In this era of global rise in charity spending, and dependence on donor aid particularly in the spheres of global health by developing nations, It is interesting to see how wealthy philanthropists gain an incredible amount of influence, and basically purchase soft power through mega donations that sometimes even supersede the place of domestic governments. A case in point is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; a powerhouse that plays an incredibly solid role in structuring and governing policies at top levels of international decision-making in the spheres of global health. One cannot help but wonder how a privately owned organization attained such magnitude of power that allows it actually dabble into the affairs of global health governance.
As crucial as donor aids are, they are not without problems as no one holds philanthropists who dole out huge sums of capital and resources accountable. Consequently, the personal principles and ideologies of a few mega donors end up structuring and shaping societies to which they donate, a proof that power lies in the potential to attractively influence the inclinations of others.
Philanthrocapitalism threatens health sovereignty in my opinion. The use of donor aid to structure public institutions often results in directly or indirectly ceding parts of a nations health sovereignty rights to mega donors. For instance, in my experience as a physician providing primary care for People Living with HIV/AIDS in Nigeria, we are faced with evidences of wealthy philanthropists micromanaging global health affairs that should be prerogatives of the government. I argue that these are some of the reasons for extensive zones of abandonment and its resultant health effects particularly among people living with HIV/AIDS in Nigeria. This is as a result of poor coordination by folks with inadequate knowledge of local norms and traditions, and not to mention the issue of internal brain drain.
Philanthropy in my opinion weakens political commitment, and I dare say, the extremes of Philanthrocapitalism indirectly reduce receiving governments to mere placeholders. Corruption, unwillingness to research new grounds, and reluctance to step out of comfort zones are some of the major barriers to thriving governmental sectors in many developing nations. Revitalizing credible governments is a task that developing nations must not take for granted. These nations must work hard to create functional and effective national health care, which I argue, is the building block for establishing health sovereignty and a means to achieving sustained social welfare, and less dependence on donor aid. In conclusion, I wish to reflect on what the stand of wealthy philanthropists would be assuming developing nations move towards achieving total health sovereignty. Will the mega donors be allies to this “movement”?
Dr. Henrietta Ezegbe is a physician and public health practitioner. A fresh graduate from the Simon Fraser University Master of Public Health Program in the Global Health concentration, Henrietta is interested in HIV/AIDS research specifically among underserved population in high and lower middle-income settings.
New roads and through fares, broadened streets, less traffic congestion, paved streets, a toll road making the exit out of the city much easier.
Thousands and again thousands of new houses being constructed, literary littering the hills around Freetown, and strewn out around stretches of road where their used to be forest and scrub.
The sound of generators, that once was a fundamental rhythm of the street, has silenced. During one of the few blackouts we drove through dark streets and I asked a longtime friend of why there were no lights in the windows. He simply stated that people had gotten used to the presence of electricity so they no longer maintain their generators. They tossed away their embarrassing Kabbah Tigers – a 100 USD generator named after the president at the time. Darkness still overcomes Freetown once in a while, but most nights when I am here the city is dressed in light.
It has been ten years since I last visited Sierra Leone
The first morning after my arrival it is cleaning Saturday. People clean their backyards but also public areas. Cars are not allowed to ply the streets up until noon. Smoke and the smell of burnt plastic dominate airspace. I enjoy the sounds of Wilberforce village an older part of the city that has received a good brush-up and now appear rather middle-class. A radio is playing E get Cro Cro a tune by Sierra Leonean musicians Manzu avec C-Bolt popular in 2004-05. Cro-cro in Krio (as well as in Nigerian pigeon) means rashes and although the song is mainly a cautionary tale over deceases a prostitute has, cro-cro was back in my days most often mentioned in relation to how filthy the city was. Cro-Cro, just as cholera, typhoid fever and the likes, is an outcome of a filthy city. Yet with a variety of cleaning efforts Freetown is much cleaner today. By stating that I am not saying that all is good. But, just as with the availability of power and the paving of streets, it has improved greatly over the past ten years.
