Deja-Vu All Over Again: Still Killing Them Softly . . .

I originally wrote the post below on August 3, 2007. I have made only minor changes to the text to reflect the number of casualties and the location of the disaster, and to correct any anachronisms.

Today, 10 Sierra Leoneans drowned (many more are still missing) when their boat capsized on a sea journey from Shenge to Tombo, a village south of the capital, Freetown. Official sources claim the boat—which has not yet been recovered—was overloaded and did not contain lifejackets, in violation of the law. Many of the passengers were children. In spite of the shocking casualty figures, I am sure nobody will be held accountable for these disasters. People die, nobody answers for their deaths and nothing is done to prevent future deaths. In this way, Sierra Leone’s leaders continue to get away with murder.

Sure, the boat that collapsed today was—like all other means of motorized transport in Sierra Leone—old and rickety, overloaded with passengers and cargo. Sure, the water was rough where the Great Scarcies, swollen by recent rains, met the Atlantic. And sure, when God calls you, you can’t avoid it. Nonetheless, somebody should take responsibility for all this loss of life. Somebody should be held accountable. Somebody must be punished so that this sort of thing doesn’t happen again. But nobody will be.

Ultimately, no matter how this story is sliced or diced, one thing is certain. The government—the people who are supposed to be responsible for the welfare of the nation—bears responsibility for this catastrophe. But one question will not be asked: “Why were there so many people packed into a rickety, overloaded boat traveling up the Atlantic coast during the rainy season?” The answer is simple. They have no choice.

And why do they have no choice? Because the government has not bothered to try to make sure that people can travel from one part of the country to another without taking  their lives into their hands. And because there is virtually no public transportation network in Sierra Leone. Or in most of West Africa. The old colonial highways (and I use “highway” loosely because these roads are seldom wider than one lane in either direction) are in poor condition, unpaved, bumpy and barely navigable at speeds greater than 20 miles an hour. To go by land, would-be passengers have to cram themselves into . . . you guessed it . . . old, rickety, and overloaded minibuses. Secondly, there are no major roads that run from Freetown due north. Passengers would have to go towards the center of the country and transfer at one of the major junctions. Finally, the transportation system is a neoliberal freemarketeer’s wet dream come true. Drivers only go where there is demand, and the evidence of demand is a full vehicle. Passengers wait, sometimes longer than an hour, until the vehicle cannot hold another person or item of luggage. If you’re traveling from Freetown to another part of Sierra Leone, it doesn’t matter how you decide to get there. Traveling by sea or road is a costly, crowded, and uncomfortable experience. And you may not survive the trip.

Since independence, the country’s infrastructure has slowly been falling apart. Official corruption and public apathy—more accurately fatalism—have resulted in the literal and physical deterioration of every aspect of social life: housing, health care, education, transportation. Everything is falling apart. The recently ended civil war, which raged for a decade and a half, did nothing to improve the situation.

Now the war is over. It’s been over since 2003. And what has this meant for infrastructure in Sierra Leone? Not much, except that the international community has done a good job of rebuilding and refurbishing the main commercial and administrative buildings in the capital’s city center. When I was there last September, my guide pointed out all the buildings that had been rebuilt by the British, the French, the EU, the UN but I didn’t see a single building that had been rebuilt by the Sierra Leonean government.

“But,” I hear you say, “isn’t it a lot to ask of the fragile new administration of a post-conflict-country to invest huge sums of revenue into reconstruction?” Fair enough. But if they can’t or don’t spend money on rebuilding the country, what can or do they spend revenues on? Last time I checked, it was the duty of a government to provide for the wellbeing of its people. Certainly I’m not naive enough to believe that the government must do so out of altruism but the Sierra Leonean government is failing at performing its basic role even if we look at it from purely economic terms. How can the country progress economically without a reliable and comprehensive transportation system, a requirement for even the most primitive systems of trade and commerce?

