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


Observing elections north of Freetown


A man voting at a polling station in Lunsar

On my first weekend in Salone, I went on a reporting trip to Lunsar, a small town north of Freetown, with some of my colleagues at Awoko newspaper. The goal was to observe and report on a bye-election, which was held to replace a parliamentary candidate who had died. The same process was playing out, although with stories of violent incidents, in Kailahun in the interior of the country.

I wrote a two-part column on the trip, which covers a lot of what I experienced, and would have written for a blog post. But there was a lot to cover, and I only had two short columns to do so. For the blog — which is a better medium for inflicting my rambling thoughts on the world with no editor to say whether they should see the light of day — I thought I’d post the columns, then go into some more details and thoughts on things that didn’t make it into the published pieces. And I’m posting lots of pictures from the trip here in the blog, since I didn’t get to do that in columns themselves. You should read the columns first (linked below) if you want to get a full account with my best thoughts and observations — think of this blog post as supplementary material.

So to start off, here’s the first column – or at least, an excerpt of the beginning followed by link to the rest of it:

“So the elections here will be safe and peaceful, right?” I asked my Awoko newspaper colleague Betty Milton early on Saturday morning. We were walking along a dirt path through a small village community near Lunsar, north of Freetown. As we jumped over puddles, and walked past the mud and brick houses, sheep and goats, and women dressed in bright colors carrying babies on their backs, a man used a loudspeaker to amplify his voice, calling on people in the village to come out and vote today.

Betty and Ophaniel Gooding, my other colleague, found my worries amusing. “Nothing will happen to you you’re with us!” they reassured me although they couldn’t help poking fun at my anxiousness. “Our next stop is the Gaza strip,” Ophaniel joked. My colleagues said that even if things did get tense, the authorities would do everything to keep me safe, to present a positive image to the world. “They’ll give you a bulletproof vest,” Ophaniel said, and then unable to help himself, added “And then they’ll shoot you in the head.”

I hadn’t been up all night worrying about it just part of the night. And to be fair, fear of malaria-carrying mosquitos, plus a skewed sleeping schedule, were responsible for most of my insomnia. I just couldn’t help thinking about recent political tensions surrounding the elections in the city of Kailahun in the interior of the country which Betty had told me about the day before.

You can read the rest in the link here, or at this URL:


Around Lunsar

The bike ride I described here was absolutely terrifying (and admittedly kind of thrilling), partly because I wasn’t expecting we’d be riding motorbikes. We walked up to a busy highway, and all of a sudden a gang of bikers for hire came upon us.

After some discussion I couldn’t follow too well (Krio is…40 percent understandable? 50, 30, 20? It’s hard to put numbers on it, but it can sometimes be totally clear, and sometimes I catch nothing), I was told to get on a bike driven by a man wearing sunglasses.

“Go with him — we know him very very well,” my colleagues told me, and then we were off swerving through vehicles as fast as possible.

I didn’t know where we were going and how long I’d be on the bike. I was stupid enough to pack a really heavy bag with me, and balancing it in front of me while grabbing onto whatever I could on the bike was awkward.

Our bikes stopped at a petrol station outside Freetown – it seemed to be a popular transport hub. We were instantly approached by bikers and a driver to offer us their services, plus people hawking towels, soft drinks, Nutella and other sweets. We opted for a car, whose driver, to the very end, insisted on charging just a little more than my colleagues wanted.

The drive was fascinating – as the heavy rain gave the world through the windshield a watery filter, I saw was a billboard for some kind of beauty product featuring a very light skinned model, others for SIM cards or credit, and one that I believe was condemning child marriage, or something unfortunate like that (why can’t I remember?)

I fell asleep during the ride, my system still scrambled up from jet lag and adjusting to a new country. We stopped to check out a lodge to stay at, which was a gated compound with paper Santa Claus decorations in the lobby. We ended up at a different lodge, which was another complex of rooms surrounded by a gate topped with barbed wire. We were the only guests. My room was old and dilapidated. My colleague kindly got me some very tasty bananas (a different species than we usually get in the US) and a baguette. I got some sleep, and worried about malaria and elections violence until the sun rose the next day.


A woman votes at a polling station in Lunsar

Here’s the beginning of part two of my column, followed by some more observations that didn’t make it in the columns:

I got to see the complexities and struggles of democracy in Sierra Leone up close on Saturday, on a trip with Awoko reporters Betty Milton and Ophaniel Gooding to Lunsar in the north of the country. We were there to report on a Parliamentary bye-election held to replace a deceased member of Parliament. The plan was to interview the candidates, then find some polling stations and observe.