Between 2004 and 2006 I did a two year long fieldwork centering a street corner in downtown Freetown. It was a quite messy area both socially and infra-structurally. Many of the guys I worked with were former combatants struggling to make do in the post-war realm. The more legal part of the income they made came from washing cars. The street corner was unpaved and in the dry season within minutes red dust covered newly washed cars. In the rainy season roads turned to muddy stretches and gutters were overflowing. Today the street corner is paved. Many of the guys from my fieldwork still hang-out on the corner, but to a much lesser extent. They are no longer dependent on the infrequent and ill-paying carwash business, but have jobs elsewhere in the city. They no longer live rough in the streets. Thus looking in the back mirror they were not as stuck as they themselves felt at the time. Life to most is still not easy, wealth is not available in abundance, but it is important to point out that they have maneuvered out of the hazy social death they at the time believed they would remain in.
Back in 2004-06 our discussions were dominated by topics centering the civil war, but also an equally violent aftermath. We talked about death, about drugs, about crime and about bare survival. Today we talk about children and we talk about relations. I want to repeat that life is still not easy for a majority of these guys. And quite a few are no longer with us having at a far too early age passed away – most recently Ebola took its toll. Yet still there has been progress. And in their faces it is hard to see that ten years has past. Their facial expressions signals newfound dignity and quite a bit of health. Rounder faces, clearer eyes. They made it this far.
Freetown is far from problem-less. The growth of the city is creating new emergencies. The shaving of the lush green hills surrounding Freetown is not just making the city look less attractive, but it destroys delicate eco-systems, creating ample space for catastrophes like a mudslide in August 2017, killing around 400 persons. Freetown has grown from a city of 130.000 in 1963 to over a million today. Despite good efforts has been placed on widening the road networks it is hardly enough. There is abundant need for a public bus system, and if being more ambitious a tram line. More serious the water and sewage systems are severely under-dimensioned and the lack of water might well turn into a serious emergency in a not so distant future. As I stated above electricity is much more reliant today, but how sustainable it is can be questioned. There is currently a big ship producing much of the power for the city on roadstead outside the city. It is reliant on oil – not very sustainable – but more seriously, on the short term, it could sail off with the blink of an eye if the government fails to pay for it. Close by where the ship is anchored, there is the slum of Kroo bay where people continue to live in pan-bodies, shacks, and where many people balance on the edge between life and death on a daily basis. When I was in Freetown a fire ravaged the community and it is alleged that several hundred houses were burnt down.
Socio-economically Freetown is still crumbling under a corrupt bureaucracy and with an insufficient taxation system that does not render a sustainable national economy. Little is indicating that improvements on this front are enough. The new president’s paopa (force in Krio) ways may make some more apprehensive, but it is difficult to believe that people within the vicinity of the president will not maintain impunity. I hope I will be proved wrong. There is however also a risk that paopa and the new ideal of a soldier team (written on mini-busses and an expressed idiom by local gangs) will once again turn the Sierra Leone to a more authoritarian country – and again let’s hope I am wrong.
I keep returning to roads. I believe in order to improve the Sierra Leonean economy it is pivotal that road transport from the countryside is good. If roads are in a bad state agricultural products ends being spoilt during transport thus driving up prices. But also the transportation itself will be expensive as bad roads demands high maintenance and repair costs on vehicles. With regards to infrastructural problems East-Central Freetown is still a bottleneck, but once leaving this behind the eastern part of the city has now a road of free flow all the way to Waterloo. Although some Freetonians are worried by the fact that the Chinese are making profit because of a road toll, even the toll gates are seen as a proof of progress by most. And one driver told me that except for the toll gates, there are virtually no police checkpoints taking your money:
you can go all the way upline with only a 2000 Leones (20 cent) bribe
That’s development. Still local rice sold in Freetown is more expensive than the imported one. That’s sad.
Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world. Many people can hardly afford to put food on their table. Most do not have the resources to plan ahead. However that said Freetown is still a city of smiles and amicable social wealth. Much more smiling than my home country Sweden. That’s a conundrum. It is a country of “shuffering and shmiling” to quote great Nigerian singer Fela Kuti.
First time I visited the country was in 1992. The next time was during the war in 1998. I lived in Sierra Leone for two years between 2004 and 2006. Between 2006 and 2009 I on average visited the country twice a year. After a ten years long break I returned during the spring of 2019. The worst condition I have seen Sierra Leone in was actually in 1992 weeks prior to the military coup that brought Valentine Strasser and NPRC to power. It was at the very beginning of a civil war that took off because of a direly mismanaged state. Although the war caused devastating destruction and human suffering, international attention drew more resources to the country and already a year after wars end conditions in the capital Freetown, but also in much of the “upline” provinces, was arguably better than before. The Ebola epidemic (2014-2015) was the next set-back, but it appears that at least Freetown has recovered well. Indeed lots of people passed away and it devastated families, but although I have no date to prove it I wonder if the resources which the international community provided is now in parts spent in the ongoing construction boom?
