Wednesday, March 26, 2008


Finding words to describe Freetown is not easy. A city ravaged by war and extreme poverty that refuses to succumb to the perilous situation of being the capital of the least developed nation in the world is one that defies simple description.

From the tops of the many undulating hills that constitute Freetown one can see the suffering in the ramshackle slums of Kroo Bay below. Slums which seem to be falling away into the ocean, but manage somehow to keep its dirty fingernails dug into ground, fighting against a slippery slope into oblivion.

Walking in the city confronts you with the contrast of hard faces fighting a daily battle for survival with smiling faces enjoying the moment, optimistic for the future of sweet Salone.

A crazy boy wearing a green bandanna, a torn strip of army issue cloth used to differentiate army from rebel, follows you along the street before being shooed away by a man selling tourist maps from a box on the sidewalk. Tourist maps that no longer exist because of the war. Maps saved from extinction by enterprising street sellers who are willing to give you one, but for a price.

An army of shared taxis weaves through chaotic, frustrated traffic, incessantly beeping their horns looking to fill available seats. They create a cacophony of noise and present danger for all who dare walk on the road.

Yell out where you want to go, and if it sounds good they'll stop. Ask how much and they triple the price. Sound like you know what you're doing and they'll only double it. Say "two-way" and they'll grumble in agreement. Get in and greet the other passengers. Move over as another person gets in. Hand over your money, get your change and jump out, but don't get hit by the speeding white UN pickup truck behind you.

Go to the ex-pat cafe owned by a Lebanese family and enjoy a croissant and Turkish coffee. While away the hours talking politics and people watching. Mining company executives and their families, NGO workers, journalists and foreign educated locals fill the seats and enjoy the atmosphere at Western prices. The Lebanese community are the business class in Freetown, owning many, if not most, of the businesses in the city. They are the merchants and middlemen, separate but not equal in this land of opportunity.

Wander by the bank and you'll be called by numerous young men on the street looking to exchange your money - Dollars, Euros, Pounds Sterling - into Leones at a better rate than the bank will offer you.

Have some dinner at a beach side shack, the best Red Snapper and chips in the city, at the aptly named Paradise. Drink cold Star beer and discuss the fallacy of development work. Suggest sending people to the West to learn in the same way you've been sent here - realize the numerous barriers to this happening - and then suggest hitting Paddy's for another round.

Go to the dirty club with a filthy reputation. Drink, dance and be merry. Watch the ladies of the night talk up the middle aged soldiers who are belly up at the bar. The fun doesn't start until at least 1AM. Sierra Leone likes to stay up late.

Get a ride from a friend with an SUV. Walk up the hill leading to your luxury apartment, replete with house boy, night time security guard, broken bottles cemented into the tops of the high surrounding walls, a gas generator to get you through the many nights of power outages, but no running water.

Go to sleep under your mosquito net and lay in the heavy, humid heat of the night while the fan spins and the generator cranks - you can rinse off the sweat in the morning during your bucket shower.

Find some rest despite the numerous and often conflicting radios that are still blasting throughout the neighborhood after midnight, wake up to the sounds of a new day and witness the ant trail of people carrying empty plastic yellow gas containers to be filled at the water tap at the bottom of the hill.

Do these things and realize that another day is starting, life is marching on despite such challenges, despite such inequality, because that's the life. We all just dig our dirty fingernails in and hope that today is not the day we slip into the murky waters of oblivion.


Anonymous said...

The point of good writing is knowing when to stop. — L.M. Montgomery

Anonymous said...

Paper route: Journalists for Human Rights has a high-minded and worthy goal: send Canadians to Africa to train reporters and editors there. But, as it turns out, it's often the Africans who end up training their Canadian "teachers".

Sara Minogue
This Magazine.

From the moment I walked through the door--a pale, thin girl in a new dress who had just carried three pieces of luggage up four flights of stairs--it was clear that I wasn't what they'd expected. In fact, my arrival couldn't have been more offensive if I'd had "from the generous people of Canada" stamped on my forehead. Because what did a young reporter from Canada have to teach Tanzanian reporters about human rights?

Unfortunately, I asked myself that question about six weeks too late.

Like several other young Canadian reporters, I had signed up with Journalists for Human Rights, or JHR, a Toronto-based NGO founded in 2002 "dedicated to increasing the quality and quantity of human rights reporting in the African media."

