First impressions

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect in Freetown, Sierra Leone. As a print media trainer with the Canadian media development NGO Journalists for Human Rights (jhr) my task was to help improve the quality of newspaper reporting and encourage coverage of stories from a human rights angle. I had travelled around Europe for two years on a European Commission scholarship and while I loved the cushy life it was time to check myself out of retirement and get back on the ground where the real stories were. I knew Sierra Leone would be a challenge as this was a country ravaged by 10 years of a brutal civil war, politically turbulent and lowest on the Human Development Index. 

It was night time when we descended into pitch darkness at Lungi International Airport. Due to an unstable power supply, Freetown is pretty much a black abyss at night. There are no street lights and the National Power Authority grid covers only certain areas of the city. Most people rely on petrol-powered generators to light their homes. Apart from the initial investment it costs about $10 dollars a day to keep the generator running through the night. Fifty seven per cent of the country lives on less than a dollar a day so few homes can afford this. Gasoline lamps and dim Chinese-made halogen lamps are popular alternatives and a trusty torch or a headlamp is a good accessory when travelling at night. The odd thing is that within a couple of days we were all able to buy mobile internet. I found the imbalance in priorities quite disturbing: leapfrog technology for the rich, but no basic necessities for the poor. 

By day, Freetown is a bustling hub for street vendors, open air markets, unregulated traffic and tiny beer bars that serve the local brew, Star. The surrounding hills house the city’s surplus population in slums where water supply is intermittent and landslides claim victims every rainy season. Just the other day the papers wrote about another 16-year-old girl who was crushed to death under a runaway boulder while fetching water. One of these areas, the New England village, stands right opposite the strongly fortified Special Court for Sierra Leone which was set up jointly by the Government of Sierra Leone and the UN to try civil war criminals. In April this year the court received $6.5 million in new contributions. Many feel that the money could have been put to better use building infrastructure.

In our first few days we drove over the Kroo Town Bridge a number of times, which overlooks the Kroo Bay slum. Here, the tin houses are built on heaps of rubbish and the children frolic in stagnant marshes of sewage and sludge. Part of my job here is to enhance the local journalists’ capacity to report human rights violations more effectively. And I could see that there would be plenty of stories to work on. One thing that struck me was the sheer number of NGOs dotted around the city. Almost every international development group has a team here and there are local NGOs dedicated to every imaginable cause. Our country director, Elvis, says that being associated with an NGO is a prestigious claim and many spring up quite randomly without a clear vision. I would like to find out what all these organizations actually do and why they can’t pool their resources. 

I had been warned that taking local transport here could be harrowing. The two ways of getting around are by shared taxi or the overflowing and less desirable poda podas. I knew before arriving that the word poda poda meant ‘hither and thither’ but a University lecturer I met in a taxi explained that to say poda poda and shake your head morosely suggested that you were just about managing to make ends meet. These minivan refits drive recklessly, have uneven seating and will stop for anyone who raises a finger on the kerb. I feel strangely comforted travelling in them as it reminds me of the crumbling minibuses in my hometown Kolkata. I’m certain this will not be the last time Sierra Leone makes me nostalgic about things that annoyed me when I was home.

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