A story on every corner

My first full-time gig as a reporter was a wonderful summer in a small city in eastern Canada. Fredericton is the capital of New Brunswick. It’s home to the provincial legislative assembly and two universities. The problem for news-gatherers is that those three institutions are effectively in hibernation for the summer months. Between May and September, there isn’t much in the way of sensational news in Fredericton. I remember a day where the cameraman and I drove around looking for news. After a few hours of searching, we did a story about a small rise in the number of visitors to a provincial park.

The JHR team and bike drivers on the way to Yeliboya Island

The JHR team and bike drivers on the way to Yeliboya Island

Developed countries like Canada can be referred to as “developed”, because not much happens. Citizens are safe, healthy, secure and, for the most part, have their human rights respected. Here in Sierra Leone that is not the case. Before I came here, a former JHR trainer told me that “there is a story on every corner.” I think of that phrase almost every day.

Kambia town is just a few kilometres from the Guinean border

Kambia town is just a few kilometres from the Guinean border

For the last reporting trip of my time in Sierra Leone, we decided to head north to Kambia District to see what sort of stories we could find. I mentored two journalists from Africa Young Voices Radio, with help from JHR Local Trainer Kevin Lamdo and Kambia journalist Gibril Gottor (recently-crowned Male Media Professional of the Year). Our plan was to do two stories.

Gibril Gottor. Sierra Leone's Male Media Professional of the Year. The border police don't like him much.

Gibril Gottor. Sierra Leone’s Male Media Professional of the Year. The border police don’t like him much.

We started with a story on unsafe abortion. Abortion is illegal in almost all cases in Sierra Leone. The current legislation dates back to 1861. A recent report showed that, in 2011, 1,622 women went to hospital as a result of the effects of illegal abortions. It estimates that almost 2% of abortions resulted in the mother’s death. We spoke to a community doctor, nurses, a pastor, and after some searching we finally a woman who said she had had an abortion, performed illegally in a local hospital. Story #1.

kambia3

The next day we went to a remote village believed to be a source of the 2012 cholera outbreak that killed around 400 people in Sierra Leone and Guinea. We took various modes of transport, including a one-hour boat trip to reach Yeliboya Island. We met the village chief, a nurse who treated those who were ill and dying from cholera, and a woman whose four-year-old step-daughter died from cholera. We saw how the water situation had been improved by the digging of wells on a nearby island, and how the sanitation situation remained unsafe. Waste from hanging toilets fell directly into the river, and children continued to use beaches as a toilet. Story #2.

Hanging toilets on Yeliboya Island drop waste straight into the river

Hanging toilets on Yeliboya Island drop waste straight into the river

On the way to Yeliboya, we had stopped at the village of Kychom to hire our boat. While waiting, we noticed hundreds of empty water packets sitting in the sun. These ubiquitous 500ml bags of water are the cheapest way to get purified drinking water. The packets litter the streets and clog-up drains across the country, contributing to sewers flooding the streets in rainy season. AYV reporter Princetta Williams asked about the packets. A woman told her she was drying them to send them north to Guinea for recycling. Recycling programmes are almost unknown in Sierra Leone. Story #3.

Water packets drying in the sun at Kychom, Kambia District

Water packets drying in the sun at Kychom, Kambia District

When we got back to Kambia town we noticed new sets of clean water taps around the town. They were all installed with the help of the Japanese government in February. But they had all been turned off for the past month. It turned out that very few local home-owners were paying the monthly fee of Le15,000 ($3.50). The local water company engineer said that all he needed was $50 of fuel per day, to pump the water and restore supply. He also said the Ministry of Water was supposed to inject $17,500 into the project in February. The money came two months late, and was only $9,300 – enough to pay-off some of the fuel debts. In the past month, locals have been going to old water sources that are no longer chlorinated. Story #4.

Africa Young Voices Journalist Diana Coker checks the closed taps in Kambia

Africa Young Voices Journalist Diana Coker checks the closed taps in Kambia

On our second evening in Kambia, we decided to head north to the Guinean border. After a colourful exchange with border police (Gibril said they don’t like him very much), we were allowed to walk into Guinea. The border is protected by four rope barriers. But just off to the side is a modern border complex, with barriers, offices and an inspection zone. It was closed. We wandered across. A sign highlighted the grand opening of the Joint Customs Border Post on June 2nd – just days away, I thought. I read it again, June 2nd… 2012. The project was funded by the National Revenue Agency and has sat empty for a year. Story #5.

The one-year-old Joint Customs Border Post has not yet been used

The one-year-old Joint Customs Border Post has not yet been used

Nothing seems to surprise Sierra Leonean journalists. Almost everything still surprises me here. When I leave Sierra Leone this month, I will miss it desperately. I fear that life will be too boring back in the developed world. The thing is, so many Sierra Leoneans long for the day when life here is as quite, as healthy and as uneventful as places like Fredericton.

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