Picking up the Pieces of Civil War in Sierra Leone

Children listen to Amnesty International Secretary General Irene Khan on Sept. 23 in Makeni, Sierra Leone. (Photo: Issouf Sanogo/ AFP-Getty Images)

"The police stop us all the time. Sometimes they try to take money from us; sometimes they threaten to arrest us. But the usual trick is to check our handbags. They plant some drugs, then tell us to come with them to the station. The only way to get out is have sex with the policeman, otherwise we go to jail."

Just 20 years old, Maryama has lived on the ramshackle streets of Sierra Leone's capital Freetown for eight years. Her father died when she was 10, leaving her mother unable to bring up their three children. This was at the height of Sierra Leone's brutal civil war, infamous for anti-government rebels who hacked off arms and hands to deter civilians from voting in elections. Government-allied militias believed that their magic rendered them invisible and invulnerable in battle against the rebels who funded their war with "blood diamonds" smuggled out of the country.

Now Sierra Leone is peaceful and the diamond trade better regulated. The 2007 elections saw an orderly transfer of control to the winning party, and the economy is growing at around 5 percent per annum. War seems a distant memory, revived only by the sight of war amputees who edge through Freetown's bustling streets. Their arm (and sometimes leg) stumps remain physical testament to what was a notoriously visceral war, fought at close quarters with AK-47s and sharp blades, and killing around 50,000 people—mostly non-combatants.

Starting in 1992, the fighting devastated much of the country, and ended only after British military intervention in 2000, which earned Tony Blair an honorary chieftaincy from the Freetown government. Despite a wealth of natural resources, average per-capita annual income in Sierra Leone is a paltry €164 per person. The country ranks at or near the bottom of most global indexes of poverty and corruption. These league standings are not mere abstractions; behind them lies a harsh and sordid reality. Poverty is part of the reason why young women like Maryama end up on the streets, and corruption makes their life even more miserable.

Speaking at a Sierra Leone investment conference held in London recently, Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma cited some high-profile anti-corruption arrests as evidence that foreign investors can expect cleaner government in his resource-rich country. Though a good start, a few showcase jail terms for high-rollers will not by themselves stem the low-level graft and seedy exploitation that makes life tough for Sierra Leoneans.

The girls have little or no protection from violent or abusive men, or recourse against those who refuse to pay. "If we have trouble from a customer, we cannot go to the police," says Maryama. "The guy will just pay the cops off, and then they will turn on us, taking our money, or taking us to station."

Outreach and education project

Alongside work on water supply and sanitation in Freetown slums and in rural areas, and rescue programs for young abandoned children, Goal runs an outreach and education project for young women such as Maryama, offering alternatives to the grimy, precarious street existence. Many of those who have already completed the course now run a variety of small businesses, enabling them to "get out of the game," as recent graduate Zainab put it.

"Goal provided some small business training and a cash grant to help me get started. Now I can turn a profit of around 100,000 leone (€19) a month," she says. She sells basic grocery items from a 4 foot-wide stall at a market in Freetown's traffic-choked eastern districts. "Anything is better than working on the streets."

Over 30 percent of Sierra Leoneans go without formal education at any level. With parents unable to pay school fees, Goal steps in with incentives to get girls and women off the streets and into the classroom. Vera, 19, chose the back-to-school option after she finished the course—and in common with many others who come through, has been reunited with her family after mediation carried out by Goal.

The Sunday Tribune caught up with her at around noon, outside her home down a seemingly-endless maze of potholed, winding, unpaved streets through Freetown's Marbella slum—a squalid deluge of tin shacks, rubbish, open drains and rainy-season flooding, all running downhill from the eastern city to the sea.

Secondary-school classes usually run in the afternoon in Sierra Leone, as limited school space means that primary classes run in the morning, followed by older counterparts in the afternoon, using the same classrooms.

"Goal pays my school fees," she says. Although older than some of her classmates, Vera is clearly proud to be in formal education. "I was in school for just two years of my life, when I was eight and nine. It is a joy to attend classes. I finished 15th out of 86 pupils last year."

Overall, educational facilities and opportunities are sadly lacking in Sierra Leone. According to the U.K. Department for International Development (London's counterpart to Irish Aid), 70 percent of women and 50 percent of men are illiterate.

In between instructor tips on procuring wholesale stock for a range of small enterprise, the girls and women crack bawdy jokes and exchange anecdotes about customers, who apparently range from local politicians to South Korean sailors to Nigerian businessmen. Despite the traumas some of them have gone through, they seem resilient and determined to make their lives better, though in some, the occasional shy-looking downward glance betrays an inner sadness. One of the girls, Sara, tells that one of her friends died last year after contracting HIV/AIDS from an infected customer.

Sierra Leoneans like to talk, usually loudly, often over each other, and mostly accompanied with a smile. Life in Freetown—both good and bad, and despite the often oppressive heat and fetid humidity—takes place in street markets, on street corners, in small shops and pavement stalls. Street talk is a key communications medium, and word is spreading about the life-altering potential offered by the Goal project. Maryama heard about it from Zainab, and she enrolled only because she saw the project's success personified in her friend.

Maryama is among the latest intake of women and girls to the Goal project, who were being taken through the basics of business start-up and entrepreneurship when we arrived.

"They are three weeks into the schedule," says Christiana Cole, a social worker and Goal outreach coordinator. She believes that "all girls want to get off the streets... but at first many cannot believe that the alternative will work."

The classroom is half-empty, with 14 girls dotting the benches in the sauna-humid classroom. How many girls are enrolled? "This time around we have 40 girls, but now I think quite a few of them are 'hustling' on the streets," says Cole. It is just after the fasting period that precedes the Eid festival, and less than a month to Christmas. Sierra Leone's population is listed as 60 percent Muslim, with the rest divided between Christians and indigenous religions.

Success is neither immediate nor guaranteed. "There is money to be made from selling sex at this time of year," says Cole, "but part of the challenge for Goal is to show that with our help and their own motivation, the girls can earn a living another way."

This article was originally published in the Tribune: Pseudonyms have been used throughout.

Simon Roughneen traveled to Sierra Leone with Goal. Now mainly covering Southeast Asia, he writes for the Washington Times, the Irrawaddy, ISN, Asia Times and others. His website is