Besides, not having enough money is no excuse. Isn’t it part of the government’s job to have money? Whether through loans or foreign aid or domestic revenue generation, it is up to the government to generate revenue, which can then be reinvested into the economy. Despite what we hear about the role of government in the US, this is actually how modern, industrialized and—dare I say it—civilized countries function. Sure there’s a role for the market and the entrepreneur and all that good stuff but even the most die-hard advocates of the free market would never claim that the market exists to serve the public good. Entrepreneurs will tell you that they are in the business of seeking profits, not serving the public good. So, if the market won’t do it, who should? I say the government should. Find me one modern, industrialized, civilized country in which the government does nothing to provide for the public good.

Which brings me to my greater point. The government of Sierra Leone does not give a sh*t about the people of Sierra Leone. Since indepencence—46 years ago—Sierra Leone’s leaders (like the leaders of much of the “developing” world) have been busy enriching themselves. Sure, colonialism left homogenous, un-diversified economies throughout sub-Saharan Africa that were dependent on European economies for their survival. And yes, structural adjustments took a grievous toll on social welfare programs in developing countries but the time has come to call a spade a spade. African leaders don’t care about their people. They have never cared about their people. In the ’60s and ’70s, Sierra Leone was a decent place to live, with passable roads, round-the-clock electricity, and running water in the capital (the “provinces” were always a different story).

On my recent trip, however, Freetown had become like the provinces. Roads in the once-affluent western suburbs were now rutted and potholed, the asphalt broken up by tank treads from the days of the war and the soil underneath washed away by rain. Where there were once sidewalks, I saw deep ravines and gullies where water had eroded the soil on the side of the road. In some places, so much of the road had been washed away that two cars traveling in opposite directions could not pass each other along the same narrow stretch of road. And the roads are just the most visible part of the decay. Schools, hospitals, homes are all in a deplorable state of disrepair. More and more people live in slums and shanties.

Not everyone lives in dilapidation, though. I saw the president’s house. It’s a mansion that sits on a hillside overlooking the capital. Paved driveway, fence, swimming pool. But this man presides over a country that is slipping further and further backwards. But here’s the rub. The very poverty of Sierra Leone is what keeps these people in business. Millions of dollars and euros in foreign and development aid are funnelled into Sierra Leone—and many other impoverished countries—but how much of that money gets to the people who really need it? Having seen the president’s mansion, I have to say, not much.

The government of Sierra Leone is parasitic, and that corrupting mentality trickles all the way down through the society as low-level civil servants, underpaid and undertrained, scrounge around for scraps—bribes and other forms of official theft. How many people get into government because they want to make a difference, to help lift their country out of poverty? Not many, I imagine. After all, why has it taken so long to make that difference, and why is the country so much worse than it was at independence? Yes I know, colonialism and the international financial institutions must bear some of the blame but let’s not forget, Africa was not the only colonized continent. Yet today, Africa is by far the most impoverished region in the world.

Why do so many Sierra Leoneans who have attained professional and financial success abroad give it all up to pursue a political career in Sierra Leone? Because that’s where the money is. Take the former ambassador to the US, who had been a successful attorney and businessman prior to his appointment. Why did he go to Sierra Leone to try to get involved in politics? Why not lecture at the university there? He has a law degree and legal experience after all. Why not find investors and open a factory or some other revenue-generating business? After all, he had worked in the private sector before. Because he was not interested in doing anything to make Sierra Leone a safer, cleaner, or more comfortable place for its citizens to live. But he’s not alone.

Post-independence administrations—from Siaka Stevens’ on—have demonstrated a stunning lack of vision and imagination. As the rest of the world has moved forwards, Sierra Leone has slipped backwards. Why has no post-independence government implemented any policies for sustainable development? No large-scale, industrialized agriculture; no modern land, sea, or river transportation network; no new schoolhouses; no new hospitals; no modern air- or seaport; nothing! Just a government that maintains form without function.