Around the 23-minute mark in the short film, Uppland, an unidentified voice speaks over a series of historical images of Yekepa, Liberia. Male and American, the speaker is presumably a former resident of the town. Yekepa was a LAMCO company town in Liberia’s Nimba Mountains, home to hundreds of the Swedish mining conglomerate’s employees. “Life was pretty nice there,” the voice says. “But you weren’t really living in a real world.”
Edward Lawrenson and Killian Doherty’s short film is conceived as an archeological project, an excavation of the physical and psychic ruins of industrial mining in West Africa. Lawrenson, a Scottish filmmaker and writer, and Doherty, a Northern Irish architect, set out for Liberia after Doherty comes across photographs of Yekepa from the 1960s and 70s. Such images are not hard to find. Iron ore mining was a central pillar of Liberia’s post-World War 2 economy. Foreign mining giants like LAMCO, backed by the Liberian governments of William Tubman and then William Tolbert, rapaciously harvested the country’s reserves until the global price crashes of the 1980s. Today the detritus of company towns and massive iron ore pits litter northern and western Liberia. These ruins occupy a prominent place in the lives and memories of Liberians and non-Liberians who inhabited the mines and their supporting towns. The “pretty nice life” that iron ore mining made possible is a complicated and important thread in the story of Liberia. So, too, are the consequences of a political economy that so thoroughly shaped the “real world” of most of Liberia’s inhabitants.
Lawrenson narrates the film and describes the origins of both the town and the project, though fortunately he dispenses with the usual filmmakers’ journey and arrival tropes. The visuals are primarily scenes of ruins: abandoned industrial equipment and infrastructure; housing; and the terraced hillsides and massive pits carved into the mountains. The film’s 30-minutes are divided into four variously timed chapters. The first, Yekepa, is ostensibly anchored by the contemporary town. A small population still lives there, including at the gated campus of ABC University, a Bible college. Old Yekepa, the brief second chapter, is framed by a visit to the abandoned village of Yeke’pa. The Bible college’s carpenter happens to be a community leader among the population displaced by the mining operation, and he leads the filmmakers back to the village’s original site. New Yekepa, the third chapter, travels to the site to which the displaced were relocated. There the residents describe the inadequacies of their compensation and tell their own version of how geologist Sandy Clarke discovered the iron ore deposit and captured the mountain’s guardian spirit. The final chapter, Stockholm, briefly brings the film to the apartment of a retired couple who describe the suburban Stockholm aesthetic of Yekepa and the failure of the company to leave much of anything behind.
Each chapter weaves together historical still and moving images, on-camera interviews, and beautifully shot observational footage. Given that neither Lawrenson nor Doherty are ever named or made visible in the film (Doherty is simply referred to as “the Architect”), Uppland is surprisingly personal and reflexive. Lawrenson speaks frequently in the first person and includes both narratives and visuals that make the filmmaking process an engaging subplot. For example, the filmmakers cleverly include a few seconds of footage of Thomas, a young man assigned to keep an eye on Lawrenson, trying in vain to direct the action of people walking into and out of the camera frame. Uppland avoids most of the pitfalls of the narrated, exploitation documentary genre, its disembodied voice-over never becoming too authoritative, outraged, or self-indulgent—a rare achievement in this ever-expanding field.
The sum total of the film is nevertheless familiar. It is a galling portrait of the harvesting of African resources and the damage done to both land and people. The mountain that once housed the deposit is now a giant stagnant lake. New Yekepa appears as a soulless, impoverished, and somewhat embittered place. The Swedish retirees, meanwhile, are surrounded by a national museum’s worth of artifacts in their bright, comfortable looking apartment. And everywhere there are rotting husks of metal and concrete, useless now that the mine has closed.
Both visually and narratively, Uppland is too clever and interesting a film to stop at that. “Life was pretty nice there, but you weren’t really living in a real world” is a line that could arguably have been spoken by everyone in the film and everyone behind it. Certainly, this is true of the white foreigners who worked for LAMCO, who appear in their greatest numbers in swim trunks, splashing around in the company’s swimming pool. The Swedish retirees speak of their intentions to leave a sustainable economy at Yekepa, but “it’s a pity” is the best they can offer as commentary on the fact that they failed to do so. The American professor at the Bible college certainly seems to be having a good time, but his alienation from the “real world” around him is absolute. His earnest Old Testament history lesson about the disappearance of manna is deliciously apropos of the surrounding context but obviously lost on the man himself.
