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Sunday, April 21, 2013
The Dallas Morning News
Michael Lindenberger says Sierra Leone is rich in diamonds and, despite the smiles, in misery
REETOWN, Sierra Leone — Packed into SUVs, we had bounced and inched and crawled our way through the bush along washed-out roads and rickety bridges until we had arrived at Baomahun, a community of thatched roofs and mud walls 90 miles — and seven hours’ driving — from the capital. It was the last Wednesday of March. While the president of Sierra Leone was making headlines in his first visit to the United States at the invitation of the White House, 10 of us from Stanford University were on an unrelated trip to the African country. Barack Obama invited Ernest Bai Koroma to discuss the country’s efforts to increase economic opportunities; we were in Sierra Leone witnessing how much remains to be done. We had arrived four days earlier, with a goal to better understand the lives of some of the poorest people on the planet and to develop a plan to help this sun-basted nation of 5.6 million. This much had been clear before we left: Twelve years after the end of its brutal, diamond-fueled civil war, Sierra Leone remains rich beyond measure in minerals, in diamonds, in gold — and, as ever, in misery. A litany of Sierra Leone’s laments would make Hamlet seem happy. A crowded, chaotic capital city full of slums, of dust and of crumbling buildings and flung-together shanties. Children everywhere, some begging on the streets and others streaming to school on foot amid wild traffic and beeping horns. Women, spread out along the cratered roads walking from before light till after dark, balancing burdens on their heads. In the villages out near the bush, it was worse: Huts without a wall and children without clothes. Disease and desperation hanging in the air like fog. No work, not enough food, and everywhere seething resentment at the foreign mining and agricultural companies whose conflict-ridden deals have pushed farmers and artisanal miners off ancestral lands. We reached Baomahun late that Wednesday to find scores of village chiefs, landowners and others waiting to tell us their stories, something we’d grow used to in the days ahead. Told in a handful of languages and in the pain etched in their faces, the tales were as different as one human being from another. But they amounted to the same thing: “We are suffering,” Baomahun town chief Joseph Karimola told me. In Baomahun, there are 8,000 people but no clean water, no plumbing and no electric power. “They are up there enjoying themselves,” Karimola told me, indicating the mine complex that has taken their lands but employs only a few villagers. “Come sleep here tonight, and you will see. They sleep with electricity, and we sleep here in darkness. How is it that when the land belongs to us, they enjoy themselves and we do not enjoy anything?” That’s not a line of questions that likely came up during the White House meeting between Obama and Koroma the next day. It’s the kind of complaint that has fallen on deaf ears back in Freetown. Before our trip to the villages, we spent two very long days meeting with top government ministers, and many of them had dismissed villagers’ complaints as nothing more than greed. In meeting with various company officials, we heard stories of locals who stole fuel from trucks they had been entrusted to drive and of the constant expectation of payments to chiefs and others during endless negotiations. On the other hand, locals told tales of blacklisting, corruption, double-dealing and coercion. ierra Leone is at once one of the least developed nations in the world and one of its most wide-open business opportunities. While signs of the war are everywhere — burned-down buildings, broken walls, rapid urbanization — it is mending. Koroma, the country’s democratically elected president, just entered his second term. Businesses across the globe are eyeing or upping investments, and its rate of development is among Africa’s fastest, although it remains near the bottom of the United Nations’ human development index, at 177th. (The U.S. is third, and Congo and Niger are tied for last at 186th.) “Maybe the war did something for us,” reflected Alice Foyah, a member of Parliament in the opposition, a woman whose margin of victory during last year’s elections was among the highest in the country. “I think it exposed to the rest of the world an awareness of how enriched we are. Before, when we traveled abroad and returned home, it would just be us getting off the last stop, in Sierra Leone. Now, every plane is loaded with investors coming to our country looking for development.” Investors’ interest alone isn’t doing anything for the villagers we ran across. Some get jobs in the mines or on the vast agricultural fields leased by companies eager to supply
Untold wealth, unshared
Michael Lindenberger was part of a fact-finding mission to Sierra Leone. He found that despite grinding poverty, children seemed to smile instantly upon meeting a stranger.
The effects of poverty
N 50 miles
l ke Ro
Yawri Bay Bo Kenema
Human development level Low Medium High
Population: 5.6 million Ofﬁcial language: English Religions:
Muslim 60% Indigenous beliefs 30% 10%
Year of independence: 1961, from the United Kingdom Government type: Constitutional democracy though outside the capital of Freetown, local chiefs rule for life and exert signiﬁcant power.
Probability of dying between birth and exactly age 5, expressed per 1,000 live births.
174 out of 1,000
Number of years a newborn infant could expect to live
Expected years of schooling
Number of years of schooling that a child of school-entrance age can expect to receive
Percentage of the population living below the international poverty line of $1.25 (in purchasing power parity terms) a day.
