The little understanding I had of African poverty were relic memories of 90’s World Vision advertisements, of children with bloated stomachs and flies on their faces. My only knowledge of West African conflict was early 2000s’ news footage of children running across deserted dirt roads, with large guns.
Despite trying to convince myself that these were outdated stereotypes, I feared that they were, in fact, what I would be met with when I exited the plane in Freetown, Sierra Leone, West Africa. In actuality though, I was met with a lengthy wait for the airport shuttle, unwanted baggage handling services and not-so-subtle pleas for tips.
I walked out of the the small airport I checked my phone. I was expecting instructions from a friend, who had been living in Sierra Leone for 6 months, working as a volunteer in the government’s Agricultural Department. My phone hummed and the text read “Ferry guys have fucked it up, look for a blond Dutch girl called Jenny”. There were certainly no blond girls, Dutch or otherwise, and as nightfall was quickly approaching I figured I’d try my chances with the slight building just outside the terminal; the one with the ‘Ferry’ sign. After a blur of stamps, a hurried “go with him”, another plea for a tip, followed by a mischievous smile and a “first time in Africa?”, I found myself in a crowded van, hoping things were going well, as opposed to horribly wrong.
The van drove for 15 minutes on a gorged dirt road with street side stalls and long grass running alongside. We arrived at another ferry building, where the seeming confusion began again: bags taken and carried to an unknown destination, sparse pigeon-English instructions. Fortunately this led to me boarding a speed boat, heading towards my destination, Cockle Bay. I sat in silence as the boat sped through the pitch black with unknown passengers and unknown crew. After what was perhaps twenty minutes we arrived safely at the opposite side of the Sierra Leone river.
To my relief I was not besieged by desperate parents lining the streets, holding up their skeletal children, tugging at my shorts distraughtly, begging for me to take their offspring. I quickly concluded that all was well and those early 90s images accompanying the 48 hour famine charity appeal (in which I had great fun as a child, sleeping in school halls, with friends, as I consumed absurd amounts of calories through barley sugars and Just Juice) were no longer relevant and it seemed even African absolute poverty wasn’t nearly as horrific as I had dreaded.
For surely what I was to find here, in Sierra Leone, was to be some of the worst. Rated 180 out of 187 countries on the United National Development Indicators list, with a life expectancy of 48 years, one in five children not reaching the age of five and 63% of the population living on less than $1.25 USD a day – this is where I would find the nitty-gritty.
The country’s past is one of horror – a graphic display in human cruelty, incompetency, suffering and injustice, leaving any witness with their eyes deeply set and a hole in their stomach. European contact began in the 15th century; shortly after the visitors began kidnapping locals and enslaving them, owning them as property and often working them to death. Soon some Sierra Leoneans themselves caught on to what could be a lucrative trade and began enslaving members of rival communities and sometimes members of their own. They sold their captives to the Europeans in exchange for rum, cloth, beads, copper, or muskets – items on par with a human life, and the inconvenience of obtaining one.
In the late 1700s the slave trade had become somewhat of a faux pas with parts of the British upper classes. Their attitude was similar to the modern movement against hen battery farming – still legal but considered a good turn if one could afford to not participate in it. Some British gentry thought it would be progressive to rehouse the now freed slaves – largely those who had been freed, having fought on behalf of Britain in the American War of Independence. These luckless individuals that were the target of this British group’s altruism had had the most remarkable lives. After being captured, sold, transported, forced into relentless hard labour, undergoing the horrors of the American Civil war and now living in such bizarre and estranged locations from their origins as the bitterly cold Nova Scotia, Canada, they were being offered Freetown, Sierra Leone as their new home. The West African nation was chosen despite the fact that most of the freed slaves were from other parts of Africa or even another continent entirely, India.
Once considering their own perilous and often impoverished situation, even as ‘free’ as it was, many agreed to the voyage. Around 400 ‘settlers’, along with a handful of British sex-workers, were resettled in Freetown. Not surprisingly, with many of the group having lived in the United States and Britain for over a generation, the migrants were decimated by the local environment – either killed by malaria, other tropical diseases, starvation or murdered by the local people.