That the past was better but never real even for the Liberian residents of Yekepa is painfully clear in a conversation with two men named John, both former local employees of LAMCO. They fondly recall the town’s hospital, schools, and ice cream shops, all of which they claim made the residents of the town feel like they were “living in America” right there in the rainforests of northern Liberia. But they are unreliable narrators. One of the Johns describes the perfect racial harmony and integration of Yekepa, but there are no black bodies in the swimming pool images; a line of school children shows whites in the front and blacks in the back; and footage of a white Swede tending his vegetable garden is contrasted to a young Liberian houseboy stripped to the waist mowing the lawn.
The ruins of Yekepa make everyone look to the past and complicate their relationship to the real present. The residents of New Yekepa implausibly claim that their lives today would be better if only they hadn’t lost the written resettlement contract Clarke gave them when he forced them to move. And as the film abruptly ends, audio clips of President Tubman’s 1962 speech to LAMCO employees extol the virtues of mining, celebrating the company’s commitment to exploiting a wilderness inhabited only by spirits and bringing both wealth and civilization to Liberia’s upplands. The visuals, of course, are of a scarred landscape and still, rusting machinery.
In the film’s penultimate moment Lawrenson describes being approached by security guards as he filmed those ruins. It is cutting testament to the slippery unreality of memory and hope when they ask if he is here to restart the mine. Lawrenson smartly spins the encounter into a comment about his own position; the filmmaker must pack up and depart for Europe before he can engage them in meaningful dialogue, taking away the richness of his film and leaving them with their disappointment and their ruins. But the moment is more poignant than that. Rising world iron ore prices have led a number of multinational companies to revisit Liberia’s abandoned mine sites, and iron ore now accounts for about 30% of Liberia’s foreign export earnings. Small enclaves of foreign workers are building new company towns that are largely off-limits to local residents, who continue to inhabit the ruins of the old company towns. New mining equipment and infrastructure is being imported to do the work, much of it less dependent on human labor and therefore even less dependent on the “real world” of the people who live around it.
What kind of ruins this new mining economy will leave, and how they will be remembered, will no doubt be the subject of a film to come.
Danny Hoffman is Associate Professor of Anthropology at University of Washington. This text originally appeared on the blog Africa is a country
Age-of-consent law is complex. If it is set too high, there’s a risk that it will undercut young people’s agency. If it is set too low, it does not offer enough protection for vulnerable young people.
This is a conundrum Sierra Leone has faced in the last decade. In the aftermath of its civil war, the country has focused on ways to address sexual violence and protect young girls from sexual harassment and grooming. One approach was to create and enact laws designed to criminalise violence and empower women and girls.
The Sexual Offences Act is one example of such legislation. Here, the work of the country’s lawmakers has yielded some positive results: the act protects children, especially girls, who are abused by adults.
But it also circumscribes teenagers’ autonomy. The act raised the age of consent for girls and boys to 18. This effectively criminalises sexual activity between consenting young adults.
As I repeatedly witnessed in court cases during more than a year of fieldwork in the capital city, Freetown, it often results in boys from economically marginalised families being imprisoned after their consensual sexual relationships lead to a young woman falling pregnant. It is presumed by the girls’ families and the wider community that such boys cannot afford to support his partner and their child.
Violence is not just a private matter between people. Regulating it is not the duty of communities or the state alone. Rather, it is the dialogue and the tensions between these different forces which expose not only how things are “supposed to work”, but also how they “really work”.
Lawmakers and those who craft policy that’s meant to empower and protect women need to consider and take seriously the knowledge of grassroots women’s groups and the criticism voiced by citizens and law enforcement. In this way, Sierra Leone can amend what doesn’t work in its legal framework and strengthen what does, to engender real change.
The Sexual Offences Act was passed in 2012. It raised the age to give sexual consent to 18: the idea was that since girls younger than 18 cannot consent to sex, they cannot be coerced into sexual relationships by much older, powerful men.
However, while conducting my research and observing court cases stemming from the law, I realised that the act’s rigidity often undercuts the agency of young Sierra Leoneans and threatens their futures.
