A response to my China-skeptical column?

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

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

Here a some quotes from my column:

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

And here’s some of that piece:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Skeptical of China and Sierra Leone’s “friendship”

I wrote a column in Awoko about China’s influence Sierra Leone, and why I think it should be viewed with at least a somewhat critical eye. There are always copies of Freetown’s other newspapers in the Awoko office, and this column was a response to what I read  in them: seemingly nonstop fawning about the “friendship” between the two countries. I was hesitant to write the column at first because I thought I was a bit out of my depth, and this isn’t a good place to be in when arguing against the grain. But in the end, it was a combination my colleague urging me to write it (for reasons I’ll explain), and the 45th anniversary of China-Sierra Leone relations coming up, which made it kind of a now-or-never thing.

Here’s a link to the column:

China’s role in Sierra Leone deserves more scrutiny, less blind praise

It’s not my favorite column I’ve ever written, but I’m glad I wrote it. It sometimes seems like every third article in Freetown newspapers is about how much good China is selflessly doing for Sierra Leone. From the captions to the headlines and the long blocks of text in between, the framing is anything but objective or even-handed. As much as I like Awoko newspaper, I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t carry its fair share of these types of articles too. In fact, all the pictures above are from different issues of Awoko. I could make a whole other gallery with pictures from the other newspapers if I was really dedicated, but it would be boring, and also would never end.


I don’t have a grudge against China, and I don’t think there’s some vast conspiracy here. In fact it’s obvious China has done a lot of good for Sierra Leone. But one reason the headlines and articles declaring the wisdom of Mao Zedong and Siaka Stevens for forging the diplomatic relationship (sorry, great and eternal friendship), and all subsequent leaders in maintaining it, and all the ways China will help Sierra Leone until the end of time, annoy me, is because they’re empty platitudes. Besides being devoid of any criticism whatsoever, they obscure the complicated reality of what’s actually happening, which I find interesting. It’s interesting to me what ordinary Sierra Leoneans actually think about their country’s relationship with China.

I know a few people on the Awoko staff feel strongly about China. Some of them went to China for higher education, at least one for a master’s degree, and most have also gone to seminars and trainings there. One staff member is there right now, writing stories and dispatches about his experiences for Awoko. One of these was about his visit to Lhasa in Tibet, and it was devoid of historical context and any mention of the Tibetan people. This isn’t exactly surprising, as of course the Chinese government wouldn’t allow anything else — but still. Some of the staff are passionate about China, and won’t hear a word against it. (One of my colleagues was getting tired of that, and wanted me to write something critical about China, which I was happy to).

Of course I might feel the same as they do if I was Sierra Leonean. China has invested a lot in Sierra Leone — and nott just token gestures. It’s built roads, bridges, a dam and stadium and more. Earlier this week I was walking with a colleague outside a hospital and he pointed out that the road we were walking on was built by China — before, the area was impossible to navigate. China has provided medical aid and scholarships for Sierra Leoneans. And there’s no doubt a lot more I’m missing.

So what exactly is my problem? I have one minor one, which is that I think this should be viewed as what it is: a business relationship. I don’t think it helps to have this attitude of unconditional gratitude. True, most diplomatic relationships are full of rhetoric like this, but this one takes it to a extreme.

According to 2013 policy briefing I cite in the article (from the South African Institute of International Affairs by Simone Datzberger), China is very interested in exploiting Sierra Leone’s mineral resources. Frankly, why would it be investing so much in Sierra Leone if it wasn’t? China wants to build good will, and clearly has. Again, I don’t think China is evil or even necessarily a lot worse in this than other powerful countries. There are certainly questionable motives behind what the US, Russia, the UK, France and so many others are doing around the world. But that doesn’t make China’s presence in Sierra Leone any less worthy of scrutiny and skepticism. This is what I focused on in the column. I mainly wanted to just say people should treat China’s motives with a tiny bit of skepticism, even if they continue to welcome investments from them.

