Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Reflection on being a volunteer in Sierra Leone

This post was written for International Volunteer Day on December 5th.

The Country
I arrived in Sierra Leone at the beginning of September 1989 on a two-year assignment with Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO).   Sierra Leone is about the same size as Ireland, with a similar size population.  Freetown, where I was based, was established around the end of the 18th century as a place where freed slaves from Britain and British colonies, were sent after slavery was abolished.  My initial impression was of a place where nothing worked.   In my first months I had to adapt to walking everywhere.  Public transport amounted to the occasional rust-eaten minibus or shared overcrowded taxi, which often broke down.  There was a scarcity of petrol, gas, rice and even stamps were rationed, an important consideration when quite a lot of my evenings were spent writing letters by candlelight.  There was no electricity in the village where I lived or in the University where I worked.  I was so busy coping with the day-to-day reality of my new situation that I didn’t have time to analyse it.  Later, I understood that all these circumstances contributed to what is known in development terms as a “failed state.” War was possibly inevitable in what was the 2nd poorest country in the world.  Ironically, Sierra Leone is very rich in diamonds and other natural resources.  The mismanagement of these resources, combined with other complex historical, political and economic factors has meant that the people of Sierra Leone have gained little or nothing from the country’s rich natural resources.

Isatu at the village store, Leicester

The Project
I was employed to design and deliver non-graduate certificate and diploma courses to students in the Institute of Library Studies at the University of Sierra Leone.  This University is outside Freetown.  Established as Fourah Bay College (FBC) by the English Church Missionary Society, it is the oldest third-level college in sub-Saharan Africa.  During colonial time it was linked to Durham University. 

Challenges I encounter included the lack of modern textbooks on librarianship, a culture which did not put a significant value on libraries, great variation in the academic standards of the students, a political system that opposed democracy and free speech and the ongoing difficulty of operating in a very poor country.  Students frequently had to walk the three miles to and from the city to college.  The coffee breaks I took for granted in what was then National Institute for Higher Education (NIHE), now Dublin City University,   were replaced with  handfuls of groundnuts(peanuts) purchased from a woman who arrived each day with a brightly coloured enamel bowl laden with groundnuts, on her head.  Because children often attend school erratically in Sierra Leone (due to school fees, the needs of subsistence farming and other constraints) there was a great variation in student age from early twenties to late forties.  The majority of students -about 40 over the two years - were male.  In Sierra Leone more value is placed on the education of male children than females.  Economic considerations influence this to a significant extent.  When a girl marries -this is a society which puts a strong emphasis on marriage and family -  any money she earns will go to her husband’s family.  Thus a poor family will generally favour educating a male child, who will remain attached to the household and support his parents into old age.  Aminatta Forna has written a vivid and lyrical memoir of growing up in Sierra Leone "The Devil that Danced on the Water"  and I would recommend it to anyone interested in knowing more about life in Sierra Leone.
A book in Sierra Leone costs the equivalent of a civil servant’s monthly salary. Most people will never own a book.  In addition Sierra Leone has a very strong oral culture.  Many of my students came from homes where their parents could not read or write. 
Shortly after my return to Ireland I wrote an article  about the teaching aspect of my assignment for "An Leabharlann: the Irish Library"

The road home from work each day

War and its aftermath
I left Sierra Leone in the summer of 1991,  having completed my two year contract. Fighting had broken out in the east of the country. There was a six o’clock curfew in Freetown.   Most people, including myself, expected the skirmish to end fairly quickly.  It turned into a ten year civil war, which left an estimated 200,000 people dead and an already fragile economy in ruins. Ishmael Beah, a former child solider has written a harrowing memoir "A Long Way Gone" which gives an incredible insight into events of the time. 

In 2005,  I returned to Sierra Leone on a one-month contract with the Agency for Personal Service Overseas (APSO) Specialist Service Overseas (SSO) programme, which has now ceased.  This was a project to set up a Library at the Environmental Foundation for Africa (EFA) outside Freetown.  I revisited the University of Sierra Leone and was interested to find that the library studies programmes had been expanded to include undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. After the visit I wrote a reflective piece for CILIP Update

Visiting my old neighbour Mammy Sesay who made a living from selling groundnuts

I returned from a job where I wrote on a blackboard with chalk and had no electricity either at work or at home for the most part of the two years, to a university (NIHED had become DCU), where databases on CD-rom, personal computers, book and journal budgets were the norm.  Now i'm in Maynooth University Library and find that I can  keep up to date with events in Sierra Leone via social media - it's good to see so many people/organisations on twitter. I believe social media and open access to research and publishing offer great opportunities to develop scholarship in Sierra Leone and other African countries. 

Life has moved on.  Twenty six years have passed since my VSO experience.  I'm really grateful to have had the opportunity to work in Sierra Leone and to meet so many great people and get an insight into a culture that is quite different to Irish culture although it shares many common values.

I think I’ve been able to integrate my Sierra Leonean experience into my life in a positive way through  writing and a reasonable level of involvement with the country.    These days I’ve mostly forgotten the poor food, lack of electricity, the constant walking and lack of creature comforts.  I tend to remember the vividly coloured African clothes, the visit to the gold mines,  the devils (men wearing masks and raffia costumes) who danced through the village raising swirls of dust during various festivals and the more exotic aspects of my time in Sierra Leone.

Helen Fallon
December 2017 

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