Under the act, men can receive a prison sentence of up to 15 years for having sex with a minor. Since consent is no longer considered, both rape and sexual acts that both parties have agreed to fall into the same category.
This meant some of the cases in Sierra Leone’s courts involved 17-year-old girls (the alleged victim) and 19-year-old boys (the accused) who told the court they were in love. In these instances, the sexual relationship had often been reported by one of the teenagers’ relatives, someone in their community, or a pastor or teacher when the girl became pregnant.
One lawyer I spoke to explained why this was the case:
… Usually the families knew and accepted the relationship but then report when the girl gets pregnant. It is mostly poor boys who are convicted, not rapists, because these boys do not have any money to offer the family of the girl. Often the families think that these boys cannot support their daughter and seek revenge for a spoiled future.
The boy’s conviction and imprisonment sets off a chain of events that leaves young women compromised by the very laws that were apparently designed to help them.
Time to reframe
In cases like those I’ve described, the 19-year-old almost always goes to prison. His 17-year-old girlfriend loses her partner and cannot rely on his help to raise their child.
On top of this, she is also prevented from continuing her education. This is because of Sierra Leone’s pregnancy ban, which was declared by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology when schools re-opened after the Ebola pandemic in 2015.
According to Amnesty International and human rights lawyer Sabrina Mahtani, the ban – which may be enforced through physical checks – aims to protect “innocent girls” by separating them from pregnant girls, who are seen as negative influences. Temporary alternative classes are provided for pregnant girls, but these are limited and increase girls’ feeling of stigma by isolating them from their peers who aren’t pregnant. Many girls don’t return to school once they’ve given birth.
In the example I’ve outlined here, the law has led to the policing of a young couple’s relationship and put both their futures at risk. However, if the law would include these considerations it could refocus on criminalising rape and would not have to send boyfriends who are barely over 18 to prison.
But it can only include such considerations if it goes beyond reporting statistics and the law’s theoretical intention. Local experts can expose the law’s actual effects in relation to increasing existing inequality and power structures. For instance, a health worker at a Rape Crisis Centre told me
..If the SOA would allow people within a certain age range, like 16-21, to consent to sex and criminalise sex between persons of very different age groups and with very young people, it would stop stigmatising pregnant women, stop sending poor boys to prison but continue to protect small girls.
Through community meetings, focus group discussions and the knowledge of local grassroots organisations, law enforcement and service providers, such effects could be made visible and addressed. In this way Sierra Leone’s laws would become both fairer and more relevant.
Luisa T. Schneider is a Postdoctoral research fellow at Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. This post has previously appeared on www.theconversation.com
I suppose that the first thing I did when I sat to write this piece probably underlines the problems we have in academia with emotions and fieldwork. Using my institution’s electronic library search, I typed ‘fieldwork and death’ into the search bar. The results were, predictably, disappointing.
In January 2018, eleven weeks into my twelve-week research trip in Northern Sierra Leone, one of the local researchers I was working with died. She died in the government hospital in Freetown, after a prolonged illness, the details of which are unknown to me. I was mid-breakfast when I got a phone call from Joaque, a man who had been helping me with contacts and access. I didn’t pick up the first time he called, because my mouth was full of bread, but when he called back immediately, I knew.
I want this piece to come flowing out of me, but it’s stuck in my throat like the bread I hastily swallowed as I picked up my phone. “We’ve lost Mafudia” he said.
The day before, I thought I had wrapped-up my project. I left the district town where I’d been for most of the last 11 weeks, and had my driver drop me off at my partner university for a seminar. The other local researcher I was working with, Osman, had come with as well, because we’d had one more meeting on the way back to the university. I’d hugged him goodbye, said that I’d see him soon. I’d meant it, I was already thinking of how I could come back to Sierra Leone. I didn’t mean that I would see him the following day, at a funeral.
I knew she’d been sick when we were working. Long days in remote communities made it clear that she was not well. I asked her every morning how she was feeling. The reply was always the same – ‘thank God.’ She took a day off and went to hospital once while we were working. I expected her to be out for a few days. I called her to say this. She was back the next morning. On several occasions, Osman and Joaque said that she was not well. That she had always been sickly. I assumed that if I kept checking in with her every morning, that she would tell me if she was too ill to work. I didn’t know what her illness was, and it’s not that I didn’t believe she needed medical treatment, but I never assumed that it was life-threatening, and I never pressed her. Just before Christmas, we finished the part of the project I’d hired her for, and she went into hospital two days later. A few days before her birthday. For the next two and half weeks, she was in hospital, first in the district town, then in Freetown. I called Osman. I called her daughter. The week before she died, everyone said she was improving. The doctors were pleased. I planned to stop in to the hospital in between interviews one day when I was in Freetown, but the visiting hours were later. I didn’t go back.
