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The trauma of war

Shirlee Engel is a reporter with Global TV in Ottawa. In the spring of 2013, she served as an expert trainer with Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) in Liberia as part of the Shaw Africa Project.

liberia-civil-war

An October 2011 file photo of Monrovia locals, casualties of the long civil war, awaiting the results of the presidential election in Liberia. ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images

As my time here in Liberia comes to a close, some of my most profound experiences have been chance encounters with strangers who tell of the unhealed wounds in this post-conflict society.

That’s what happened during my ride across Monrovia with Sam Brown.

Though I have been working with the Liberian Broadcasting Service (LBS) since last week, Sam and I had not crossed paths. He’s an Operations Officer–a behind-the-scenes logistics guy.

Sam gave me a ride back from LBS to my apartment on the other side of town when my regular driver “forgot” to pick me up.

(And no, that’s not the first time that happened to me).

I’d like to thank that driver for being a no-show. Sam taught me something about Liberia I would not have otherwise learned in my short time here.

Amid choking city traffic I struck up a conversation, asking him how long he had worked at LBS.

“Two years,” he said, holding up two fingers.

“And what did you do before?” I asked.

Sam told me he worked at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Created in 2005, it was tasked with investigating the horrific human rights violations during more than 20 years of civil war.

Like his current role, he was the logistics guy. He coordinated trips for investigators to Liberia’s rural areas – where the TRC found the most ruthless crimes against humanity were inflicted on villagers by rebel groups.

Sam got deeply involved – travelling to the communities to sit in on hearings where the most unimaginable terror was recounted.

Over the course of several years, Sam told me the commission heard from some 17,000 victims, witnesses and others. It named notorious warlords who should be brought to justice.

Though the TRC report was released in 2009, it gathers dust on political shelves. It is controversial, as it includes Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, among some 50 politicians recommended to be barred from public office for their support of perpetrators of the brutal conflicts from the 1980s until 2003.

When the TRC’s recommendation about politicians was challenged at the Supreme Court in 2011, it was declared unconstitutional due to lack of due process.

As we drove across town, Sam recounted some of the horrific things he heard during those hearings. He watched victims sob on the stand. It made him sick. He says he carries psychological scars from that period.

When I sat down for dinner later, I couldn’t get the images out of my own head.

Sam believes the lack of justice since the war ended is the cause of a lot of anxiety and anger among Liberians. He says this country is on the cusp of another crisis if faith in the system is not restored.

You see examples in the street of how people don’t trust the authorities to deliver justice. A friend of mine encountered an intruder last week, and after chasing him out of the apartment with her roommate, he was confronted by a mob outside the compound. Angry members of the community were ready to beat him up for trying to steal.

He escaped unscathed.

People have so little confidence in a corrupt police force, they would rather take matters into their own hands.

It really illustrates that this country is still on edge.

The child soldiers and warlords may be gone from the streets. Fear has subsided. Everyday life carries on.

But deep down inside, most everyone I meet still carries the trauma of war.

The fixer

Shirlee Engel is a reporter with Global TV in Ottawa. In the spring of 2013, she served as an expert trainer with Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) in Liberia as part of the Shaw Africa Project.

Liberian State TV. Shirlee Engel, Global News

Liberian State TV. Shirlee Engel, Global News

After 23 years off the air, Liberian state TV is finally getting rolling on a daily news program.

In a country where most citizens don’t have access to power or running water – let alone a television set – LNTV is an ambitious endeavour. But more so because its staff of about 20 has virtually no television news training at all. They were plucked from the radio news division.

That’s where I come in.

When Real TV in Monrovia caught fire on the first day of my placement with Journalists for Human Rights (JHR), I was left with no journalists to train.

Then I was introduced to the ambitious and hard-working Nathan Charles. With little TV training himself, he has been tasked with managing the brand new 30-minute show and two news updates a day. He told me his staff desperately need my help.

I had heard about Nathan before I came through my Global News colleagues Barry Acton and Laurel Clark, who were here last spring. He was their “fixer” – the guy who took them around town helping them get from place to place, get interviews with the right people, translate where necessary and make sure they stayed out of harm’s way.

