The best career advice

A woman was asking a question in a facebook group of international development followers – she had been offered an (unpaid) UN internship, and due to a lucky situation with her scholarship, she could actually afford to do it. However, she heard it may look bad on her CV and she was worried that by doing that internship, she would miss out on other chances later or not land jobs.

I was stunned. It puzzled me so much, it stuck in my brain, and few days later I poured out all my thoughts to my boyfriend. How are we still living in a time where it matters more how something looks in your CV compared to how much you actually want to do this job because it is interesting and you are passionate about it? How are we still living in a world where even a six month or one year internship apparently can ‘spoil’ your CV – considering a forty-something-year-career? Where does this fear come from and how are we succumbing to it? Should it not matter most to do something you are really passionate about? And yes, maybe passion in the workplace is not for everybody – but at least do something that you are interested in? Also, we are talking about a job in international development. Am I asking too much if people should take those jobs out of interest or passion, and not because ‘it looks good on CV’?

The best career advice I have gotten was that the career will find you, if you keep doing what you are passionate about. I have been in a similar type role, working in the Ministry of Health and Sanitation in Sierra Leone for nearly six years now, and committed for another two years. Different directorates, different funders, always similar mission. Someone asked me recently if I am not bored. Again, I was puzzled by this question. This type of work is my passion, this is what fascinates me, day in and day out. Yes, some days are boring, but most days I learn new things, I understand a bit more, I see another piece of the puzzle, I try another fit, I fail spectacularly, I grasp another complex truth, I become more effective and better at what I do and achieve more.

Let me be honest – every now and then I also get caught up in the ‘CV worries’. People tell me I should leave, because “otherwise you will never get a job outside Sierra Leone”, they tell me I should not have left my senior management job because “people will think you were not good at it”, they tell me I need to get in with one of the big names (e.g. World Bank, WHO, Global Fund, Gavi, etc) now, otherwise “my CV won’t have weight”. But guess what I realized – people often give you advice and direction that validate their own choices as the right ones. And let me tell you another truth – our worklife is so long, we can easily fit several careers in there. I have worked for about 8 plus years now, and have at least another 35 years to go – see the dimensions?! One or two or three or even four more years in the same job won’t make any difference at all in the long run. Stop thinking so short term and take a deep breath.

We should all worry less about careers and more about passion in our jobs. And passion can be found in any job – when I was looking for a job for some work experience, none of my desired companies were interested in my application – I got rejected for two months with no positive replies. Finally, a company producing and selling flags hired me, so I went to sell flags. And yes, I became passionate about flag poles, flag designs, flag materials and customer service. You can have dedication in any job.

But anyway – I expect more from people in international development. I expect more passion, more dedication and less focus on a classical career as the main motivation.

My boyfriend patiently listened to me and then asked me why I didn’t give that lady this exact advice. A very valid point, so I went back to the facebook group and typed my answer. 26 people had replied before me and NONE OF THEM, not a single one!, had told her she should go for the internship if she is really interested in it. All 26 gave some answers relating to how it will make her CV look and how this will help her get into the next job or not, what else she should do to brush up her CV and so on. I closed facebook feeling a bit depressed with the (international development) world. We need to get better than this but until this happens, please – just keep doing what you are passionate about.

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To the hero of 2018: the nurse serving in rural Sierra Leone

Imagine yourself being a nurse, earning USD 110 a month, which makes you the main breadwinner of a family and extended relatives, married to a daily wage worker, who more often than not won’t find work. You have two children – a son and a girl, who you work hard for to keep in school, paying all formal and informal fees necessary. Then your employer, the government, posts you to a veryvery remote area, more than 8 hours from where your family lives, in an area with a different tribe and local language, with no warning, in the middle of a school year, and expecting you to resume work in your new duty station within two weeks. You are not given any relocation or transport money, but are expected to pay this out of your salary. You are also not given any salary increase – even though you could really use that, given you will have to continue to pay for your children’s home. You reach your new duty station via public transport and motorbike, and face a dilapidated staff quarter, barely any drugs available for treatment, and a community that is suspicious of this person from the capital. The chief sees you as his personal mistress, allowing him to sexually harass you, and given he is the local authority, who do you complain to?! The journey home to your family costs a third of your monthly salary, so you only go back once a quarter, and even though you wish you could bring your family to your new duty station, there are no schools in close reach – or the quality of the local school is not up to standards. Even to access your monthly salary, you have to travel 3 hours to the district capital, if you are lucky enough to be banking with a bank that has a local branch. To call your family, you have to walk 15 minutes to a spot that has network coverage. Once or twice a year a delegation from the district capital comes on supervision, and intimidates you with pages of checklists telling you a hundred things you need to change, of course with zero additional resources.
When you go back to visit your family, you know you are risking lives in the community where you serve, because no one is there to cover for you. Furthermore, when you finally see your children and husband again, you realize that he has found himself a mistress in the meantime, and you don’t appreciate the suspicious strangers walking in and out of your home, with vulnerable children being there.

