Q&A with Theophilus Gbenda, journalistic “attack dog” at Freetown’s Rastafarian radio station

Theophilus Gbenda is a journalist at Culture Radio, a community radio station in central Freetown. In this interview, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity, Gbenda talked about the three times he was arrested by the authorities for things he said, what this means for the state of journalism in Sierra Leone, and how a Rastafarian radio station can help lower the national blood pressure.


Theophilus Gbenda at his desk at Culture Radio

My name is Theophilus Gbenda. I am the Project Coordinator of Culture Radio F104.5, in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Culture Radio is a Rastafarian-based radio station, and so we bank on the pan-African ideology. The main objective of the radio station is to promote our culture and to also promote black consciousness so people will become proud of who they are, and don’t feel inferior when they see other races. We say we are all created in the image and likeness of the most high God, and so we should see ourselves as one. The key message we propagate is the message of peace and love, because we think if we love each other there will be automatic peace. We also believe that there will be no peace without justice, and so we really focus on promoting an enlightened society, because we believe when the people are well-informed about things happening around them, they will be in a better position to make informed decisions.

We ensure that all our programs are people-friendly, to the extent that for each and every program, we either open the phone line to get feedback from the public, or we allow them to send text messages. And we are actually the voice of the voiceless. That is why many people refer to the station as the people’s station.

Our station has kind of become a complaint center where people come in and out to bring in complaints about things happening with them at their workplace, at their schools, at the colleges, at home and all of that. If you come here in the afternoon, you will see a lot of people coming to just bring up issues to us.

How a Rastafarian radio station can help a traumatized nation…

You know, we live in a country where the majority of our people have lost confidence in the judiciary, they have lost confidence in the police, they have lost confidence in even the governance system. So they now turn to us journalists and the civil society. And for us at Culture Radio, all we want to achieve is to give voice to the people. By doing so we will be able to reduce the anger level. Given the economic situation in the country you will find that most people are very much disgruntled, they are disenchanted, they are very much disappointed, because they were expecting much from the current government., but what they are experiencing right now is the opposite.

Taking into consideration the fact that we are just coming up from a bloody civil war that left thousands of people killed, and the fact that most of the factors that led to the war are still very much with us, we are sitting on a time bomb that could explode any time if nothing is done to right the wrongs permeating the society.

And one way we think we can do it as a media institution is to allow people to express their grievances over the media. Once they do that, that automatically reduces the chances of them going violent.

And in the process of doing that, because we expose the ails in society, the government doesn’t seem to like us. Obviously, because they always want to work with journalists who they can play ball with, journalists who can lie in bed with them and all of that. But because we pride ourselves as being the people’s station, we cannot afford to be compromised or neutralized. Attempts have been made over the years to get us neutralized through bribes, through intimidation, through some other forms, but we have so far refused to be cowed or to be neutralized.

So for me personally, as the man doing the most critical program in the station, called Burning Issues, I have always had problems with the authorities one way or the other.

The three times he was arrested…

The first problem I had was with the former Vice President of the Republic. There was an issue between him and one ordinary citizen whose land the former Vice President forcefully took form him. And so the guy came here and complained, and I tried to get the side of the Vice President. He happens to be my uncle. But of course, because I’m the type of journalist who doesn’t go to authorities, since he became Vice President I never went to see him. But of course I have his contact line, so when that issue came up, I sent him a text message — he did not get back to me. I called him several days — he did not say anything to me. The other text I sent was the direct issue – I explained the entire issue to him just to get him to respond and he refused.

So I went ahead. I hosted the guy, the complainant here. He said a lot of things about what transpired between him and the Vice President, and the Vice President took offence, even though I had tried to get his side.

So because I went ahead with the interview, he became angry and said I allowed the guy to say so many things about him that he considered personal. I said, “But I tried to contact you, you did not cooperate.”

And so automatically he reported me to the IMC [Independent Media Commission], and by the time the IMC was to take action, the police were already preparing for my arrest. I was supposed to be at the IMC at 4 o clock to face the complaint committee, but then the police sent me a letter that I should be at the CID at 3 o clock. So I went to the IMC, I told them, “This is the situation – you have called me to be here at 4 and the police say I should be with them at 3. What is your advice?” And then they told me, “Theo, you have to go to the police.”

So I went to the police, and by the time I got there a detention order had already been prepared for me and signed, even before obtaining a statement from me. All because it had to do with the Vice President, the number two man in the country.

So I was locked up for three days – two days actually and on the third day I was released. I wasn’t charged to court, and so it was just a matter between me and the Vice President, using the police to get me intimidated.