That morning, I went along with Ophaniel while he interviewed one of the candidates, Osman Karankay Conteh. Karankay is a tall man with a steady and certain demeanor, and is aligned with the ruling party in the country, the All People’s Congress (APC).

“I know I will win,” he told Ophaniel  but he said he wanted to do even better, and “make history” by beating his opponents in a landslide. We sat in the living room of his house during the interview. It was guarded by a gate topped with barbed wire and furnished with a several couches, a television and Arabic calligraphy on the wall. Karankay accused his rival candidate from the Alliance Democratic Party (ADP), of paying people up to 10,000 Leones (close to $2 US dollars) for votes, an allegation his rival denies.

Read the rest here or at this URL:

It was interesting to interview the parliamentary candidate, who ended up winning in a landslide just as he claimed he would. My colleague Ophaniel and I waited in his house for a long time before he met with us. I think it was the living room, with the rest of the house hidden beyond hallways with entrances draped in cloth. There were framed photos on the wall that seemed digitally enhanced to look more stylized, of the man with his wife, and one with a backdrop of the colors of the Sierra Leone flag. There were people sitting and lying on the three couches in the living room, mostly women and children. I wasn’t sure what they were there for. Opahniel wasn’t sure what the candidates day job was outside of being an aspiring politician. It seemed like he was at least somewhat wealthy. During the interview, which Ophaniel said would be in Krio, Karankay spoke in clear English sometimes. I wondered if it was because I was there.


My colleague Ophaniel (right) interviewing Osman Karankay Conteh of the politically dominant All People’s Congress (APC) party. He ended up winning the parliamentary bye-election in Lunsar

When we followed him to the ballot box, snapping pictures, it seemed like the whole town had come along. At one point the crowd stopped in the middle of the road, and a woman from a TV station with long braided hair dyed in a multitude of colors interviewed Karankay while a man filmed. At one point, a young man took a photo of the candidate with his phone.

When we reached the health clinic, past the yellow mosque, the braided haired woman was interviewing a woman in a wheelchair about who she wanted to vote for.

Most of the time we spent at the polling stations later that day was sitting around, stopping occasionally to get a snack of roasted or boiled corn on the cob from one of several vendors who walked around carrying baskets of it on their heads.

I remember we were getting out of a car, having driven back from one of the polling stations, and I was carrying an empty plastic bottle in my hand. I was thinking of where to throw it away when a woman asked me for it. I handed it over. I’m not sure if she was going to use it for something useful, or sell it for a bit of change, but either way I felt so stupid and privileged.


As I said in the column, it was really inspiring to see anonymous people just stop by to cast their votes and then leave.

I didn’t write about the ride in a van back to Freetown in the column. It was a bit exhausting and more than I wanted to deal with at the time, but eye opening. It was night, and I was tired. Lunsar, the small town, was hopping with activity — the bars were full, smoke filled the air, as did loud voices and music. The shared van — I think it was the kind called a poda poda — was just about full, and some people practically dragged us over to it to buy the last seats and get the journey started.

I sat in the front at first, next to a guy who asked me if I was British. He then left his seat and walked out of the van momentarily. After a few minutes my colleague said I should move to another seat because the man was drunk. I sat in the back, near a man whose two chickens slept under his seat (and which clucked and noisily complained every so often during the ride, to his shhhs).

Before we left, an argument broke out. The drunk man had said or done something rude, or perhaps upset the child of another passenger. A middle aged policeman in blue garb sitting in the middle of the van was livid, and threatened to put the man in his place, or something. “How dare you!” I made out. The drunk man said “Fuck you.” Eventually, they threw him out, and we were on our way.

Another heated argument came later. The police man was about to get off soon, and one of the people in charge of the van (I think) reminded him to give him the money he owed (I think I heard 5,000 Leones, which is less than a dollar). The police man basically made some excuse, which the man didn’t accept. But he got off anyway, and the man shouted after him. An argument broke out among all the passengers. I guess some agreed with the man, and others thought he should let it slide. I won’t forget the very real sense of anger and grievance I heard in the voices — that what was done was unjust. I don’t know if it was a case of a police officer using his power to get away with ripping someone off, but that’s what it seemed like.

When we got into a taxi for Freetown, the driver found it funny that I was a white man — he had at first thought I was a Sierra Leonean, or something like that. But he was a bit of a jerk, and didn’t say anything to me directly. My colleague had to argue fiercely with him to let me off at my hostel — he raised his voice, insisting on some other route. It was stupid.

The night had been as eye opening as the day, but also a bit much, and I welcomed the chance to sleep.

Check out some more photos from the trip in this slideshow:

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