Sounds grim, no? This is the reality for more than 500 nurses in Sierra Leone, serving in the most remote health facilities. 81% of all rural health workers are female – often having no other options but to comply to postings, as they lose their job otherwise.
I doubt anyone who is reading this post would agree to such work conditions, yet in Sierra Leone, these nurses still serve their communities in hard-to-reach, barely equipped health facilities, with small salaries and lots of demands placed on them. I have spent a lot of time in the last few months working with the government to better recognize, reward and motivate these health workers, and given that the majority of them are women, we spent time with communities, local authorities, health workers and policy-makers to discuss gender-specific issues. It is horrifying, and humbling, to hear all their stories, and to understand their struggle and their fight better. Female health workers in remote areas are my heroes of the year – and they deserve to be much more recognized for their sacrifice and service to this country. They are some of the strongest women that walk on this earth. I am sorry I have not seen your struggle earlier, and I salute you for your bravery and your service. You are heroes.

 

It wasn’t raining

It wasn’t raining when I arrived in Sierra Leone, five years ago today. British Airways was still flying back then (they stopped when Ebola broke out), and on my overnight flight from London to Freetown, to the new to-be-home, I met my first Sierra Leonean ever, and apparently fell asleep on his shoulders. I jumped into life in Sierra Leone with the same lack of physical and emotional distance as on this flight, extending trust and friendship far and wide, and largely being repaid with the same trust and friendship.

The second picture I took in Sierra Leone was the view from the Youyi building, that houses the Ministry of Health and Sanitation, where I was going to work for two years (I had no idea back then that I would still see that view everyday five years later). 2013-10-25 08.32.13.jpg

Today, it looks like this: IMG_2479

 

Seen much change? I know it looks fairly the same, so let me tell you of some of the other things that changed in those five years:

  1. They fixed the road in front of the entrance (go check again – see the difference?).
  2. Everyone is using email and whatsapp now (there was no internet in the Ministry, when I came five years ago.) Communication is much easier now – I remember how we struggled to get invitation letters for meetings to the districts. The Directorate of Primary Health Care had letter boxes for all districts, that would get emptied whenever the District Medical Officer was in town – no one really knew when and how often this would happen.
  3. The speed of implementation has increased. Maybe that is linked to the above point, or maybe I just know better how things work and how projects and reforms can be implemented.
  4. There is no more canteen downstairs. The Youyi canteen served me my first lunch in country (it was beans, plantain and fish) and has been a love/hate affairs for three years, before it closed down and was supposed to be re-opened by the sister of the then-President, but that never happened. Now we have a new President, but still no canteen.
  5. I have moved down one floor (did you notice the slight change of perspective on the pictures?). I started working on the fifth floor for 2.5 years, and have now spent the last 2.5 years on the fourth floor. The fourth floor is definitely more active.
  6. Mortality indicators have gone down and up and down. Ebola didn’t help us.
  7. I have a travel pillow now, so I don’t fall asleep on strangers’ shoulders in planes anymore.

What has not changed in the five years:

  1. My neverending passion for my job and Sierra Leone in general.
  2. My neverending fascination with my job and Sierra Leone in general.
  3. My neverending adventures in my job and Sierra Leone in general.
  4. My hopefully-ending-at-one-point frustrations in my job and Sierra Leone in general.
  5. My neverending gratefulness for the opportunities I have. Thank you.

I am glad I survived until my fifth Salone birthday – and look forward to more to come. By God in power.

 

Insomnia musings: Why am I in Sierra Leone?