But I think there’s another important criticism, echoed in another opinion column I cited. Unlike some other countries and international organizations, China doesn’t particularly care about fighting corruption and strengthening democracy in Sierra Leone.

I think this is very important, but one of my colleagues not only doesn’t agree, he said he likes China’s hands-off approach. I didn’t even have to bring up this point — he came right out and said he appreciates that China doesn’t try to interfere in Sierra Leone’s affairs, unlike, say the IMF, whose aid is conditional. For example, he said, China lets Sierra Leoneans follow their culture. Other international groups will try to forbid practices like female genital mutilation (that term is not a misrepresentation– he used the common acronym, FGM). Of course, my reaction was…that’s good! It’s a horrible practice, not matter how culturally important people believe it is. Which it turns out isn’t how a lot of people view the issue here. That and other cultural gulfs is the subject of a future blog post.

The day after I wrote this column, my editor told me as a by-the-way, “The Chinese are not very happy with your article.” I was glad (as always) to hear that my column at least occasionally gets some readership. But I was a bit surprised. My column was just one mildly skeptical article out of dozens of full-page pieces praising China. And it was an opinion column in an independent newspaper. What does it say that they weren’t happy about it?

Introduction to Awoko Newspaper

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View from a window in the Awoko office

My colleagues at Awoko say there are about 100 newspapers in Freetown, and they’re proud to work for the best. They say this is self evident — just compare how Awoko and the other newspapers in the country cover the same stories. Awoko is totally independent, so it differs from the papers that favor a political party, or the Sierra Leone Daily Mail, which is government run.

The Awoko office is located in the city center of Freetown, opposite a Christian school. On the same street are several of the makeshift, shack-like dwellings with tin roofs that are ubiquitous in Freetown. From the balcony of the Awoko office you can see the bustle of the street, and the nearby electrical utility building marred by black scorch marks from a fire.

Anyway, I started my first day at Awoko on July 7. The newsroom has at least 10 editorial staff members (and I’m probably forgetting someone), along with many more supporting staffers. They work in a second-floor room outfitted with several computers and printers, a TV and some big desks. There are always copies of some of Awoko’s many competitors lying around.

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A not great photo of the Awoko newsroom I took on my first day

Editor in chief Kelvin Lewis is also the president of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists. He introduced me to the Awoko staff members with a deadpan joke about each of them.

I’ve been coming in to the office for less than a week now, bus it’s usually a similar routine every day. Several staff members meet just before 9 am to look over mock-ups of the next day’s paper for any mistakes or things to change — these are first drafts of the paper to be officially circulated the next day.

Then, I usually go with one of the reporters on an assignment. So far I’ve been to three press conferences, including one at the state house, and to a murder trial. More on all of those in another post. This is not a nine-to-five office, and I’m not sure whether or not that’s normal for Sierra Leone. But people continue working in the office well past 7 pm, and sometimes later.

I’m the 7th intern from the University of Washington that Awoko has had — the partnership started in 2007, I believe, and has had one or two years missed (most notably 2015, when the university wouldn’t send anyone for fear of ebola).

The staff are just awesome — they’re serious about their craft, and they’ve been incredibly welcoming, friendly, helpful and accommodating of my silly questions. They’re always quick with a joke or quip. And I’m happy to say  I’ve been assigned serious, real work right away — the staff assume I’m up to the task, and expect nothing less, which is perfect.

I’m looking forward to the next nine weeks!


Today’s issue of Awoko (top) and yesterday’s (bottom), though it’s actually more like “tomorrow’s” and today’s. Each contains one of my columns, and the bottom headline is for a story I wrote, covering a press conference at the state house.

My first column for Awoko newspaper

Here’s my first column as an an intern with Awoko newspaper. Like previous interns here, I’ve been assigned a daily column, in addition to accompanying Awoko reporters while they report on stories, and eventually writing and reporting my own stories. At first I found it hard to believe I could write a column every single day, but after being here less than a week, my head is swimming with ideas, and I doubt it will be too hard to think of things to write about. Going on a reporting trip up to the north this weekend with Awoko staff gave me at least three column ideas, and so many threads of ideas to look into further.

