Sierra Leone's Chief National Electoral Commissioner Dr. Christiana Thorpe
Dr Christiana Thorpe, chairwoman of the Sierra Leone's National Electoral Commission (N.E.C.). (Photo: Issouf Sanogo / AFP-Getty Images)
There is an old woman who lives somewhere in Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital. She claims that she was a "very sound footballer." Her head is now adorned with sparkling gray hair. She has a great sense of humor. She reads the newspapers daily. She has a daughter whom journalists can't help but write about — often. Her daughter brings her the newspapers. Mother teases daughter every chance she gets. And that's very often, because every week Dr. Christiana Ayoka Mary Thorpe, head of the National Electoral Commission (N.E.C.), is mentioned in the Sierra Leoenean media.
"I see they went to town on you in the papers today," is just one of several ways Mrs. Effumi Thorpe, the 85-year old mother of Dr. Thorpe, greets her daughter upon her arrival home from her daily task of overseeing Sierra Leone's recently-past landmark elections. And for the woman who always has a disarming smile that could make a saint of Lucifer, the joke is often well taken.
A rather curious fact about Effumi is that she seems not the least bit ruffled about the enormous task her daughter has taking on. She posits that Christiana had been prepared for the job when she was only a little girl: "She has been taught to say the truth. Regardless of whoever is around, she will say the truth. The truth never fails, my dear. She has been taught to be honest and truthful."
When I went to see the Chief National Electoral Commissioner recently, I came armed with all the reasons why the then-upcoming elections were perhaps the most important development in Sierra Leone since the guns of war were made quiet. And why, given that, it was mandatory that the elections be viewed as credible as possible.
Dr. Thorpe looked me directly in the eye, patiently waited for me to finish, then calmly and with a quiet smile said: "We all have a role to play. If we all play our various roles, in synergy, we will make it together."
Her halcyon aura is the virtue that led the esteemed Sierra Leonean educator, Dr. Talabi Lucan, who saw a baby turned into woman, to say that when Christiana was a girl, one "would not think that she would have the nerve that she has developed now." The "nerve," that is, to head the N.E.C. And she has developed quite a bit of it.
When Captain Valentine Strasser, Sierra Leone's youngest-ever leader seized power in 1992, Dr. Thrope was the only woman in his cabinet of 19 ministers. Now she's the first woman ever to be the Chief Electoral Commissioner in the country's history.
She is quite humble and practical when discussing her accomplishments, stating: "For me, it's not so much the fact that I'm a woman. I'm a citizen of this country. Wherever I can serve my country, I serve. … Women's participation is necessary to further everything in this country, not just the electoral process. I keep saying that it takes two to tango. The more women get involved in all aspects of national life the better for the nation. That would mean of course women coming in as voters, and candidates for the elections."
Listening to Dr. Thorpe now is a bit baffling for Dr. Lucan, whom Christiana calls when the tides are high. She recalls a "mild, very nice and quiet girl." The sort of child anybody would like.
"She was so quiet," said Dr. Lucan. "She looks unassuming, but she's got so much in her, oh my goodness! That which she has in her, she got from her grandmother" -- whom Effumi calls a "no-nonsense, sympathetic woman."
A Life Transformed by "Slavery"
At a very young age Christiana realized why being poor was not an excuse from being humane. The lives of the underprivileged she grew among were to later have a transforming effect on hers. She grew up poor, tugging at her grandmother's heels as they trekked to the river at Kroobay to wash clothes for those who could afford a washwoman.
"We grew up among many people who did not go to school," she said. "My younger sister and myself were the only girls attending school in our neighborhood. I think, as early as age seven, I became conscious that there was a difference."
"When I would come from school, I would want to go play outside with my friends but my grandmother would say, no. She would ask, 'What did you do in school today? Go bring your chalkboard.' It ended up that the children would come to our house and I would be the teacher. Throughout my schooling, teaching was just kind of part of me. Whatever I learned, I shared." By the time she became a teenager, the "difference" had become pronounced.
"I saw my peers who were now laboring with two, three children, trying to care for them. At that stage I was in 6th form and I was using my lunch money to help some of them with their babies. Well, they were my friends, the same age as I was, and they would say, 'Here is the child and I don't have money to buy food for her,' and I would — you know — give some of my lunch."
"That had a very big impact on my decision to be a teacher, and then also to become a nun. I said I want to be in a place where I could concentrate in educating girls; to help them get out of this, what I will call, a form of slavery."
So, while a teenager, Christiana decided to leave the comfort of her grandmas' to enter the cold, distant, but protective and towering walls of the Convent in far-off Ireland. She admits it was an unusual decision to make at 19. "Of course a religious life was not kind of popular, but I felt I wanted to devote myself to helping girls in their education."
