Obstacles in Development

beach, sierra leone beach, rocks on the beach, S.C Rhyne

Hey there world, what have you been up to since I left? I know the U.S. and the U.K are still turning on its head, despite me being out of the loop on day-to-day news. Meanwhile, I have moved from Sierra Leone to neighboring Liberia and have been settling in the last two weeks. I have finally reached a point where checking my email every day or once a week is not even producing anxiety-induced panic attacks; if someone wants to reach me urgently, they know how to.

Part of my field research here is about the context of social and economic development in West Africa. I ask a lot of “why” and “how” questions, but I have to remind myself, that Sierra Leone has only been independent since 1961, so no country 55 years after independence is smooth sailing; in fact, there is a certain country I remember falling into civil war, less than a hundred years after independence.

Liberia fell into a civil war in the late 80s, that spilled over the porous borders into Sierra Leone in 1991 with a coup d’etat of President Momoh. It wasn’t until after the Millennium (2002 and 2003) that both countries signed peace accords with rebel factions to finally end the wars. So think about how many years the United States spent rebuilding after being at war for 4 years, versus these countries which have been at war for more than 10! So rebuilding is a slow, multi-decade effort. For example, think about the children during the war years, many of them were out of school and are now illiterate or semi-illiterate adults (70% of Sierra Leone’s population is illiterate), so when you ask, “Why aren’t there enough doctors/nurses in the country?” or “How come teenage pregnancy is sky rocketing?” These are some of the long term effects of a devastating war.

I think the mainstream academic, development, and news media have already picked up on these challenges and main obstacles that people face in social development. However, since being here, I can tell you about more nuanced obstacles that are not reported. They may seem to minor for MSF or Red Cross to write a report on, but living with a family whose daughter is studying medicine in Cuba, I know that paying her school fees wasn’t the only challenge her parents overcame to have a daughter that is doing great things.

Internet

Right, so we know that internet access is limited in these countries. However, I don’t think I fully described the situation, even with places that have internet connection, the connection is painstakingly slow. Remember dial-up? Well, think that connection speed and reliability. It sometimes takes several minutes to load Google on my browser. Or it can take 10 minutes or more to email someone with photo attachments or to send to multiple recipients. It is also not uncommon for the connection to fail while doing something online or to lose electricity. By the way, these are my experiences going to my nearby internet café. Some people invest in a mini-router to have wifi access at home, and those are even worse. You pay 15,000 Le (about $2) for all day access, and there were times that as soon as I turned it on, there was no internet connection. Or I would have internet for the first hour and then lose connection for 3 hours. There were some days where I would wake up at 2 or 3 am to use the wifi to download some articles to read, because it seemed to be a bit faster since there was less congestion.

So when you think about how important it is for a student to have internet access to conduct research, this is a taste of what they experience. Most people seem to access the net on their mobile phones (there are data packages for 50 or 100 MB to browse social media apps) or if they are working, at their jobs. However, even at these offices, the internet is not the same hi-speed connection that we are used to in the West. A song can take 10 minutes or more to download and my iPhone took over 30 minutes to download the latest software to update itself. However, this is fast.

Noise Pollution

Every Thursday, there is a restaurant/bar across the street from my home in Freetown that liked to get the weekend started around 1pm. Yep, as I was writing this on my laptop, I had to take a break from reading an academic paper, because this bar decided that a good use of its generator power is to blast soca music from two or three subwoofer speakers rather than to refrigerate their milk. Even transcribing interviews in my earphones is challenging as I need the transcript to be word-for-word. When I first arrived to the east end of Freetown, I used to be awaken every morning by the sound of the rooster crowing, shortly followed by a church that played its sermon on a subwoofer speaker. Sometimes in the evening when a company is doing “advertisement” for a product or event, music can be heard playing well after midnight. And this happens on weeknights, when people regularly wake up 5 or 6 am to go to work.

So faced with the obvious challenge of not having 24 hour electricity, I can’t always use my laptop to do work or write. And obviously with lack of reliable internet, I can’t write every day, because I’m used to scouring the internet for things as I write. I had developed a system between reading on my kindle and using my laptop so that I’m always doing something work related when one device is being charged up in the tele-center (a tele-center is a place where they charge electronic devices for a small fee). But when a two-man party erupts, that sometimes means going to plan E.