When the president travels abroad, he is treated with all the respect befitting a dignitary. But every day in Sierra Leone, and in much of Africa, how many people die daily from easily preventable accidents and diseases? How many lives could be saved if the government committed itself to improving road networks and making transportation a faster and less dangerous business? Would the president be treated with such respect if he had lined the casualties of today’s boat catastrophe up against a wall and shot them all in the head? Sierra Leone boasts the world’s highest rates of infant mortality, with measles and malaria respectively accounting for 48 and 33 percent of all under-five deaths. What if, instead of having succumbed to easily prevented diseases, all these children had been gassed to death on the orders of the present government? There would be an international outcry, that’s what! No member of the Sierra Leonean government could travel abroad as smugly and proudly as they do now.

However, these people are not dying from accidents and disease. They are dying because the people who were elected or appointed to provide the basic amenities that would prevent their deaths are failing to do their jobs. Not having enough money to fix roads, build hospitals, or educate children should no longer be an acceptable excuse! Finding the money is part of the job description. Using the money to improve the country for everyone is another part of the job. Failing to do either of these things is the same as failing in the job. And failing to do one’s job is negligence. Every day, in Sierra Leone and all around Africa, people are dying from government negligence. But because they are dying from negligence instead of deliberate government action, the world looks the other way. Nobody is held accountable. The negligence goes unpunished.

Today, as 50 people go to their watery graves, we have seen one more demonstration of this negligence. With elections around the corner, let’s hope the next government is better than the previous ones. Let’s hope the next government values the lives of Sierra Leoneans enough to actively attempt to prevent such catastrophic accidents.

But I’m not holding my breath.

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Gang Rape/Murder Trials May Strike a Blow for Women’s Rights in South Africa.

A little over a year ago, the body of 31-year-old Eudy Simelane was found in a park near her home on the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa. She had been gang raped and stabbed 25 times. Eudy was a sportscaster and a former midfielder on the South African national women’s football team. She was also a lesbian.

In a country where rape and violence against women is endemic, Eudy is one among countless victims. A recently published survey found that one quarter of South African men admitted to having committed rape. Further compounding the problem, the One in Nine Campaign, which takes its name from the grim statistic that only one in nine victims comes forward, maintains that rape is grossly underreported. This is no surprise considering that in South Africa, as elsewhere, women who are raped often find themselves blamed for it. For example, in a recent high-profile rape trial, the current president defended himself with the old she-made-me-do-it line, arguing (among other things) that the victim had provoked the sexual encounter by wearing a kanga—a traditional wrap-around garment—while she was a guest at his house. Unlike the president, however, most South African rapists are never tried for their crimes.

But Eudy Simelane’s case is somewhat different from the others. She was well-known, so the trial of the men accused of raping and killing her is bringing a lot of needed attention to South Africa’s rape crisis, especially to the targeted rape of lesbians. Dubbed “corrective rape,” The Guardian describes it as a practice wherein men—or gangs of men—rape lesbians in the belief that after sex with them, a lesbian will “become a girl.”

Earlier this year, one man accused of playing a role in Eudy Simelane’s death pled guilty to robbery and murder, but not rape. Today, the remaining suspects go to trial. Womens’ and gay rights activists are organizing around the trials—as well as around two other cases of “corrective rape”—hoping to push the government to take stronger action against rape, sexual violence, homophobia, and other hate crimes.

The convictions and sentences handed down in these cases ought to send a strong message that rape is wrong and go a long way towards improving life for lesbians—and other women—in South Africa. After all, it was the first country in the world to constitutionally guarantee gay rights, and the outcome of these cases will show whether, and to what extent, the South African government is committed to the ideals enshrined in the post-Apartheid constitution.

Happy Birthday, Nelson!!

What’s wrong with me today? I almost forgot that it’s Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday today!!!

Congratulations to you, Nelson Mandela, who have accomplished more in your life than most of us can ever dream of!!! You are truly an inspiration!!! If only more leaders can be like you . . ..

On a related note, congratulations on finally being removed from the US government’s terrorist watch list.

It’s a fitting present from our government.

Cocaine Aircraft Abandoned at Sierra Leone’s National Airport: Deja-Vu all Over Again?

