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S.O.S: Rihanna’s ‘umbrella’ wanted in Freetown

S.O.S: Rihanna’s ‘umbrella’ wanted in Freetown

Sometimes, in moments of distress, I turn to music for inspiration. These days as updates stream in on the August 14 mudslide that killed nearly 500 persons with about 600 still unaccounted for in Sierra Leone and with reports of donations being made, “the fierce urgency ” (apologies Mr. Obama) of the situation has forced me to turn to Rihanna’s songs. One that has caught my attention is titled S.OS. It goes: “S.O.S. please someone help me. It’s not healthy… for me to feel this way. Y.O.U. are making this hard, I can’t take it, see, it don’t feel right. S.O.S. please someone help me.”  (Photo: Osman Benk Sankoh, author)

Born Robin Rihanna Fenty, the Barbadian US pop star has been headlining the news in Sierra Leone lately more than ever. Her song, Umbrella, released several years ago was a hit. Street vendors made brisk business selling pirated CD copies of the song, especially during traffic congestion. As Facebook and WhatsApp were not in vogue then, boys trying to steal the hearts of girls turned to Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’ to narrate their heartfelt love using the old-fashioned letter writing form. And Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’ lyrics were such powerful.

What has caught the attention of many Sierra Leoneans and friends, however, are stories making the rounds that Rihanna donated $2 million to the mudslide victims. Make no mistake, $2 million is a huge sum but when it is associated with Rihanna, whose net worth, according to  gazettereview.com is currently about $280 million, even the Reverend Fathers and Imams would not mind having all night prayers for Rihanna’s dollars to keep raining on Sierra Leone.

In Barbados, the Caribbean island where the singer was born, the story of her donation was shared hundreds of times on social media, and was also covered by the news site, Barbados Today. It was mentioned on BBC’s Focus on Africa program. The Sierra Leone media was not left out as Rihanna’s donation grew feet with hundreds of shares from Sierra Leoneans on Facebook and WhatsApp as well. Those who had doubts as to government’s sincerity to be able to account for every single penny of Rihanna’s dollars began practising how to act as anti- corruption watchdogs to police the $2 million.

As this was happening, other stories developed that cast a doubt on the accuracy of the pop star’s donation. Denial came from several fronts but the doubters could have none of it. Some even claimed that government officials wanted to pocket the money for themselves. By late evening of August 21in Freetown, the Sierra Leonean Embassy in Washington D.C issued a press release denying claims that the Ambassador, Mr. Bockarie Stevens, was aware of the donation. Whether his denial was convincing or not, Rihanna’s dollars continued to be the talk of the town. Meanwhile, BuzzFeed, an independent media digital platform, quoting a spokesperson for Clara Lionel Foundation, founded by Rihanna in 2012 in honor of her grandparents Clara and Lionel Braithwaite, said, “The story is untrue and completely inaccurate.”

 Good or bad, Rihanna has already received publicity for the non-existent donation and the expectation for her to come to the aid of Sierra Leone can only increase. It could be a win- win situation if the pop star were to do something for the affected persons.

Like most of the victims of the mudslide, Rihanna tasted poverty growing up as a child in Barbados. The gazettereview.com states: “… her childhood was not all sunshine and rainbows. She helped her father sell hats, clothes and belts on a street stall. She would even sell candies wrapped in packages to her classmates at school to make extra money.” Is this not similar to some of the stories narrated by the mudslide victims?

A street hawker said she lost everything to the mudslide; an okada (motor-cycle) rider told stories of how his friends perished and his motorbike gone; a student cried that his school uniforms, books and parent were gone; a seven-month pregnant lady lamented that her unborn child will grow up not knowing who daddy was; a child kept looking at pictures of parents, uncles, brothers and sisters she will never get to meet; and other stories abound.

I know that Rihanna is kind-hearted and generous having helped millions of people worldwide. Her foundation website, claralionelfoundation.org opens with the message: “we believe in the right to education as a weapon against injustices and inequality, and the right to health as a necessity for happiness and productivity.” She sponsors a microcredit grant program back home in Barbados, a global scholarship program to support young people who come to the U.S to pursue higher education and she has also installed state of the art equipment at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in  that country  to improve healthcare and the quality of life of her people. In January this year, as a Global Ambassador for Education, Rihanna visited a school in Malawi where she taught math and learnt about the educational challenges facing students in that country.

Say whatever you may, whether the initial call was a false alarm or not, Rihanna has got the gravitas to bring attention to the situation of the flood victims in Sierra Leone. Her name had been used inaccurately but this is an opportunity for her jump into the fray.

Let it be told to Rihanna that the rains keep pounding while the victims lie in school compounds with no proper ventilation. They are prone to mosquito bites which may lead to malaria. They have no good toilets. Orphaned kids, unaware of the situation, may be dancing and smiling but their caretakers fear they may lack the basic needs in a short while. Pregnant women and the sick are admitted at several hospitals but they fear what happens next after they shall have been discharged. Houses are gone and how soon will these victims be relocated to a permanent environment is the million dollar question. For our government, the challenges keep increasing. It was Ebola in 2014 and now, the mudslide.

Rihanna, in S.O.S, you sang: “This time, please someone come and rescue me, cause you on my mind, it got me losing it.” In Umbrella, you spiced the song with: “Now that it’s raining more than ever, know that we’ll still have each other. You can stand under my umbrella.”

How significant are those words today. The mudslide victims in Sierra Leone are in distress. They need someone to save their souls (S.O.S). They are prepared to take a bow if only you cover them with your umbrella.

By Osman Benk Sankoh

Disclaimer: Osman Benk Sankoh, a former journalist with Concord Times now works with the United Nations and the sentiments expressed in this piece are his and do not  necessarily reflect those of the organization he works with.

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