Author Archives: Redmond Shannon

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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


A good walk spoiled

Freetown Golf Club (FTG). Saturday, May 18th, 2:03 p.m. – I was finishing some interviews for a feature article about Sierra Leone’s only golf club, when I saw something remarkable for a golf course; people running.

Golfers play on one of Freetwon Golf Club's "browns" - a surface made from sand and oi.l

Golfers play on one of Freetwon Golf Club’s “browns” – a surface made from sand and oil.

I had played the course a week before and enjoyed speaking with the friendly caddies and professionals. One young professional is about to head off the Senegal Open; his first competition outside of Sierra Leone, his first time abroad, his first opportunity to play a course other than FTG, and his first opportunity to putt on greens (FTG has “browns” rather than greens. They are flat surfaces made from sand and oil). A caddy also told me about how his father was shot in the back of the head during the war. He said it made him thankful for every day he could walk around a golf course, and be paid for it.

Golfers, caddies and police flee the course

Golfers, caddies and police flee the course

But my second visit to the club was proving to be less heart-warming, or inspirational. Players and caddies were running from the course, towards the clubhouse. A few hundred metres behind them, a group of young men followed with sticks and fire bombs. Caddies later told me that everyone ran after hearing gunshots, and they said the men had threatened to burn down the clubhouse.

Men throw rocks and fire bombs toward the clubhouse

Men throw rocks and fire bombs towards the clubhouse

A stand-off followed for a few minutes, with the the men and caddies at either side of a ditch. Some caddies told me they were glad that a friend was there to take pictures and make audio recordings. Armed with golf clubs, the caddies organised themselves and charged back, shouting “attack!” As I followed them down the fairway towards the other end of the course, all I could think of was the movie Braveheart. I thought it best not to be the William Wallace.

Caddies charge back  against the men who invaded the golf course

Caddies charge back against the men who invaded the golf course

One caddy told me he could see a man with a gun, but my eyesight wasn’t sharp enough. He told me where I could safely stand to take photos. Moments later there were two sharp pops. We all fled back towards the clubhouse. The caddies ran in zigzag lines, low to the ground. They encouraged me to do as they did.

Back beside the clubhouse another caddy came up to me and said “A-K.” He had served in the army and said that the AK-47 has a distinct sound. He said he knew who was firing it too. Allegedly a member of the OSD – the paramilitary unit of the police force – who lives in the New Life City community, beside the course.

Riot police arrive at Freetown Golf Club

Riot police at Freetown Golf Club

Around 50 police officers soon arrived and headed down to New Life City. We heard a series of gunshots from the community. When it calmed down, I went to New Life City, and saw that police made at least four arrests, including one man dressed in an army uniform. But by some accounts, the OSD officer had escaped.

One of the New Life City houses, after Saturday's violence.

One of the New Life City houses, after Saturday’s violence.

Some newer houses were being torn down by men who appeared to be caddies. All in full view of the police. One of the arrested men was screaming and in tears. Residents showed me their ransacked houses and said police were to blame. Groups of young men took items from half-destroyed homes and brought them towards the golf course.

This man in army clothes was one of at least four people arrested.

This man in army clothes was one of at least four people arrested.

The club manager told me the situation arose because New Life City is built on golf club land. The houses had been ordered destroyed by a judge in March. Some were soon rebuilt. A surveyor had visited the site on Friday and had his equipment stolen. A subsequent visit by some police officers on Saturday seemed to have sparked the violence.

A man in New Life City cries before he is taken away in handcuffs.

A man in New Life City cries before he is taken away in handcuffs.

With the help of a colleague at Radio Democracy, I produced and co-wrote a radio report that he voiced in Krio. It aired that evening and again on Monday morning. On Monday night a caddy called me and complained about what the report had said about the alleged actions of some caddies. He said he thought we were friends.

A man with a golf club begins tearing down a house in New Life City.

A man with a golf club begins tearing down a house in New Life City.

One of the biggest problems for journalism in Sierra Leone is media ownership. Many media houses are funded by one of the two main political parties. Friends are not always criticized. I now understood how it felt to have to do so. I didn’t enjoy it. But here’s to more of that in Sierra Leone’s future.