Plan E: leaving the neighborhood.

Transportation

Now Freetown is major metropolis with the hustle and bustle of any capital city, and downtown is the place to be whether you need some unusual foreign item like cotton pads (I only know one place that carries them) or something less strange like a hair brush. However, getting downtown without a private vehicle is another challenge. Most people use motorbikes in Sierra Leone (and pretty much the rest of Africa) as preferred public transport. However, they were banned from operating downtown because the riders do not make safety a priority. Here is a picture of my first negative experience on a motorbike, this happened on a Tuesday on my way downtown.leg

So, I take a motorbike to a popular intersection where there is a street market but also vans to go downtown. Relatively, these vans are safer but objectively they are not safe. People are packed in like sardines, because they want to earn a minimum for transporting people on the route, often 5 to a bench when it can comfortably accommodate 3. These vans are slow moving because people walk on the street as many places do not have safe pedestrian walkways or the street vendors block the walkways. It is not uncommon for people to “jump in” while the van is moving, as I had to do a couple times, and once had a passenger help pull me in. It is very hot in those vehicles since everyone is on top of each other, and hotter when there is stand-still traffic. A three-mile trip can take at least an hour. As good and cheap as this transport system is, it only runs until 8pm or maybe 9pm. Not to mention there seems to be a weird flow of when the vehicles are available. It is easy to get transport (taxi or van) around 5 or 6 am heading to downtown Freetown (hence a lot of early arrivers to work) and between 11am and 1pm, however it is very difficult to get transport out of downtown Freetown between 5 and 7pm, when people are commonly leaving work, so a lot of folks, especially those who live in the east, will leave work around 3 or 4 pm, especially if there is nothing to do at work.

So traveling downtown to find another internet café, or even just a regular café to get work done has been helpful, but realistically is this something feasible every day?

So these are a few of the challenges that I observed living in Sierra Leone, a lot of locals don’t really complain about these things, maybe because they are used to it or there is no point in complaining? However, when we talk about obstacles to development, big NGOs like to focus on some of the more obvious things like lack of electricity, poverty, or health facilities, which are very important. However, for the working-class/middle-class Leonean some of these basic things that we expect in the West, like following noise codes or having a reasonable way to get to work, are not present here yet. If there was more focus on how to improve things for those who are trying to “get ahead” then it would also go a long way to motivating and encouraging people.

I’m still trying to find my roots in Liberia, I was lucky enough to find a family to take me in (like stray) and I hope to understand more about my new city, Paynesville.

Love at First Flight

Good day, smut readers!

This is my first post whilst on my trip in West Africa. For those of you who follow me on Facebook and/or Twitter, then you know that I have been posting photos and such from my trip. I am currently in Sierra Leone and will be here until mid-March. I was very nervous about this trip for all sorts of reasons; one, it is part of my field research, so I’m not on vacation, I am here to do work and collect data and this will impact the viability of my thesis. Second, there were some logistics that were not yet solidly confirmed such as my short and long term accommodations and where in the country I would travel to conduct interviews.

Oh, and apparently, I’m engaged, so now I must think about that too.

I’m glad to say that it has all been working well. I stayed in a nice guest house for a few days before heading out to the most eastern region of the country, Kailahun District. This is where the rebel war of the 1990’s that had spilled over from Liberia crossed over in 1991 to overthrow President Momoh and displaced millions of Sierra Leoneans as they fled westward to the capital, Freetown, or to other places. A large part of the diaspora has yet to return, especially in a country that desperately needs educated, entrepreneurial, and reform-minded people to rebuild in a post-conflict and fragile setting. In 2014, this is also where the deadly Ebola virus had also crossed over and was the heart of the epidemic that soon spread to the rest of the country, and now people are rebuilding from that too. I plan on visiting some other districts along the South, and hopefully will make it to the Bombali district in the north too.