The second one [incident] had to do with a satirical piece I floated in my WhatsApp group. I have one of the most popular WhatsApp groups in the country, it’s named after my program. The group is called Burning Issues Forum. That group is comprised of a number of top people in society – lawyers, doctors, journalists, civil society actors, university students and so on and so forth.

So I posted during the height of the Ebola that one of the doctors who was in the center of things, Doctor Russel – it was just, like I said, a satirical piece – that Doctor Russel “tasted” Ebola. Right? Tasted, T-A-S-T-E-D. They took it for “tested,” T-E-S-T-E-D.

Why I said “tasted” is because all the medical doctors who died passed through his hands. And so the rumor was all over the place that Doctor Russel has also contracted the virus. So I said with my satirical piece – which I did not mention on radio, but my social media group – that Doctor Russel has “tasted” Ebola.

It was just a joke to give an indication that, you know, he has been in the center of it and that the medical doctors who died passed through him and that his name is all over the place that he has tested positive for Ebola.

They took it out of proportion and then he went to the police because he happened to be one of the personal doctors of the President and also the Vice President then. And so they were looking at the implication of the doctor of the President being associated with Ebola. So that is why they took it out of context.

This one too, the police called me and I responded, they said they wanted to see me at the CID [Criminal Investigations Department] on Friday. So I said, well I would rather come on Monday, because their tactic is when they get ahold of you on Friday then you don’t expect to be released until Monday. So I said I will not go there, I will wait for Monday and I will go there. And on Monday I went there. Again by the time I went there they had already prepared a detention order for me. So by the time they finished taking my statement, the detention order was already in place, and I got to know that because I saw it in one of the books, signed with my name there and everything.

Then for the third one, it had to do with an analysis I did on the controversial nature of the last elections. I referred to it as a stolen mandate because the indications were clear that the president did not win genuinely and that the whole election process was skewed in his favor. According to the results he obtained 58 percent of the total vote, and by the time of the holding of the election, the country was under a state of emergency, which means the election was held under a state of emergency, which means people going to vote had to go through soldiers and police officers holding guns. And as soon as they finished voting you were asked to go directly to your house and then the result was not announced until the evening hours, between 5,6,7 o clock. Almost immediately they were preparing to swear in the president. Why the rush? In Zambia the opposition cried foul and there was concern over the electoral result, they said they have put on hold the inauguration of the president there. But here it was a different ball game. By the time people even came out to say, “No, we disagree,” they were already swearing in the president. So I refer to it all as a stolen mandate.

Because I said that, they arrested me and detained me for three days. But you know, I always see being detained as a privilege, because as a journalist you should be prepared for that. The way this country is now, journalists should come out clearly to say, “We are not afraid of your intimidation.” You can beat us, you can keep us in custody, no problem. As long as we are able to do our job without fear or favor.

On the state of journalism in Sierra Leone…

So that’s exactly the kind of category of journalist I belong. We have journalists in the country who are no longer serving their real purpose. They have actually become the bedfellows of the government. And so they cannot write anything critical or say anything critical about the government. You have some other journalists like us, who are attack dogs. We actually hammer the issues, we come out tough on the issues, we don’t care what the consequences are.

So that’s the kind of journalism I am practicing. It’s a difficult thing to do because we have a situation that I would call media poverty. The media landscape is thriving as a matter of fact, but the journalists, who are the actual reporters, who go out to get the news, who are wallowing in a state of poverty. And even the media institutions are also thriving in poverty.


Newspapers for sale in downtown Freetown, Sierra Leone

If you look at the newspapers, you see what I would call media capture. Most of the newspapers, they rely almost entirely on advertisements to keep their day to day running in place.

For us at Culture Radio we don’t accept all types of advertisement because we believe adverts have the potential neutralizing our editorial standpoint. And so we are running as an NGO and we are having some kind of support from outside the country. For example we are having support from Germany, a group called Bread for the World. Bread for the World in Germany is funding us – like for every three years they give us 250,000 Euros. So that is what we use for staff salary, for the day to day operations of the cause, of the institution, and some other things. So for this alone we don’t have any business running after the same advertisement other radio stations who are not fortunate to be getting such sponsorship. So by that way we are able to come out strong on the issues.

The political climate does not favor radical journalism. You either get arrested or get beaten or get killed or whatever. So you should be prepared for any of those. Secondly, you should avoid going for their money. If you want to be a critical journalist then don’t go for their money. When you go for their money it’s like going to the devil. Saying, “I want money, I want power, I want a child,” the devil gives you conditions. In the same way, if you go for politicians’ money, they always have the tendency of getting back at you if you go the other way.

