Monday, September 19, 2011

Home Sweet Home in Salone?

After traversing the country, I am back in my final destination of Freetown, the bustling capital city. I had a wonderful time traveling to three of the four provinces (unfortunately, I never made it to the far East and, learning the nuances and regional diversity of the country. Coming back to Freetown, it took me a few days to feel at home—like all big cities, there is a pace to which newcomers must adapt and people have a way of pretending they are too busy to befriend you. After a week here, I am feeling at home though. I’ve rented a room almost in the heart of downtown traffic (my idea of heaven) and am within walking distance of the state house, most of the organizations I’m interested in meeting, and all of the best markets. I spend hours walking every day and now have a pretty extensive mental map of the city, including all the street corners where I can find Nescafe (a morning necessity), foofoo (my new favorite food), and credit for my pay-as-you go phone. Additionally, an advantage to being in Freetown is that, due to the extreme institutional centralization in the country, everyone has a reason to come here for at least a few days at one time or another. This means that friends I’ve made all across the country are coming in and that I’ve had lots of familiar and kind company.

The title of this post, however, refers to the irony of today: just as I am feeling truly at home here, an evacuation notice was issued to a group of persons with disabilities illegally occupying a building downtown and with whom I’ve been spending some of my days. Following the war, there was mass migration to Freetown, which has created both a lack of affordable housing and employment opportunities (sound familiar?). Persons with disabilities have felt the brunt of this dearth and many responded by forming associations that squat abandoned buildings downtown. On May 11, 2011, the police attempted to forcefully evict a group of about 100 disabled youth from a building in what resulted in countless teargas, rubber bullet, and baton injuries among the youth and respected leaders in the disability rights movement. The necessary precursor to the youth’s moving has, however, not been fulfilled—they have nowhere else to go and so returned to the house. Now, the government is attempting to evict another building full of disabled youth, while again providing no alternatives. It’s really impossible to describe the sight downtown: literally hundreds of young persons with disabilities begging on the streets, because they lack the skills needed to obtain employment and society lacks the accepting attitude necessary to hire them.

Another event of significance to me took place this evening. I was out for a stroll when I passed a young boy crying with his back to the street. I stopped to ask him what was wrong and, between sobs, he explained that he had lost his money. It is common for children to spend their days selling small goods along the road (i.e. biscuits, batteries, and in this boy’s case, charcoal), particularly during the school holiday occurring now. A few people stopped after they saw me talking to the boy and he explained to them in Krio that 5,000 Le (or about $1.20) had fallen from the hole in his pocket and that he was afraid to go home, because he would be beaten. Just then, the passenger of an SUV stuck in traffic next to the scene rolled down his tinted window and handed the boy a banknote for 10,000 Le—problem solved or at least the short term problem of the boy’s daily earning. I feel like this event holds an apt metaphor for my personal experience living in Sierra Leone, as well as the lives of Sierra Leoneans. Personally, I’m good at recognizing when something is wrong and inquiring into the issue. But like what happened today—I was just out on an evening walk with no money to offer the boy and nothing I could really do to assist him otherwise—I feel like I lack the skills and certainly the funds to aid to the organizations and individuals with whom I meet. Meeting with the directors and project managers of various non-profits, I have few answers to their questions regarding accessing donor funds, creating strategic plans, and ensuring the sustainability of their projects. Currently, it is frustrating to be able to offer so little to these people who have been so kind and welcoming to me, but the experience has already taught me a lot about what skills and knowledge I want to make sure to access in graduate school and beyond.

As for the people living here, life is about surviving day-to-day for most and good days depend on a little luck, like making a decent sale or getting a handout from an NGO or individual, such as in the boy’s case. But at the end of the day, that’s just it, one more day has been successfully survived and there are still bigger problems needing to be fixed—the lack of formal job opportunities, illiteracy, or a hole in one’s pocket. For instance, violence broke out one week ago in the southern and eastern cities of Bo and Koidu between the two largest political parties (APC and SLPP) concerning their campaigns for the 2012 election. While the violence was relatively minimal, everyone is rightfully describing it as an early warning sign for potential electoral violence. People are making the apt point that many of the social and political tensions that sparked the decade-long civil war have not been substantially improved in the post-conflict state, particularly education and employment. For example, over 90% of youth aged 18 to 35 are unemployed, a fact that is clearly seen in the staggering number of idle young men peddling cheap goods along the road. These are the youth who could be easily corrupted into committing violent acts out of boredom and a lack of a future. So I wonder, after meeting the young boy today crying along the road, what sort of a future he will have and hope that a solution larger than a 10,000 Le banknote or even a patch for the hole in his pocket will find him.

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