Tuesday, June 7, 2016

A Time in Sierra Leone

This time twenty five years ago, I was getting ready to leave Sierra Leone, having completed a two-year assignment with Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO), teaching librarianship in the University of Sierra Leone, which is just outside Freetown.  Over the next 13 years I received 146 letters from former Sierra Leonean students and friends.  The letters are in a white Ikea cardboard box in my attic.  Last week, prompted by Africa Day, I took down the box and  reread them and remembered those people who shared their stories of what transpired after I left. That was June 1991.  Rebels from neighbouring Liberia had infiltrated the north east of Sierra Leone.  There was a six o’clock curfew in Freetown but for the most part life was going on as normal.

The 146 letters are dated between 1991 and 2004.  Mostly they’re from people I taught. There’s also quite a number from Maligie the University Library messanger/porter who sold vegetables as a sideline and some from Brimar, the receptionist in the VSO Office in Freetown.  The greetings vary, the most frequent is “Dear Miss Fallon.”  There’s also Dear Miss Helen and Dear Helen.  Many of the writers have English names – Edward, Henrietta, Alfred, Alex.  These Sierra Leonean people are Christians – many descendants from freed slaves, while Maligie, Brimar and Sheiku are Muslim.
Rereading the letters I am struck by their warmth and the emphasis on family.  Their concept of family is different from mine.  It’s broader and includes what I call distant relatives.  In my Sierra Leonean village family members sometimes came on visits from upcountry to their relatives and stayed for weeks, months or even years!
Maligie, the messenger/porter in the University Library tells me he has distributed the photographs I sent.  I’m pleased with that knowing the joy people take from getting photographs.  He writes:
  we have started planting in the gardens and I hope you are getting enough spring onions in Ireland.”
Despite the curfew and the rebel incursion, there is optimism.  On the 31st of August 1991, Martin an administrator at the University, writes:
 The referendum for the return to multiparty system was passed – eastern province voted 98% yes, south 95% yes, and we are awaiting results from northern province and western area.”
A few months later Brimar, the receptionist in the VSO office, writes with the same optimism:
“ In the case of the rebels we have no trepidation anymore because their base has been flushed and hundreds of them were killed in the last fierce battle at Zemi, which is at the Mano River bridge linking with Liberia.  Most impressively our soldiers have occupied 9 miles in Liberia to secure the country from any aggression.  He includes a weather update:
  The rainy season is finishing now, so it makes things easier for us to go to work.”
October brings news of University from Sylvia:  
We have started lectures yesterday.  College supposed to have opened since the 5th of the same month but students were on strike because of the increase in fees.”

In October Sheiku writes:
I wish to inform you that my mother was rescued from the rebel zone in August, but my father is still at large.  I have heard no news about him for the moment. I lost one of my brothers.” 
In November Brimar updates me:
 Things are really expensive and to make matters worse, the leone has plummeted severely to the dollar and pound.  One dollar is equivalent to about 550 leones.”
When I arrived in Sierra Leone in 1989, there was 100 leones to the pound.  Brimar finishes:
The rainy season is almost finishing now and we have started experiencing the cold dry wind – the Harmattan.”
Late November/December was my favourite time weather wise in Sierra Leone.  The Harmattan blowing in from the Sahara brought some relief from the intense heat.  It also brought sand, which rose in swirls coating everything in dust.
The letters continue with everyday news: family celebrations, the football match between Sierra Leone and Nigeria, the difficulty of getting transport to and from the University, the rising cost of living  the hope that the multiparty elections scheduled for the following year – 1992 – will bring stability, the hope that I have put on weight (a compliment in Sierra Leone).  There are also questions:
How is the cold? Do you have rice in Ireland? How are your family?
In May 1992 there is some dramatic news from Professor Cole, a Botany lecturer.  We have had our coup d’├ętat very peacefully and bloodless. He goes on to explain that following a military takeover there is now an interim government.  He finishes:
Coming back to work as usual, I should be grateful if you could obtain me photocopies of the attached list of articles for this department.  They are for the honours botany classes.” 

