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My Visit to Sierra Leone

My Visit to Sierra Leone

When the noise of the jet engine was racing to land at Lungi International airport, I was consumed with joy that my beautiful Sierra Leone is thriving and peace seems to be a permanent experience. While walking on the tarmac, I felt the fresh air, saw the green vegetation and hopeful faces of the airport workers. The anxious families waiting at the arrival lounge were glancing at every airline passenger to see firsthand their visiting relatives from overseas. The immigration officers were also focused on processing visitors and diplomats from the landed flight. The officer who took my passport whispered to me: “pa na for gee me cool water” (meaning please give me some money). I was angry but rather deeply sadden that poverty and the lack of opportunities have ruined many great minds into becoming a symbol of shame to one of the Africa’s youngest democracy.

While I understand that people need to provide for their families, taking pride in serving your country with honor and dignity is morally compelling and must never be substituted for any self-serving motives. I refused to support a behavior that has destroyed the foundation of honesty and integrity in public service. That Sierra Leone has been deprived of its potentials of becoming Africa’s paradise, not because we lack the human and natural capital to redeem ourselves from abject poverty, but because we continue to do the things that discourage national progress such as corruption, greed, mismanagement and the lack of institutional transparency.

Flying the Flag

When I was waiting to pick up my luggage, a young man rushed to carry them on the cart. I gave him 10,000 Leones appreciating his help and very pleased that he deserved something for his service. I noticed how friendly Sierra Leoneans are: “Pa kushe Sir” politely and softly many of them greeted me along the way. As we drove away, I saw the landmarks of Sierra Leone’s vegetation – a thick forest, beautiful palm trees and scattered mango trees around the Lungi scenery. We quickly arrived at the Sierra Leone port authority to take our morning ferry ride to Freetown.

My first experience with the morning commuters was profoundly inspiring. I saw several women walking with large baskets of fresh “potato” and “cassava” leaves on their heads ready to board the old rusty ferry. Among the greatest impact I felt was watching the national flag flying so high on the small boats of the local people, who were transporting market women with their goods from Lungi to Freetown. “How can someone say that Sierra Leoneans do not love their country?” I stubbornly asked myself. The quick response that reverberated into my mind was: “it is most of the politicians that don’t love their country and not the people.”

I was deeply moved by a young mother who was holding her new born baby in her arms. She was climbing the boat with a make shift ladder to go to Freetown. I thought about the safety of the little baby, her exposure to the humid weather and how uncomfortable such a dangerous ride will be. But the mother’s determination to make a day out of the darkness of poverty stunned me with great admiration. Immediately, Winston Churchill’s famous quotation violently crept into my brain: “a pessimist looks at every difficulty in an opportunity while an optimist looks at every opportunity in a difficulty.” Indeed, Sierra Leoneans have the sterling strength of optimism to challenge the ugly faces of human disparities without the fear of falling down on the banks of deprivation. I said to myself that their abiding faith in God must have been the reason why they are so fearless. With a strong mountain of hope, Sierra Leoneans are driven by divinity to search for their common livelihood and daily sustenance.

The Ferry Ride

The sound of the ferry horn was jubilating and refreshing to the impatient passengers. As it arrived, cars and trucks were driving towards the lower deck while ferry riders where walking upstairs to the first upper deck. I refused to sit in the VIP room because I wanted to capture every imagination and be with the people who have fascinated me with their unwavering resistance to poverty and their tireless spirit of survival.

The school children who were neatly dressed and proud to represent the promises of their nation were ready to take the long journey to their classrooms. Imagine, children in the West, whose school buses pick them up at their doorsteps. The courage of these young faces and the struggling conditions they face shiver my spine with a lot of contempt against those who have the opportunity to change the future of these school children: our government, our national leaders and our politicians.

