imported beer
Sierra Leone recently implemented a high tax on imported beer, which is proving unpopular, as people prefer the foreign beers to the domestic product, which can be inconsistent

With water sachets flooding the market, Bo turns to recycling
One of the stories I wrote about recycling after the trip I took to Bo, Sierra Leone’s second largest city. More context for this and the next two stories (and pictures) in this bog post I wrote about my trip to Bo

Bo recycling plant transforms plastic water sachets into pavestones

Kakua Chiefdom struggles to collect local taxes and pay employees

Tony Blair visits the Sierra Leone Port
For this story, my colleague, I and a bunch of other Sierra Leonean journalists basically chased around Tony Blair at the Sierra Leone Port in the pouring rain, not entirely sure wht was going on. More on this here

Port Authority modernize to help in foreign investment

No yellow fever vaccines for adults
With yellow fever outbreaks in Angola and central Africa, I and my colleague health reporter Ade Campbell learned that Sierra Leone doesn’t have enough yellow fever vaccines to distribute to adults

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Trip to Bo

 

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A little over a week ago, I went on a trip with a colleague to Bo, Sierra Leone’s second largest city, to do some reporting. It was fascinating to see another part of the country, and also a relaxing break from Freetown. The trip resulted in a few stories and a three-part column about my experiences, which you can read here:

Trip to Bo, part 1
Trip to Bo, part 2: All about recycling
Trip to Bo, part 3: Okada drivers
With water sachets flooding the market, Bo turns to recycling
Bo recycling plant transforms plastic water sachets into pavestones
Kakua Chiefdom struggles to collect local taxes and pay employees

It’s really striking how rural Sierra Leone becomes once you leave Freetown. Even though it’s the second largest city, Bo has basically no grid of streets. Venture just a little ways outside the city center and you’ll reach pothole-ridden dirt roads. There doesn’t seem to be any old colonial buildings, and the City Council building is a big house surrounded by trees and grass. And to get there, you pass through a simple community with no paved roads, where women wash and dry clothing outside.

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Outside the bus window on the way to Bo

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The bus ride from Freetown to Bo took about five hours. There were many several stops, and at each one there were people ready and waiting to sell their goods to the passengers: fruit, peanuts, cucumbers, biscuits, skewers of meat, whole roasted fish, water, soft drinks, bread. At one stop, a women held up three live chickens she was hoping to sell.

Our first stop when we got to Bo, after eating at a former Awoko staffer’s house and settling in, was the offices of Kakua Chiefdom, which contains Bo. Sierra Leone is divided into 149 Chiefdoms, each headed by a Paramount Chief. Though these leader are elected, candidates must come from one of the ruling families recorded at the time the British colonialists set up the system, and in some areas women cannot hold the position. The Chiefs have a lot of responsibilities in their local area, and also hold seats in Parliament. Kakua Chiefdom, which contains Bo, is having trouble collecting enough local taxes to pay employees, which is what my story was about. Despite the problem of not being able to raise enough taxes, for reasons I don’t quite understand the Paramount Chief said he would like to do away with these taxes altogether.

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Bo city center. Bo is not a diamond trading hub like Kenema in the east, but I saw several diamond shops

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Motorbike taxis, called okadas in Sierra Leone, are absolutely everywhere in Bo. The institution was popularized after the civil war. Many young people became child soldiers or victims of the war, and were left without job prospects. The okadas were a way for them to make a living

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The next day we went to the Bo Waste Management Department to learn about their recycling program. It turns out this program is one of, if not the only one in Sierra Leone. The the right infrastructure, education and attitudes toward recycling basically don’t exist in Sierra Leone right now. The recycling efforts in Bo include turning plastic, much of it from sachets of water people take as refreshments, into paving stones, which line the walkway to the Waste Management Department. There are other products made of plastic waste, like bags, and aluminium cans are melted down and poured into molds to make pots and pans.

At the Waste Management Department we learned that it’s hard to make a profit from these recycled products because they’re labor-intensive, and there’s so far no way to automate the production.

Later we got to see first hand how the products are produced at the recycling plant.

 

We also visited a shop that sells bags made of recycled plastics. It was exactly the kind of thing you’d see in a shop in the US that sells souvenirs from around the world, but it wasn’t geared toward tourists or anything like that.

