Opinion

Op-Ed

Returning to Sierra Leone: No Place like Home

A moto-taxi driver rides through the streets of Freetown in September 2007. (Photo: Issouf Sanogo / AFP-Getty Images)

Charles Mason, who resides in Jacksonville, Florida, is on a three-month visit to his native land, Sierra Leone, walking the streets of Freetown and the provincial towns in order to make an eyeball assessment of a recovering nation. Eventually he wishes to contribute to its rebuilding and economic development. Before the advent of the devastating war, he was a successful entrepreneur during the 'hay days' there. But a decade-long civil war chased him out of the motherland, running for his life. Mason was forced to seek refuge in neighboring Guinea and Ghana, before traveling to the United States, his adopted home. I interviewed Mason from Freetown, and this sobering assessment was written from his perspective.

During my long but emotional journey, my heart was racing. While a nostalgic song was "thumping in my head," which I learned during my childhood days growing up in Sierra Leone. The lyrics were as refreshing as the evergreen olive plant.

Home again, when shall I see my home
When shall I see my native land?
I shall never forget my home

The infectious tune tempted me to sing aloud in the public domain. The capital city Freetown, once a settlement for freed slaves, has become an urban center that has been stretched beyond its natural limits. There are more cars, motorcycles, and pedestrians clustering together on the outmoded roads — which are still crying for refurbishing — than at any other time in its history. Is Freetown trying to outshine Lagos, Nigeria, as one of the most crowded cities in Africa?

Looking towards the hills, whether it's Mt. Aureol, Wilberforce, Hill Station or Juba, I witnessed how fast gray cement walls have replaced the "green-carpeted city" that Samara Michel once carved in describing Freetown. Urbanization is taking place at the expense of destroying the natural rain forest. Scientists have warned that in the long run this could fuel environmental degradation and climate change, and possibly lead to drought. Only government policy, fleshed out with public awareness, can arrest this impending and menacing danger.

Every part of town suffers from the same mobility and transportation nightmare. It took me about two hours to travel from Kissy Road roundabout to PZ (Paterson Zokonis), in a private car and taxi, on different occasions. Most people walk or go by okada (commercial motorcycle), an alternate form of transportation popular in India.

Seemingly, there's no sign of recession here — more businesses are mushrooming in a city that's bubbling with economic activity. Established banks are opening up new branches all around the country, while new ones are sprouting up as fast as the former. I was shocked by the prices of goods and services, which were in the thousands in the local currency, but are comparatively cheaper here than in the United States. However, with the extremely low earning rate, ordinary people can hardly afford to live a decent life.

Everything is here except clean air; the city is dusty and thirsty for water. However, the advent of the rainy season will change the equation, at least for a couple of months. There is a booming bottled water business. I'm told that some Nigerian businessmen are bottling tap water in plastic containers to sell as purified water.

About four in ten hustlers plying their trade down Siaka Stevens Street toward PZ are buying and selling American dollars, euros, or pounds sterling. Some of the firms I left have evaporated, but new ones have replaced them. New construction is budding very fast along Lumley, Goderich and Lakka Beaches. On Easter Monday, there were enough people to cover every part of Lumley Beach. Lakka Beach was equally full. Kids fly plastic kites all season long, including Christmas Day, to stay active and visible. And like pepper birds, they have grown wings and are learning how to fly. Definitely, the time is ripe to move the country on an upward trajectory, after being stalled in the woods for so long. Folks are making the best of the challenging situation.

According to throaty mutterings from high quarters, it is possible that legislation might soon be enacted paving the way for the construction of an administrative capital in the central part of northern Sierra Leone. The government is taking giant strides to prioritize agriculture, though food security is a problem. How can a nation that was once an exporter of its staple food, rice, become a major importer of the product?

The government has yet to influence the population mobility and explosion toward the city, due to a dearth of overall national development. I will be going to the provinces on the weekend to conduct an evaluation of my farm, and plan to rehabilitate it.

I just returned from the provinces two hours ago, and am happy to report that the level of economic activity I saw is promising and impressive. While offices and stores are closing down in the developed world; business is thriving in the underdeveloped world. The Freetown-Bo Road is nearing completion, with about 20 miles or less to finish it. There is a thriving business in almost every economic sphere, whether they are Internet cafes, entertainment centers, motels or hotels.