Note: Despite Sierra Leone’s bloody past, gun violence like this is relatively rare in Freetown.

You lucky dog

The goal of Journalists for Human Rights is to make everyone in the world fully aware of their rights. We do this through facilitating good human rights journalism, primarily in developing nations. It’s sometimes hard for visiting trainers like myself not to feel like we should be doing more than just this. When we leave, we leave so many problems behind. However, this is the story of how one JHR Trainer helped a youngster called Paddy, and about how Paddy is defying the odds to prepare for a new life in a far away land.

Of course, it’s worth noting that Paddy does not have any human rights. Paddy is a dog. Some call him the luckiest dog in Sierra Leone.

Paddy chews as his friend Frisco looks on.

Paddy chews as his friend Frisco looks on.

In August 2012, JHR Trainer Nina deVries was getting a shared taxi to the Freetown neighbourhood of Aberdeen. As often happens, the dilapidated Nissan broke down. Nina got out and walked. As she strolled along the road, she noticed something moving down on the ground. A rat? No, it was a tiny brown puppy, limping to a safe place by the side of the road.

Paddy, shortly after being rescued.

August 2012. Paddy, shortly after being rescued.

Nina describes what happened. “He must have just managed to cross. I was just going to put him in a safe place, but after chatting with a man who had seen him before and did not know where the mother was, I ended up taking him to Dr Jalloh, right before he closed that day.” Dr Jalloh is one of a handful of vets in the country. “I found a cardboard box and put him in that and took a taxi to the vet. He had mange, a limp, fleas, worms, diarrhoea, and for a while he was getting these weird bumps on his back. They were a kind of maggot growing inside him.”

Dr Jalloh, nursing Paddy back to health.

August 2012. Dr Jalloh, nursing Paddy back to health.

The outlook was not good. Dr Jalloh gave the puppy a small chance of survival. But during treatment, Nina decided to call him Paddy. The place where she found him was close to the legendary Paddy’s Bar in Aberdeen. Paddy’s only recently closed down, but had stayed open throughout the 1991-2002 civil conflict. The bar in the movie Blood Diamond is based on Paddy’s. Paddy/Padi also happens to be the Krio word for “friend.”

A young Paddy.

A young Paddy.

Paddy slowly grew into himself. Despite his tiny size, Dr Jalloh reckoned Paddy was about three-months-old when Nina rescued him. It goes without saying that Nina grew attached to Paddy and decided to keep him at her house on Old Railway Line. He made new friends, including the other canine resident, Frisco.

With a heavy heart, Nina returned to her life in Yellowknife in March. Paddy stayed here with Frisco, me and the other residents of the house.

A few weeks later I noticed a bump on Paddy’s belly. I brought him down to Dr Jalloh. The staff couldn’t control their delight at seeing Paddy, all grown up. They yelled “Oh Paddy Paddy!” I’m not sure if that’s supposed to mean “Paddy Friend,” or “Friend Paddy.” Maybe it means “Friend Friend.” In any case, Dr Jalloh removed what turned out to be a type of lymphoma growth, and after a few groggy days, the pride and joy of the clinic was back to his hyper best.

Paddy, post operation.

April, 2013. Paddy, with Dr Jalloh and a nurse after his operation.

Paddy is one-year-old this month. He will accompany me back to Canada in June, for his new life in Yellowknife. He will miss Frisco. He will miss sitting in the hot sun. But more importantly he will be back with Nina, who probably saved his life.

Paddy has many friends in the neighbourhood

Paddy has many friends in the neighbourhood

I have been thanked for taking care of Paddy and for helping him to emigrate. But it’s a fairly selfish act. I love dogs and I get to have one for a few months in Sierra Leone. And anyway, what else would I do? Paddy’s my middle name.

Digging up the future

In Hollywood “romcom” movies, you’ll sometimes see the male lead whisk away his lady in a blindfold for a surprise holiday. When they arrive, he removes her blindfold and she gushes in delight. Maybe that was an episode of The Bachelor, but I think you know what I’m talking about.

