“The rebels receive more from the government than we do,” a man told a small group of us. He leaned on his crutches, one of his legs having been forcibly amputated during the war. “If we had some opportunity here, in this place, life would be better…. We don’t feel the sympathy from the government in Sierra Leone.” He trailed off and stared a thousand miles into the distance.
At the rural campus of Njala University I chatted casually with a student, answering his inquiries as to what I was doing in Sierra Leone.
“Yes, but you know we are very poor here. You have seen this,” he said leaning in close to me. “And what is it you will do for us? We need help. The government does nothing for us. We need something.”
These sentiments were hardly unique. Indeed, from nearly every community - amputee camps, rural villages, war widow groups, and children - I heard frustrations about government neglect and appeals for aid from the outside. I heard embedded in the pleas and accusations that someone or some group was being favored. Someone was getting more attention, as people saw themselves as being quite blatantly ignored and left in destitution.
But where is the individual agency in Sierra Leone? How is it that after a deep legacy of exploitation - from slave traders, colonizers, diamond merchants, and neighboring dictators - there is not revulsion to outsiders and a looking inward for strength? My answer is that this is an unfair indictment. That it is precisely the legacy of exploitation that fostered a sense of dependency in Sierra Leone.
The exploitation in Sierra Leone continues. Though I should be careful not to suggest that the well-intentioned work of development actors is of the same exploitative nature as colonizers and slave traders, I see it as not unfair to consider Sierra Leone as having been exploited through aid, development, and peacebuilding initiatives. These are very much theatres of politics and donor accountability, and Sierra Leone offers a stage for the demonstration of results and impact. The country recovering from war presents a context for the implementation of development and peacebuilding strategies, and the opportunity to display the efficacy of international standards of justice.
Since the abatement of the violence of the 1990s, Sierra Leone has seen impressive investments by the international community in the form of high profile reconciliation commissions, the construction of court facilities, and most striking to me, the establishment of new communities to house the war wounded and amputees. One of these settlements had at its center a sign containing the words “Welcome to Norway,” reminding residents of their benefactor. The interventions seemed disconnected from society, too much of a handout, and too obviously foreign. I think exploitive is not too strong a word. Problems of ownership and agency are in part due to exploitation in Sierra Leone. Institutions are distant and imposed from the outside. Expectations are shaped by these patterns. Critiques of a lack of agency in Sierra Leone may be fair, but also must be sensitive to the legacy of exploitation.
“When Kono finally became accessible in 2002 I visited and got the shock of my life,” recounted David, another University student from the Freetown campus of Njala Univeristy. “The once number two center of human activity in the country had been reduced to rubble…. Koidu town and other large settlements received the brunt of the destructions having not only been burnt, but almost dug out for diamonds…. There was no light, no pipe borne water, no recognizable roads in the capital town. When I told folks in the UK I'd decided to return and work in Sierra Leone they asked if I was nuts. When I added I'd be settling in Kono, they said you're definitely nuts!”
David continued, recounting his current struggles in Sierra Leone: “It's very difficult to do charity work in the current economic climate and in such a poor country. Every day life is a struggle to raise funds for school buildings, electrification, bore holes for water, teaching aids and other equipment, salaries for staff - the list goes on and on. But one should not give up. Yet the fact remains, no one in this world can do everything by themselves; you may not be able to assist us directly, but you may know someone who knows someone who knows someone that can. If you do, kindly inform them about us.”
Just as common as the appeals for help from outside and the testimonies of government neglect were statements such as David’s - hardly indicative of a lack of agency, and all the more remarkable when considering the exploitation that Sierra Leone has known.
Ben Mitchell was in Sierra Leone for a two-week course led by Dr. Pushpa Iyer of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Ben's blog is part of a series of reflections by Dr. Iyer and her students on the challenges to building peace in this war-ravaged country. -Ed.
About the Author: Ben Mitchell served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Albania, and has worked extensively in the domestic non-profit sector. He has studied at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa, and holds a Masters degree from MIIS, where he specialized in conflict resolution.