I just recently returned from holidays in Europe, and enjoyed the long and warm summer days, the abundance of fruits, vegetables, hot pressure showers and cool baths in beautifully clean lakes, the consistent availability of power, selections of cheese and yogurt. The majestic mountains you can climb on well prepared pathways, free of potential snakes and malaria-infested mosquitos, the always punctual trains that get you anywhere in no time and let you read your book in peace and quiet, while even providing functional toilets. The spontaneous gatherings with friends on Friday afternoons sitting in the sun at the river, enjoying a wide selection of cocktails and planning the weekends, full of family and friends who have known you for ages and where you feel home, and happy. The endless sale sections, with beautiful catches and super tempting bargains, providing whatever the heart desires. The closeness of Europe, where you can travel to any major city in few hours from Switzerland, being inspired by the French laissez faire on one day, and enjoying hearty Austrian sausages the next day while watching the Alps eternally beautiful horizon.

I still get homesick whenever I see mountains in the distance – I realised that it is not the mountain itself that makes me homesick, but seeing them from afar, as this is how I grew up – seeing the outline of mountains behind every corner and from every hill.

It was all of the above that made me send a question to my trilateral friends back in Salone – Why am I in Sierra Leone? Remind me again. Life is so easy and beautiful in Europe. And I understand I only see it when I am on vacation, but surprisesurprise – I have lived and worked there before, for the majority of my life, actually.

My smart and wise friend answered, half as a question and half as a statement – “You know the answer to that.

And I do. It is more a gut feeling, than a rational answer. And that gut feeling is passionate enough to draw me back to Salone and keep me here, through good times and bad times. I am on a mission. I am living out my biggest passion, and I am privileged to be able to do so.

Make the world a more equal place, a more just place and a place where people have opportunities.

I studied the theory, I tasted what the classical path to a nice life would feel like in Switzerland, and I left, to find a place where I feel alive. And aye, have I felt alive, have I felt despair, excitement and sadness, heartbreak and jubilation, a whole rollercoaster of emotions.

One of my greatest strengths and weakness at the same time is that my memory blanks out negative experiences – I remember good things much more and better than bad things, to a point where my friend had to remind me that I was burgled twice, robbed twice, as well as sexually assaulted, when I told someone else that nothing has ever happened to me in Sierra Leone. I honestly meant my statement and it only dawned on me after she reminded me, that actually quite a few things have happened to me.

I have no regrets – and not just because I never liked the sentiment of regret, as I find it pointless – you can’t change what happened, just live with it. I have no regrets because I feel alive, with every fibre of my body and inch of my brain. Admittedly, sometimes I am tired, or suffer from insomnia (like now) but generally Salone makes me use all my senses, all my talents and all my risk-appetite, a very satisfying feeling.

My passion is that others can experience this thrilling feeling of existence too – whatever this entails for you. I am thankful for Mama Salone, for making me feel alive, and I am thrilled to be working towards making others feel alive too.

Presidential-stories from the Lion Mountains

What story would you like to hear today:
a) how I ended up being followed with a photographer and a journalist for week; or
b) how I spent four hours sitting at a table with the President of Sierra Leone, worrying about my hair; or
c) why I started making chocolate; or
d) how I got stuck for half a day in the jungle close to the Liberian border?
I’ll leave d) for another blog post, as it is a beautiful little story – but that still leaves you with three choices, so choose well! Sierra Leone is in the election fever – presidential and parliamentary elections were on 7th March, the run-off is on the 27th March, and the current president – Ernest Bai Koroma – can’t stand for another term after 10 years or ruling, so there will be a change of leadership. Politics in Sierra Leone have been largely dominated by two parties – a green one and a red one (no connection with what we assign with these colours), the one from the South-East and the one from the North of the country. Party membership is often based on tribes and origin, and not so much on policies. It is always funny asking strong party members about the main difference to the opposition party and guess what – both would say “we are less corrupt than the other”. But that is the only perceived difference, making political discussions here very interesting. However, this time around, a third party emerged, with a very eloquent, charismatic and smart leader (guess where my sympathies lay…), who has forced the conversation into a bit more of “what actually needs to happen to move this country forward, and who has the best ideas for that?”. For the first time in history, there was a presidential debate with the six major candidates, which was streamed live on all radio stations, TVs and internet – and I had a (very emotional) blast listening to the various candidates’ ideas for speeding up development of Sierra Leone. One candidate seriously promised to improve the whole health system within three weeks – that sounds like a task for superman and wonderwoman.
There was also this ‘obama’-moment, when the same eloquent, charismatic and smart candidate gave his closing remarks – giving me goosebumps with “you touch one, you touch all”. For those of you who understand Krio, enjoy it here: (well spent 3 minutes, trust me).