Reuters reports that an aircraft carrying 700 kilos of cocaine was abandoned on the runway of Freetown’s Lungi Airport in the early hours of Sunday morning. The pilots reportedly fled after abandoning the airplane. Sierra Leonean authorities also found several assault rifles and ammunition on board the abandoned aircraft.

This is not the first time Sierra Leone has emerged as a destination for drugs. A year ago, I wrote a blog post after reading a Miami Herald story about the siezuere in Venezuela of a Sierra Leone–bound airplane carrying 2.5 tons of cocaine. Due to the increased policing of traditional drug routes into Europe, it seems West Africa is increasingly being used by international drug cartels as a conduit for their Europe-bound product. Makes sense to me. Lax border controls, spotty security at air- and seaports, and corrupt officials are vital ingredients for the international drug trade and and all are abundant in West Africa, including Sierra Leone. Major drug seizures have been carried out in Guinea-Bissau and Ghana as well. Yahoo News reports that the aircraft was marked with a fake Red Cross emblem.

Voice of America just reported that several people—among them the chief of airport police, the airport manager, and the control tower operator—have been arrested and are being questioned. Yahoo News also counts “three Colombians, two Mexicans, a Venezuelan national and a US citizen” among those arrested.

Apparently, President Koroma took the weapons found at the scene back to Freetown in his presidential vehicle. I can’t help but wonder, though, who gets to keep the cocaine.

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UPDATE: Agence France Presse reports that 58 people, including many foreign nationals, have been detained in this case. Police investigations are ongoing.

And Now for Some Uplifiting News …

Beatrice Biira, whose fortunes were changed by a gift of a goat.

Beatrice Biira, whose fortunes were changed by the gift of a goat.

In a recent column, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof tells the unlikely story of Beatrice Biira, a Ugandan woman who just graduated from Connecticut College. Beatrice was born to rural peasants in western Uganda, and started school late because her parents were too poor to afford to pay for her studies. But the family’s fortunes changed when they received a goat donated through Heifer International by a group of children who belonged to Niantic Community Church in Connecticut. Despite being older than the other first-graders, Beatrice was committed to her studies and soon emerged as a top student. One thing led to another and Beatrice’s academic performace was rewarded with a scholarship to Connecticut College. She is the first person from her community to graduate from a university in the US. Beatrice’s story has been turned into a children’s book, and her story is featured on Heifer International’s website.

Over the last 50 or so years, the international community has committed and recommitted itself to economic development and the eradication of poverty in the developing world. Considering the persistence—indeed expansion—of extreme poverty, there is more than enough cause for pessimism with regard to the efficacy of conventional development and poverty eradication programs in Africa. Beatrice’s story is only one silver lining on a large and gloomy cloud, but it does show what can happen when a child is allowed to live up to her full potential.

Africa is home to millions of children who may never get a chance to go to school, to prove themselves academically, and to rise out of poverty. Time and again, education has proven to be a sure path out of poverty and, although the obstacles facing impoverished children are many and varied, Beatrice Biira is living proof of what can happen when a child is given a helping hand.

Who Let this Pr*ck Into Sierra Leone?

It’s been a pretty exciting week here on T’ing ‘n Times. The fun began a week ago when I first wrote this post. It started out thus:

“Normally, I don’t blog about personal matters but this Canadian NGO staffer’s blog post got me so fired up I had to share! I clicked a link from Google alerts expecting to read something interesting or informative about Sierra Leone but what I found was disappointing at best. This guy, who’s in the country to “improve governance and overall quality of life for the people of Sierra Leone,” basically runs down a laundry list of things that are f*cked up about Sierra Leone, ending with this paragraph:

I’ve discovered more reasons for my friends and family to worry (hahahha): Don’t get caught in the middle of a “secret society” ceremony. They will initiate you on the spot. This may include crazy piercings and/or drinking animal fluids. What about the Kamajors? The psycho cannibal hunter tribe. Lucky for us, they sided with the peace forces during the war. They believe they possess magical powers. Bullets will pass through them causing no harm. They don’t discriminate either. You can you join the tribe if you make it through initiation, of which, the last phase includes being fired at by an old Russian semi automatic machine gun. [bold mine]