In October  Anthony writes of the destruction of his home village by a rebel attack.
I lost my aunt and my uncle.  You know all these deceased although you might not remember them. You snapped them the time we went to my home town.  One of the most recent deaths was the aunt; you, my uncle and me were in one of the pictures. She was sitting on the chair while you, my uncle and me stood together. The rebel problem is now going from bad to worse. We are not safe while the rebels are strongly determined to take over the country.”
Christmas brings little relief.  Deanna the university librarian writes:
Christmas is a bit gloomy here with the curfew still in force and the rebels still around.  Can you imagine moonlight picnic starting at 4.00.  It is now daylight picnic.  We still have no fulltime lecturer [to replace you].”
March 1993 brings some optimism with a change in government. A year later the interim government has not yet ushered in elections and the war has intensified.  Edward writes:
The rebel war you left three years back has not subsided yet.  In fact I can say it has become intensified.  There are times the rebels come and attack, kill and burn villages as close as two miles off Kenema town.”
There are few letters in 1994 as the postal system has been disrupted. In December Etta writes:
“We are all intact and praying that nothing happens to us in the city.  The rebel menace will soon be over.  The amount of destruction caused by these people is frightening. Prices of locally produced goods are soaring every day.  Some expats were captured by these rebels, this has frightened most foreigners/embassies.  Many of them are evacuating.”
Sylvia acknowledges my Christmas card in January:
I received your  card which you sent to me just after I came in search of my parents.  The rebels burnt our village and my parents were in the bush for nearly one year. I went in search of them immediately after exams in July. I finally brought them to Kenema two days back.  A lot of my relatives died in the bush and I did not see most of them.
How are you doing and your family? I finally finished the diploma last year.”
February 1995 brings more sad news when Alex writes:
“Life in Freetown is ok except for the inflow of our relatives from the provinces that have been devastated by bandits/rebels with no aims and objectives but to steal and destroy. Early this year I lost one of my uncles (my mother’s youngest brother) along the Mile 91 to Bo highway.  May his soul rest in peace.  I hope and pray for a lasting peace in Northern Ireland as we are looking for peace in Sierra Leone.”
The inflow of refugees from the provinces to Freetown continues putting further strain on a fragile situation. In February, Etta writes:
“I’m back at work and doing my best to cope.  The situation is such that most NGOs are winding up their activities and going home  - so employment is a problem. The rate at which things – prices – are going up is alarming.  Prices have risen almost a hundred per cent.”
Maligie is also experiencing the impact:
“All the white foreigners have left the country.  Hotels, beach bars and restaurants have closed down and because of this our vegetables are not selling and we throw away ¾ of what we grow. “
Things are bad in the Provinces too Edward tells me:
“As I’m writing there is no rice and other essential food items in Kenema.  Even when rice is seen, the price is just too unaffordable.  Rice that used to be sold at 15 leones per cup is now 400 leones per cup.  Five to six small cassava cost 1,000 leones.  Supply route from Freetown to Kenema areas is always attacked by rebels, passengers shot dead, contents removed and the vehicles set ablaze.”
In October 1995 Alfred writes:
For your information I have passed my final exams.  Results came out three weeks ago.  I am now looking for a job although it is not easy to find one these days in a war torn country like Sierra Leone.”
February 1996 brings presidential elections.  In October Anthony reports:
Presently we are having a ceasefire while negotiations are going on for peace between our newly elected president with the rebel leader Foudah Sankok in Ivory Coast.”
Maligie sends Christmas greetings:
“the peace treaty has been signed between the government and the rebel leader.  The country is calm. For now I have planted tomato, lettuce, cabbage, spring onion, carrot, thyme, runner beans etc. and all growing well.  Looking forward for the Christmas holiday.”
Sadly the fragile peace deal unravels. From the BBC World Service and the Sierra Leone Ireland Partnership (SLIP) I learn that a military junta seized power in May 1997. There are no letter until April 1998 when Maligie writes:
We have gone through the worst disaster ever in our life during the junta/rebel rule in the last nine months.”
The next letter, also from Maligie, is dated March 2000:
“Life in Sierra Leone has been deplorable for the past two years. It is very difficult to get a square meal a day. And you know I left the library to do that technician course.  I have finished since 97 but could not have a job up till now. You can contact me easier through e-mail at…”
On the 18th of January 2002, President Kabbah declares the war in Sierra Leone is officially over.  In February 2003 Maligie writes:
“There is absolute stability now in Sierra Leone and you can go about your business 24 hours without fear. I was presented with a mobile phone on my wedding day and my number is…

The same month Etta updates me:
I’m no longer in the Library [at the UN] as our documentation centre was burnt down. I guess you may be on the net, my e-mail address is…

2004 brings only four letters. Most of my correspondents have either stopped writing – it’s now 13 years since I left Sierra Leone -  or moved to e-mail.

The last letter, dated December 2004, is from Maligie & brings good news:
“I am happy to tell you that I have been employed in an engineering company – Air-Cold Engineering at Howe Street where the Catholic Office is in Freetown. We are all doing fine and the boys are doing fine in school.  Could you please call me on my mobile.”
Rereading the letters, I feel privileged to have received the personal stories of life in a time of war, in a country which was once my home.

I’ve published a few articles about my Sierra Leonean experience and two subsequent visits to Sierra Leone.
Out of Africa: Two years as a tutor librarian in Sierra Leone was written about a year after I returned to Ireland.  It was a bit like writing a diary after the event.  I wanted to record for myself details of the library programmes I was involved in.
Look Back and Wonder: Reflections of a VSO Librarian was written in 2003, with the benefit of hindsight and from a more mature understanding of the complexity of problems relating to the information needs of developing countries.
I revisited Sierra Leone in 2016 to help set up an environmental library

While there I go the opportunity to visit a really exciting adult education project for refugees established by the Holy Rosary Sisters.

I also met Mike Butscher who was leading PEN in Sierra Leone and trying to encourage Sierra Leonean writers.

So twenty five years later, I have lots of letters, articles, photos and memories of a time in Sierra Leone.


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