We also saw the plant where they make the water sachets

Bo is famous for its gari (also spelled garri). What is this? It’s cassava (aka tapioca) that’s been grated, drained of its liquid and then fried in oil. The result looks like couscous but has the crunchy texture of fried onions. In my guidebook’s chapter on Bo, it says people in Sierra Leone are obsessed with gari, and will travel to Bo and bring back sacks of it. Judging by my colleague…this is completely true, as it’s exactly what she did. While riding motorbike taxis on the way to do some reporting, we made a detour to a gari shop, and she bought a huge sack of it.

There are a few ways to prepare gari. When we got back to the house of the former Awoko staffer who now lives in Bo, we made some the simple way: mixed with cold water, milk powder and sugar. It turned into a slightly crunchy porridge that reminded me a bit of shredded wheat or frosted cornflakes. It was enough to make me want to take some home with me, so I got three bags, which cost all of 90 cents:

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More photos from the trip:

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Aruna Kamara, a reporter with Radio Bo, helped us in our reporting. This station owes its existence in part to Andrew Kromah, who helped build a network of radio stations in Sierra Leone during and after the war. I interviewed Kromah for a story on journalism in Sierra Leone — look out for an upcoming post on that

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The entrance to the Bo hospital. The policy of washing hands before entering started during the Ebola crisis

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We interviewed these guys for a story on motorbike taxi riders in Bo

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Through the window on the way back

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Listen to Krio, Sierra Leone’s English creole

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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:

 

A visit to Kroo Bay slum

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Column:

A visit to Kroo Bay slum

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Part of Kroo Bay slum from above

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

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The road leading down into Kroo Bay slum

The beauty and ugliness of Christianity in Salone

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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.

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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.

Glimpses of Salone’s medical crisis

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I covered the story of a nine-year-old girl who injured her spine after she fell down a flight of stairs when a classmate pushed her. For the past six months, she’s been languishing at the 34 Military Hospital in Freetown, being treated only with pain and inflammation medication. Properly diagnosing and treating her would require an expensive trip abroad to Ghana or India. But her condition isn’t especially extreme — the real problem is Freetown’s healthcare system. If Freetown had the proper scanning machine, it would be a different story.

I read about the lack of medical infrastructure in Sierra Leone before I left, but that was no preparation for actually getting a glimpse of what this means for people’s lives.

I wrote a brief news story on Isha, the nine-year-old girl, which you can read here. I also wrote a column in which I talked about what it was like to visit the hospital and cover the story, and offered some of my thoughts.

The girl’s mother was subdued and sad. She didn’t have much to say when I interviewed her (understandably). She took out a tablet to show me photos of her daughter’s back soon after the accident.

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I don’t know what exactly counts as a health “crisis” for a country. There’s no doubt Sierra Leone was in one while Ebola tore through it. Luckily things are basically functioning now — depending on your definition of that word. As a whole, Sierra Leone is not in a truly dire state like, say, Syria or Liberia, as I saw in a recent documentary.

But I kept thinking, and wrote in that column, that the shortage of staff, medications and basic medical equipment is really a serious, if low-level crisis of its own, though one that doesn’t get much international attention. It’s not a TV-ready African humanitarian disaster — instead it’s a slow-burning one.

After I covered that story, I asked one of my editors if I could do more reporting on exactly what the hospital’s shortages are, and how this is affecting people’s lives. My colleague suggested I talk to the staff of Connaught Hospital, the main hospital in Freetown. So the next day I set out alone to interview the head matron at Connaught.

It was pretty bureaucratic.

Connaught Hospital was built by British colonists in 1911, and it’s a complex of white buildings with an open space in the center filled with staircases, palm trees and soil. The entrance to the hospital is through a metal gate designed for cars and people. When I got there, a constant stream of people was trying to get through it. There was a hospital worker stopping people so that the stream leaving and entering could alternate, and thereby control the traffic. Before I could proceed into the rest of the hospital, a worker sprayed my hands with what I assume was some kind of hand sanitizer.

Right at the entrance was a small booth for payments, and throughout the hospital there were signs pointing to different areas of specialization. I was directed to the matron’s office up some stairs leading from the central area of the complex.

The whole hospital reminded me a bit of a motel or apartment complex in the United States. Though it was bigger than most apartment complexes, it hardly seemed fitting for a city with a population as large as Freetown’s. The needs of a hospital in 1911 and 2016 are clearly different.

On the way to the matron’s office I passed boxes stacked to the ceiling with the Red Cross logo on them. Outside her office was a bookshelf full of medical textbooks, and posters explaining how to properly put on personal protective equipment.