When we talk about fieldwork, the preparations, the joys, the challenges, the logistics of dealing with arranging meetings and dealing with transportation, and eating things you’d normally not eat, and hearing hard stories, no one tells you about how to go to a funeral for a person you’ve worked with for 3 months. No one tells you how to pick out the right kind of clothing, or how much money to give the family. No one tells you that there is no other experience you’ll ever have in field that will make you feel like more of an outsider than not knowing how to behave and grieve in the ‘right’ way. When we talk about coming back from the field, about readjusting and finding our footing again, and sorting through interview notes, no one talks about what to tell your colleagues who ask ‘how was it?’ There’s no good way to answer this when all you can think about is standing outside the boundary of the cemetery with the other women as your colleague, guide, friend, is buried, So, I didn’t really tell my colleagues – only the two who I’m really close to, and my supervisor. As for the rest, when they ask ‘How did it go?’ Any problems?’ I say ‘It went well! I have so much data.’ The words almost get stuck in my throat as I rush to get them out. Mostly, no one talks about how all of this will leave you with feelings of guilt so intense that in some moments, you cannot think of anything else – What if I’d insisted that she go to hospital earlier? Or insisted that she was too ill to keep working? Or paid to have her admitted to private hospital? Or? Or? Or…………
Weeks later, I went to give advice to a colleague’s project team about how I’d dealt with the university’s finance office and logistics and receipts. One of her PhD students raises a great question – in light of the university’s policy that research assistants have to have university contracts, what is the university’s policy about liability to our hired research assistant? I’d expected questions about these contracts, and so I’d brought my copies. When he asked the question, I was looking at Mafudia’s handwriting on her contract. I covered it with another piece of paper, lost my voice, and struggled to get out that the university had no liability, but that we had a responsibility to think of what our own moral liability was. Feeling obligated to explain my spluttering, I told them briefly what had happened, and then left.
My guilt, my feelings of obligation – to her family, to academic discussions about fieldwork – are tangled in my project. I feel pressure to get publications out as soon as possible so Mafudia wouldn’t be disappointed – or so I can tell Osman that I’ve kept my word. But reading the interviews she conducted is a struggle. I can hear her voice in the notes she took at meetings. And then I feel guilt for feeling so upset – I am not her daughter. She was not my daughter, sister, wife. I am not grieving in the right way.
At her funeral, I sat – straight-backed – in a borrowed shirt, by hair tightly wrapped in a scarf. I dug my nails into my palms. I bit the inside of my mouth, set my jaw, curled my toes into balls in my shoes. I was not supposed to cry. I started to cry a few times – and was told (kindly) to ‘bear it up’ because it was God’s will.
Some kindly American missionaries drove massively out of their way to drop me back in the district town after I got the news in the university. I’d packed a bag in 10 minutes – cash, phone charger, toothbrush. I don’t know what I was thinking about clothes, I left the university in a filthy t-shirt and stained pants. I had to borrow clothes when I got to the district town several hours later. Of all the things I could have brought that would have made sense, for some reason, rushing out of my room at the university, I’d grabbed the pineapple I’d bought the day before. I arrived back at the guest house I’d checked out of 24 hours previously, sweaty, not clothed for a funeral, and clutching a pineapple. Mercifully, it’s a small town, and Mafudia was well-loved, and I didn’t have to tell anyone why I was back. One of the cooks tied my hair in a scarf. There were so many small kindnesses – the barman took me to the funeral on his motorbike, the guesthouse manager refused to charge me, a woman I knew loaned me clothes, and the next morning, her husband dropped me to a major road junction so I could get shared transport back to the university. Two shared taxis and a motorbike – 4 hours crammed into the passenger seat of the taxi with another person, seat molding digging into my hip – exhausted – drained – felt like some sort of penance. That night, I told my mom what had happened. The guilt – of not doing more – of making Mafudia work too much – of not seeing how sick she was – of pushing her too hard – came out in sobs. My mom was so alarmed about my mental state that she emailed a friend of mine who’d spent a lot of time in West Africa and asked her to call me. When she called, I felt like I could finally explain to someone who understood – that a research assistant is never just an employee or colleague – but that they become, for a time, the person you trust most in the world. The intensity of the relationship cannot be brushed off. She told me that if the same thing had happened to her when she’d done fieldwork, that she would feel the same guilt. That I wasn’t guilty, but that my feelings of guilt were legitimate. My feelings of guilt are legitimate.
