Sierra Leone: Yeah, but No

When I tell people that I am heading to Sierra Leone for the summer to do microfinance I usually end up getting the following three questions: 1) Aren’t they killing each other over there?  2) Did you choose Sierra Leone?  3) Are you crazy? 

So I thought I’d kick off my first post to the Fellows Blog by answering those questions.  And to keep you on your toes, I’ll start with question 2, follow that with question 1, and then let you decide for yourself on question 3.   Oh, and if you don’t want to read the whole blog, my executive summary (a little gem of a technique I picked up in the corporate world) is that the answer to all three of these questions is “yeah, but no.” 


Question 2: Did you choose Sierra Leone? 

Yeah, but no.  Sierra Leone was one of three African countries on my short list for placement through Kiva.  Why?  For me, Africa seems like the place to be.  Skin-melting heat, squat-style toilets, and a healthy supply of malaria-carrying mosquitoes… everything you want in your summer vacation, right?  Since I had previously traveled in East Africa, I short listed a few West African countries that speak English. 

To be honest, in April when I was first interviewing for the Kiva Fellows program, I didn’t know anything about Sierra Leone.  I mean I knew where it was on the map, but anyone who had seen Leonardo DiCaprio’s shining performance in “Blood Diamond” knew more about Sierra Leone than I did.  But after some intense research, thank you Wikipedia, I agreed to make Sierra Leone my number one draft pick.  I decided that the country risk level seemed “appropriately exciting” and Kiva seemed to really want to send me there because they hadn’t found anyone else crazy enough to place in Sierra Leone yet.  The icing on the cake was that Sierra Leone also had an extremely enticing distinction.  According to the UN’s Human Development Index, Sierra Leone is the least developed country in the world.  How can you say “no” to #1?


Question 1: Aren’t they killing each other over there? 

Yeah, but no.  After I agreed to my placement in Sierra Leone, I dug into the country history and current status.  After a few books, a couple documentaries, a child’s memoir, and more Wikipedia, I have a superficial knowledge of what is taking place in Sierra Leone.  To inadequately summarize, Sierra Leone is recovering from a devastating civil war that lasted from roughly 1991 to 2002.  A corrupt government was fighting a brutal rebel army, the Revolutionary United Front.   The war eventually gained notoriety for its human atrocities and the UN stepped in to help bring the war to an end. 

What struck me most when I was reading about the war was that the classic good vs. evil framework that I am accustomed to was nowhere in sight.  The Rocky theme song never started up and Sylvester Stallone didn’t do a few pushups before beating up the bad guy.  Rather, it can be argued that both sides of the conflict had questionable motives and resorted to ruthless tactics.  But what is clear, is that a large amount of the civilian population was trapped in the middle.  The prevalence of gruesome violence inflicted on innocent people is the most notable aspect of the war in my mind. 

As I prepare to head over to Sierra Leone, the question that continues to bounce around in my mind is, “Even though the fighting officially ended a few years ago, how can people involved in this nightmarish war, victims or aggressors, return to their everyday life?”  I can’t begin to imagine how that is possible.   But I certainly hope that when I return from my trip, I am less amazed by the human capacity for violence than I am inspired by the human capacity for resilience.  (That’s my cheesy, melodramatic comment for this post, every blog should have one.)   


Question 3: Are you crazy?

Rather than answer that directly, I thought I’d offer a glimpse into my personality, and let you decide.  When I was at the travel doctor this month, getting injected with every vaccine known to man, my doctor stressed that it was very important for me to take my Oral Typhoid Vaccine on schedule.  I reassured her that I would, but she didn’t seem to believe me.  She came back into the room a few minutes later and asked me if this would help… it was one of those rubber bracelets like Lance Armstrong wears.  But this one was orange and said, “Remember Oral Typhoid Vaccine.”  A huge smile spread across my face when I saw it.  I told my doctor that I definitely needed it… not that it would help me remember at all, but because it was the coolest fashion accessory I had ever seen. 

I’m heading to Sierra Leone in 2 days, June 19th.  I look forward to writing about something more interesting than my bracelet at that point.  But is that really possible?  Stay tuned.

-Nicholas Sabin


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