Monday, 15 August 2011

Sierra Leone through fresh eyes

Let me take you on a little imaginary journey...
Picture yourself in Africa.  Whoooooaaa!  Just a second, you're picturing "Africa" as a country, aren't you, or even as a continent that's all the same?  Sorry, let's reframe this, because every country is different, every culture special.
Picture yourself in Sierra Leone.  Now imagine that you're someone who has lived here all you life.  What does that mean, exactly?  It means that, if you are more than 10 years old, you have survived a civil war.  It means that for you, normal is living in a country that's been torn to pieces. 
Your life probably started in a small village, somewhere more than a day's walk from Freetown, the capital city.  There, you would have had a family that you lived with, and extended family all around.  You would have known every person in the village and roamed it freely.  You may have been lucky enough to go to school, or to learn a trade from your parents.  You probably had a small garden plot or even some land where your family worked to keep cassava, potatoes, corn or groundnuts (peanuts) growing to feed the family.  Most of the population being muslim, you likely had a few goats that you raised for important fesitval sacrifices.  A quiet life.  Until rumours of war started sweeping through the village.  War that was in the north, and moving south.  Once rumours of soldiers started to be heard in the neighboring towns, you may have fled, alone or with your family, to somewhere, anywhere that you considered safer.  Maybe you toughed it out until the soliders came to you village.  If you did, you barely survived with your life.  The payment for staying alive?  Your hands.  Maybe your feet.  If you were a girl, you were raped.  If you were a boy, you were forced to be one of the soldiers, brainwashed and given drugs, taught to do horrible things, from as young as 5 or 6 years old. 
But somehow, you survived.  Somehow, you made your way to the one place you considered safe, along with a million others, you escaped to Freetown.  Flooding a city built for 400,000 people with about  1.2million people.  Many jobless, homeless, injured, scarred mentally and emotionally by war.  So you beg, steal, search for any way to live.  As the war ends, NGO's (Non-Governmental Organizations... charities) begin coming with aide to help people get back on their feet.  They come in and feed you, build schools and hospitals, try to find ways to keep you alive and healthy.  You begin to think this is normal.  White people give handout.  We deserve handouts.  All things should be free.  And then your government takes groups of displaced people like you, and moves them a short drive from the city into small communities in hopes that you can establish a new life there. 
Now, you live with people you don't know well, but must learn to live beside, to trust and rely on.  Because you are still poor, and you need each other.  Your new home is beside the water, so one option is to become a fisherman.  Or you can try breaking large rocks into smaller rocks for building material.  Maybe you choose to gather wood and make charcoal.   Or find something you can sell on the street.  If you are lucky enough to have a trade or a driver's license, you are richer than those around you.
The years have passed, and you have a small family, living together in a one or two room house.  Mud walls are as strong as cement if kept up properly.  Your family survives on 12$ US a week, if you have a good week.  You have a couple chickens, that roam the yard and wander through the house at will.  You have a fire pit outside to cook your meal, in the evening.  A small garden plot if you're lucky.  One meal a day is all you can afford.  Some days, you are thankful to have water for that one meal, water from a well in the middle of the village.  You want to send your children to school, but the cost is 20$US for a year of school plus the purchase of a uniform, and you would rather feed your family then starve for their education.  You get up with the sun, and go to bed shortly after the sun goes down, because you have no money for a generator, and there is no electricity in the village.  Malaria is a fact of life, most people you know get it every once in a while, and you know when you have it even without going to get tested.  You use traditional teas to treat malaria because medications cost money.  If you're really sick, you go to a traditional healer who will tell you who has cursed you or why an evil spirit is attacking you, and will tell you what rituals you need to perform to get better.  If your child is born with a deformity, you will be told to leave them in the bush because they are cursed and will bring a curse on the family or the village.  If you have a deformity, or develop a growth, you will be ostracized, no one will buy from you, some won't even sell to you, people will laugh and jeer at you and likely you will hide and hope your family will continue to support you. 
If you are lucky enough to have multiple children, 1 in 5 will die before the age of 5.  Your wife has a 1 in 8 chance of dying in childbirth.  Because you and your wife must both work hard to survive, the old children will help to take care of the younger.  Your five year old can take care of an infant through the day.  Crying is not tolerated, a good slap reminds them that there will be no sympathy for them in this life.  You have no time for playing with children.  Yes you love them, but isn't providing for them proof enough of that?  And so you live, day to day, hand to mouth.  Extra money at the end of the day means a new outfit or something else to enjoy in the moment, you had enough food today, why would you buy extra?  You life is lived in the moment, because that is all you know, all you can focus on. 

1 comment:

Kay said...

Heather, thank you for the sobering thoughts on life in Sierra Leone....