When I went into the newsroom the next day, I was pleasantly surprised at the resources they had. Several cameras, many laptops and desktop computers (nice, shiny Macs too), a studio and a decent control room. But when I went around the room hearing from the different reporters, camera people and editors, I heard a laundry list of things they needed help with.

Shooting. Writing. Standups. Editing. Story ideas.

They had all the gear. But they had little to no knowledge of how to use it to make TV news.

Gulp. I only have about 8 days with these guys.

They have had other help – a French crew was here a few months ago and some of the LNTV crew were sent to CCTV in Beijing to learn the ropes.

But this kind of project will take a lot more than that.

I jumped right in, going along with two reporters on a shoot to Red Light – a commercial market district of Monrovia. It’s an eyesore. Garbage is piled on the side of the road, mixed in with human excrement and other nasty stuff. The stench made me gag.

Our first stop was a section that had been devastated by a fire that morning. I followed the reporter and cameraman as they hopped over smouldering debris, marvelling at how fire crews let people just sift through hot spots without any protection. I had to watch my step as the rubble shifted under my feet. We found some people affected and got some shots. Then I coached the reporter through an on-camera, showing the scene.

From there we drove a few blocks to one of the giant garbage piles. I once again gagged as we stood next to one so he could shoot an on-camera and talk to some affected people. Food stations were not far away from the disgusting mess.

While a huge shock to me, the reporters didn’t seem fazed by what they saw. We jumped back in the car and back to the station, eager to put the stories together.

But that didn’t happen. Despite all the seemingly fancy equipment they had, the tape wouldn’t play. It was either too dirty or too overused. There goes all that work.

I won’t lie. That type of thing has happened to me in my many years in the field. Technology does have its limitations.

My last few hours on that first day were spent feverishly vetting (err… writing) scripts. Every time I finished one, another reporter pounced, asking for help. I must have gone through five or so. I eventually had to pry myself away, to let them finish what they started on their own.

JHR’s philosophy is help local media develop skills to cover human rights stories without creating a dependency. I can quickly see how the wrong approach to training can do just that.

I feel for Nathan. He has such a difficult road ahead, filled with the pressures of management demands and expectations from colleagues and ordinary Liberians. Not to mention the complicating factor of working for the state broadcaster. I noticed a sign on the wall saying all shows must be vetted by a higher-up prior to air.

But Nathan also has a tremendous opportunity to shape the media landscape in this country. TV news is still in its infancy.  And it’s a powerful tool for improving the lives of the people here.

On my first out of town trip last week I was struck by the comment of one local journalist I met. He was talking about how difficult it is to live and work here, and how the war left such devastating effects on people – psychological, economic, physical.

I asked him why he stayed in Liberia when he had the chance to leave.

“Because if I leave, who will fix it?”

I think Nathan is one of those “fixers.” And I’m excited to watch him and his dedicated crew grow, even from afar.

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.

The missing link in Liberia

One of many open sewage canals running through Monrovia.

One of many open sewage canals running through Monrovia.

Sophisticated boat engines were developed thousands of years after the creation of the first canoe. The automobile and other modes of transportation can all be traced back to the creation of the wheel.

What does it take for advanced technologies such as the above to come to fruition? It takes trial and error and the passage of time.

 

Every innovation however minute or significant is like the links on a chain. Each link signifies a generation of development that is connected to the link that came before it and the one that comes after it.

The present day social and economic status in developed countries is dependent on this very structure. However, the recent phenomenon of consumerism has pushed the demand for goods to an all-time high, leaving even the most developed countries in the world in a constant struggle to properly evolve.

What happens when sophisticated technologies, fueled by consumerism, infiltrate less developed countries? Links are bypassed in the chain of evolution. As such, the important building blocks required within new societies are overlooked.

It is this extreme evolution that has in part led to Liberia’s current social and economic states. For example, millions of Liberian citizens can pick up a cellphone to call a friend, but they are unable to turn on a tap to access running water. Why? Because the infrastructure has simply not been built.