I am not guilty of causing Mafudia’s death.
There is nothing in any training for fieldwork that prepares you for this. Over the years, I’ve had excellent conversations, mostly informal, about how fieldwork training is inadequate, how emotions play a huge role, how fieldwork is hard. None of those prepared me for this. My friends and colleagues – the ones I’ve told – have been kind and supportive since I’ve been back, but I have this enduring feeling that something needs to come of this that creates a space for academics can talk about death in the field. I know that I cannot be the only one who has had this experience, and I cannot let this slide without forcing a broader conversation about our moral liability, Maybe if I’d have this conversation before, I would have given more thought to how to offer private hospital admission to Mafudia, or I would have insisted that the whole research team take a few days off. Maybe this couldn’t have changed anything, but I also feel like I owe it to her to say her name, and talk about her death.
It’s been a year now. Sometimes, I collide with a thought about Mafudia like I’ve walked into a wall. Once, it was walking into a grocery store and seeing a woman with a look of intense concentration that reminded me of her. Just before Christmas, I was out for a run and realized that it had been exactly a year to the day that I’d last seen her, and the thought stopped me in my tracks. I know that these are feelings that anyone could have when dealing with loss. These feelings are not about emotions and fieldwork. But they also are, because I can’t find the precise place where the personal breaks from the field.
The questions I have for myself now are mostly about Mafudia’s daughter, and what if, if anything, I can do for her. Mostly, I’m grappling with why I feel like I need to do something. If I offer to pay for her school, am I doing it to make myself feel better? If doing something makes a material difference in her life, does it matter why I did it? How are my feelings of needing to do something tied up relations of race and colonialism? If I think about this in terms of ‘responsibility’ to her, it feels patronizing, and if I think about it in terms of ‘debt’ – to Mafudia – is that better or does it imply that at some point the ‘debt’ is repaid? Or maybe my feelings about this don’t matter, and what does matter is that I could be in a position to contribute financially to the daughter of someone I cared about? These questions get tangled in other questions about doing fieldwork – about how it can be done with justice and human dignity at the forefront, and also, if this is enough.
I don’t know if writing this is right, or if I have dislodged the right words from my throat. I don’t know if it is too self-centered or too introspective or too much of rambling narrative. I do know that Mafudia was kind, hard-working, strong-minded, independent, and cared deeply about the rights of marginalized people in her country. She worked as an advocate for prisoners, for human rights, she took testimony from survivors of the war during the truth and reconciliation commission, she was so well-loved and admired, there were hundreds of people at her funeral, and you could feel the grief cutting through everyone. She helped people wherever she went but never took shit from anyone. I know that the world is better place for her being here, and a worse place in her absence.
Caitlin Ryan is an Assistant Professor at the University of Groningen. Her work focuses on gender and land deals, and the Women, Peace and Security Agenda.