 

Pic: my living room, just before the presidential debates started! The TV belongs to Elias, in case you wondered.
Being the President of Sierra Leone is a multi-million dollar job (a year…) and a way more influential position than we know it from our countries, so it is no wonder that the campaigns are fought hard and with whatever the candidates have. It is common practice to pay people money and give them a t-shirt with the party colours and symbols to go out on the street and rally for a certain candidates. So the strength of the different rallies are a good indicator of how much money each party has. See here for some insights from my balcony:

​Pic: the APC party rallying today.
 
Anyway. I am sure you’d like to hear about b) how I ended up sitting at a table with the President of Salone for 4 hours, worrying about my hair. Well, the very next day after the presidential elections, I went to the same venue where the debates were held, attending the launch of the social health insurance scheme of Sierra Leone. You probably know that I have worked on this extensively in my first two years in Sierra Leone, but then Ebola changed everything and other people took over. However, the President wanted to launch this before the end of his term, to leave it as one of his legacy projects. There were about 500 invited guests in the Bintumani conference center, with a big stage and high table at the front, including a red satin chair for the President.
Pic: the Bintumani conference center with the high table, for the launching of the Social Health Insurance. 
​Now, quick explanation – Sierra Leonean events or programs or workshops or trainings or birthdays or award nights or anything that is significant in life should have a high table, where distinguished dignitaries sit and give speeches, before the beginning of the actual program. This can easily take half of the total assigned time of the program, or even most of it. Without it, a program is not deemed ‘official’ enough and lacking ‘the appropriate weight’. So, high tables it is.

Well, sitting at the very back, I enjoyed watching all the paramount chiefs (there are 144 nationwide, and they are the key leaders on the ground) walking in their fabulous outfits, enjoying the feeling of being where just 12 hours before, the presidential candidates were for their debates. The program starts and Ministers are called up to the high table, leaving the red seat for the president. I suddenly hear my name being called “Naomi” and a finger being pointed at me, with several hundred heads turning to watch the white woman turning red. The lack of alternatives led to me being called up to the high table, supposedly giving a speech on behalf of development partners and observing the etiquette required around a head of state. Needless to say, I was not prepared and worried about what I would say and do and how to not get kicked out of the country by the President because I could tell him I actually don’t think that Social health insurance is a good idea now. Apart from worrying about my hair (I didn’t wash it in the morning, shame on me…) and worrying about my posture (all the TV cameras make nervous), I tried to get the message across the chairman, that I can’t give a statement, due to non-preparedness.

Pic: us standing for the arrival of the President, in the middle of the table. I am the pale woman on the very left. 
 
You won’t believe how many nerves it cost me, to be sitting at that table for four unexpected hours – do you pretend you are taking notes, when they make inappropriate jokes about the opposition party? Do you smile when they all clap for the president, can you clap as well – even though you represent all health development partners? What face are you supposed to make on a high table, when the President says something you completely disagree with? You can see the dilemmas and mind battles I was having, while on a bigger adrenaline rush that any caffeine or similar pill could give you. I did say “Congratulations for a bold initiative” to him afterwards, and left it at that. Time for a glass of wine…
I think I have rambled on enough and we will leave story a) and story c) for another post…

