Sierra Leone is currently experiencing such a water shortage, that the human rights commission issued a worrying statement, saying that especially the capital Freetown is lacking water, largely unexplained and beyond the usual seasonal fluctuations. Fetching water from one of the community taps is usually task for the young children, who now have to get up as early as 4am to find a running tap or stay up late at night, roaming the streets for water. They are exposed to all manner of risks: drunkards, rape, injuries. At the same time, one of my international friends just excitedly announced that her swimming pool is up and running now. Disparities like this are part of everyday life in Africa, and they are difficult to digest, making ignorance a blissful alternative.
Or when the mid-level manager of a big UN agency, who regularly boasts of its humanity and printing posters of big-eyed black children receiving another dose of life-saving vaccination or food ratio, when that mid-level manager writes you in an email that you should really not put too much effort into this evaluation, as “in Sierra Leone, we don’t aim for perfection” and whatever effort you put in is “enough for this country”, after that manager has been in country for four months. A story, that the big-eyed black child on the poster could tell anyone who comes back after the intensive photo session, that actually there is no vaccination left at the clinic or the supposedly free food is sold on the market, because “in Sierra Leone, we don’t aim for perfection”. Sierra Leone should be more selective in what kind of people they allow to work on key development policies and programs, in the interest of their people.
Over dinner table with lots of food and wine, everyone complains about the inefficiencies and corruption within the UN system, a system that is immune of all national laws and can therefore not be audited. Money to the UN agencies is handed out based on political motives, not on performance, such as to give donors a bigger say in the UN. But yet, after dinner, we all gladly call our office sponsored drivers in white shiny SUV cars and let our alcohol-infused self be driven back home to our AC-powered bedroom. The next morning, in the office of our well-equipped NGO, we discuss again how to save Sierra Leone, having no idea how 90% of Sierra Leoneans actually live, because we remain in our little bubble, not willing to open our eyes and let go of white neo-colonialist privileges.
And in our nicely cooled down white shiny cars, we drive along nicely paved roads that were not built with our tax money, because internationals do not have to pay taxes here. We enjoy the roads, the best (even if still patchy) electricity supply of the country, pools filled with water from the public water company, but don’t feel like we should be paying for these public services. At the same time we rant about how government seems incapable to finance even basic social services, but we are not willing to contribute our own money to rebuild it. “Ah, they are too corrupt, you can’t give them any money”, is the standard excuse, turning a blind eye to the industrial corruption that is happening in the development world, where aid money is channeled through massively overpriced consultancies back to where it came from. Nobody questions an evaluation report about a big system change introduced by government that took the Western evaluator nearly two years to complete, who flew in and out of the country regularly, apart from the Ebola time, when it apparently was too dangerous to stay in luxury hotels and analyse data. Nobody questions the price tag of that lengthy analysis of secondary data, where everyone knows the quality thereof is questionable and primary data collection would have resulted in much more defined answers. Nobody questions that the outcome is a report where every page costs 3000 pounds and nobody in government is going to read it, even if they probably should. However interesting the findings are, does it justify the costs?
We also happily turn a blind eye to the privileges given to international staff because of “security reasons” or because “otherwise we wouldn’t be able to find good people”. Do we really want people to come and work in development who are primarily attracted by the prospect of an AC house with 24 hours electricity, a salary high enough to pay back the mortgage of a house in a year and a car with driver, sending back all the aid money he is living on to his international bank account? Or do we want to attract people who are willing to integrate into local communities, live like the ordinary middle-class Sierra Leonean with regular blackouts, the occasional water shortage, the joys of public transport and actually sharing the aid money that is financing all of that with its intended beneficiaries? I think the answer is a no brainer. Only if we live by example, we can claim to take part in the development process of this country. Actions speak louder than words, which is probably why the common man and woman on the street mainly associates NGOs in Sierra Leone with fancy cars, highly paid expats who are enjoying their weekends on the beach and the locals chance to get some job experience, even if only as support staff.
Their frustration for NGOs and the UN is only topped by frustration about the government. Understandably, when all they see government doing is putting flower pots in the middle of the street and installing traffic light signals, while the majority of them don’t have electricity, nor water, their housing is too crowded and not rain proof and there are no jobs. It explains what made one of my okada motorbike riders recently stop when he saw some government workers replenishing the flower pots, and shout at them that they are “pwel we moni”, misspending their (tax) money. I felt sorry and angry both for him and for the probably very low-level government workers, who were just doing their job. The people who took the decision, the people in power, hide in tainted glass vehicles with shaded number plates, they hide in their mansions on top of the hills of Freetown, or they hide in their relatives’ houses overseas, visiting their kids who go to school there. There should be a law that Minister’s children need to go to public schools and government officials have to use public health facilities – both would probably improve in no time. The incentives that are set now are wrong and not encouraging progress.
Angri man nor get voice, angri man nor get choice. Emmerson, the Sierra Leonean social justice artist, sings about the fact that the man and woman on the street have no voice, because they either are not listened too or they are too scared to speak out. The song has become such a hit because it does exactly that: it gives a voice to the people, who sing along the song in the taxis, the cars, the streets. That also counts for me; I am an activist by nature, I want to move things, I want to change things, I want to be involved in politics and policy making, in moving and shaking. One of the statements that made me the most angry in the recent weeks, is when a Sierra Leonean man told me “you are not allowed to discuss politics, as you are not African”. How can I be silent, if I see the injustice staring at me everyday, either out of white shiny cars, or from the new traffic light, or from the neighbours’ house? How can anyone be silent and just ignore the water shortage, the power cuts, the housing and education problem, and keep swimming in the private pool?
My anger about the development sector is only topped by my anger about the Sierra Leonean police regulating traffic in the roundabout, stopping one lane, to let the other one pass for a while and vice versa. Don’t they know that roundabouts were built to be SELF-REGULATING and what they are doing is causing massive traffic jams?! Africa really made me a very angry woman. What gives me hope is that the best civil society movements started out of anger: anger about the treatment of blacks in the US, spurring women like Rosa Parks into action, anger about the prolonged detention of Nelson Mandela in South Africa was the beginning of the end of Apartheid, anger about the insufficiencies of the communist state of East Germany led into the falling of the wall. As long as there is anger, there is hope for movement and change, as soon as ignorance sets in, a blindness about injustice, the only hope remaining then is judgement day. Which also makes it very understandable that religion is opium for the people, keeping them calm and praising God for life, when what is needed is Sodom and Gomorrah. Sierra Leone is a very religious country, probably at least partly accounting for its peaceful and very friendly people. However, I also think it is part of the reason why civil society’s voice in politics is very quiet and a real quest for change missing. If all focus is put on life after death, heaven on earth becomes unnecessary. Which, again, makes me angry. We should never get to a point where we accept blatant injustice in front of our eyes. Never. Sierra Leone deserves better leaders, better international institutions and it also deserves, that I will be able to turn my anger into action, and not just ranting about it. I expect you to hold me to account for that!