A massive open sewage system splits through the capital city of Monrovia and makes its way to the Atlantic Ocean. The result? A trail of bluish-grey chemicals and foul odour is left behind as the public faces serious health and safety issues.

While power may be available to a majority of households – there are conditions. Electricity runs from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. For those who manage to have access to power 24/7, it comes at a cost of $1000 (U.S.) per month – a number that hardly resonates with the majority of Liberians.

It’s evident that Liberia is still licking its wounds after a vicious two decades-long civil war. And its environment, which is missing vital infrastructure, is still developing.

The current situation in Liberia seems to reveal a generation with a strong link to its past; yet the introduction of superficial technologies that supersede solid infrastructure leaves present day Liberia in a state of shock as it attempts to quickly evolve without the luxury of time.

Plug n' play: mobile phones are widely available at low cost in Liberia--but at a high cost of the lack of basic infrastructures such as running water.

Plug n’ play: mobile phones are widely available at low cost in Liberia–but at a high cost of the lack of basic infrastructures such as running water.

The extreme speed of selective development is cause for concern. If the cement, which makes up the foundation of a home isn’t given enough time to properly dry, the weight of that structure could cause the cement to slightly shift. Over time, the shifting could lead to cracks in the structure, creating uncertainty in its sustainability. Regardless if the home appears to stand strong for one, five, 10 or 20 years, a home built on a faulty foundation will inevitably be condemned, or crumble without warning.

So what is the solution? The current government in Liberia has promised electricity across the country within the next 20 years. While the major roads in Monrovia are paved, much of the country outside the city boundaries remains unpaved. The government has promised to change this, starting by paving every road in the town of Voinjama, located in the northern part of Liberia in Lofa county. However, a recent trip to the area revealed that paving has not begun. While government cannot and should not hold the sole-sourced solution, there needs to be proper investment by Liberia for infrastructure projects.

Liberia has great potential, but in order for it to reach a higher level, this generation must first find its missing link, to responsibly attach both the past and the future to its present day.

The Share Taxi

Tom Vernon is a reporter with Global TV in Regina. In the winter of 2013, he reported from Sierra Leone and served as an expert trainer with Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) in Sierra Leone as part of the Shaw Africa Project. 

Think back to when you were 15 or 16 years old.  Your best friend just got his license and a car.  Even though this car was probably designed to fit, at most, one more person in the front and three in the back, somehow there always ended up being 7 or 8 people crammed into it for a drive downtown.   Welcome to the Freetown Share Taxi.

Traffic in Freetown can best be described as disorganized chaos.  Thousands of cars, motorbikes and even pedestrians all fill the roadways at all times of day.  Merchants will walk through the traffic offering whatever it is they’re selling, from bottles of coke to purses.

Rules of the road we get hammered home during driver training in Canada have no place on these streets.  If you were to stop or yield or even signal, you’ll be stuck all day.  If you were to let a pedestrian cross, 100 more will follow right behind.  To get anywhere, you must be aggressive.

The roads are the roughest I have ever seen.  For those in Regina, picture the Sherwood Village Mall parking lot right by the YMCA.  That little stretch of parking lot has claimed its fair share of shocks and struts.  It has made my car make noises that sent me directly to the mechanic.  That parking lot is an airport worthy tarmac compared to some of the roads here.

The share taxi driver has mastered the art of weaving through this chaos.  You come to an intersection?  Doesn’t matter if there is traffic crossing in the other direction, they just go.  A long line of pedestrians walking through the traffic?  Doesn’t matter, they just go.  The traffic police telling them to stop?  Doesn’t matter, they just go.

Making matters worse, the roads here have thousands of motorbikes acting as faster and less expensive taxis.  They weave through the traffic with an almost suicidal purpose.  If there is even a hint of a crack between two vehicles, they will go.  None of this matters of course, the driver just goes.

