24 Sep The People of SIERRA LEONE
Part two of Charlie Roberts’ journey into Sierra Leone, in this instalment we meet the people of Sierra Leone and the scars they have from the country’s history.
In the previous part of our series on Sierra Leone, Journey through Sierra Leone, we followed Charlie Roberts’ journey from the Capital to the northern rural areas, where help was desperately sought.
Charlie Roberts, a former military doctor and adventurer, arrived in Sierra Leone to be presented by the harsh realities of a country torn apart by civil war some years previously, and now facing up to a new pandemic, the Ebola virus.
Following our gruelling journey, through a massive thunderstorm at night across the bush, we had arrived and moved into our accommodation. Unfortunately, it was infested with insects, mice and rats. Diamond miners had been squatting there previously and did not have much care for personal hygiene or any form of cleanliness- perhaps due to the conditions they were used to working in at the mines.
Thick black dust was everywhere, it was difficult to sleep with the scratching sound of rat’s feet and cockroaches running along the bed heads and floors.
Over the next few days we met and spoke with some of the Kamakwie residents and heard several shocking stories from the civil war, a few years previously.
The Next Steps
Monday morning came round fast, tired from very little sleep, we were given a brief on what lay ahead. Paired with our social workers- off we went towards different areas of Tambhaka- the northern area of Sierra Leone with no roads, just muddy tracks back through the bush, which would eventually merge with Guinea.
During the morning’s brief we were warned about the poachers who would frequently come along these tracks from Guinea, and that they had very little respect for rules.
This was made easier for them by the nature of the ground- it was in fact very difficult to tell where Sierra Leone ended and Guinea started. It would often be a matter of one village having different money to another or a slightly different twang to their spoken language (Kreo) which dictated their home country.
We were warned about the poachers…
Guinea still had an active Ebola problem, whereas, Sierra Leone had just about got on top of theirs. Work was very much needed here.
I saddled up onto the bike nervously, as I knew that an accident out here would be disastrous. We drove into the bush- a bumpy ride was an understatement.
After an hour, we came to a relatively fast flowing river which everyone has to pass in order to get across to the Tambakha region. It was here that the ‘road’ ended, and a series of vague tracks began.
Our bikes were placed into a dug out canoe manned by a group of local boys. The current was very strong, so as the boys paddled, the canoe held a diagonal drifting course from one side of the river to the other. This was a crossing we would take many times and it was on one of these crossings where I sat and watched a green mamba snake swim alongside the canoe. I certainly did not want to fall in!
According to locals, in the height of the rainy season the river is near impassable. I was surprised to hear this as it still seemed to be a force to be reckoned with even at this point in the year. Once we had retrieved the bikes from the canoe, we were on the move again. After several more hours and the inevitable Ebola control checkpoints- we had reached our first school.
This was one of the first occasions I saw evidence of Sierra Leone’s brutal history. The teacher here was an amputee- the first I had seen in the region. The teacher’s arm had been cut off during the recent civil war by rebels.
The teacher began his story, he told me how they rounded up the villagers and murdered several immediately. Many homes were burnt down and most of the men were mutilated, as he had been, for not joining the rebels in their war.
He was one of the ‘lucky ones’, he had not died from blood loss or infection.
SR note: I would go on to see many, many more with similar stories, as my time in Sierra Leone went on.
The children here were very friendly and pleased to see a Westerner- as well as all the teachers. We performed our initial needs assessments and made notes on what we needed to do in the future visits. It was time to move on to the next school.
En-route to the second school, we reached a wide swamp running across the middle of the dusty track- with no alternate route, we would have to cross it. It was difficult to tell how deep it was, and I ended up wading through it to the other side. As I crossed I hoped there were not any snakes waiting for me. The bike fared better and we made it across soaked and safe (hopefully not bitten by too many insects).
In total, we moved through to around 5 different schools that day and began making preparations for the coming weeks.
There was a lot to do. Some of the teachers were ill and some parents had died, many of the children had severe psychological trauma as a result.
Upon approaching the children, some were quite scared of me and my colleagues. They had come to associate Westerners with an evil that had taken away their families never for them to return.
…arm had been cut off during the recent civil war…
Some of the younger children just thought I was coming to stab them in the arm with a needle as often the only contact they had with Westerners was from vaccination programs. These reactions seemed to be based on village circumstances, as not every village was affected by the virus.
What could we honestly do to make any of this any better?
What could only a few of us armed with clipboards and pens do in this situation? Sierra Leone has had some pretty testing cards dealt to it in its recent history- a bloody civil war and now a devastating Ebola outbreak.
There was a huge task ahead, one that we might not even make a dent in. Was there any point? It is difficult in the face of such adversity to not hold your hands up and give up before you have even started.
Our motivation came from its people. Beautiful both inside and out- despite their sufferings. Their welcome and cheery spirit is something I had never encountered before despite the ordeals they have gone through.
The people of Sierra Leone were rallying- and we would try to help them in whatever way we could.
For more information on Sierra Leone and it’s recent history, please refer to the BBC’s country profile. Click Here
If you missed it, here is part one of Charlie Roberts’ series: Journey through Sierra Leone.
Simon Davis/ DFID (Source: Flickr)