The British group of do-gooders, the Sierra Leone Company, were undeterred and decided to try again, this time upping the numbers and sending over 1000 former slaves. While over 60 of those sent died en route, the second attempt proved more successful. Most of the new immigrants survived and some even flourished. But an unexpected plot turn took place, much to the displeasure of the English philanthropists. This new colony in Sierra Leone, that was to be the bastion of African independence and sovereignty, began enslaving the local population – with the freed slaves becoming slave owners themselves, passing on the spirit-shattering degradation, suffering and despair to which they were once victim.
To darken the twisted irony, following the British prohibition of slavery in 1807, ships full of human cargo coming out of West Africa en route to the Caribbean and U.S. southern states, were intervened by British forces. The ships were made to turn back to Africa. Although the individuals were not being repatriated to their home from which they were taken, they were returned, indiscriminately, to Freetown – where they were at risk of being enslaved again , often by former slaves. Several of the returned slaves even took up the trade themselves. Over time the business began to slow and the local government caught on, hundreds of years later, outlawing the industry in 1928, after a history of three iterations of slavery.
The horror didn’t end there.
In the early 1990s during the Liberian civil war, General Charles Taylor in his bloodlust appetite for violent power, was arming, drugging and indoctrinating Liberian children, sending them to commit mass rape and murder. Taylor began ordering his adolescents across the border into Sierra Leone. Some of the local youth joined in and wreaked untold destruction across the northern part of the country. It was a war without a grand narrative, instead it was one of superstition, paranoia and an overwhelming intoxication of power and greed, funded off the sparkling rocks that Westerners so adored.
The brutality of the child soldiers was demonic and Charles Van Someren in his book ‘The Civil War in Sierra Leone: Misguided Conventional Diplomacy and the Clinton Administration’ describes the insanity poignantly:
‘Descriptions of their (child soldiers’) methods are nauseating: they were infamous for their young, frenzied troops storming into villages armed with machetes and asking their victims if they wanted “short sleeves or long,” the answer determining whether the victims’ arms would be amputated at the elbows or the wrists. They knocked teeth out with hammers, amputated noses and tongues, placed bets on the gender of an unborn child and then hacked open the mother’s womb. Besides these and other barbaric practices, the RUF engaged in many acts of sexual violation, to say nothing of their looting and pillaging of the Sierra Leonean countryside. Many of the RUF rebels were in fact young children whose parents had been killed by the RUF; others were children who had murdered their families.’
The abhorrence continued for almost a decade as any semblance of normal life drifted into distant memory. A private mercenary squad, Executive Outcomes, halted the tyranny of the RUF temporarily, but the end finally came by way of British intervention in the early 2000s. Rays of peace and civilization began to appear from the decade of Hobbesian brutality.
So what was the state of the place now? How does a country and a people recover from such devastation and trauma? And what could I gather in two weeks from the statistics? What was the look, smell and feel of a nation at the very first rung of development, and what was the story and experience of this. In short, what was the meaning of a life born out of the most graphic violence, now faced with abject poverty?