While the “early bird” passengers were hallucinating, as they sat quietly thinking about what good tidings the day will bring them, I heard a spiritual voice of a young man preaching the gospel that people should love one another and live together as good neighbors. That we should do good deeds and our greatest rewards will come from God. That sermon epitomized a universal theme and I could not agree more with his humble preaching. I remembered the blind beggar who asked me for money and whom I was so happy to help. He vividly reminded me of the gift God has given to me and my family- the power to see and touch the things around me. It was so excruciating to imagine how the visually impaired or people with disability can survive in such hallowed conditions that have already denied them the opportunity to live their dreams. For me, my visit was an eye opener to what is my purpose in life and what does the human personality bring to the aspiration of mankind. I knew clearly that my comfortable life in Atlanta would no longer be enough to satisfy me.

Traffic Congestion

The city of freedom (Freetown) was extremely hot but the traffic nightmare caught my attention. There are too many people and nowhere to go. The war of the 90’s had overloaded Freetown with a twin crisis of overpopulation and traffic congestion. The desire to be free from harm’s way and the need to live in peace drove millions of our people from the provinces to find refuge in Freetown during the rebel war. Ironically, Freetown has been a refuge city from the early settlers in 1787 to the victims of the civil war in 1991-2002. The great legendary leader Pa demba (whose name bears Pa demba Road) offered food, protection and refuge to the Nova Scotian settlers during the French mutiny in 1794.

Indeed, over the years, Freetown has become the New York of Sub-Saharan Africa with its discourteous drivers and the new wave of the “okada” bikers, who are breaking the legs and the common sanity of the people with impunity. These “beehives” of okada bikers are disturbing the peace and traffic regulations of the city. As we drove down to Kissy Street, I increasingly sensed the looming traffic challenges Freetown is experiencing. I, however, convinced myself that we can change the situation if motorists and pedestrians understand that laws are meant to create orderliness, functionality and progressive behaviors. That if the city council and government are ready to work in concerted effort to expand existing roads, build overhead roads, relocate high traffic government ministries outside the city perimeter, develop new roads and enforce strict traffic regulations, the traffic problem will be a thing of the past. In fact, other developing nations like Ghana, Nigeria and Libya have solved similar crisis and Sierra Leone can do the same.

As we drove further along the Siaka Stevens Street, I looked down toward the sea side and saw the great statue of I.T.A. Wallace-Johnson, a trade unionist and national hero of Sierra Leone. I saw new international banks which indicated that Sierra Leone is now connected to the rest of the world. The big advertisement signs of ‘Africell” and “Comuim” on the streets show the giant invasion of mobile telecommunication in Sierra Leone. What was contradictory to me was the question of how can millions of people who cannot afford one square meal a day afford to carry two cell phones in Sierra Leone? That was clearly a mind-boggling scenario.

The Passport Office

The next Friday morning, I went to immigration to renew my Sierra Leonean Passport. I hold a dual citizenship (Sierra Leone and USA). The old immigration building reminded me about the struggling days in the early 1990’s when leaving Sierra Leone was every young man and woman’s greatest dream. I filled the renewal application and submitted it to the appropriate department for processing. When I came a week later to collect my passport, nobody could even locate my application.

I was so disillusioned and disappointed that I felt the need to do something to change the situation and make it better for others in the future. I told them that I must speak with their supervisor demanding that if my application was not process, I will inform the Foreign Affairs Ministry about their poor job performance and the entrenched bribery culture that is destroying the moral fabric of our nation. Obviously, there is a social concept in Sierra Leone that nothing can be processed without a handsome bribe or an influential connection from higher-ups. I was determined to obtain my passport by defying such aging conventional wisdom.

In the ensuing battle to challenge the system, I got these law enforcement officers to process and approve my application in 5 minutes. I was taken to the deputy Chief Immigration officer who told me that he heard that I was bitterly upset. “Yes sir,” I said: “how can I come to my own country and be deprived of the right to renew my passport.” I asked him. “Things have to change and I am going to demand it without pre-condition.” I was told to pick it up three days later. The issue was simply a matter of principle and that countless victim’s rights of citizenship have either been delayed or denied because they cannot afford to bribe their way out.

