’ve just returned from Sierra Leone, a country that went to hell and back. 11 years of civil war, brutal, at times demonic. Walking the streets of Freetown or Makeni you see the scars. Burnt out buildings, rusted tanks and, in particular, -amputees – it leaves a lasting impression.
When I first arrived in Freetown I was somewhat immune to the pain and suffering I saw around me. Having spent time in Rwanda, Burundi and the DRC I came here thinking that it couldn’t possibly be any different, any worse.
Heck, soaring above the swampy Atlantic on the approach to Freetown you’d be forgiven for thinking you had found paradise. Everything looks so pristine from onboard my brightly painted, though visibly decrepit, Russian military helicopter. Beautiful green mountains weave their way through the city, meeting miles of sandy white beaches along the crystal clear waters of the Atlantic. The beach is busy, local boys playing football outside one of the many bars and restaurants that have opened to cater to the since-departed population of UN soldiers and aid workers that at one time numbered nearly 20,000.
But ten years of brutal civil war have left an indelible imprint on the country’s infrastructure and its people. Freetown, the capital, was left relatively untouched until “Operation No Living Thing” entered the city in January 1999. I could get into the details but, truthfully, much of it is too harsh to recount. Put it this way, a lot of people died.
The rebel attack left bullet riddled facades and the blackened outer shells of charred government offices in its wake, not to mention the traumatic memories of atrocities that are now hidden deep in the minds of thousands of Freetown’s residents.
Upwards of seventy-five thousand rebel soldiers once roamed the hills and valleys of Sierra Leone, the bulk of them, young men, often children, were often drugged and forced to commit the most heinous of atrocities. Rehabilitation is inevitably slow.
It took me ages to get used to Freetown. African capitals are chaotic. Freetown, however, takes it one step further. It’s chaotic yet at the same time frightening. For at every corner groups of young men congregate, jobless, without education, and without much hope of anything more fruitful coming their way.
They ply the streets all hours of the day, selling anything they can get their hands on. No need to go far to shop as with a little patience the shop will come to you. The smell of fried cassava, plantains, chicken and fish permeate what is otherwise a mix of dust, rotting garbage and petrol fumes. Children weave between parked cars and the ubiquitous piles of steel and garbage, selling candies, fruit and bags of cold water to passerby’s. The governments’ policy of universal education has allowed most children to attend school but many more are too poor to afford the required uniforms, books and supplies. Most of the children who do attend school do so in shifts, spending their mornings in class and their afternoons on the dusty streets of Freetown trying to make enough money to fund their educations and more often their survival. Young men and women are largely in a similar situation. With few private sector jobs and few chances to attend post-secondary education, they take to the streets hoping to make a few dollars by joining a thriving informal economy. Life in Freetown is not easy. A large proportion survive on less than a dollar a day, enough to eat but nowhere near enough to escape from the cycle of poverty that grips this beautiful West African nation.
And so amidst the dirt and dust that was my home, I, a 25 year old just a few years out of university tried to make a difference. How exactly? Some days I wonder myself. I can’t build bridges, cannot cure the ill, nor feed the poor. My role within a small NGO and the UN seemed unlikely to save the world, let alone save lives. It’s hard to value your role when death and disease are commonplace and the life expectancy is 34.7 years. To put it all in perspective I would often give one of the neighborhood boys who lived near me the equivalent of $0.75 for doing a small job, perhaps laundry, shining my shoes – I just doubled his daily salary.
Months later I still struggle to see what the biggest contribution I can make really is. On one hand I don’t want to be just another rich white man in Africa, satisfying my own desire to help while being seen as a savior by those in need. But at the same time I can’t escape the fact that the modest monthly stipend I received while in Freetown, let alone my salary today, is worth three annual salaries. A rookie police offer takes home less than $30 a month, staff at one of the luxury hotels maybe $40 or $50, a teacher – just $25.
And so months after the peacekeepers left, months after people started talking about change, and months after the optimism and patience that come with peace started to fade, I left, leaving many friends behind.
Now, a few months later, I’m back in the relatively quiet confines of a friends condo in Toronto. Back at work, with my friends, in a city that offers me what ever I could ever imagine. Yet the experience of living in Freetown is still fresh, almost too fresh, as today, equipped with a perspective on life that few will ever have, I struggle to find peace. As every morning I buy a coffee for the equivalent of feeding a family of four in relative luxury over there. I have a gym membership that would pay for their rent for the year. I have, the vast majority there don’t. It’s pretty simple.
And so it comes every couple of weeks or so. It might be while I’m walking down the street, or perhaps while I’m grabbing my morning coffee. It stalks me. The guilt of having left, of having been able to escape, of having. Or, as I put it not so politely to my friends, the guilt of perspective and the fact that “perspective’s a bitch.”
No matter the signs of progress I saw while I was there, and there were some, I’d even like to think I helped create a few, I can’t help but think that so much more should be already be in place. Money is theoretically pouring in. DFID, CIDA, USAID…. they’re all there. They’re all pouring money into projects. And yet people are still dying from diseases they shouldn’t die from, from water they shouldn’t be forced to drink, from problems they shouldn’t have to face. And yes, I know, measures of wealth and income are all relative. The basic necessities of life, however, are not.
But so goes the reality of life. Some have, some don’t.
I, for one, got lucky, very lucky. And while I may not know the meaning of life, my travels have given me perspective. I’ve seen young men in Rwanda with scars that have left them looking more alien than human, met women so often raped that they’ve lost the ability to care. And so tonight, as I sit in the confines of what is once again home, I can’t help but think of my friends in Sierra Leone, in Rwanda, and in Burundi. And while I know that one man can only do so much, I’m determined to go back and to try to help them build something better. Some might say it’s just another case of a rich westerner wanting to satisfy his own somewhat selfish desire to help. Perhaps, but in the end, does it really matter?
My last night in Sierra Leone was spent outside Mohamed’s roadside shop, engulfed by shadows and watching cars stream by in the darkness. I sat there knowing I was leaving, leaving them behind. Knowing that I could do nothing more than hope against all hope that things would get better, that perhaps I had done something to make things better, and that perhaps they would find a way to build a better future. For without hope, we are but shadows of what we could be.