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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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*.
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*.
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.
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.