You can read the entire post, entitled Crazy Unknown African Viruses & Psycho Cannibalism here. Then please leave him a comment like I did:

Jason,

I’m Sierra Leonean and I find your attempt at humorously addressing the many challenges of life in Sierra Leone to be rather insensitive and demeaning. Not to mention ignorant. The Kamajors are not a tribe and—regardless of whether or not they practised cannibalism during the war—referring to them as “The psycho cannibal hunter tribe” is downright offensive, and it shows a stunning lack of knowledge about Sierra Leone.

I wonder if the Sierra Leoneans you encounter socially or professionally know about your attitudes. Or perhaps you only express your opinions when you and your expat do-gooder buddies get together.

Either way, I would have expected more from someone who claims to be in Sierra Leone to “improve governance and overall quality of life for the people of Sierra Leone.”

. . .

What you will read from this point on is a rewritten version of this post. I decided to change the text because I wrote the first version in a fit of anger and said many things in it that were insulting of the author, Jason Salituri, and his friends and family. In the ensuing week, I’ve had time to reflect on what I said and on the reaction it caused, and I’ve apologized personally to Jason and his family. I’m not proud of the language I used and the insinuations I made, but I won’t pretend that Jason’s post didn’t anger me or that I never wrote those words. Just to prove that I’m not trying to erase the evidence, you can read the original post as it first appeared here.

This, however, does not change the fact that Jason’s post was offensive to me. His characterization of Sierra Leone as a dirty and dangerous place populated by superstitious and cannibalistic people is offensive to me and other Sierra Leoneans, judging by some of the comments posted here, on Jason’s blog, and elsewhere on the web. So I’m going to take a second stab at addressing the post and explaining why it was so offensive.

Sierra Leone is where I was born and I still have a huge extended family there. I understand that Jason’s post was meant as an inside joke to his friends and family but the characterization was not much different from colonial-era European depictions of Africa. While the dirt and disease and cannibalism may be humorous to some, it doesn’t change the fact that Sierra Leone is home to our friends and families. The description of the Kamajors as a tribe of psycho-cannibals is offensive for obvious and aforementioned reasons so I won’t go back to that. Then there was the description of the initiation ceremonies, which are ancient and sacred rituals for a huge portion of the population—both urban and rural. One of Jason’s supporters who posted a comment under the name “newly” says s/he’s Catholic and so was offended by my mention of Catholicism in a prior post: it didn’t even take a joke about Catholic sacrament to offend him/her. Well, the initiation rites Jason makes fun of are as important to Sierra Leoneans as Catholic sacrament is to a Catholic like “newly,” so I can only hope that s/he and the other people who defended Jason on my blog can begin to understand why his post was so offensive.

I say I can only hope because the one thing that’s stood out most starkly in this whole back-and-forth is the total failure of Jason’s defenders to acknowledge that his post was indeed offensive, or to recognize that I was justified in taking offense to it. Instead, the comments focused on everything from personal attacks against me to reminders of the good work Jason is doing in Sierra Leone. Patrick Mosolf was the one commenter who came closest to acknowledging that the post was offensive, but he spends the bulk of his comment telling me how and why I overreacted. He then goes on to assure me that all White people are not racist, as if that’s what I was saying in the first place. Towards the end, he poses these questions: “Are all white people racist? Have you ever been outside of Sierra Leone and how many white people have you met? How do you know if someone is racist unless they make an overtly racist statement?” In my response to Patrick, I explained to him that I am in fact half White and I have spent over half of my life living outside Sierra Leone. So Patrick, rather than recognize my right to be offended, just assumes that my anger stems from an irrational and uninformed suspicion of all White people, thereby demonstrating that he totally missed the point of my original response to Jason’s post. And, for the record, I’m still working very hard on considering “This may include crazy piercings and/or drinking animal fluids” and “The psycho cannibal hunter tribe” as anything other than overtly racist statements.