Bureh Beach is about 90 minutes from Freetown

Bureh Beach is about 90 minutes from Freetown

If such a thing were ever to happen to you, and you were brought to Bureh Beach, you would almost certainly think you were in the Caribbean. Along Sierra Leone’s Western Peninsula, below Freetown, there are a dozen-or-so beaches like this. The beach known as River Number 2 was used in a classic Bounty chocolate bar ad.

Tokeh Beach, south of Freetown

Tokeh Beach, south of Freetown

Some of these beaches are just 30 minutes from the capital. For a country as poor as Sierra Leone, the potential benefits from tourism are huge. But before that can happen, the country needs to improve its infrastructure. Freetown’s international airport is currently in Lungi, at the opposite side of a wide estuary. It’s a $40, 40-minute ferry ride to Freetown (cheaper ferries take longer). Getting to a beach from the airport is a long and cumbersome affair.

The government recently announced plans to build a new airport south of Freetown, quite close to the beaches. A new road is also under construction to bypass central Freetown, giving even quicker access to the beaches. Sierra Leone is a six-hour flight from Europe, the same as the Caribbean. It would seem as though all the pieces will soon be in place for a tourism boom. One obstacle remains. Sand Mining.

Legal sand miners on their way back from John Obey Beach

Sand miners on their way back from John Obey Beach – where mining is allowed on a limited basis.

The recent economic growth in Sierra Leone has seen a jump in the number of public and private construction projects. Sand is an important ingredient in this building industry, and free sand is just sitting on the beaches near Freetown. For years, trucks would head to the beaches and teams of men with their shovels would spend the day filling them up. Back-breaking work, but work nonetheless. Recently, this practice has been mostly outlawed. The government now only allows mining during daylight hours at one beach at a time. But the sand mining still happens on most beaches at night time.

A guest house owner told us that these rocks were once covered in sand.

Guest house owner Marcus Roberts told us that these rocks were once covered in flat sand.

Radio Democracy Journalist Keziah Gbondo and I headed down to Lakka Beach to find out more about the effect of the mining, and the extent to which it still continues. Guest house owner Marcus Roberts took us on a tour of the beach and showed us how the landscape had changed over the past decade. He told us how visitors now complain of sprained ankles because of the unnaturally sharp slope on the beach.

Around the corner he took us on a tour of a swanky seaside house, abandoned by its Lebanese owner about a decade ago. Its pool now half-collapsed into the sea. Other residents nearby told us they now fear for the future of their own houses, large and small.

Keziah Gbondo interviews Marcus Roberts by an abandoned house in Lakka

Keziah Gbondo interviews Marcus Roberts by an abandoned house in Lakka

Later that night, we walked the beach, looking for miners. For hours, all we could see were flash lights in the distance, but when walked on we saw no one, just some tell-tale trenches feshly-dug in the beach. Eventually, at 1:30 a.m. we found one miner, filling a bag and lifting it off the beach

Guest house owner Marcus Roberts finds a freshly-dug sand pit

Guest house owner Marcus Roberts finds a freshly-dug sand pit

He looked petrified, but agreed to speak to us if we kept his identity secret. He was in his mid-twenties and had a weak-looking right leg – an injury picked up during his days as a child soldier in the civil war. He told us he had no education, so this is the only way he can earn a living. He gets two or three dollars a night. He says police sometimes catch miners like him. They ask for a bribe rather than issuing an official fine.

A sand miner with a bag of sand on Lakka Beach

A sand miner with a bag of sand on Lakka Beach

The local police unit commander blamed a lack of resources for not being able to stop the miners. The Executive Director of the EPA told us how she values the beaches as a vital part of the country’s environment. But for now, the mining continues, and locals dig up their future, to feed themselves today.

Inside an abandoned house near Lakka Beach

Inside an abandoned house near Lakka Beach

Keziah Gbondo’s story aired this month on Good Morning Salone on Radio Democracy 98.1fm in Freetown. The producer said it had a remarkably high response from listeners, in support of protecting Sierra Leone’s “Taste of Paradise”.