The good, the bad, and the ugly about traveling

Everyone has been very friendly to me, despite my companion and the family I’m staying with, warning me to view everyone as suspect. It is not in my nature to do so, however, I know that I am different and I look different, so I should be cautious. Especially at night and tonight I do plan to travel alone from downtown Freetown to my apartment in the Eastern side of the city. I am also the type of person who will forget to lock her (front) door and I never lock (I don’t think I ever had a lock and key, except for in the college dorms) my bedroom door. However, folks here take security seriously, even in the remote villages that I went to, its common to see 6 or 8 feet cement walls with barb wire and broken glass bottles on the top. As well as bars on the windows, all kinds of deadbolts and padlocks on front doors and each person’s bedroom doors. When I asked my companion why he felt it necessary to lock everything up, especially when he is living with family, I asked, “Are you afraid of theft?” He replied, that he knows that no one in his family are thieves, but this is Africa…etc.” There is suspicion of the other – that someone will try to harm you (physically or spiritually) or take something from you. As well as there are a lot of stories and rumors of people being robbed or kidnapped and such, in the States we call that news.

So, I do think this one person may be a little overly cautious, especially since I was betrothed (kidding) by a close friend of his to watch over me while I’m here. And he wants to make sure that nothing happens to me.

I can’t seem to escape…men problems

Speaking of my betrothal, my companion has taken a liking to me. I arrived very early on a Thursday morning where he met me and took me to my guest house where I stayed for a few days before moving into this apartment. He’s a very smart guy and politically involved and savvy, just the way I like ‘em. I would later find out, that he in turn, was surprised to see how young I was doing my postgraduate degree. There are many obstacles in Sierra Leone for young people to attain higher education, so to get a bachelor’s (a first degree, as they call it) is remarkable in of itself. But to see someone my age studying beyond that, is rare and very respectable. I guess he was not only surprised by my youth but also attractiveness. We talked a lot on Thursday about Sierra Leone politics, global politics, my thesis, my family,…etc. I felt very comfortable talking to him, of course, because I knew we would be doing a lot of traveling together and spending a lot of time together. Thus, it is good to get to know each other well. However, I may not have known that culturally I may have been crossing a line; by the next day he declared that he was falling in love with me and tried to kiss me. He really didn’t seem to understand what was wrong when I kicked him out of my guest room and threatened to christen my new Swiss army knife by slicing off his left nut.

Apparently, “being open” about yourself is a sign that you like a person, so talking about my family and myself…etc. He may have misread that as me falling in love. Thus, I made a call to a friend in London, who has spent some time in Senegal on his experiences. His advice:

  • Love doesn’t actually mean love. The word love is sometimes overused, when it really means lust or just really liking a person to date him/her. Westerners are much more reserved in using the word love until we know this is the person we want to settle with for life.
  • Men in West Africa, can be more aggressive. Not just in pursuing women, but in other aspects too. For example, I noticed that when my companion speaks with younger cousins around his compound “he orders” them assertively to do things (fetch water, boil water, sweep his room…etc.), now there is a respect for age and education, so as the oldest male relative, he does get to boss his younger brother and cousins around to do things for him, but heesh! As well, since he is an educated person (first degree) when we go to buy things from local shops or hop on the bus, he “demands” that they take us this place, or when they are going too fast or slow, or to give him his change now. In terms of love, if they are feeling something, its best to let the lady know upfront and now, hence why I found out from him so soon.

We talked a couple days later and decided to remain friends but even that has had tension and clashes. Like hand-holding (all sexes) is a common sign of close friendship and I had many times refused to hold his hand, which made him upset and wondered why I would refuse this. Not to mention, in one of our trips we had to share to a room.

These last couple weeks, he had let it known that his feelings had not changed, and even had gotten stronger the more he has gotten to know me. Even to the point of telling his mother that he was falling for me. His mother confirmed this over the phone to me too. On our last night before heading back to Freetown he said he had been talking to someone before he met me, but it hadn’t gone far. OK, I don’t give a shit. Really, we just met last week or so, and I’m pretty sure you had a life before me, anyway I’m glad he’s an honest Joe.

Sigh…More problems, am I in Nollywood?

Well, on the day of our return, when I was transitioning to my new apartment with a lovely older couple, he said he was going to introduce me to a female friend, someone my age that could keep me company in my new neighborhood, as the couple’s own daughter was away in medical school. He showed me a picture of her on his phone, then another picture, and another and another…and WTF, how many pictures of this female friend does he have on his phone?! I inquired deeper into their relationship, and it turns out she was the girl he was talking to…for two years!

Who the fuck does he think I am? Nobody “talks” for two years.

To be continued…