With my friend Steve and a couple of other Western volunteers, I began a trip up north, to Kabala, to see some more remote villages and to start our 2 kilometre climb of Mt Bintumani. One of the first things noticed by a Westerner in Sierra Leone is the roads. Most are in a drastic state of disrepair. It becomes apparent very quickly what kind of impact this has on every aspect of life. The simplest of errands become a serious undertaking – travelling less than a few miles, to go the bank, or to work, becomes a precarious, long, expensive and exhausting task, bumping over dirt roads and paths, with deep potholes, on the back of speeding motorcycle, in dense and erratic traffic. The forebears of modern western civilization knew this, the Romans, and they carved an empire on good roads. The lack of road infrastructure goes hand in hand with a couple of other Sierra Leonean life-essentials. One is dirt. With no solid asphalt roads, or footpaths, you are at the mercy of constant and ubiquitous fine, brightly coloured, orange-brown dust, which sticks. Much of the locals’ lives are taken up with stemming the tide of the dust. And this links in with a couple of other quiet essentials – two things that really help to fight the battle against the dust – clean running water, and electricity. Both are in short supply in Sierra Leone, with electricity intermittent at best, and a population unable to afford if it even it were. This means that toilets don’t flush and showers don’t run. As a visitor, soon you are welcomed into a Sierra Leonean regular, the bucket filling and hand washing routine. The sheer time and energy that this involves can be debilitating to productivity. Every glass, every plate, every t-shirt, every bowel movement, every floor, requires buckets of manually sourced water. Following this, there is scrubbing, more water, another flush, another bucket of water, another rinse, a dry, and another bucket of water.
Aside from the hours that it will steal from your leisure time and comfort, a darker aspect of the dust-water-electricity conundrum became apparent. As we trekked through from Yumbya village to the base of Mt Bintumani, through the banana trees, sporting their wide, bright green flora, we were accompanied by five porters. These adolescent boys demonstrated incredible fitness and strength, carrying our heavy bags across steep and inconsistent terrain. I, a supposedly fit young man, was finding the hike hard enough without fifteen kilograms of luggage on my head. As we stopped to filter some water from the stream, we were naively amused that the porters requested a sip. We thought this was absurd as these young men had been drinking unfiltered water all their lives, surely they had built up the necessary immunities from what may be lingering in the stream. When we enquired with one of the young men he responded, “There’s bugs in the water you can’t see. There’s no health centre in Yumbya so if you get sick you need to go to Yiffen. By then you might die”. Our pseudo medical smugness soberly vanished.
After three hours of trekking towards the Yumbya village, moving through the tropical rolling hills, the rope bridges, the mud, we came to the village entrance. Word had caught wind of our arrival and some small children were waiting. Upon first sight of us their excitement was apparent. The kids were running back and forth, yelling with their little voices “Hello, hello!”. They seemed fascinated with white men and women; their warmth and exuberance were intoxicating and you couldn’t help but to be swept with a sense of euphoria. Their eyes were intent on our faces and a daring would begin to walk along side us, holding our hands. Even with their often snotty noses and no doubt unhygienic small hands, it was hard to have the heart to refuse.
The isolation that the young porter explained became clear by way of the journey. The only thing connecting Yumbya to the outside world was one path to another small town, Yiffen, three hours walk away. Following that, the next closest village was Kabala, a further 8 hours walk. Even if you were wealthy or connected enough to have a car, the road was often flooded, meaning the sick and elderly were often stuck. For most of the villagers, it seemed likely they would have only travelled to Kabala, the neighbouring town of 18,000 dispersed people, and perhaps many of the elders or children had only gone as far as the neighbouring village. This was the extent of their world.
The older villagers were more relaxed than the ecstatic children. They had obviously been through this experience before, as the NGO community had become pronounced following the war. The hardest customers, understandably, were the teenagers and young adults. These kids had been through the massacres, some of their peers may have participated in them. Many had now seen some television, maybe perhaps had heard stories of how people their own age, like myself, not only were able to afford and have access to education, but also employment, not to mention domestic and even global travel. They did not show the wonder and excitement that the children did when we entered.
The beauty of the village setting was quite remarkable, surrounded by jungle covered mountains, an opening in the middle and a solitary path leading off into the tropical forest. The school, a rock building with a rock and mud floor, with half a blackboard with a hole in the middle of it, was designated as our sleeping quarters for the evening. Once we placed our bags in our new abode, we walked to the near-by stream to wash.