If we are serious about fighting against corruption, we must be part of the solution and not the problem. We cannot be cowards by only complaining about our bad experiences after our returned trip to the USA, Canada, England, Germany, Holland and Australia. Corruption must be choked with the iron hands of justice and fought with the colossal weapon of righteousness. Indeed, Sierra Leone needs more men and women of good conscience, people with integrity and the determination to see something done about poverty and lawlessness in that country. There are many Sierra Leoneans today who have lost their souls to corruption and greed because society has allowed them to continue to worship in the dark temple of calculated misdeeds. Since the founding of our republic, what happened to those men and women who looted and plundered our national treasury? They have neither benefited from their sinful past nor have we honored their memories and services to our country today.

Thus, the Anti-Corruption Commission, as good as their word are on battling corruption, has only a one legged solution to the institutional problem in Sierra Leone. And that is the ability to arrest, prosecute and convict corrupt public officers. This is only a “cosmetic solution” dressed in a false sense of solving the problem without understanding the prognosis and causes of corruption. If we are serious about taking the battle to the real enemy (corruption), we must fight against the conditions that create poverty and the lack of opportunity to our citizens. When the living standards of our police and military forces, civil servants and government officers are not significantly improved, when their pay rates are not adjusted to meet the current cost of living and paid regularly, when working conditions are deplorable and the resources to perform their jobs are inadequate, the Anti-Corruption Commission would only be relevant to apprehending corrupt criminals and sending them to jail. But corruption will still linger in the dark corners of our government’s institutions.

The Blind School

The most defining moment of my visit to Sierra Leone was taking a pilgrim ride to the blind school. As a former President of the Sierra Leone Community in Atlanta, USA, the blind school was a signature landmark of my recent service to Sierra Leone. I always believe that the gift of citizenship is the highest honor one’s country can bestow upon you. To me, Sierra Leone has done more for me than I could ever imagine. The consciousness of being part of a nation and subscribing to it cherish values are too greater a burden to carry. I was ever more convinced that the only way to satisfy such lofty obligation is to give back to Sierra Leone. Without a sense of belonging to a particular people, we feel rootless and unsure of whom we are as a people.

That was the premise of my community leadership in Atlanta. With a dedicated executive team and a supportive community, I was able to secure a joint partnership with Friends of Sierra Leone (FOSL), a group of retired Peace Corps in the United States of America, who have interest in helping to rebuild Sierra Leone. The head master Albert Sandy of the Milton Margai School for the Blind has been one of the finest and credible Sierra Leoneans I have ever met. The blind school project was successfully completed on September 3; 2008 and the Atlanta community was generous to lend support to the vision of the blind students whose motto reads: “we are blind but we can conquer.”

I met Mr. Albert Sandy who was so eager to see me. “Mr. Bah, good to see you and thank you for visiting our school” Mr. Sandy greeted me. As I waited to start the tour of the school and the famous kitchen/chimney project the Atlanta Sierra Leonean community and Friends of Sierra Leone have built for the school, I thought for a moment about the good works of Sir Milton Margai, whose compassion for the less fortunate among us led to the construction of the school for the blind in 1956. This monumental structure today idolized the eloquent personality and the strong commitment of our first historic Prime Minister in expanding education to people with disability. I toured the kitchen with Mr. Albert Sandy and saw the new chimney which helped to eliminate the wood burning smoke that used to fill the classrooms. Before, cooking was done in the open and the torrential rain used to disrupt their cooking activities. Today, a modern kitchen was built for the convenience of the students.

We went to each classroom and head master Sandy was so kind to introduce me to the students. “This is Mr. Bah from Atlanta whose community helped to build the kitchen for our school.” The students replied with a thunderous voice: “Thank you sir.”  I would never forget the magical feeling I experienced when one of the students came to me and gently embraced me. I slowly saw him holding my hands with a passion of appreciation. That was one single moment I felt the deep satisfaction of doing something to help others. It was indeed a remarkably, self-fulfilling and electrifying experience for me.

I also toured the library that was under renovation, the boarding homes of both the boys and girls at the blind school. I saw the sleeping play ground with no playing children. I wonder who will help them transform that beautiful area into a symbol of joy and laughter for the children. At the girl’s boarding homes, headmaster Sandy jokingly told one of the female students that the boy’s quarters was cleaner and more organize than the girls.” I suspected that he was using some good psychology to promote a competitive environmental sanitation in the school. The toilets and shower areas were so conspicuously clean and modern. Mr. Sandy told me that a missionary church from London had built it for them. Thus, the blind school will continue to inspire me to work passionately and unrelentingly to make life better for those who deserve our mercy and compassion.