A deafening silence

Bonthe is like nowhere else I’ve ever been. It has no cars, no real roads, and just a few motorbikes. It is like stepping back in time. Crumbling colonial buildings line the town’s shore, looking across to the mainland. Behind them, are a mixture of mud houses, simple modern bungalows and metal shacks. For the most part, the only noises to break the silence are those of kids’ laughter, calls to prayer from the mosque and the ‘put-put’ of the odd boat, weighed-down with goods like rice, cement and petrol. It could be 1913 or 2013.

Bonthe is home to around 10,000 people.

Bonthe is home to around 10,000 people.

Bonthe is the main town of Sierra Leone’s biggest island Sherbro Island. It juts-out from the coast of Sierra Leone, a five-hour drive south of Freetown. It’s home to the island’s hospital, council offices, police station and prison. That small prison was one of the first stops on our JHR reporting trip to Bonthe.

There is no electricity on Bonthe, unless you have a generator.

There is no electricity on Bonthe, unless you have a generator.

The biggest prison in the country is Freetown Central Prison (a.k.a. Pademba Road Prison). It currently holds three or four-times the number of inmates for which it was designed. Many JHR-trained journalists have reported on these conditions over the past few years. This month the government said it plans to replace the facility. Because of Pademba Road’s reputation, I was prepared for even worse when visiting a small prison on an under-developed island in the Atlantic.

When we arrived outside Bonthe Prison, the staff knew nothing of our visit. It took a few phone calls back to Freetown to confirm that a white man did indeed submit a visitor request the week before. We were in.

The main entrance to Bonthe Prison.

The main entrance to Bonthe Prison.

The cramped reception office had two prison-bar gates on either side – the only barrier between prisoners and freedom. A blackboard inside the office categorized the prisoners. Long-Term: 7, Short-Term: 8, Remand: 2, Trial: 0. Total: 17.

The courtyard in Bonthe Prison.

The courtyard in Bonthe Prison.

The dusty courtyard inside was a little smaller than a tennis court. A toilet block beside the offices, and cells on the three other sides. Two or three male prisoners sat about in the shade. They seemed almost uninterested by our visit.

This prisoner is facing a charge of Wounding with Intent.

This prisoner is facing a charge of Wounding with Intent.

We spoke to the Discipline Officer. He told us there were 23 inmates. He was quickly corrected by the Reception Officer who said there were indeed 17 inmates:  Long-Term: 8, Short-Term: 8, Remand: 0, Trial: 1. Ultimately there was no practical way to find out which numbers were real.

A prison cell in Bonthe Prison.

A cell in Bonthe Prison.

Of the seven cells, four were in use. Four or five men to a cell. The ones we saw measured around four-by-three metres, and had two or three single beds each. The officers told us that men are allowed out of their cells from 6:30 a.m. until around 5 p.m. They are all required to preform “hard labour” in local paddy fields. Not an easy life, but nothing compared to conditions in Pademba Road. And I’ll be honest, while I was inside, I sized-up how easy it appeared be to escape over the low roof.

Bonthe Prison toilet facilities

Bonthe Prison toilet facilities

We made the five second walk back outside. Our story wasn’t what we had planned it to be (a better one later developed). As we walked away, JHR’s Bonthe-based trainer Samba Koroma pointed out a yellow building beside the prison. He told me that it was the original site of the Special Court of Sierra Leone (SCSL). (The permanent SCSL compound is now in Freetown.) The SCSL was set up to prosecute for crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in the latter half of the 1991-2002 Civil War.

The former Special Court building in Bonthe.

The former Special Court building in Bonthe.

The courtroom section of the SCSL in Bonthe is open on two sides. Unusually for government buildings in Sierra Leone, the walls seem barely scuffed, but the SCSL logo behind the bench is beginning to peel away from the wall. The wooden dock stands to the right of the bench. In March, 2003, rebel leaders like Foday Sankoh were indicted on this stand and kept in the prison next door. That month, the court also issued an indictment for then Liberian President Charles Taylor.

Inside the SCSL courtroom in Bonthe.

Inside the SCSL courtroom in Bonthe.

Sankoh died from a stroke later that year. Taylor is currently being held in The Hague, appealing his 50-year prison sentence for crimes against humanity and war crimes.

