Links to all my published pieces in Awoko

dsc_0853

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:
dsc_0552

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

Tony Blair

copy-of-img_20160908_103118461

This morning (with no prior notice) I went with my colleague to the Sierra Leone port to cover a visit by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. It was pouring, and we and lots of other journalists basically spent the morning chasing after his “entourage” trying to snap pictures, not get soaked, and overhear while he talked to people from his charity, all without knowing what they were talking about or what exactly the visit was about. Finally he gave a two minute press conference (my colleague asked the first question!), and it was over.

Googling it later, I found this article about his charity the Africa Governance Initiative (AGI), which does a lot of work in Sierra Leone and elsewhere in Africa. Like this article says, people seemed really happy he was there — people took selfies “with” him even though he was just barely in the frame. I remembered that while he was PM, Sierra Leone was going through a horrible period in its civil war, and Britain staged a successful military intervention that went a long way toward ending the war. It’s so interesting how leaders are perceived differently around the world — it’s undeniable that Sierra Leoneans have good reason to like him, even if there are so many reasons to, well, not like him (the Bush years, Iraq etc)…

Here are the main quotes from the two-minute press conference:

“I’ve had a connection to Sierra Leone obviously for many, many years. It goes back to my childhood but also the time I was Prime Minister. I believe in the country, I know it’s been through really difficult times with the Ebola, but we’re recovering, we’re getting back on our feet again, and I’m very optimistic.”

“Our contribution is really working with the government delivering its priorities, whether it’s in roads or power generation or health care…For many years we’ve been discussing the importance of the port and the importance of getting a really first-class port for the country, because that makes the economy move. So what it very exciting is to see today that things are really happening here and the investment that’s being made.”

Photos: Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary

DSC_0329

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.

DSC_0295

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.

Links:

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?

DSC_0303

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

DSC_0307

DSC_0309

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.

DSC_0315

DSC_0324

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. 

DSC_0321

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

DSC_0326

Kappia explaining chimp behavior

DSC_0329

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

DSC_0337DSC_0348DSC_0352DSC_0353DSC_0359

DSC_0370

Bala Amarasekaren, who founded the sanctuary in 1995

DSC_0380

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

Glimpses of Salone’s medical crisis

DSC_0575

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.

DSC_0576

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.

DSC_0585

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. 

DSC_0590

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

DSC_0596

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.

DSC_0594

13895147_676783649139477_3183921389408565639_n

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.

Visiting a home for orphans of Ebola and the civil war

DSC_0528

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: http://awoko.org/2016/07/25/sierra-leone-news-no-support-is-too-much-civil-society-employee-donates-to-ebola-orphanage/]

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.

DSC_0439

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.

DSC_0463

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.

DSC_0430

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.

DSC_0461

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:

DSC_0490

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).

DSC_0459

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.

DSC_0413

The orphans posing for a photo for journalists

DSC_0506

Hanan reciting her speech

IMG_20160729_240639387

The speech

 

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

DSC_0282

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.

DSC_0285

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: http://awoko.org/2016/07/21/sierra-leone-news-chetanyas-viewdoes-sierra-leone-really-need-oil/