More on that trip – a lot more, probably — in a later post, but for now here’s my first column. I tried to honestly capture some of what I was thinking and feeling when I first arrived here in Freetown. I now feel a lot more comfortable walking around in the street, and it seems silly that walking around the block that first time seemed like a big deal — but that’s what my state of mind was like at the time. You can find a link to the column here — I’ve posted an excerpt below:

I saw my first rainfall in Freetown this morning while I was sipping tea in the dining area of my hostel. It soon became intense, hammering on the tin roofed houses just outside. Before too long that morning, I was running through it to and from the car, naively trying not to get too wet as it poured from the sky. Today I met the wonderful staff at Awoko and got an introduction to what I’ll be doing for the two and a half months while I’m here. And I’m writing this in the Awoko office, having just come back from walking around the block. It was the first time I actually set foot in Freetown and saw it from the ground. So, a few important firsts today.

Ever since my plane touched down in Lungi Airport the day before yesterday, and I stepped outside into sub-Saharan Africa for the first time, there’s been a lot for my body, my senses, and my mind to process. Whatever country I travel to, it’s the scenes I encounter during the first few hours that really stick with me. For Sierra Leone, I’ll remember walking outside the airport and seeing the striking red soil of the road. Washed with rain, it turned the potholes in the road into pools of pigment. I’ll remember the bustling commerce just outside the airport as I was shown by an airport worker to some unofficial money-changers, the sight of nearby palm trees and tin-roofed houses, and the sounding of the Islamic call to prayer. I’ll remember the bus ride to the boat dock, past more bare-bones houses, a young girl standing outside on the porch pouring water, and then, while waiting for the boat to take me across the water to Freetown, a golden sunset on the dark beach.

Read more here: http://awoko.org/2016/07/08/sierra-leone-newschetanyas-view/

Arrival and the journey from Lungi Airport to Freetown


As I type this I’m at the YMCA Hostel in Freetown, Sierra Leone, lying on a bed with a mosquito net hanging ominously over me. There are two other empty beds in the room, also fitted with mosquito nets, but I’m the only guest here. It’s not that I’m not glad the nets are there – it’s just, they have the ironic effect of somewhat shattering my peace of mind. They’re a reminder that even though I feel calm and relaxed being here – more so than I thought I would – it’s not a part of the world that calls for getting complacent about disease.

I’ve been slathering my exposed skin with DEET lotion throughout the evening. I started at the beach, where a shuttle from the airport dropped me and other passengers. We waited at a shelter and on dock extending over the water for our boat ride to the actual city of Freetown. As my Bradt guidebook – the only English language guidebook to Sierra Leone — puts it: “Freetown’s urban planners have to be congratulated for constructing an international airport on the opposite side of a giant river mouth to the capital, with no decent transport links between them.”

Waiting for the boat, we were treated to a beautiful sunset over the water. It was a great introduction to Sierra Leone.


But as with most international flights, you can already start to get a sense of the country you’re flying to just by looking around at the airport terminal before the final leg of the journey. In Paris’s Charles de Gaul airport departures hall, its domed wooden roof making it seem like the inside of a tunnel, there were people of all nationalities gathering at the gate for my flight – but most of them must have been Sierra Leonean. Many of the women wore hijabs, in red, sunflower yellow, pink and white. Other women wore different head coverings or none at all, and either colorful and floral clothing or Western dress. And a surprising number of men were wearing suits, jackets and fedoras.

I slept through the descent over the Sahara and into tropical Africa — it mostly was clouds through the airplane window but I caught views of Sierra Leone from above as we were landing. The countryside was all green, darker trees alternating with lighter grass and vegetation, chiseled through by rivers, streams and lakes. There were occasional interruptions in the form or villages or houses. I was amazed to see one small village linked to another by a single brown road, both otherwise totally surrounded by green forest.