Praesidenten-geschichten von den Lion Mountains

Welche Geschichte moechtest du gerne lesen?
a) wie ich eine Woche lang von einem Fotographer und einem Journalisten auf Schritt und Tritt begleitet wurde; oder
b) wie ich vier Stunden lang an einem Tisch mit dem Praesidenten von Sierra Leone sass und mich um meine Frisur sorgte; oder
c) warum ich angefangen habe, Schokolade zu produzieren; oder
d) wie ich einen halben Tag lang im Regenwald festsass nahe der Liberianischen Grenze?
Ich spare d) fuer ein anderes Update, weil es eine nette kleine Geschichte ist. Aber das heisst, du hast immer noch drei zur Auswahl! Sierra Leone ist auch im Wahlfieber, es waren Praesidenten und Parlamentswahlen am 7. Maerz, und eine zweite Runde am 27. Maerz. Der amtierende Praesident – Ernest Bai Koroma – kann nicht mehr antreten, weil er schon zwei Amtszeiten hinter sich hat.
Sierra Leone’s politische Landschaft wird durch zwei grosse Parteien dominiert – eine gruene und eine rote (hat keine Verbindung mit was wir unter diesen Farben kennen), die Eine vom Suedosten und die andere vom Norden des Landes. Die Parteimitglieder unterscheiden sich oft in hauptsaechlich durch den Geburtsort der Mitglieder, und die Stammeszugehoerigkeit. Ich finde es immer wieder erheiternd, nach dem Unterschied zwischen rot und gruen zu fragen, und beide Parteien ruehmen sich darauf als “die weniger korrupte”. Sonst gibt es kaum Unterschiede. Fuer diese Wahlen hat sich eine neue Partei gegruended, unter einem eloquenten, charismatischen und erfahrenen Praesidentschafskandidaten, der die Diskussionen etwas mehr Richtung “Was ist wirklich noetig in diesem Land um die Entwicklung voran zu treiben und wer hat die besten Ideen dazu?”. Das erste Mal in Sierra Leone’s Geschichte gab es eine landesweit ausgestrahlte und uebertragene Debatte mit den sechs Hauptkandidaten fuers Praesidialamt. Ich verbrachte einen auesserst emotionalen und leidenschaftlichen Abend damit, den verschiedenen Kandidaten zuzuhoeren (und zuzuschreien, in gewissen Situationen). Ein Kandidat hat versprochen, das Gesundheitssystem innerhalb drei Wochen komplett zu revolutionieren – klingt nach einer Aufgabe fuer Superman und Wonderwoman.
Es gab aber auch einen echten “Huehnerhaut”-Moment, als der selbe eloquente, charismatische und erfahrene Kandidat seine Schlussrede hielt.
Fuer Leser, die Englisch (und Krio) koennen, hier kann man sich die Rede anschauen:
Foto: Mein Wohnzimmer, kurz bevor die Debatte startete! Der grosse Fernseher gehoert uebrigens Elias, falls ihr euch wundert…
Das Amt als Praesidenten von Sierra Leone lohnt sich – neben dem omnipraesenten Einfluss des Praesidenten, verdient er auf legale und weniger legale Weise jaehrlich mehrer Millionen Dollars. Das erklaert auch, wieso mit allen Mitteln um das Amt gekaempft wird. Es passiert oft, dass Leute bezahlt werden und mit einem Parteien-Tshirt bekleidet auf die Strasse los gesendet werden, um Werbung zu machen. Die Anzahl Leute, die an den verschiedenen Strassenmaersche teilnehmen, ist ein guter Indikator dafuer, wie reich eine Partei ist.  Vor zwei Wochen war der wohl groesste Umzug – hier sind einige Eindruecke von meinem Balkon:

​Foto: die APC Partei war auf der Strasse heute. 
Wie auch immer – ich bin sicher, ihr wollt etwas ueber die Geschichte mit dem Praesident und dem Tisch und meinen Haaren erfahre. Einen Tag nach der Debatte ging ich zum gleichem Konferenzzentrum, um an der offiziellen Lancierung der Nationalen Krankenkasse von Sierra Leone teilzunehmen. Ihr magt euch wahrscheinlich erinnern – ich habe viel Zeit in meinen ersten zwei Jahren mit der Entwicklung der Krankenkasse verbracht, aber dann kam Ebola und andere Leute uebernahmen die Ausarbeitung der Details. Nun wollte der Praesident die soziale Krankenversicherung launcieren bevor seine Amtszeit fertig ist, und das Projekt als sein Erbe hinterlassen. Es waren etwa 500 Leute eingeladen ins Konferenzzentrum, mit einer grossen Buehne und einem Ehrentisch, inklusive rotem Samtstuhl fuer den Praesidenten in der Mitte..
Foto: das Bintumani Konferenzzentrum mit Ehrentisch, bereit fuer die Lancierung der nationalen Krankenversicherung. 
​Kurze Erklaerung: Jeder Anlass in Sierra Leone, sei es Workshops, Ausbildungstage, Geburtstage, Preisverleihungen, oder was auch sonst im Leben wichtig ist, hat einen Ehrentisch, an dem hochstehende Gaeste Platz nehmen, und das Programm mit Reden eroeffnen. Diese Ehrentische und Eroeffnungszeremonien koennen gut und gerne den grossen Teil des Programmes ausmachen. Ohne diese Zeremonie wird ein Program als nicht offiziell genug, oder nicht mit der passenden Wichtigkeit empfunden. Die Ehrentische und Zeremonien muessen sein.