Because of the potholes, lanes of traffic are only mild guidelines.  You’ll find yourself weaving the potholes like a world cup slalom race at Whistler.  While avoiding a pothole, you can be on the complete opposite side of the road, with traffic coming back at you, and the driver will never panic.  You’ll get back into your lane in time.

The only thing keeping any sort of order on the street believe it or not is the horn.  The drivers are constantly on them, letting other vehicles or pedestrians know they are coming or going.  Letting potential customers know they are available.  Letting other drivers know if they’re not impressed.  It is loud and non-stop.

The most amazing part of this scene is I have yet to see an accident, not that you ever get moving fast enough to do much more harm than just add another dent to your car (and believe me, these cars are dented!)  Driving on a Canadian street on your way to work, you’re almost guaranteed to see at least one minor accident, and in the winter time several.  Here, not once have I seen even two vehicles touch each other, let alone collide.  Amazing.

This post was originally published on January 25, 2013. You can also view via Global News.

Garbage Fires in ‘Burning Time’ Add to Choking Smog

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Household trash from surrounding homes burns in a Monrovia neighbourhood. – ethanbaronphoto.com

Monrovia is now midway through the time of burning, a period approximately two months long, starting in January, in which garbage, grass and brush are burned throughout the city. All over Liberia’s capital fires burn, along roadways, outside houses and apartments, in piles of trash from small to massive – unregulated landfills – that have accumulated since the last burning time.

A boy walks past a burning trash pile in Monrovia.  - ethanbaronphoto.com

A boy walks past a burning trash pile in Monrovia. – ethanbaronphoto.com

Combined with the relatively still air of the dry season, the result of the burning is terrible smog, afflicting mostly the poorer areas of the city away from the breezes of the Atlantic coast.

A 2006 study by Liberia’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that 100 kilograms of solid waste per Monrovia resident were burned annually, two-thirds in homes and one-third in the haphazard landfills. If that estimate holds for today, with Monrovia’s population at around 1.5 million, that’s 150 million kilograms – 150,000 metric tons – of solid waste burned every year, and clearly a great deal of it happens during the burning period.

Smoke from a burning garbage heap clouds a residential area of Monrovia. - ethanbaronphoto.com

Smoke from a burning garbage heap clouds a residential area of Monrovia. – ethanbaronphoto.com

Media reports have included comments of concern from health officials who have linked air quality to lung disease and cancers, but there appears to be no political will to change the traditional practice of burning trash outdoors. Even during the High Level Panel that brought international dignitaries including British PM David Cameron to Monrovia recently, there was no letup in the burning, in contrast to the road improvements and street-vending ban that preceded the event.

About two thirds of air pollution from what the Liberian EPA called “uncontrolled combustion” originated with burning of domestic and landfill waste, with the other third caused by accidental fires and burning of agricultural waste. Significant emissions of cancer-causing dioxins and furans came the burning of “domestic/municipal waste,” the 2006 report said.

A young man jogs toward smoke billowing off a burning garbage pile in Monrovia. - ethanbaronphoto.com

A young man jogs toward a smoke cloud from a burning garbage pile in Monrovia. – ethanbaronphoto.com

Monrovia already suffers year-’round from smog created by a fast-growing number of cars, vans and trucks with no emissions controls. Later this month, people say here, the burning time will be done, and Monrovians can get back to the usual smog, minus the extra dose of toxins and particulates coming off flaming and smoldering trash.

In the heat of the night (and day)

Tom Vernon is a reporter with Global TV in Regina. In the winter of 2013, he reported from Sierra Leone and served as an expert trainer in Sierra Leone as part of the Shaw Africa Project. 

I have never sweat so much in my entire life.

I had a feeling this was going to be the case when I looked up Freetown weather in the weeks leading up to my trip.  Every day was exactly the same, sunny and 32.  Excellent!  We get that hot in Regina in the summertime, and I quite enjoy it because I live in a city that sees -40 in the winter.  What I wasn’t prepared for is the humidity.

I knew what I was walking into the second I stepped off the plane.  It was almost 11:00 pm by the time we landed, so the sun had been down for hours, but the heat and humidity remained.  The customs slip I had to fill out to enter the country, a cardboard like slip, immediately became damp and limp.