JHR's website speaks eloquently about the power of the media to raise awareness about rights. JHR is a "social innovator." It works in countries with newfound media freedom, to hone that freedom into an active, activist media that promotes--even creates--social change. JHR "empowers journalists to better prevent conflicts, to encourage dialogue and to act as watchdogs on abuse of power. It saves lives."

I liked this rhetoric. When they offered me the gig, I quit my job, packed up my house, and prepared to move to Dares Salaam, Tanzania, for an eight-month posting as a journalism trainer with the Tanzania chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA).

In their third-floor office in downtown Dar, my new colleagues sized me up in an instant. I was driven to an evangelical hostel behind a gated compound and introduced to the nun who would look after me. I, on the other hand, took several weeks to realize what I was doing here: I was a tourist.

The office was the local branch of a southern African organization dedicated to media freedom. My kind hosts had evidently expected someone with schemes, lesson plans and schedules. Perhaps some financial resources to organize workshops on human rights reporting--possibly a grizzled beard. I had none of these.

In the flurry of vaccinations and goodbyes, I somehow neglected to form a very concrete image of just what I would be doing in Africa. I spent my first week reading the daily papers--the English ones--and trying to get my laptop online. By week two, my chief constructive activity was preventing things from blowing away--there was no power for air conditioning so we kept all windows wide open to catch the wicked Indian Ocean breeze.

Not only was I without a plan, I was also without the authority, resources, confidence or nerve to cast myself as a journalism trainer in a country where I had never set foot in an actual newsroom. MI SA welcomed me as a harmless intern, but in an office that did little apparent work, I grew impatient, restless and increasingly uneasy. I lasted barely two months.

The Full Story

Kate said...

the article on JHR opens the door to discuss inherent problems of development work. but why post anonymously?

Kevin Hill said...

”Those who write clearly have readers; those who write obscurely have commentators.” -- Albert Camus

Still working on getting to the point of good writing...

Doug said...

Lots of criticism about the This Magazine article... check the website comments and responses from JHR.

Another side of the JHR story is this article (written by me). Hopefully the link works.


Larissa Strong said...

Hope you don't mind the late comment on your post, actually on the Sara Minogue article. I just came across it and was looking for response to it when I came across your blog.

It is quite the article. It certainly does give one pause. For me particularly as I run a few of these programs that send young Canadians out into the world on their first international, professional experience. I have seen internships like this fall flat but I have seen young professionals go to the same placement the next year and make a total success of it.

Some things that Sara should take into account: 1. The funding provided by the Canadian government is specifically for young people between the ages of 18 and 30 who have not had international professional experience. It is meant to be a launching pad for careers. Those with careers are less interested in working for free for six months. 2. You want to know why it is typically white people, specifically white women, who do these overseas internships? Because they are the ones that apply! In droves! Even in Toronto we often have trouble finding a diverse pool to recruit from. If you have a solution for this, let me know.

For more information on this issue, check out Barbara Heron's In Desire for Development: Whiteness, Gender, and the Helping Imperative

Now some words of advice for future interns. Have a plan. At least have the outline of a plan that can be refined upon consultation with your partner. Have measurable result that you agree upon for the time that you are there.

Be aware of culture shock. That was reading clearly in Sara's article. She wasn't dealing which then affects how you relate to your colleagues and how you do your work. Once you are aware that you are in culture shock, you can figure out how to deal with it. Anyone who says they don't get culture shock would be fooling themselves.

Finally, you better believe that the last sentence of her article is true. The interns definitely get the most out of this. It takes a lot of work to take on an intern. Typically these African NGOs are bare bones at most and don't have the capacity to take on more work. The more experienced organizations have figured out how to make interns work well within their structures. Others need interns who are self starters to figure it out.

So if the interns benefit the most why are we sending them. Well, my personal theory is that these international experiences help create a more internationally aware citizen, a global citizen if I may. They will then be able to make more informed decisions because of their expanded perspective in their future career and lives that will hopefully make the lives of those around the world better. Could be as simple as recycling, buying fair trade coffee, voting, not telling racist jokes, whatever. If the partner organization in the South reaps some kind of benefit from the experience, then bonus. More importantly, the intern has the responsibility to recognize their privilege and not make things worse.

In close, I would like to say that I can identify with Sara however I was never a pale, thin girl in a new dress. I was the fat, red faced girl who had just hiked up the four flights of stairs and was happy to be there, in solidarity.