On the ground, the air felt sticky and warm. I picked up my bag from the small departures hall and met with someone from Awoko newspaper, who my editor had kindly sent to make sure I got to the city okay. He enlisted the help of an airport security guy. Trailing behind him, it seemed I was able to glide smoothly through the rest of the airport, including customs, and touts wanting to point me to transportation options.

Stepping outside, I heard the Muslim call to prayer. The roads were mostly a red-brown dirt, with some potholes that had filled with rainwater to look like pools of paint. Just in view were simple houses with tin roofs. I changed a few hundred Euros outside the airport with a man the airport worker pointed me to, and he gave me back a stack of leones, the local currency. It was interesting to hear people talk in Krio, the local language in Sierra Leone, because a lot of it is understandable. The airport guy asking, “How much did he change for?” for example, was pretty similar to the English.

Sierra Leone’s airport is not surrounded by city. The shuttle bus quickly took us on a dirt road past more tin-roof houses surrounded by palm trees. As we rode past, I saw a young girl pouring water from a can. Nearing the beach, the smell of wood smoke and cooking fish wafted from the houses. It seemed these were just regular houses where people lived.


I didn’t get a good view of anything through the boat windows as we crossed the harbor — it was too dark. Inside, the soundtrack started with Bob Marley and went on to the Titanic theme, which seemed fitting travelling in a boat that bobbed up and down quite this much.

At the boat terminal on the other side, I waited for my ride near a bar while young men listened to the TV and played what looked like checkers on a large board. On one side of me, little stray dogs played, slept, yapped at each other and periodically came over looking for food on top of a building that was either demolished or under construction.


Eventually I met up with Michelle, who works at the Awoko newspaper handling logistics, and Cooper Inveen, who did the same internship through UW that I’ll be doing, and is now a freelance journalist in Sierra Leone reporting for Vice, Al Jazeera and The Guardian. After we dropped off Cooper at his house to get some sleep before a reporting trip, Michelle took me to the Awoko office to meet with editor Kelvin Lewis. On the way, we listened to the radio – heavily Auto-Tuned songs in what sounded like Krio. It was too dark to see a whole lot of the city, but I couldn’t miss the colorful signs and advertisements, corner shops, and bustling activity. I talked some logistics with Mr. Lewis, and then went to my hostel for the night.



Hopefully I can fit them all in my suitcase…

When I first learned I would be spending my summer in the capital city of Sierra Leone interning with a local newspaper called Awoko, I was excited to no end. Then, at some point during the final few weeks remaining before I fly out across the Atlantic, the panic set in a little bit – actually, more than a little bit. I felt drastically underprepared, especially psychologically. Some lazy, survival-instinct-ish part of my psyche – quite apart from any of my real wants or rational thoughts – simply didn’t want to leave the comforts of home and drag myself to somewhere that probably wouldn’t be comfortable at first.

Now, I’m happy to report that the excitement has come back. I’m thrilled at the prospect of starting on this reporting adventure, and I can’t believe how lucky I am.

And yes, I’d still be lying if I said I wasn’t anxious, nervous and maybe a little terrified. It’s now less than a week until I board a plane for Sierra Leone. Here are a few of the things I’m nervous about, in no relevant order:

  • Writing something that will get me or my editors in serious trouble
  • Reporting successfully in a foreign country, culture, city and land
  • Navigating and finding my way. Full stop. (This is a weakness of mine). Particularly in a city that isn’t amendable to this
  • As a strict vegetarian who doesn’t compromise, finding food I can eat
  • Knowing enough Krio, the local language, which sounds like English sometimes, but is very hard to understand because it’s a distinct language of its own
  • Biting bugs, snakes and rabid dogs or bats
  • Malaria. Enough said
  • Other diseases my feeble American immune system might have trouble handling
  • Basically, getting sick at all in a place with a severely incapacitated healthcare system
  • The sun
  • The rain (every day in August!) and resultant floods
  • Unintentionally being insensitive in my reporting or writing — or otherwise causing offense, acting ignorant or arrogant. One piece of advice I’ve heard twice now, and which I will try hard to heed, is to be humble and not assume I know everything. I can sometimes jump to conclusions and think I understand something when I don’t