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Matron Isau Kamara, who was accommodating and a bit world-weary, said I would need to get permission for an interview from the public relations officer from the Ministry of Health. I would need to provide a letter stating my purpose for the interview, signed by my editor, and physically bring it to that office across town to get clearance before coming back for the interview.

I went back to the Awoko office, figuring my colleagues would have an easier solution than this headache in the making. They did. I returned to the hospital with my colleague Ade Campbell, who covers the medical beat for Awoko and has cultivated many sources in the field. While we were waiting for the matron, Ade pointed out a recently created ebola quarantine unit in the hospital. He said Connaught is mostly a teaching hospital. One of its biggest problems is staff morale: the workers aren’t being paid enough.

We found the head matron out on her rounds for the day. After seeing me with Ade and exchanging a few words with him, she immediately agreed to an interview the next day. Apparently, she hadn’t believed I was with Awoko newspaper at first, thinking I was with the international media and pretending to be with Awoko to get access, or something — hence the stifling bureaucracy. This goes to show that my colleague Ade is a great beat reporter.

But I also have to say, for a hospital with serious shortages that needs more funding, I found it kind of infuriating that the policy toward international reporters is to basically make things hard for them by drowning them in bureaucracy. How would this help anything? Ade said people working somewhere like Connaught don’t want bad media coverage. But whether this is because they’re afraid of losing their jobs over bad coverage, or don’t want inconvenient facts to get out, either way something is clearly broken. 

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Isatu Kamara, head matron of Connaught Hospital in Freetown

The next day I went back to the hospital for the interview. To be honest it wasn’t an especially informative or clarifying interview, as the matron wasn’t very forthcoming. But I learned that the hospital doesn’t have the money for many basic necessities, and has a serious lack of specialized staff. You can read the piece I wrote based on the interview here.

The problem of brain drain might be behind this lack of specialist doctors in Sierra Leone that the matron alluded to. Apparently, there are more Sierra Leonean doctors working in Chicago than in the entire country of Sierra Leone! There is no way for doctors to earn specialist degrees within Sierra Leone, so they have to be trained abroad. The matron said it’s about five times cheaper to send doctors to be trained in Ghana than the UK or the US. It was strange to hear her talk about it like a financial investment in this way, but it also makes total sense.

My colleagues at Awoko are awesome because, among other reasons, they’re always willing to help me go after stories I’m interested in. That same week, wanting to do more interviews, I went with a colleague to another hospital complex, this one in east Freetown. There were two hospitals next to each other, one for children and one for pregnant women. As my colleague expected would happen, we didn’t get any interviews; at the children’s hospital we were told to make an appointment next time, and at the other we were instructed to go to another part of town and give a letter to the public relations officer from the Ministry of Health. More bureaucracy.

I haven’t gotten any more hospital interviews yet, but I wrote a column about the walk to the hospitals which refused to give us an interview, and what they were like inside. You can read it here.

Links to pieces:

Wheelchair-bound girl needs treatment abroad

Column: Witnessing Salone’s medical crisis

Connaught Hospital needs staff, beds and funds, according to matron

Column: A walk to the hospital

Seeing the president of Sierra Leone

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Ernest Bai Koroma, president of Sierra Leone since 2007, in front

Earlier this week I went to cover a presentation on performance review of various government ministries, local councils and educational institutes in 2015 (yes, it was a little boring — you can read the news story I wrote on it here). It was held in a reception hall called the Bank of Sierra Leone Complex, where large events like this happen. By my rough count there were at least 350 seats, filled with important people.

There were police officers, and lots of men in suits and ties, and women in bright colored African clothing and head wraps. I was sitting behind the Director General of the Sierra Leone Roads Authority, and other officials.

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There’s me in the back. My colleague sent this to me, saying I was now among the most important people in the country, being pictured with so many of them

Oh yeah, and the president of Sierra Leone, Ernest Bai Koroma was there, and gave a speech at the end. When he first walked in, everyone stood while the triumphant Sierra Leone national anthem sounded from speakers.

At times the proceedings were packed with impenetrable jargon and it was hard to stay focused, much less interested. But President Koroma said the purpose of this performance review was to build more transparency into all these institutions, which gave the mundane presentation more significance.

“Before 2008 [when he implemented this performance review], no public servant imagined that every year they would be openly assessed,” he said. “We have come a long way on this journey of openness in government and open accountability.”

In a country still plagued by corruption, I’m sure more accountability can’t hurt.