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.
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.
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.
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.
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.