People and Politicians

I think a lot of work needs to be done in Sierra Leone. We have untapped potential and abundant natural wealth. But we have a steep hill to climb together as a people. Minds and attitudes have to change. Politicians are too detached from the people. I don’t like the psyche and mind-set on the ground. It is too diabolical and un-Sierra Leonean. Public servants especially Ministers are behaving too important and even acting like “gods”. There is a big disconnect between what needs to be done and what those who are in privileged positions want to do for themselves. Government officials are spending too much time in meetings instead of taking care of the people’s business. I sensed a poor altitude of too much suspicion, mistrust and deep seated animosity among people at government level and even the ordinary citizens.

Without an atmosphere of trust, a strong sense of unity and a shared identity with the moral vision of building a good legacy, no public policies, a single legislation or one leadership can change the future of Sierra Leone. Donor money or the Germans, Italians or Chinese and British cannot develop Sierra Leone for us. We, the Sierra Leoneans, are the ones that can unlock the vast wealth of our nation and transform it into the crown jewel of not only Africa, but the rest of the world. We can only do that by working together not as political party or as a tribe, not as families or friends, not as Southerners or Northerners, but as citizens of a common geography and nationality.

Ominously, our nation is dangerously practicing the doctrine of alienation and marginalization as it has been doing for the past 48 years. We have one group of tribal loyalists and regionalists dominating the entire public hierarchy. It looks like an acceptable political way of life. This is a repeated mistake of the past. It seems to me that the lack of broader inclusion and governing from just one “political tent” is one of the biggest challenges we face as a young democracy. As an open society, we must embrace diversity and practice the sacred human concept of universalism. No government will attract the potentials of its citizens, if the majority feels they have been locked out of the democratic process of governing the state of affairs simply because they do not belong to the ruling party or the region where those in power hail from. Invariably, those who feel excluded will resort to the unpatriotic behavior of sabotaging national development.

The way forward for Sierra Leone is not a northern or southern agenda, neither a red or green party; it must be a national oriented value based on qualification and competence to serve in every capacity of government. If Sierra Leone fails to choose this noble path, let us be rest assured that future generations will become more entrenched in the cycle of poverty and violence. And such possible future eliminates every hope of building a Sierra Leone of peace and prosperity through education, technology and investment.

On an optimistic note, I was particularly moved by the common courage of the people of Sierra Leone. From the 13 year old girl I met in the “poda poda”, who was selling single packs of chewing gum to support herself, to the promising 14 year boy who was selling gallons of water on the streets, I was captivated by their strength of endurance and their innovative gift to make a way out of nowhere. I was more convinced that if we build industries, attract more foreign investments and create employment, millions of our young people will take advantage of such new opportunities. I will never forget the 43 year old man in Freetown who told me: “I have never been to a supermarket let alone buy something from a supermarket.” These grim experiences should bring us together us to fight against poverty and restore the dignity of our people.

Realistically, President Ernest Koroma is doing his best but I wonder how many principled men and women are supporting his impressive agenda and good plans for Sierra Leone. Can he do it alone? This is the reality on the ground. But the people are enduring the brutal assault of massive poverty and coping with the tornadoes of inequality and lack of access to basic living. While the few rich people are getting richer by the hours and building towering mansions with gated communities, millions of Sierra Leoneans are struggling every single day to live for another day. Indeed, what a beautiful country, fresh air, green vegetation, vast natural resources and a fascinating culture Sierra Leoneans are richly blessed with.

By Mohamed C. Bah Guest Writer, EX-President Sierra Leone Community Atlanta, USA

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  • Greetings! I see that you are based in Atlanta – I am with Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars and we are playing an Independence Day Show in Atlanta! TOmorrow April 27, 2010 at Smith’s Old Bar. We would love to invite the SIerra Leone community. Any help in spreading the word would be extremely appreciated. Thank you! Zach Niles (415-531-8861 – zachniles@mac.com)

    26th April 2010

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