Rank by annual electricty generated in kilowatt hours
192 out of 218 countries
omething else has begun flowering, too: There are men and women across the country spending their lives trying to Very high make the country whole again. Some of them EDUCATION* INCOME* HEALTH** have important contacts internationally and are working on a large scale. Others are small New Zealand men, poor people themselves, who have found Qatar Japan tools to bring about change. U.S. I met one such man in the capital, in the offices of Timap for Justice. That’s a nonprofit U.S. group that has trained villagers in the rudiments of law and problem-solving, and called them paralegals. There are 60 of them in 19 offices. They typically solve problems, mediate marital and other disputes, and sometimes work with those accused of crimes to monitor their treatment — all without cost. In a nation of only about 200 practicing attorneys, this is U.S. important work. In a crowded Freetown office, I slipped away from my team to run some questions by Harding Sesay, a paralegal for Timap since 2010. Why did he work for Timap? He didn’t hesitate. “I have a passion, and I have a story,” he told me quietly. “In my village, my sister was mistreated very, very badly by her husband. We were not able to seek redress because we were poor.” I had already learned that in Sierra Leone, seeking justice through the courts has been a rich man’s game. Now, Sesay said, he plays a seminal role in changing that reality for villagers who find themselves in a similar position. “I am so happy I made this decision,” he said. “They can see now that they can find justice without worries about the cost.” He paused and looked at me before adding, as if this was the all explanation I would ever need: “I know the bitterness of not having any money.” The look he gave joined other strong visuals that suggest there is more to the country than the misery we saw in the villages. Along the dirt road where a Senegalese company is building a two-lane highway along the coast, for example, real estate lots have been carved out on the opposite hills. Suburban-style housing sits waiting for buyers, expected to be members of the Sierra Leone diaspora still scrambled by the decadelong diamond wars that ended in 2001. The Atlantic Ocean beaches are beautiful and open to the public. Vegetation is lush in places, and, of course, there is wealth waiting in the ground. It’s hard to fight an urge to think that, perhaps, Sierra Leone’s best days are just ahead. It will take a firmer commitment by the men and women running the country to Sierra Leone look after one another’s interests, rather than Sierra No. 174 Leone merely their own, if those better days are No. 177 going to materialize. For now, despite the smiles on many faces, Congo Niger life in Sierra Leone for too many citizens is Sierra nasty, brutish and short. Leone
No. 194 * Data unavailable for some countries ** More nations are represented in the health index than the other two component indexes and the overall index.
The United Nations measures development by combining indexes of education, income and health into a composite human development index (HDI). Sierra Leone is improving since the end of its disastrous civil war in 2001, but has a long way to go. It ranks 177 out of 186 countries in the HDI. Here is how it ranks in each component index.
position of profound weakness. “No investor ever sees himself as a humanitarian,” one executive of the local government ministry told us. “Whenever they see an opportunity to maximize their profits, they will do so. When you are poor, you are disadvantaged.” The real disadvantage, advocates for the poor mining and farming villages told us, are citizens without a strong voice in the capital and without a vote on the mining deals. The result is life as Thomas Hobbes might have described it, with the weak always at the mercy of the strong. Certainly, it looks a lot like that to a babyfaced 25-year-old I spoke with. “I get up in the morning, and then have nothing,” he told me, speaking perfect English. “I went to school and tested for the next level. But I had to come home because we could not pay the fees. Now there is no work, no land to farm and I do nothing.” These troubling impressions strike a visitor like a punch in the throat, but as the days ticked by, other impressions emerged, too. In the villages and the cities, children seemed to smile instantly upon meeting a stranger. Men tended to offer seats to anyone who looked tired, and even in the midst of the worst poverty, parents prized their children fiercely. Among the children, small kindnesses to one another, like an arm on a shoulder, or a small child’s hand held by an older one, popped out of the landscape like flowers in bloom.
bioenergy needs overseas. Most are kept at menial positions and on temporary status, with subsistence pay and zero security. Many more simply have no work at all. National leaders in the governing party told us in meeting after meeting that they
have made large strides in making concession deals with mining and agricultural companies to pay Sierra Leone more for its buried treasures. But most of them, from the attorney general to the deputy speaker of the Parliament, said they continue to negotiate from a
Staff writer Michael Lindenberger is a 2013 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. His email address is mlindenberger@ dallasnews.com. This trip was part of a fact-finding mission to Sierra Leone for a project sponsored by the Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law under the guidance of political scientist and professor Jeremy Weinstein of Stanford.
P6 04-21-2013 Set: 17:06:37 Sent by: firstname.lastname@example.org Opinion CYAN BLACK YELLOW MAGENTA
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