Two of the local boys were already in the stream and we began to chat: how old we were, how long we were staying. The elder of the two brothers, had astute English and a relaxed but competent manner, a likeable young man. Kefu was perhaps in his late teens, or early twenties. It was often hard to tell the age of the local boys, as the manual labour and meagre diet meant extremely muscular slim physiques beyond their years, or, at times, meant stunted growth due to malnutrition. After washing, we began walking back to the village, through head-high grass. We were told how he was here to work the rice fields, with his younger brother, to help his family and save for his next school semester. The larger baskets of rice that he had collected earlier that day were carried back to the village on his head, the technique referred to as toting. My friend Steve offered to help, wanting to try the technique himself – a rather unusual image, a white man toting, even when demonstrating solid amateur technique. At points throughout our conversation we had discussed what we were doing here, our lives, and the young man did the same. It was a strange parallel. As the conversation continued, the young local young man stated several times, “This is how we live; this is how we live here”. My travelling partner, making reference to the toting technique, responded “It’s good”. The young man turned slightly, still walking forward with the large basket above his head, “It’s good? No, it’s not good, we are dying”.
The young man’s, Kefu’s, expression was far from dramatic though. This was common life in Sierra Leone and West Africa. It was normal. The illnesses and injuries, the malnutrition, it wasn’t sensationalist, it wasn’t ominous. It was partial, often subtle, and these were risks, not certainties. Life went on. And it went on largely with dignity, sometimes humour, with acceptance. The natural beauty and amicability in the country seemed to diminish much of the lingering solemnity. The thick mist that covered the hills in the morning and the large low orange sun that descended behind them in the evening appeared to give serenity, or at least respite. Sion, one of the boys that carried our brutally heavy bags up the mountain, reflected the sentiment well. When I asked him if he would climb the mountain again, he responded:
“Yes, I want to see the top”.
“But didn’t you find it hard?”
“Yes,all my life is hard, all my life is struggle”.
My travelling partners and I considered whether life would be better in the country or in Freetown, the bustling, noisy dirty capital. We had heard through another NGO friend that several of the children leave their families to pursue adventure in the big city. The children often ended up on the street, subject to sexual and violent abuse, prostitution, substance misuse and other tragic afflictions. Nonetheless it could still be seen why kids left, considering the simplicity of village life, which involved waking early, working the rice fields or collecting bananas, returning to the village, cleaning, and then perhaps a game of soccer at dusk. That was it, day in day out, with the same hundred or so people that you have known all your life. No radio, no tv, no literature, no cars, no shops, no movies, no bars, no computers, in fact, no electricity.
The phenomenon of younger people moving from a relatively peaceful environment to one fraught with danger, stress and hardship, was not exclusive to Sierra Leone. George Monbiot, a Guardian journalist, observed a similar trend in South America:
‘An ethnographer I know who worked among peasant communities in the Amazon found that many of the people he met were obsessed by the idea of moving to the cities. In view of the hellish nature of many Brazilian favelas – especially in the booming Amazonian towns – he wanted to know why. “You have a wonderful life here: the rivers are teeming with fish, your gardens are crammed with food, you work an hour or two a day to meet your needs. You can’t read or write: if you move to the city, you’ll have to beg or steal or sell your body to survive,” he pointed out. “What you say is probably true,” they answered, “but in the city you can dream.”’
While life in the Sierra Leonese countryside was far from one of comfort or abundance, nor was it without grave risks, it was largely peaceful. The city was thought to be more exciting and offer more opportunities, real or otherwise. But it was very possible that life in the big city may not end up any more exciting, though almost certainly more stressful. As we drove out of the city, crowds of young men approached the car, many of which may have been boys originally from the country. Amongst the constant beeping, filth, fumes and frantic hustling, the young boys would rush the car, hawking bags of water, soft drinks or fruit. Again, there was rarely an overt look of sorrow, more of a simple hustle, and on several occasions, a hint of humour; although my moments of observation were sure not to tell the whole tale.
After pondering the pros and cons of country versus city living, we also pondered whether these young men and women would be better off in their home towns, in Sierra Leone, or in a large developed city like London. If in London, the Sierra Leoneans would be dislocated from their community and culture, would still be prone to poor housing, although admittedly much better than the corrugated iron and dirt floors available in their hometown. They would still be earning meagre money in an alienating job, they’d be vulnerable to loan sharks, drugs, alcoholism, gangs; they’d be separated from nature. But they would have much greater access to healthcare, food and education. Steve summarised the debate succinctly, “Yeah, but they could eat bro”.