The silence inside the SCSL courtroom seemed to ring inside my ears. I didn’t feel like hanging around, so I took a picture and quickly walked outside.

I squinted in the sunlight and saw my colleagues chatting to each other in the distance. It was so quiet I could hear what they were talking about. That very different, timeless silence again. In Bonthe, it can be any year you want it to be, but it’s a safe bet that no one’s wishing for 2003.

A look inside Radio Democracy

For much of the past month I have been working with journalists at The Society for Radio Democracy 98.1fm in Freetown. Most people here refer to the station as 98.1, but its name is a nod to its origin. The station was set up 16 years ago, in the middle of the civil war. It first broadcast in secret, from a location near the airport. The aim was to promote democratic values and human rights. A mission that remains important today.

Arnold Elba hosts music request shows, including "TGIF" on Friday. He gave me a shout-out on air last week.

Arnold Elba hosts “TGIF” on Fridays. He gave me a shout-out on air last week.

Many of the employees are so young they can’t remember much of the war that ended in 2002. Some are paid $50 to $100 a month. Others are volunteers.

Keziah Gbondo, Arnold Elba and Mabel Kabba share a laugh on a conference call.

Keziah Gbondo, Arnold Elba and Mabel Kabba share a laugh on a conference call.

Stories are focused on human rights issues. Most programming is in the country’s de facto national language of Krio (Sierra Leonean Creole), with the aim of reaching as many people as possible.

News scripts are written in Krio. A language I am learning, slowly.

News scripts are written in Krio; a language I am learning, slowly.

The main local news content is aired at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.. Bulletins contain three or four stories, gathered by the station’s team of a dozen-or-so reporters and producers.

The Society for Radio Democracy began broadcasting in response to a coup during the civil war.

The Society for Radio Democracy began broadcasting in response to a coup during the civil war.

Radio Democracy takes BBC World Service news bulletins at the top of most hours, and airs the BBC’s Focus on Africa programme at 1700 GMT. Freetown is on GMT all year ’round, because Daylight Saving is not observed in Sierra Leone.

Reverend Matthew Quattay is the court reporter and a Methodist Minister. He is a mentor for many of the younger staff members. Some of the women call him their “boyfriend.” He prefers the term “father.” One day he told me about a court case involving a man who allegedly tried to cut off the testicles of another man. The case had to be adjourned because the victim was in court and was in too much pain. After work that evening, Reverend Quattay went to deliver a sermon at his church.

Reverend Matthew Quattay and Keziah Gbondo

Reverend Matthew Quattay and Keziah Gbondo

The headquarters are on Upper Waterloo Street in Freetown’s chaotic city centre, but all the action happens up the hill at the studios in New England Ville. The equipment is basic, when compared to a station in a developed country. USB keys replace the Internet and network drives. Employees often have to improvise to get a story/programme to air.

Equipment is old, and employees often have to improvise to get a programme/story to air.

The hot seat at Radio Democracy.

There is a real team spirit at the station. When Keziah Gbondo couldn’t go on a JHR reporting trip to Bombali District she gave her story to Mabel Kabba. The following week, Mabel gave one of her story ideas to Keziah.

The station's studios are located above the city centre in the New England Ville complex.

The station’s studios are located above the city centre in the New England Ville complex.

To listen to podcasts and to read about what was on this morning’s episode of Good Morning Salone, click here.

In the field, literally

Just like in most countries, Easter is followed by a four-day week here in Sierra Leone. That normally equates to less being achieved, especially after a lazy holiday weekend. Normally.

On Tuesday morning at 6 a.m., I headed for Bombali District with two journalists from Radio Democracy in Freetown – Mabel Kabba and Fatima Sesay. We were joined by one of JHR’s two Freetown-based trainers Martha Kargbo, and our driver Junior. Our mission: to gather material for three human rights stories in three days. Considering the infrastructure in Sierra Leone, this was ambitious.

The fan belt snapped on our SUV, delaying us two hours

The fan belt snapped on our SUV, delaying us two hours.