Each day when I come back to my residence after work I get dropped off at a spot called Lomley.  It’s just down the street from the house I’m staying in, maybe a 10 minute walk.  The catch though is Freetown is built on the side of a hill with a slope comparable to something you’d find in Jasper National Park.  Obviously not as high, but this hill is steep!

Today I walked down the hill to stop in at the internet cafe and run to the Freetown Market to pick up a few things.  By the time I reached the bottom I was a touch uncomfortable.  After running my errands, which included eating a rather interesting hamburger at a restaurant, I started to head back up the hill with my groceries in tow.

You know when you begin to sweat so much it stings your eyes?  It pours down your face and back and even down your legs.  Your feet start to get sore because your toes are rubbing together in all the moisture.  That was my walk back up the hill.

By the time I got back into my room my shirt was completely soaked through.  Not just in the areas you might expect to see sweat, the ENTIRE shirt was soaked.  I didn’t take it off, I peeled it off.  Same with my pants.  They were so wet I had a hard time taking my things out of my pockets.  I sure hope I don’t stink. (I actually have an interesting aroma over here, coconut sunscreen mixed with a bug spray that has a slight orange peel scent)

Having said all that, please don’t take this like I’m complaining.  When I left Regina it was cold, and my fiancé Sarah tells me it has gotten even colder.  I will enjoy this break from winter, just I’m already running out of shirts!

This post was originally published on January 25, 2012 via Global News.

Ibrahim, ‘di bag man’

Global TV Toronto’s Christine Stevens served as a short-term expert trainer for JHR in the fall of 2012 in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The following is one of her first-hand accounts of life in the country.

Ibrahim Bangura, 20, a survivor of Sierra Leone's civil war--and bag maker/seller.

You have the privilege to meet so many people with extraordinary stories as a reporter, but there are always those special few who touch you more than the others. Twenty-year-old Ibrahim Bangura is just such a person. He is known in Freetown, Sierra Leone as “di bag man.” He hits the streets daily, selling African cloth bags he and his grandfather make at home. He makes a living at this, but just barely. He has little other choice though. You see, Ibrahim has no hands.

Ibrahim was just nine years old when in the midst of the civil war in Sierra Leone, rebels swept into his village. They grabbed the scared little boy and tied his hands together.

What followed defies the imagination. Ibrahim says the rebels first burnt his hands, then chopped them off. It’s something he doesn’t like to talk about, and only does so reluctantly. It is horrible and makes him feel like crying, he says with his head hanging low, eyes cast down. He can’t go into any more detail, it is simply too much. He recalls escaping and being helped by the Red Cross. Life after that, though, was almost impossible. There was no way to make a living, Ibrahim and his family were begging in the streets. Finally his grandfather, who is a tailor, moved them into the city.

Now he and his grandfather work closely together. They depend on each other for survival. Daniel Williams bends over an old sewing machine, Ibrahim at his side. He is painstaking in his work, making sure every seam on the simple bags he makes is just so. Ibrahim helps trim the lose threads and expertly turns the bags outside in, so that the seams are on the inside. Then he hangs each one carefully on a clothes line, surveying their work. He can only hope the bright patterns will attract some shoppers today, otherwise he will have nothing to eat and no way to even start to pay the rent.

It’s up to him to sell. His grandfather can’t get around very easily. He is also an amputee. Two years ago, he lost one of his legs due to diabetes. He sews. Ibrahim sells. This is all they have.

Ibrahim says it isn’t easy coming and going, selling on the street, rushing out to get the material. He says life on the street is difficult – it’s all about survival. He believes only God is helping him and he has to trust his faith. Ibrahim also says the government does nothing to help. “I lost my hands during the war, now I am nothing” are his words. He wants to “be somebody,” he says. All he wants is a little shop where they can set up and sell their products properly, and make a real living.

Although he tries to hold on to hope, Ibrahim reveals that things are so difficult at times, he even feels like committing suicide because he is suffering so much.