The rest of the comments—excluding the respectful and considerate one from Jason’s dad—are even worse than Patrick’s. Kevin, who identifies himelf as Jason’s friend reminds me that Jason is doing good work in Sierra Leone and then asks me if my own “stereotypes” of do-gooders (read foreign NGO staff) doesn’t do equal harm. I fail to see how my “stereotypes” could do more to tarnish the image of NGO staff than Jason’s defenders’ inability to acknowledge that his post is offensive. Then, in a display of what I can only interpret as macho posturing, Kevin invites me to visit his blog and “give him the same treatment,” as if I’m the guy who has nothing better to do than criticize NGO staffers’ blogs. Again, no acknowledgement that the post was offensive or that my response was in any way understandable. Similarly, “newly” starts off calling me a hypocrite and then proceeds to dissect a couple of my top posts in an attempt to prove that I too am judgemental and prejudiced. But what both these commenters fail to acknowledge is that this is not a case of tit for tat. Jason’s post insulted me and I lashed out. Their retaliation to my lashing out is understandable to me—they’re his friends after all—but let’s not pretend that I had no cause to feel offended.

Through all this, one theme comes up again and again. Commenters remind me that Jason is a good guy working under difficult conditions in Sierra Leone. I don’t deny that. I know how things are in Sierra Leone and it’s not the easiest environment. Still, I don’t think that makes it OK for him to have said what he said. Certainly, freedom of speech is on his side, as it is on mine, but when offense is caused, it serves no-one to deny or ignore the fact. But that’s precisely what I got from BigJ, another defender of Jason’s who wrote, “I have spent enough time in Freetown pushing shit uphill (for which, read working to foster any level of, or even a feeling for, financial accountability in the Salone Government) to understand the man’s wish to say something. Laughing to keep from crying springs to mind.” I can understand the wish to laugh but why do so at the expense of the very people he’s trying to help? Psychiatrists help the mentally ill and special ed teachers help the learning disabled, but that doesn’t give them the right to make fun of their patients or students, does it? And if they’re caught doing so, shouldn’t we acknowledge that it’s insensitive of them to do so?

But clearly, none of the commenters who’ve posted comments supportive of Jason have admitted that his post was insensitive or shown any empathy for those of us who were offended by it. Instead, most of the posts have focused on criticizing me personally and on excusing Jason’s behavior: I’m judgemental and biased, I make stereotypes, conditions are hard in Sierra Leone, Jason’s making a great sacrifice to help Sierra Leoneans, etc. But that is not the point. Is there after all an inverse relationship between the wrongness of Jason’s post and my response to it or the difficulty of working in Sierra Leone? Does Jason’s post become less offensive because my response insulted his friends and family? I’m not proud of that fact but it doesn’t change the fact that other Sierra Leoneans who were offended by him didn’t write angry and vitriolic responses too, did they? It is certainly very telling that “newly” accuses me of insulting Jason’s friends and family but cannot recognize that Jason’s post was insulting to our friends and family in Sierra Leone. Those psycho cannibals and tribal initiators who pierce bodies and drink animal fluids are our friends and family too, and we have a right to be insulted when they are caricatured as they were in Jason’s post.

I’ve taken responsibility and apologized for offending Jason, his family, and his friends. It is, however, very telling that no-one on the other side of this issue has bothered to do the same. This fact alone says so much more than my post ever could have.

Music Mix: April 29, 2008.

Sierra Leone Flag Sierra Leone Seal

In honor of the 47th anniversary of Sierra Leone’s independence, we’ve got a special all–Sierra Leonean mix today.

The opening track, “Black Loyalist,” is performed by up-and-coming Sierra Leonean reggae star Shabaka, who—for those of you in the DC area—will be performing at Zanzibar on the Waterfront on Saturday, May 2 (that’s this coming Saturday). You can check out the “Black Loyalist” video in the videos section of the blog (right-hand column).

As always, you can listen online or download the mix and listen later.

The full playlist should be up tomorrow.