The three stories were about allegations that an iron ore mine company has caused flooding on farmland; allegations that a biofuel company mislead landowners about its intentions; and the issue of gender inequality in rural Sierra Leone.

Trucks carry soil at the London Mining Iron Ore site in Marampa

Trucks carry soil at the London Mining iron ore site in Marampa.

Day one did not start very well. The fan belt snapped just before our first interview. We had to wait two hours for a mechanic to fix our SUV. The heat was intense. When we did get to the village of Manonkoh, the Chief told us he has decided not to talk to the media, because he was suspended by his Paramount Chief the last time he did so. We tried to find the Paramount Chief back in Lunsar, but he was out of town.

The flooded fields near the village of Manonkoh

The flooded fields near the village of Manonkoh.

So, onto the biofuel story. We visited the village of Warreh Yeama. Like in Manokoh, many villagers knew Fatima Sesay by name. This is her beat. These people did talk, and explained at length why* they feel mislead by Addax Bioenergy. Addax is leasing tens-of-thousands of hectares in Sierra Leone to grow sugar cane for biofuel.

Village elders sit down to talk to the JHR team

Village elders sit down to talk to the JHR team.

We headed for our base of Makeni and set-up interviews for the following day with a food rights activist and the biofuel company Addax.

The Imam and two village elders in Worreh Yeama show the pegs they removed from fertile swampland nearby

The Imam and two village elders in Worreh Yeama show the pegs they say that they removed from land near the village.

On Wednesday morning we spoke to the Programme Coordinator of the Sierra Leone Network on the Right to Food. It helped frame the questions* for our next stop at Addax in remote Mabilafu.

Construction is well underway at the Addax biofuel processing plant in Mabilafu

Construction is well under way at the Addax biofuel processing plant in Mabilafu.

We spent another hour with the company’s Health, Safety, Social & Environment Manager, who gave his side of the story. He made his case for the company’s practices, but it did not tally fully* with what villagers had told us. There was a mismatch somewhere. A mismatch that makes for a story. Things were looking up.

Centre-Pivot irrigation on one of the fields leased by Addax to grow sugar cane

Centre Pivot Irrigation on one of the sites leased by Addax to grow sugar cane.

On Thursday we started work on the gender inequality story. Logistics meant we couldn’t head to rural Koinadugu District to the northeast. But what seemed like a curse, turned out to be a blessing. First we found a school in Makeni, where the Vice Principal told us of the high drop-out rates among girls. We then went to a nearby village and met a 16-year-old girl who dropped out when she got pregnant. She told us about her family’s strong reaction*.

Minster for Gender Affairs Moijue Kai Kai, Radio Democracy reporter Mabel Kabba, JHR local trainer Martha Kargbo

Minster for Gender Affairs Moijue Kai Kai, Radio Democracy reporter Mabel Kabba and JHR local trainer Martha Kargbo at Makeni City Hall.

As luck would have it there was a gender empowerment conference in Makeni that day. We got to interview the Minister for Gender Affairs and prominent female politicians about what can be done to improve equality for women and girls. All those hard-to-reach politicians, rounded-up in one place.

We returned to Warreh Yeama on our route back to Freetown. Villagers stood by their side of the story. Either someone was lying, or communication between the company and villagers was not what it could be. And that wasn’t all*.

Children in the village of Worreh Yeama

Children in the village of Worreh Yeama.

Finally we managed to track-down the Paramount Chief in charge of the area containing Manokoh and the London Mining Iron Ore mine. In the space of 20 minutes he said a number of things that raised more questions* for our visit to London Mining’s office back in Freetown.

Paramount Chief Bai Koblo Queen II of Marampa Chiefdom

Paramount Chief Bai Koblo Queen II of Marampa Chiefdom.

We headed back to Freetown on Thursday evening with three stories in our back pockets and a lot of transcribing ahead of us.

*Listeners to Radio Democracy 98.1fm in Freetown can find out more when these stories air over next week.

A Good Friday lesson

I started my Good Friday with an early trip to Lumley Beach in Freetown. I ran a wavy line along the soft, white sand, dodging the waves as they lapped up to my feet. Then I cooled-down with a quick swim in the Atlantic. There was no one else in the sea for maybe two kilometres in either direction. Not a bad start to the day.