This issue of nutrition really became apparent when we were camping up the mountain. Once we finished eating, one of the porters tentatively approached and gestured towards the remains of a honey pot we had used for the past few nights’ meals. There were merely drops left in the bottle and so we didn’t register at first, thinking that the boy was referring to something else. But it was the honey he was asking for, the remains of a bottle, a slim lining on the bottom, which would have without hesitation been thrown away in the developed world. The petty inconvenience of extracting the last pittance would have been considered too be far too onerous for the honey itself. Rice was what was eaten here. Twice, maybe three times a day. Maybe with some kasava leaf. Maybe a banana. And that seemed to be pretty much it. Every day.
I realised around this time how much impact, dramatic life changing impact, someone from the developed world can have on one of these young boys, girls or their parents’ lives. The amount that I would spend on a night out could potentially mean years of education, or a dramatically improved diet, or simply a varied experience from what was unyielding life-long monotony. Some further absurd comparisons emerged. We discussed how one of our travelling partners’ family had pet horses, in Surrey, who I have no doubt were fed and housed far better than most of the local people we interacted with. I myself was going on to travel around the world, spending thousands on air fares alone. The realization was bewildering and sickening. I often found my stomach to grip with guilt and angst and despair.
However I’m not sure if many of the local NGO workers shared in this experience of self-reproach. Instead, some volunteers recounted stories of supposed exploitation, not that the Sierra Leonese had suffered but that they were victim to themselves. Situations where they would be charged an extra 10,000 Leonean dollars, less than 3 US dollars, for unsolicited tailoring, when they had alterations made to their cocktail dress. The shock of this abhorrent crime seemed very real, etched on the victim’s face, before they purchased a beer and pack of local cigarettes – the cost of which would be beyond many locals weekly income. Or the supposed and self-proclaimed 23 year old ‘anthropologist’, that would ruthlessly bargain with local taxi drives over a $1.50, and then at the last minute inform the driver that they were in fact to go further than first stated, to drop off her friend. These workers were essentially volunteers and so did have a budget to adhere to. But the same rules of stringency didn’t seem to apply when at the bar.
Nonetheless, it was easy a passing traveller, like I was, to swan in, cast judgement far and wide, and leave. These women and men, often quite young, were performing roles that I didn’t have the stomach for, living at times very uncomfortable lives and undertaking very difficult roles. When I asked “How do you handle it, emotionally, the poverty?” the response was “Well, I guess you either stay, and accept it, and do what you can. Or you say, ‘oh it’s horrible’ and runaway.” I chose the latter and as such most likely forfeited the privilege to criticise those who chose the nobler and more courageous alternative.
And the volunteers and NGO workers themselves were not entirely exempt from the health risks. The cold reality of healthcare shortages became apparent in the passing conversations:
“Where’s Sally gone? She had a hard run didn’t she.”
“Yea, she had to go home, emergency flight.”
“What did she have? Typhoid?”
“They think so, but maybe something else as well. Hope she’s alright”
The necessity of the NGO workers, and the brutal reality they had to face, was demonstrated when one of the NGO doctors, who worked up-country in a small town that was effectively devoid of any medical care (much like all the other small towns) explained that if they took a couple days off it would most likely mean someone would die, that would not have otherwise.
It was interesting to gain a local’s perspective on the matter, one who had lived in both the developed world and Sierra Leone. “In some ways I think we have it better because of this, because to most of us here when you get sick, you die. But that is it, you accept it, it is why we say ‘c’est la vie’”, Joseph states, as he leaned, almost exaggeratedly, against his beach-side bar, with his mouth lazily agape. Joseph, who had lived in Denmark, London and Wales, then went on, “There are many poor people in London and New York, the only difference from here is that there they get help. No one gives us help here. Here you get hungry, you die. That’s it. There is no one to help you. If you have no job, no one will help you. You need to find your way. I prefer to live here. You think I could have this in the U.K.? No, too expensive in the developed world” as he gestured to his bar on the white sand and accompanying accommodation, that I somehow suspect may have been funded, at least in part, from his wages earned in UK.