This is the part of the story, where as a journalist, you want to talk about how it looks like things will get easier for Ibrahim, that his modest dreams will come true. Sadly, that is not how this story goes. We leave Ibrahim a desperate young man, unsure where to turn, hoping perhaps someone in the international community will hear his pleas for help and offer assistance.

As we part, Ibrahim heads out with his bags. He gets on an old, battered motorbike, which he has mastered riding despite his disability. He drives a couple hundred metres down the street, then turns around and rides back toward us. For a few seconds, he lets go of the handles and holds his arms straight out to his sides, like a carefree child riding a bicycle in the wind. I’m not sure what the gesture means, but I hope that at least on his motorbike, he has a few moments of freedom from his troubles.

Maybe there is a little bit of child left that wasn’t entirely destroyed when he was nine.

This blog post was originally published on October 8, 2012 via Global News.

A major port city in the Atlantic Ocean, Freetown is surrounded by natural harbours and bays.

Getting to know Freetown

Global TV Toronto’s Christine Stevens served as a short-term expert trainer for JHR in the fall of 2012 in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The following is one of her first-hand accounts of life in the country.

A major port city in the Atlantic Ocean, Freetown is surrounded by natural harbours and bays.

A few days ago, it was “cleaning day” in Freetown, Sierra Leone. I don’t mean that everyone was at home scrubbing down the house, it’s actually an official day mandated by the government. No one was allowed to drive on the roads until after noon to facilitate a major cleanup, people were expected to clean the areas in front of their home or business. Just one of the quirky ways Freetown takes you by surprise. It’s a tough place to describe. Tumultuous, chaotic, loud and frantic yet somehow at the same time very laid back. This is the puzzle, full of contradictions that is Freetown.

You arrive at Lungi International Airport, inconveniently located across a large river from Freetown. This means that after hours of travel, you still have work ahead of you. Once you are passed passport control, you have to get through a throng of people, everyone trying to help at once, resulting in some serious confusion on my part. The idea is to get to a minibus which will take you to the ferry. Your luggage follows along in another vehicle. After a bumpy ride to the port (it’s the end of the rainy season, so the roads are a mess), you board the ferry, and it’s another hour before you hit land on the other side and retrieve your luggage.

 

Hectic traffic in Freetown.

 

That was the last moment of calm for a little while. Once in town, the real fun begins. Somehow, with horns blaring constantly, drivers manage to avoid each other with barely centimetres to spare as the roads are overcrowded and it seems like everyone is trying to get somewhere at the same time. You know it’s really bad when the traffic is so backed up, the driver actually turns off the car and we are literally parked in the street waiting for any kinds of movement.

Weaving and dodging in between these cars packed onto the road are countless motorcycles. I am still trying to decide if the riders are smart (many times it is only the motorcycles which are moving, the cars are literally parked in the traffic) or if they are crazy to risk being sandwiched or hit time and again.

With a very skilled taxi driver, I arrive at my new home. It is up a hill with the city’s sparkling lights descending below it. I wake up to a stunning view of Freetown, the beach curving into the distance. A short walk down the dirt road from the apartment, and I get a taste of how friendly and welcoming Sierra Leoneans are. Every few metres, I would come across someone who would yell out a cheerful “Hello” or a “How are you?” People take the time to stop and talk here, it is very refreshing. This is the laid back part of the equation.

Back to the traffic, which is constant. One way to get around is by shared taxis. They go up and down some busy routes, picking up passengers and dropping them off as it warrants. The thing is, they are in high demand and sometimes hard to get, and when you do manage to hail one down, be prepared for a crowd. The drivers will pack in as many people as is possible. Imagine a full car, now add in another three or four people. Don’t be surprised if you end up sitting pretty much in a stranger’s lap.

But hey, why not take the opportunity to strike up a great conversation? It’s one way to get to know Freetown better. You never know what kind of valuable information you could learn, like for example, it’s “cleaning day.”

This blog post was originally published on October 8, 2012 via Global News.