As I made my way home, I saw what I thought was a child lying in a ditch. On closer inspection, it was just a pair of trousers, stuffed with rags.

Freetown children surround an effigy of Judas

Freetown children surround an effigy of Judas

Then, just before I got to my house, I saw the same thing. This time a complete stuffed dummy, the size of a ten-year-old kid, lying the street. A disturbing sight in a country with a recent history like that of Sierra Leone.

The civil war here in 1990s started as an offshoot to the conflict in Liberia. It descended into pure chaos, with a number of coups and mindless, unspeakable violence, funded by blood diamonds. Everyone here, apart from children, can still remember the war.

While stuck in traffic a few weeks ago, I asked my taxi driver Masa about his experience of the war. “No one knew why they were fighting. They were just fighting,” he said. Masa is normally softly spoken, but his voice rose gradually, as he talked about that time. “For what? For what?” he shouted. 

Masa remembered a close call when a soldier demanded him to account for himself. There was no way to tell who was a rebel and who was not. Soldiers were nervous and trigger-happy. If you couldn’t prove you were not a rebel, you could be shot dead in the street. His religion made no difference to the solider, for bad or for good. A Muslim soldier would kill a Muslim rebel as quickly as he’d kill a Christian rebel.

By the end of the conflict, tens of thousands had died. Thousands more were maimed, raped or traumatised. The war had no religious favourites. 

As I stood over the dummy on my street, the local kids came running towards me. “Hey, Mister Red, Mister Red!” (I always introduce myself as Red, but that is how everyone addresses me in the neighbourhood). I asked them what was going on. “It’s Judas Iscariot. The bad man,” they said.

It’s a Good Friday tradition here for kids to place a Judas effigy in the street, and ask for some money. Their Judas had a lime cooler/alco-pop between his legs. Bad Judas indeed, I thought. I gave them 1,600 Leones (40¢).

Passers-by give the kids a few Leones for their Judas-dummy-making skills

Passers-by give the kids a few Leones for their Judas-dummy-making skills

When I was done I noticed the eldest kid had a fresh scar on his temple – a right of passage for adolescents in certain tribes, meaning he is probably a Muslim. He told me all of the kids here are Muslims.

An older man was watching us and corrected him. “This child is Christian,” he said. The others didn’t know, or didn’t care. Happy to involve their Christian buddy in their peacetime tradition.

The patience of my job

On Friday, I was helping one of the employees at Skyy Radio with writing and recording her voice track for a radio documentary. We were forced to delay its recording twice, because others needed access to Skyy’s only recording studio for more urgent matters. When we did finally get started, we were again interrupted. This time, by Jesus himself.

Skyy Radio's recording studio

Skyy Radio’s recording studio

The heaving baseline of African Christian pop music reverberated inside the studio. I stopped the recorder and walked outside to see if I could figure out where it was coming from. There, about a block away, was a speaker, almost as tall as me. And I’m pretty sure I could see it wobbling.

I decided to go and see if they would turn it off for 10 minutes. I had to use sign language when asking, but the guy was not lacking in Christian spirit, and was happy to help. In fact, he kept it off until I returned to thank him. (Later I was told that it’s illegal to play loud music in Freetown before 4 p.m. An early curfew, rather than a late one. That’s Freetown.)

This is just one of the daily challenges employees can face in getting their jobs done.

At Skyy Radio, the budget is tight. Ten people work on five desks, with around eight stools to sit on. The stools are the same height as the desks, making them less than comfortable. No one complains.

Inside the Skyy Radio office

Inside the Skyy Radio office

There is no air conditioning, meaning all the windows have to be kept open. The office is located on the busy Circular Road in Freetown. The noise is constant. From car horns, to thundering diesel trucks and funeral parades, there is hardly ever a moment’s silence in the office.

To give you an idea of the noise, I left my audio recorder on the windowsill for 20 minutes. Here are just some of the highlights, compressed into one minute.