She fondly describes her grandmother, whom family and friends say was very much herself, as a "gentle, and very respectful to whoever, be it a child or the president. As gentle as she was, she was not afraid to speak out and to let you know if you were wrong. She was very generous. The main important thing I learned from her was her sense of Godliness. She was God-fearing; she was prayerful and faithful. And I think I imbibed some of those qualities from her."
Thus, a young Christiana traveled to Ireland to learn more about a God who for two weeks kept his bright star from shinning. She craved the sun and grew colder. Later she learned two lessons about Ireland: that the Irish do not look to the sun for their warmth — they carry theirs in their bosom — and that a bright shinning sun in Ireland is not always warm. When the skies finally parted for the sun, she ran outside and "stood and looked at that thing up there and wondered, 'Is that really the sun?' "
"I was very disappointed. There was the sun, but I was not feeling it. All my life I had associated the sun with heat." During her studies at University College in Dublin, she found "the Irish people very, very nice, very accommodating, very warm." She says she really loved Ireland and made lots of good friends there. But she left western Europe to follow in her parents footsteps, working as a civil servant back in Sierra Leone.
A Very Painful Decision
While Christiana was away some of the girls in her neighborhood became child mothers. It turned out that the "difference" she saw growing up was merely a microcosm of what was really wrong. She soon come to this realization while working as a nun and principal at St. Joseph's Secondary School for girls in Makeni, a village north of Freetown.
"We'd start the first year in secondary school with about 200 girls and five years later, when that crop should do their O Levels, I think the highest number we ever got was 35." This caused her to make the most painful decision in her life yet.
"When she decided to break away, that gave us quite a headache," recalled Dr. Lucan. "We said, 'How could you?' And she said to me, 'I've prayed about it, but I think there is more work out there for me to do. I will continue to pray about it.' She is the first person I ever know who did that."
There had been a struggle in Christiana's life lasting a few years. The Convent had rules and regulations that would ultimately conflict with her mission to find out why the dropout rate among girls was so high. To get to the bottom of the matter, she had decided to pay home visits to area parents. But to do so, she would have to wait until after dusk, when the farmers returned home with their school-going children who functioned as their helping hands.
However, Convent rules required her back before dusk. So the woman who pledged that she would not rest until the present 70 percent illiteracy rate among women in Sierra Leone dropped significantly, had an epiphany — she walked out on the Convent, turning her back on the only world she had ever known.
"It was a very painful decision because how do you live 20 years of your life in a setup that you like and move out into the unknown? It was hard. I felt my real work was out there, among the people."
And among the people Dr. Christiana Thorpe has stayed. She helped women who were raped and tortured by rebels during the war "restore their sense of worth;" she gave those women a chance at an education; she knocked on doors at the United Nations Development Programme, asking for help to create educational space for thousands of children affected by the war; she worked for peace and narrowly escaped an ambush while returning to bury her father who died during the war; she organized to address human rights of women and girls; and she gathered other women in 1995 to form the Sierra Leonean chapter of Forum for African Women Educationalists (F.A.W.E.), which promotes the education of girls and women in sub-Saharan Africa.
During the war, F.A.W.E. established Emergency Displaced School Camps for thousands of children, and ran Peace Education Programs in over a dozen chiefdoms. While in neighboring Guinea, the organization brought in over 3,000 children, all of whom, Dr Thorpe later told the United Nations Special Session on Children in 2002, "displayed one characteristic syndrome — violence" to form a make-shift school. F.A.W.E. has also helped over 1,000 underage mothers survive the trauma.
Haja Alimatu Abdallah, one of the women who works with F.A.W.E., says Dr. Thorpe always "tries to see how she can make the best out of a worse situation."
According to Dr. Thorpe, the findings she made after leaving the Convent revealed that: "The cultural strain on the girl is such that as soon a she enters puberty it's time to look for a man to get married. She's also a source of income, because she brings in dowry to the family. So these are things that kept girls from continuing their education."
A "God-fearing" N.E.C. Chair
While she worked, the world watched and took note. The results now adorn the walls at F.A.W.E.'s secretariat in Freetown. At the Commission for Refugee Women and Children, Dr. Thorpe picked up the "Voices of Courage Award" for working with displaced children during the war. She was also honored with the "Defenders' Day" award by the United Nations because she put her principles and life "on the line to protect basic freedoms." At home she has received numerous accolades. All of this work helped gain her a position that now sees her constantly in the spotlight.
"You must be joking," was Dr. Thorpe's first reaction when told that then-president of Sierra Leone Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, who was stepping down after two terms, wanted her to head the relatively new N.E.C. When it became clear it was not a joke, she "prayed about it a lot" and turned to, among others, Dr. Lucan.