Eastleigh shop in 2009 soon after Obama became US president. Photo by Mats Utas
Eastleigh, Nairobi is pictured as a good area for Somali refugees in media and in UNHCR reports. The migrant Somali population in Eastleigh has developed trade networks and made it a commercial area with major significance not only in East Africa but also globally. According to a report from 2012, by the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) and UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees), asylum seekers and refugees are surprisingly independent and integrated into the socio-economic life in Nairobi. The estate is considered a good area for refugees because of possibilities to socio-economic activities and according to the report, the profile of Eastleigh refugees is “one of incredible resilience and ability to survive in the face of significant odds” (UNHCR 2012). Continue reading
Congosa in Krio means gossiping and spreading rumour, but its connotations are much darker than in English. It equals with name spoiling. In a society where attack against somebody’s public image can meet mundane as well as occult retaliation, gossiping is considered as the antisocial behaviour par excellence. However, although unanimously condemned, congosa is omnipresent and is an essential part of public life. Friends, as well as strangers constantly share, comment and analyse stories of uncertain origin in a sort of collective jubilation. Rumours are much more than stories circulating without signature with questionable truth content. Because they are often the expressions of mistrust, doubts and alternative hypotheses challenging – while evoking – the moral order of a society, they touch upon the political, everywhere. But in Sierra Leone the political and the rumour are probably even more tightly knit together, in a way that congosa and politics become inseparable. Commenting on a previous Sierra Leonean election (that of 1986, still within the one party system) Mariane Ferme notes: “only through the careful and sometimes unpredictable management of rumours of secrete gathering and strategies can the abuses of the electoral system be kept in check” (Ferme 1999:161). Continue reading
They say they can’t tell if I have malaria or not, maybe it’s something else. “Just lie down, try the drip, and see if it helps”. I am in the hospital in the North of Sierra Leone, I have a headache of a magnitude I have never experienced before, I have a high fever and joint pains, the fans are not working and to get through a huge number of patients in the overcrowded district hospitals the nurses are injecting strong antibiotics straight into the veins in my hand. In the evening the pain is slightly subsiding thanks to the drugs, as they bring in Kadiatu. She is about 14, she is incredibly thin but is brought in kicking and screaming and it takes three adults to keep her down on the bed and to stop her from ripping out the IVs once they are put in. Her family don’t speak English so I translate between them and the foreign doctor: “They say they haven’t used any traditional medicine on her”. Her screams are making me shiver, “I don’t think I can do this, I don’t think I can do this” I keep repeating to myself. By the next morning Kadiatu has died—my own illness worsens and I am transferred to the capital where I get better treatment.
I am doing my PhD research with unemployed youth in Freetown, studying violence in the aftermath of war. I hang out in “ghettos”, I sit endlessly as young men drink, smoke, listen to music, and we talk about “the system”. It’s intense, but rewarding work, I’m learning every day, I think it’s what I have been trained to do, the full immersion experience. Then, one day the violence I am researching comes very close, too close, it rips my world apart. Continue reading
Sierra Leone has a new president. And despite being challenged prior to the elections, the two party-system dominated once again. After two five-year terms under Ernest Bai Koroma of All Peoples Congress (APC), the second giant, the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP), takes over again. Julius Maada Wonie Bio of SLPP defeated APC’s Samura Kamara by gaining 51.8% of the vote in the runoff on March 31, 2018.
As the 5th president of Sierra Leone, Bio has been sworn in as president on April 4, 2018. He is a familiar and controversial face in local political landscapes. Now a retired Brigadier, he briefly held the position as military head of state after leading a coup in January 1996. Bio justifies this manoeuvre as enabling the end of the civil war and the country’s return to democracy. His followers appreciate him as the man who, during the civil war, started formal negotiations with the Revolutionary United Front (RUF Rebels), conducted national elections and handed over power to Ahmad Tejan Kabbah after Kabbah won the elections. Critics point towards his use of force to dictate the political arena. Bio was also the SLPP presidential candidate in the 2012 presidential election, then losing to Ernest Bai Koroma. Yet, while he is well-known, his next moves remain elusive. The onset of a new political chapter raises numerous questions, nourishes hopes and feeds anxieties about the future of post-conflict and post-pandemic Sierra Leone.
What might change and what might stay the same? This is perhaps the question in many people’s minds though probably most are thinking about local livelihood possibilities, education opportunities for their children, or whether the power supply will improve. Few will be thinking about prisons. Continue reading
On the 4th of April, I was sitting on the veranda of a restaurant in Lungi and watched mesmerized the police officer next to me who, in his full gear, consumed bitter wine sold in small plastic packets. As he was finishing one packet after another, he was visibly getting drunker with each sip. The scene provided the context – both in historic and sociological terms – for what had been the most important public issue for Sierra Leone for the past few weeks: the presidential elections.
With his drunkenness, the policeman’s voice grew louder. I could not miss it: he was boasting of his rebel past. He was armed. With this open and embodied reference to the RUF he reminded us all how the brutal memory of the civil war was still so near, constituting a permanently threatening background to national politics. Sierra Leone got liberated from a deadly civil war just 16 years ago, too short time for a nation to forget the trauma but sufficiently long for the new generation to forget about the healthy fear of violence. In fact, the spectrum of violence seemed so real that the maintenance of peace and order was the number one stake in this election. A lot of people whom I asked about their hopes responded me spontaneously: “I just pray for peace”. Continue reading