It’s probably reasonable to feel anxious about going anywhere that requires me to jab myself with, and ingest, quite this many vaccines, take 100 malaria pills in my suitcase, and spray my outfits with a bug-killing chemical that’s “safe” but nevertheless I shouldn’t let touch my skin, or breath in. And of course, find room for lots of DEET and a mosquito net. I’m lucky that mosquitoes don’t seem to bite me all that often, and I hope it stays that way. But still.


Just another necessary precaution…

On a more serious note, I’ve been thinking a lot about the traumas Sierra Leone has gone through and how they have affected the country. These include the recent Ebola crisis, preceded by a ten-year civil war, corrupt governments, colonial exploitation and more. They seem vaster and more important than any of my anxieties about my comfort. Reading books like Lansana Gberie’s A Dirty War in West Africa, I’m simply overwhelmed trying to process what Sierra Leone went through.

Despite the general flippancy of this post, this has been on my mind more than anything, and I don’t mean to make light of it. I guess I should say that’s a good general assumption to make about anything in this blog.

When I was accepted to the Foreign Intrigue scholarship through the UW journalism program I didn’t have final say in where I would be sent (my fellow students were sent to Jordan, India, Cambodia, Mexico and Indonesia), but in my application I said Sierra Leone was one of my top choices. I knew a bit about the country — not much, but enough to make me really curious to learn more.

In middle school I saw a talk by the Sierra Leonean former child soldier Ishmael Beah, who wrote a memoir called A Long Way Gone. Actually, Beah was one of the speakers introducing the Dalai Lama, the headliner that day. But Beah’s talk stuck with me just as much as the Tibetan spiritual leader’s did, and I read his memoir sometime that same year. It’s a powerful and devastating (and apparently, sometimes questionably accurate) book. (I’ve almost finished rereading it now, and it’s a lot more difficult and painful to get through than I remembered). I watched the movie Blood Diamond years ago, and one of the only things I remember was the beginning, when rebels from the Revolutionary United Front movement brutally hack off villager’s limbs with machetes. I’d also heard a fantastic album from a group called the Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars (really, give it a listen — in the link), which is plaintive and sad at times, but mostly very upbeat and warmly positive.

So, that was most of my knowledge of Sierra Leone – basically a random mix of things. In the past month, of so I’ve been ordering from online just about every book on Sierra Leone I could find, with the assumption that the more I know, the better. And really, that not doing so would be irresponsible. I also realize that no amount of reading can really prepare me.

My hope and expectation is that the opportunity to do delve into my passion for journalism – writing and reporting, interviewing, taking photos – is just the right way to adjust to what will be my new home and reality for the next ten weeks. I’m beyond excited for this opportunity. I could make a list of the things I’m looking forward to doing, the skills I hope I’ll be able to learn and develop. Actually, why don’t I do that – I wouldn’t want the only list in this post to be a negative one. I’m excited about, in no particular order:

  • Learning how to be a better reporter through more challenging circumstances than I’m used to. I’ve done most of my reporting among English speakers in Washington, my home state, and mostly my home city of Seattle
  • Learning how journalism works and what it looks like in a developing country
  • Learning what journalism looks like in Africa
  • Learning from journalists and editors who work in sometimes difficult conditions, and for whom the media means something different and has a different significance than for me in Washington state
  • Finding stories! I’m excited at the thought of what fascinating stories and issues there are to report on
  • Practicing being a creative storyteller
  • Finding positive stories, and stories about everyday life in Sierra Leone and Africa. For no good reason, these don’t seem to make their way to the West much
  • Covering community journalism while also finding stories that are interesting to a national or international audience
  • Learning how to write first-person and opinion pieces, if end up doing what other interns have done
  • Just getting a taste of international reporting.

Who wouldn’t be excited at that last one? Or going to Sierra Leone in general?