Ich sass also im Konferenzzentrum ganz hinten, und genoss das Beobachten der Gaeste. Alle 144 Chiefs waren da in praechtigen Gewaendern, und ich dachte gerne daran zurueck, dass vor 12 Stunden alle Praesidentschafskandidaten im gleichen Raum waren. Das Program beginnt und die Minister (Bundesrat) werden an den Ehrentisch gerufen, da hoere ich auf einmal meinen Namen – “Naomi” und einen Finger, der auf mich zeigt, sowie mehrere hundert Personen, die sich nach mir umdrehen. Eine Reihe von verschiedenen Umstaenden fuehrte dazu, dass ich aufgefordert wurde, am Ehrentisch teilzunehmen und eine Rede zu halten, im Namen der Entwicklungspartner. Schockiert und leicht ueberfordert gehe ich auf die Buehne und denke fieberisch daran, was wohl die Benimmregeln sind, wenn man den Praesidenten eines Landes trifft. Und was sagt man an einem Anlass, wenn man die Idee der Krankenkasse unausgereift findet und schlecht umgesetzt? Kann man das sagen, ohne den Praesidenten zu beleidigen (ich hab es nicht gesagt, keine Angst…). Ich hatte also vier Stunden lange Zeit um zu bedauern, dass ich am Morgen meine Haare nicht gewaschen habe, und auf meine Haltung zu achten, vor den Fernsehkameras. Darf man lachen, wenn sich die Ministers ueber die anderen Parteien lustig machen? Soll ich vortaeuschen, ich mache mir Notizen, wenn alle fuer den Praesidenten applaudieren und ich aber nicht mag, was er gesagt hat? Ihr seht – so unter Beobachtung hat jede Gestik auf einmal viel mehr Bedeutung. Ich habe mich dann freundlich geweigert, eine Rede zu halten, aber hatte die Moeglichkeit, dem Praesidenten spaeter zu sagen “Gratulatiere zu einer mutigen Initiative” – und dann brauchte ich wirklich ein Glas Wein.

​Foto: Stehend den Praesidenten begruessen, der sich in der Mitte gerade hinsetzt – ich bin die blasse Frau ganz links aussen. 
Ich glaube, ich habe genug erzaehlt fuer heute, und wir lassen Geschichten a) und c) fuer ein anderes Update…

Living in Sierra Leone made me an angry woman

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!

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…di sun hot…

When it is not possible to be ready to die

“People die here everyday, randomly and without good explanations.” I say this sentence in every longer conversation I have about Sierra Leone. It was always something very much matter of fact to me, just another statistic that I have saved in my head among the other key health indicators: maternal mortality 1165 per 100,000 live births, infant mortality 92 out of 1000, average life expectancy 48 years, GDP per capita 1500 USD per year, poverty rate 52%, 35% of pregnant women are teenagers, literacy rate among women 25%, ranking in the human development index: among the last 10 countries in this world. I am so used to these statistics, it doesn’t really move anything anymore in my mind, just some thoughts on how they were measured and if the right statistical approach was used. They are all screaming out that something is terribly wrong in Sierra Leone, that life years are wasted, families regularly hit with disaster and confronted with sickness and death.

I was never someone who was moved a lot by death. For me, the time of my and every one else’s death does not lay in our hands and is out of our control. I believe that we have a life after death and that death is just another milestone in this universal existence. In highschool, the best essay I wrote was titled “The aim of life is to be ready to die” and I lived according to it. The aim of life is to be ready to die. When it was someone’s time to reach that milestone, I normally thought that it was more or less justified and that life for us continues. Grandparents die after a long life, last stage cancer patients die after long treatment, only in rare cases are there exceptional deaths. My grandfather is receiving palliative care after few years of heavy medical interventions that kept him alive, including a bypass heart surgery ten years ago. His body has long been ready to die, but modern medicine wasn’t allowing this, giving his soul time to reach the point where he is ready to die. You do not get that time in Sierra Leone. There is no modern medicine, there is no working health system with heavy medical interventions and bypass heart surgery. You can be lucky if the clinic you are consulting with your pains has a qualified nurse who happens to be around and some painkillers in the shelf who are not expired or stocks just happened to have run out.