I can hear the cheering Tory elite now, along with Ms Rand and the blue collar conservatives, congratulating Joseph for his brave and true philosophy. Although I imagine that the hundreds of Sierra Leoneans that take to open boats each year, departing from the African coast in the hope of reaching Europe, a journey likely to end in mass drowning or fatal dehydration, may hold a different opinion. Also the 2002 Sierra Leonean Commonwealth athletes, of whom almost all absconded from their barracks in Manchester, never to return home, may wish to refute some of Joseph’s arguments.
But it was not simply a case of money. The poverty in Sierra Leone was systemic, and not entirely discrete from many of the Sierra Leones’s behaviour. There were cases where money was thrown at the problem, thousands given to local ministers for healthcare, who then took over half, and unashamedly responded to the donors “I have twelve children.” Sierra Leone and its people were tangled in a complex web of corruption, incompetence, poor education and poverty, reinforced by nepotism and superstition. Poignant examples were found in the heart of healthcare, amongst nurses, where there was a drug shortage, because the nurses would steal and sell them, because they hadn’t been paid in months, because the government payment system was in disarray and the coffers were largely empty. A common response in the nurses’ exam, when asked what to do if a patient’s drip becomes detached, was to “pray to god”. Or in education, where a peace-corps worker explained, “I’m supposed to be teaching 9 year old children Shakespeare, that’s what’s in the syllabus, but they can’t read, and we don’t have any books.” The peace-corps volunteer, I likeable American guy in his early 20s explained that dangerously the kids were adopting commercial hip-pop culture – a nihilist belief in quick-money hedonism. When I asked how he responded, considering the lack of resources and the lack of familial emphasis on education, he said that he just had to try to ingrain the fundamentals of knowledge, the thirst for learning, so kids could think beyond today, beyond here and now. He explained that this mental opposition to abstract thought was what was stopping co-operative farming, was what was stopping growing and storing and selling more than what was just needed for today or this week.
The other huge impediment to growth was casual extortion and corruption. On all the main roads outside of Freetown there are temporary police check points, often in the form of a string across the road, held up by a policeman or member of the military. Depending on your skin colour and the car you drive the string will either remain up or be let down if white or wealthy – lowered for white drivers in Land Rovers, held up for everyone else. A contribution, fine, fee, or whatever the guard at the time decides to call it, will ensure the string is lowered – a regressive tax to be levied on the poor and powerless.
At times however, the extortion will be levied from tourists and NGO workers. As we approached the bay across from Banana Island we were met by a group of young men who had been drinking, some having beers in their hands. They insisted that the charge for parking would be 7000 Leonean dollars per person (around a $1.50) as opposed to the usual charge of 7000 per car. The increased charge, however minor, was largely considered to be extortionate by my friend and NGO workers in the vehicle. Perhaps the thinking was that it was unlikely to be passed on to the villager who owned the property, or reinvested back into the community – a fee without a service. The charge could be considered an arbitrary unproductive additional cost on the economy, making it more difficult and expensive for locals and foreigners to do business. And while it was a relatively small amount of money, Butcher in his Sierra Leone based novel, summarised it well:
“In a country like Sierra Leone corruption feels like sand in an engine. No individual grain is going to do much harm but taken together over a long time the grains grind the engine to a halt.”
A heated argument began to occur between the car’s occupants and the local men outside. In the exchange of broken English, voices began to be raised and at a point hands came into the car. But it finished as quickly as it started when my friend stoically announced “We’re going to pay you the usual charge, and we’re going to drive on now. If you have a problem with that, you can call the police” and we continued on.
