In Freetown

By Jenny Kim, KF8 Sierra Leone

When I told people I was headed to Sierra Leone to work with a local NGO the universal response was “have you thought this through” and “be careful”.  More than 4 years after UN Peacekeeping forces pulled out of Sierra Leone following a brutal and devastating 11 year civil war, people continue to associate Sierra Leone with violence or with the Hollywood blockbuster film Blood Diamonds.  I can’t say I was that much more enlightened when I chose to live and work in Freetown, the capital city.  After grabbing several books, a couple of documentaries, and hours on the internet, my cursory research painted a picture full of machete-wielding and AK47-toting child soldiers alternately terrorizing villages and mining for diamonds.  Not good and dated info.   Contacts urged me to find accommodations in a gated and well-guarded compound.  Advice I took.  And others told me to NEVER go out after dark.  Advice I ignored.  People tried to warn me about getting to town from Lungi Airport which purportedly was a gamble with my life given the three transport options– a “treacherous” ferry whose schedule can sometimes be a mystery, a hovercraft that has “exploded and ran out of fuel mid-trip in the past”, or a helicopter that has crashed several times.  Stellar options.  And only half true it turns out.  With these thoughts swirling around in my head, I arrived in Sierra Leone last week.  Since then I’ve been trying to wrap my head around this fascinating country, making a go of untangling some of the myths, tall tales, half truths, and sobering realities as best I can during my 2 month stay.

Observation #1

Sierra Leone needs better PR (more on this in the next blog).  The country suffers from an undeserved and badly tattered public image—essentially a snapshot taken in perhaps the worst period of it’s history.  Although the war is still very much woven into the fabric of this country and almost without exception every individual I have encountered has either witnessed atrocities or has suffered directly at the hands of warring factions, most Sierra Leoneans want to focus on rebuilding the country.  Here in Freetown, perpetrators of murders, rapes, and mutilations live peaceably side by side with their victims.  As my taxi driver put it to me, “What else can we do. We need to heal and move on.”  The Truth and Reconciliation Trials continue to try the “big fish” a co-worker tells me.  But “who can tell who was forced to kill and who can tell who was forced to take cocaine and drugs in order to cut off people’s wrists or legs?  I don’t understand it.  But we forgive and we have to live as brothers. It’s the past.”

Some context…

Ranked at the very bottom of the UN Human Development Index, Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world with a whole host of challenges in front of it.  1 in 6 mothers die here in childbirth making Sierra Leone the most dangerous place in the world to become a mother.  Once born, 1 in 4 children will not survive past the age of 5.  If you consider that Sierra Leone is a donor-driven nation which receives over a third of it’s annual budget from other countries and abroad, one can begin to grasp the magnitude of the work ahead when the national agenda includes combating severe infrastructure deficiencies, a non-existent healthcare system, illiteracy, and corruption.

  • 1 in 6 mothers die as a result of childbirth (more than anywhere else recorded in the world)
  • 1 in 4 children will never turn five
  • 70% of the population live below the poverty line
  • 57% of the population do not make a dollar a day
  • Less than 10% of population has access to energy
  • 1/3 of the Sierra Leonian government budget every year is donated
  • Life expectancy at birth is 42 years (2007)
  • Ranked 177 out of 177  countries  in UN’s Human Development Index
  • Ranked 168 out of  175 countries  by World Bank for ease of doing business
  • Average GDP per person is $209 (adjusting for purchasing power parity approximately $800)

Sources:  UN, Unicef, World Bank, Sierra Leone by Bradt

The video below is of my first loan visit in Dove Court market located in Freetown.



About the author