Here in Sierra Leone journalists operate under a difficult situation because the moment you tend to be critical, they brand you as being anti-government or journalists belonging to the opposition party. So sometimes when we try to be radical or critical, this is how they brand us, that, ‘Oh, this is an SLPP [Sierra Leone People’s Party] journalist.’

How were you treated when they detained you?


Well I was treated humanely as a matter of fact – the only thing was that my freedom was seized. I was detained amongst other common criminals. For me that was just an experience to listen to those suspects to know what actually took them there and how they are being treated and all of that. They were happy having a journalist amongst them for just two days and at least they knew I would be able to take across their message, and I did that when I came back from the cell – I passed on their message.

And the first time you were detained, you didn’t go through the IMC or the courts – you weren’t charged with anything. So essentially you were illegally detained?

I would say so, because I was not charged. If there was anything criminal, I was supposed to have been charged. But you know, they didn’t charge me for the three times I was detained.

The police are under pressure. Not that they always want to arrest journalists. But sometimes a minister will just sit in his office and call the police officer, “Gentleman, I want you to arrest this journalist for doing this and that and that, and then the journalist gets arrested. So sometimes the police, because they are not independent, because they are vulnerable, they work by the dictates of the politicians. And that I find to be very much unfortunate.

They detain journalists because those journalists are not dancing to their tune. For me, that is the most critical reason why they want to detain journalists. Journalists who are dancing to their tune have no problem. You see them going around with jeeps, you see them going around with…you know? Flashy stuff and all of that. But for us, we are actually sacrificing everything because we want to give people the very best. And where this country is right now, journalists are actually supposed to speak out even louder.

During the civil war, a number of journalists were killed, a number of journalists were targeted. So if we journalists should sit by and see things going wrong and we don’t walk about those issues, then we are not only doing a disservice to the nation, we are also jeopardizing our own safety in the long run, should anything happen, like it happened the last time. You know, they were looking for journalists. We don’t want to be in that situation anymore. That is why we are now actors, instead of being just reporters.

For us at Culture Radio, because of our NGO look of things, we don’t limit our work behind the mic. We organize workshops. In other words, we target the issues before they become news. Because we don’t take pleasure in always reporting negative things. The unfortunate thing is that in our country right now, evil has dominated good. You find out that journalists have more negative things to write about than good things. So for us journalists who are on the critical side, our notebooks are always full with issues to deal with.

I’ve been learning that the authorities don’t even necessarily have to use the libel laws to intimidate journalists.

Oh yes of course, of course — the libel laws are just there as reference. They are just there as reference. But with or without them – for me, I’m not afraid of the libel laws. All you need to do, do your job professionally. Just do your job to the best of your ability, and be mindful of the pitfalls and make sure you don’t fall into their trap.

So is it common that they would just arrest a journalist without a reason or formal charge?

Yes, of course. It’s common. Recently one deputy minister arrested a journalist because the journalist asked him a critical question. And even yesterday a journalist was arrested. He was invited to the house of Parliament, and then the Parliamentarians ordered him arrested by the police, and he was released on bail – just yesterday.

You mentioned people have tried to bribe you – what’s the story behind that?

Well for the last election, there was a plan to bribe me for the sum of 50 million Leones, plus a Jeep, so that I’d actually be on the side of the ruling party. But then I refused, I rejected the bribe. I said, ‘No, I’m not interested in that.’

During that election, key journalists were bought. The fourth person they were going to buy was me, but I said, ‘No I’m sorry.’

What effect does it have on your work as a journalist if you’re always facing these threats and intimidation?

For me, like I said earlier, being detained for example, bring detained is a privilege for me. So I don’t get bothered with that actually. Because if you say you’re going to take that too personally, then you might as well just leave the job. Because even when I’m doing my program, people who are not even in my studio are the ones raising concern for my safety. But I don’t get myself worried about that.

Links to all my published pieces in Awoko


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.


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:

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

Listen to Krio, Sierra Leone’s English creole


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

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

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

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

I recently wrote a column about Krio linked to below:

Beguiled by the Krio language

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

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

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

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


Video: Kroo Bay slum

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

A response to my China-skeptical column?

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

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

Here a some quotes from my column:

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

And here’s some of that piece:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Photos: Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary


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

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

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


On the way to the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary

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


Tacugama Sanctuary a refuge for orphaned chimpanzees

Tacugama Sanctuary educates local people to help save chimpanzees

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


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



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



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


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


Kappia explaining chimp behavior


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



Bala Amarasekaren, who founded the sanctuary in 1995


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

A visit to Kroo Bay slum


Kroo Bay slum

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

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


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

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

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

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


Left: The chief of Kroo Bay slum

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


A visit to Kroo Bay slum




Part of Kroo Bay slum from above


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


The road leading down into Kroo Bay slum