I was never someone who was moved a lot by death. I realised that people attend funerals regularly here in Sierra Leone, I realised that people tend to die younger than what I know from Switzerland. However, when one of the uncles of my closest friend died of Ebola or when the father of my night guard suddenly had to be rushed to hospital, dying of unknown causes and making my strong young guard crying out loud, I didn’t feel a lot. I didn’t feel a lot when the father of one of my best friends here died and avoided going to the funeral (it was Ebola times, after all, is what I told myself). I didn’t feel a lot when people kept commenting on the fact how lucky I was to still have both of my parents alive (why should they be dead, they are only in their fifties anyway?!). I just had my wake up call, literally. I woke up at 4am this morning to a text message from Kapry, saying that his sister in law has passed away. She was the wife of Lansana, whom I know well, the mother of an 18 month old girl who likes to dance to Nigerian music and she was my age. She was not ready to die and she shouldn’t have. Sierra Leone let her down and Sierra Leone also let the other 3500 women down who died during the last year in childbirth of preventable causes. Sierra Leone also let the 25,000 children down who die every year before they reach their 5th birthday. We let the 4000 people down who died because of Ebola, but a similar epidemic (even worse – as it is endemic) is happening in Sierra Leone in the front of all our eyes, written in all statistics. People are dying here all the time, randomly and without good explanations. And they are not given the time to be ready to die, they have not lived their life to the fullest of their possibilities, they have not had time to accept their fatal illness or had time to note down how they would like their funeral to happen. Sometimes, it is not possible to be ready to die – and it is up to us to change that, for everyone, especially in Sierra Leone.

I apologise for my ignorance so far. I apologise that it took me two years of living here to be shocked at a message of death. I apologise to all Sierra Leoneans and Africans for not giving you the time to be ready to die. Rest in peace, Madame Marie Kabbah, and thank you for waking me up from my ignorance. Let us hope and pray that your daughter will reach her 5th birthday and live way beyond that, enough long to be ready to follow you to where you are now.

Wachet auf, freie Schweizer, wachet auf!

Liebe Schweizerinnen und Schweizer,

Ein Leben ohne Leidenschaft ist nur eine leere Huelle. 

In meinen Ferien in der Schweiz wurde meine Leidenschaft fuer die Schweizer Politik wieder geweckt – wir leben in so einer spannenden Zeit, wo Aengste ueberhand nehmen, elitaere Gruppierungen brainwashing machen und die Komplexitaet der Probleme dazu fuehrt, dass viele Personen einfach sich ausklinken aus den Diskussionen und aus dem Leben. Das Leben ist um einiges einfacher und ueberschaubarer wenn ich mich nur um das Ablaufdatum der Milch im Kuehlschrank kuemmern muss und nicht um die Asylanten im naechsten Dorf. Aber wart mal – lass mich das nochmals formulieren: Das Leben ist um einiges einfacher und ueberschaubarer wenn ich mich nur um das Ablaufdatum der Milch im Kuehlschrank kuemmern muss und nicht um die Mitmenschen im naechsten Dorf.

Got it? Geschnallt? Wer hat sich ausgesucht, in der Schweiz geboren zu werden? Wer hat Sierra Leone gewaehlt? Wer Syrien?  Ich zumindest habe nicht gewaehlt – ich wurde einfach so privilegiert, weil ich im 1988 am ersten Schneetag im Jahr im Aargau geboren wurde. Wir haben ein Geburtsprivileg, dass uns dazu befaehigt, anderen weiter zu geben und zu teilen. Die Schweiz bietet uns politische Mitspracherechte, die absolut aussergewoehnlich sind. Wir schulden es unseren Mitmenschen in Syrien, Lybien und Tschad, dieses Recht wahr zu nehmen und die Schweiz verantwortungsvoll mitzufuehren. Lass uns eine offene und warmherzige Schweiz sein, die weniger privilegierte Menschen aufnimmt und von unserem Grundschatz abgibt. Wir wollen mehr sein als einfach nur ein reiches Land, wir wollen reich sein an Mitgefuehl, Grosszuegigkeit und Akzeptanz. Wir wollen eine Schweiz, die wach ist und am Geschehen der Welt mitfuehlt und Teil der Loesung ist. Wir wollen eine Schweiz sein, die sich auf ihre humanitaeren Wurzeln stuetzt, die Arme ernaehrt, die Waisen schuetzt und Obdachlose aufnimmt.

Wir wollen freie Schweizer sein: frei von Vorurteilen, frei von Fremdenhass, frei von Aengstemachern. Wachet auf, freie Schweizer, wachet auf!

Das ist meine Leidenschaft. Was ist deine?

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