The event did trigger an interesting debate in my mind. There were often conversations about the charging structure of okadas, the motorcycle taxis that were ubiquitous throughout Freetown and other major towns. A short trip on the okada was considered to be 1000 Leonean and a longer one 2000. Some NGO workers spoke of how they would be stern with drivers and not get “ripped off” by paying 2000. I thought to myself, which party was actually getting ripped off and why it wasn’t considered the prerogative of the supplier, as is the case for power companies or banks, to set the price, and why the okadas couldn’t factor the increased cost of fuel into their charging. For how were local businessmen expected to develop if they did not have control over their pricing, and at what point would it be deemed acceptable by the NGO workers for this arbitrary price ceiling to be changed? Could it be the case that the NGO workers felt they were being discriminated against and that was the injustice here? If so, surely this would be no surprise as the free market is based on discrimination, on the customer being able to pay. For they themselves, the NGO workers, were discriminating against the local drivers, as the equivalent service in the developed world would be much higher. And it is a common economic phenomenon that as more wealth enters an economy inflation occurs, as demand for goods and services increase, and therefore prices rise (and the price increase acts as a signal in the market to encourage an increase in supply)… Econ 101. I can’t be sure if all these matters were considered, at least not in length, by the NGO workers, who seemed to be casual economists in their own right. But I couldn’t help but to think that the NGO workers had been at least partly indoctrinated by a neo liberal mantra that states that poor peoples’ competitive advantage is desperation, and therefore they should be willing to work for cheaper, in turn gaining more business. But this doctrine tends to lead to a dead end. As the desperation market is already flooded, and in a country where the life expectancy is 48 years of age, with many passing before such a time, I’m not sure if the young men driving the okadas can afford to wait it out and hope for the theoretical rising economic tides to lift them, and their motorcycles, out of poverty.
Frances, a boy in his late teens that approached me at the airport, represented the youth that were trying to get ahead by way of honest means. Originally from Liberia, he came to Sierra Leone as a young boy, a refugee; both his parents had been killed in the civil war. German soldiers looked after him until early adolescence, when they left. He then began hustling at the airport, offering to carry bags etc. He was sleeping outside, “which was dangerous, because you could get sick”. He then, over several months, managed to save enough money to attend a boarding school, not far outside of Sierra Leone. His determination for education was fervent. He insisted that I choose a country, any country, and he would tell me about it. True to his word, any country I could think of, he would recite the population, political structure, currency and key elements of history. His vocabulary was astounding and he spoke eloquently. He explained that he would like to become a judge or a lawyer but it was difficult as “The Sierra Leoneans are very nationalistic, and they do not like the fact that I am from Liberia”. There was also the difficulty of nepotism. “You have to know someone, you need a connection”. Each school break he would return to the airport, to hustle for tips and donations, now sleeping at a friend’s house. Every term it would be undecided whether he would gain the funds to return for the next semester. Or, even if he did graduate, what employment, if any, would be available to him then. Like Sierra Leone, it was hard to say what Frances’s future would hold.
With such an uncertain prospects for the Sierra Leoneans, I was surprised to hear from the NGO workers that they had few concerns for their safety. They would baulk at the idea of a threat to life, reporting that they felt more unsafe in London or Manchester. I took solace in their convictions, particularly when we found ourselves in situations in which I would have otherwise been very concerned. Like one evening when we sat at a very non-descript small road side bar. The establishment was attended by a couple of locals and was adjacent to a typical Freetown ally way – a narrow, uneven dirt path, sporadically interspersed with dirty water-filled potholes, shanty housing running alongside. As we sat outside at the plastic table, the generator died and the music fell silent. All that could be seen were embers of cigarettes in the alley way and intermittent murmurs.
I was told by Steve that the lack of violence in the country was largely due to “the people being exhausted of it”, after over a decade of atrocities. It was understandable considering the history, but I couldn’t help to think that now there were many young teenagers that may not remember the war, and with so little to lose and no real hope to gain, this foundation for peace was tenuous at best.