Bo is also heavily populated; the okadas have taken over from taxis and podapodas as the primary form of commercial transportation. Buildings are going up everywhere in Bo, just as in Freetown. People enjoy their leisure in the evenings, watching the European Cup finals and the British Football Association League. There's a growing obsession-like love affair and craving for Western lifestyles here, especially among the youth. The ones who do succeed in going abroad likely experience culture shock due to unrealistic expectations.

As an ardent football fan, I was amazed to hear small boys, some of them illiterate, discuss big-time soccer and analyze the matches. And here I was from the almighty United States saying to myself, that if I need to watch these games, I have to subscribe to pay-per-view or pay over $90 monthly to access cable or satellite. I watched CNN 24/7 on Sierra Broadcasting Service TV (S.L.B.S.) and other regular TV stations. Cell phones work differently here, compared to in America. For an equivalent of $1, one can talk from 7:00 am to 7:00 pm without any charge, but calls after 7:00 pm are charged to your credit. So every Tom, Musu and Saidu can get a pre-paid cell phone, which is cheaper and looks nicer than the ones we carry in the United States.

I have been all over the place, exploring Sierra Leone from inside out. My first week was mainly spent traveling. The second week was assigned to visiting government offices, where I met with officials, and traveled to the National Privatization Company. Later, I visited the Direct Expatriate Nationals Investments in Sierra Leone (DENI-SL) steering committee at State House, coordinated by Dr. Michael Sho-Sawyer, who is in charge of Diaspora Affairs. He briefed me about the approval of funds for DENI-SL to finance the hiring of consultants, an idea that the government passionately promotes.

Corruption is still the 800-pound gorilla here; even the State House is not immune from scandals, unaccountability and inefficiency. Invariably, the Anti-Corruption Commission's radar has yet to detect high profile corruption cases thwarting the pendulum of freedom, democracy and justice. What does a civil servant who earns about $50 monthly tell his six children who complain that they are very hungry? Should he send them away saying, "I cannot provide food, my kids?" This is a country where social services don't exist, and school fees are prohibitive for low-income earners. It is urgent and necessary for government to start paying a living wage if corruption is to be brought under control.

It was a privilege to visit the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service television station, though. I was shocked to find it in a dismal state, according to modern standards. I was later introduced to the new director general, who had wasted no time showing the nation the eyesore that was the oldest broadcasting service in Western Africa, if not in Africa. There were only two video cameras in the studio; one was hurriedly patched to focus on the presenter, while the other was relatively functional. On my way to the first floor, I met with the technicians, who were busy repairing the mixers and microphones. They were seemingly cannibalizing parts from outmoded systems that had been brought in by Lawrence Sibo during the N.P.R.C. military regime.

I was unable to conceal my shock after witnessing the deplorable condition of the studio. Nothing was working right. I asked what the establishment had been doing with the revenue collected from advertisements, and was told that the money was paid into the national revenue. New equipment has still not been purchased to enhance the service that informs the populace. I was later informed that the director general is ready to make an impact at S.L.B.S., as plans for its privatization are now in the public domain. Upon taking office, he wasted no time in creating a documentary showing the nation the aging elephant that he inherited. The documentary did impact the targeted echelon of government, and money started flowing to do basic repairs on the equipment and the building. Officials said that when Njala University finally moves to their refurbished campus at Njala, the portions of the S.L.B.S. building still used as classrooms will be taken over by station. This will become the home of the nation's broadcasting service.

April 27 was Independence Day, a public holiday. I stayed home glued to the TV, watching the ceremonial school parade and cultural dances. Preceding the anniversary, there was a lantern parade that lasted 'till the wee hours of the morning. The day was full of cultural activities. Over 16 masqueraders were given permission to take part in the lantern parade, causing a big traffic jam in the city. People here know how to enjoy themselves, even with very little resources. Most of them are very grateful to God for whatever little provisions they have. Their resilience and tenacity for survival is evident in their daily lives, and is the dynamo that drives them on.

This tiny nation of about six million people will eventually rise and shine again, becoming the lion of Africa. No shrapnel or curry-peppered tongue will secure the liberty to corrupt her again. 'Big brother' Nigeria endured the Biafra war, when about three million souls were wiped out, but later emerged as the champion of Africa. The rebel war should serve a similar purpose, becoming the impetus for an era of renaissance of love, peace, and the audacity of hope — to craft a better Sierra Leone. This is the land of our birth that most of us still call home, where our umbilical cords have deep roots. It's a blessed place that we dearly love.

Roland B. Marke is a Sierra Leonean writer. His website is www.rolandmarke.com.

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