"She asked me to accompany her to go see the president when she wanted to accept the position," said Dr. Lucan. "When I doubted her, she said, 'You know my principles.' She is doing it, under very strenuous circumstances. I'm not worried about her heading N.E.C., she has kept her reputation. Sometimes even when the president himself expects her to bend, she stands tall."
All parliamentarians, including the opposition, unanimously supported Dr. Thorpe's nomination. But that has not quieted her detractors. An online forum frequented by Sierra Leoneans living outside the country reportedly got uncivil during exchanges about her and was consequently shut down. The Sierra Leonean media have mostly not taken advantage of the open door policy on information she has at the N.E.C.
No one has had any substantive complaint against Dr. Thorpe's personal or professional credibility. Yet someone in an online forum argued: "Christiana Thorpe by all indications cannot take an independent position. Does her defense team realize that she is the fiancée of Sam Maligie?" Another wrote: "Christiana Thorpe has a responsibility and MUST explain to the nation what went wrong between she and her faith."
With her usual calm, pleasant demeanor Dr. Thorpe slowly smiled as I put these questions across to her. "I'm not bothered with detractors, no, no. If you bother with them, they'd only distract you," she said. "I'm focused on delivering credible elections within the mandate of the N.E.C."
Really, the criticisms of Dr. Thorpe are not really about her. They seem to be the legitimate fears of those who have seen the political ineptitude of governments that have always had the N.E.C. within their embrace.
Dr. Thorpe met Sam Malige, a member of the ruling party, over a decade ago, long before she was appointed to head the N.E.C. She asserts they have remained friends because "when it comes to areas of national development, we have a lot in common." Malige runs a non-profit organization known as the Opportunity Industrialization Center, where children who have dropped out of school get a second chance.
"Him [Sam] being a member of the S.L.P.P. does not affect my professionalism with my job at N.E.C. No man is an island, everybody in this country knows somebody who may or may not be of the same political affiliation," she points out.
Some of the more knowledgeable posts to the online forums focus on the credible public service that the N.E.C. chair has given over the years. One noted: "Miss Thorpe's fighting for the rights of girl children who suffered during the war will remain indelible in the minds of human rights and civil society activists."
The executive representative to the United Nations Secretary-General Victor Angelo believes Dr. Thorpe did a great job securing the independence of the commission. Commenting publicly that, "as long as Christiana Thorpe heads the National Electoral Commission, we will have a strong commission." Haja Abdallah stated that the N.E.C. chair is a "very determined woman. She does not let anyone distract her. She is not one that can be manipulated or influenced to do what she does not believe. She's also very God-fearing."
Perhaps Dr. Thorpe's pragmatic leadership style could also be credited for the progress the Commission made in just over a year after it was formed. When I repeatedly pointed out to her that given the history of previous commissions, the fears about the independence of N.E.C. from the government were understandable. She succinctly noted: "That's the past, let's move into the future."
Dr. Thorpe has done more than talking about moving into the future. She has given ownership of the electoral process to ordinary Sierra Leoneans. That has never been the case. "We work with political parties, civil society organizations, N.G.O.s, school children, getting everybody in on the process."
She is not naïve, stating, "It takes two to tango." The dance is with the N.E.C. and election stakeholders. She explained that: "We're doing our best to establish a level playing field" and when the N.E.C. takes the lead, they expect everyone to follow.
Though a mild-mannered, soft-spoken lady who always has a soft warm smile, Dr. Thorpe is also a principled woman who says she "does not suffer fools gladly," and is always keen on setting the record right. When someone introducing her at a public event and noted that she had "an enviable track record" and that "the destiny of this nation lay in her hands," she promptly quipped, "the destiny of this nation lies on each of our hands."
Dr. Lucan opined: "Looking at her, you'd think that this is somebody you could work over, until you actually meet her. I've been at several meetings with her. She's firm but not overpowering."
The N.E.C. chair accepts that the corridors of political power are lined with men and that she feels intimidated at times, "but you know, you say, sorry I can't allow you to intimidate me," she said. "I do what I have to do, regardless of my sex. I just take it like that and I don't think it's a man-woman thing. To be honest with you, it's easier working with men than with women." She then spent the next half-minute laughing at her controversial opinion.
The widely-praised and successful national election held on Aug. 11 marked one of the few examples in African multi-party elections that the party in power — the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) — lost.
That task having been accomplished, the N.E.C. chair has her eyes set on the future. She posits that the nation needs to be better prepared for future elections. She would like to see an increase in civic education, children taught the virtues of democracy as well as the rights and responsibilities of a citizen, and the population better informed on their duties during the electoral process.
For Dr. Thorpe's mother, Effumi, "Honesty, honesty, my dear is what Sierra Leone needs to forge ahead." And she is certain her daughter has plenty of that in her because she was "taught to be God-fearing, honest and truthful."
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