Circular Road, seen from the Skyy Radio office

Other obstacles to efficient work include:

Frequent power outages. Nowhere in Freetown gets constant electricity. Businesses need generators for power. Sometimes those generators break, so laptops and mobile phones slowly drain of their power.

Heat and humidity. You try working hard when the humidex in your office is over 40°C.

Traffic. Traffic in Freetown can be horrendous. I’ve often gotten out of a shared taxi and walked.

Police checkpoints. This has only happened to me once, so far. My taxi driver was stopped for driving on a street that was supposedly shut to cars. After 20 minutes, and a Le10,000 payment, we were on our way again.

My taxi driver is stopped by a police officer

My taxi driver is stopped by a police officer

Red tape. To get an interview with an official you often have to call their media person. You arrange to meet them. They then ask for a triplicate letter, addressed to specific people, requesting an interview with the official. You go back to base, get them printed, signed and stamped. You then bring the letters, in person, to the appropriate people, and wait for the interview to be granted. This is followed by numerous phone calls to see if the interview is going to happen.

But despite all these challenges, the work goes on and it gets done. It’s just that, along with hard work, talent and skill, every journalist in Freetown needs one vital virtue. Patience.

Home Again

I follow Edwina Thomas through the tight alleys of Kroo Bay in Freetown. This is one of the city’s most deprived areas. Thousands of metal shacks, built beside open latrines. Mothers washing and cooking. Teenagers sitting around. Kids running, everywhere.

We’re here to do a story on sanitation. Cholera and malaria are major problems in Kroo Bay, especially come the rainy season in May. This is Edwina’s first morning working as a news journalist. She consults me on questions to ask. I consult her on everything else.

Kroo Bay Community Secretary General Samuel Cox-Koroma explains the area's sanitation problems

Kroo Bay Community Secretary General Samuel Cox-Koroma explains the area’s sanitation problems

Edwina recently returned to Freetown from the U.K., after living there for eight years. She now sports a distinct twang when speaking English – a young, urban London accent. But when speaking Krio – Sierra Leone’s Creole, spoken by almost everyone – she’s still all-Freetown.

Edwina’s older sister moved to England 30 years ago. She brought Edwina over after the end of the civil war. A fresh start after witnessing the worst of humanity.

“Mr. Lansana owned the garage in my neighbourhood. They shot him and all the people that were hiding with him in a basement,” she says. It’s hard to imagine the effect that would have on a teenage girl. But Edwina just sighs when talking about it now. “My friend was raped, but she looks good now. She’s married.”

Her excitement at leaving was soon tempered by the challenges of life in a metropolis like London. “It was not what I had thought. It was hard. It was expensive.” Her fees were equivalent to a lifetime’s earnings for an average person in Sierra Leone. Edwina paid her way, with a part-time job in Marks & Spencer.

Red tape forced a two-year gap in her studies, and she even spent time working in Scotland. Edwina eventually got her Advanced Diploma in Business Management, only to be faced with a brick wall. New visa rules for international students meant she couldn’t stay to study for a degree, and the diploma wouldn’t cut it in the U.K.’s competitive job market. It was time to go home.

Edwina started with an internship at the Social Security offices in Freetown, but when it ended she had to keep an open mind on her next move.

Her passion is singing and song-writing  One of her songs was recently used in a movie here. A newspaper ad for a job at Skyy Radio caught her eye. The station will soon relaunch as the country’s first women’s radio station.

A pig looks for food in a Kroo Bay latrine

A pig looks for food in a Kroo Bay latrine

She now helps produce a music and entertainment show, and voices characters in one of Skyy Radio’s drama series. The shows use drama to highlight issues affecting women in Sierra Leone.

Edwina actually asked me for help with her voicing for the dramas. She doesn’t need any help. She’s acts for radio as if there are TV cameras in front of her. Waving her hands, booming her voice, and jerking her head – a West African woman not to be messed with.

The journalism comes a little less naturally to Edwina. “It’s tough for me coming into the business.” But in Kroo Bay she has already stopped looking down at her notepad. She just asks questions that occur to her.

“I know I can do it if I try,” she admits. Trying to help a Sierra Leone, that’s still full of problems. But a Sierra Leone with a promising future, just like hers.