In December 2013, three months before Ebola entered Sierra Leone, I was spending Christmas and the New Year there with my aging mum, siblings, and extended family. Sometimes I sat alone at the Family Kingdom Hotel, in the west end of Freetown, facing the busy street and Lumley Beach, observing the movement of people, cars and goods. It was precisely eleven years ago that the civil war had ended. The country was gradually staggering to his feet.
We were still very far from achieving a well-functioning state though. Our government still didn’t provide public services like healthcare and education to most of its citizens. The exploitation of mineral resources by foreign companies was flowing cash into the treasury, but much of it went into the pockets of corrupt politicians. The majority of the poor still went to bed hungry, not knowing what the future had in store for them.
As I sat pondering, I thought that all it would take for Sierra Leone to stand firm and start walking the path of prosperity was for its leaders to lead by example. But that would require an honest and patriotic mind-set, which was missing. Corruption was endemic. There were very few people standing up and condemning it.
As the English philosopher Edmund Burke rightfully said: ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’ But where were these ‘good men’?
The virus and the cancer
In the next year, Ebola struck my country. Thousands of souls were taken, leaving behind a broken people, a broken economy and a broken nation. But most of all, the virus unveiled the crooked face of the country. That other killer virus, corruption, stood alongside Ebola, working against the people.
I watched the epidemic hit Sierra Leone like the guerrillas of the civil war. The virus seemed to use ambushes, sabotage and hit-and-run-tactics to attack defenseless villages, towns, and cities. From a safe distance in the Netherlands I wept over the carnage caused by the virus, protested the late response of the international community, mobilized support from Dutch citizens and contributed articles to raise awareness of the disaster.
I found that I was not alone in this. Many patriotic citizens in Sierra Leone and around the world helped fight this enemy. But the fight was even harder than we thought. In spite of hundreds of millions of dollars raised by the international community, donors and Sierra Leone itself, the virus refused to surrender.
That was because it was backed up by its loyal sidekick, the cancer that is corruption.
Where had the money gone?
A few months ago, the Sierra Leone Auditor General reported that more than 14 billion Leones (US$ 3 million), one-sixth of the money allocated to fight Ebola altogether, was unaccounted for. That is an enormous amount of money: there are only six million Sierra Leoneans, with in total ‘only’ around 9000 laboratory confirmed cases of Ebola, divided over twelve districts. What could not have been done in these districts with more than a billion extra Leones each? The healthcare workers it could have paid, the ambulances, the field clinics, generators for electricity, for life-saving equipment…
The money had come primarily as donations from institutions and individuals within Sierra Leone, and from tax revenue. The funds had been distributed among some government ministers, parliamentarians, civil servants, government parastatals and private citizens. They had all received budgets and been tasked to fight Ebola. Where had it all gone?
At the time, the president of Sierra Leone promised the nation an investigation, saying that every cent would be accounted for. So far, however, he hasn’t come back to his people on that. But the majority of Sierra Leoneans seems to have forgotten. They still believe in him. It is this that infuriates me. Are we blind to look in the mirror to see the scars on our faces? Or are we, just like with Ebola, remaining in denial?
A country of believers
Sierra Leone is a country of good people who have faith, and such good believers are mostly forgiving people. The eleven-year civil war that ended in 2003 already seems to have disappeared from our memories. Victims and perpetrators in the bloody civil war now live side by side and in harmony. Maybe that is a good thing. But have we really forgotten? Or will the bitter past one day sound a call to action and to reprisal?
I hope that day will never come. I hope Sierra Leoneans will remain good and forgiving in that respect. On the other hand, we should not accept poverty, despair and disaster the way we are doing now. It is painful for me, watching from afar and seeing my people exploited and abused by their rulers, the rich and powerful. And how they still forgive, even love them, too.
Dressed in rags, they sing the praises of the giver
Yes, love. I had observed this vividly on New Year’s Eve, months earlier, on Lumley Beach. On this day, rich Sierra Leoneans parade at Lumley Beach to show off the might of their personal wealth, most of it garnered sinfully. Men and women dress to impress and display their modern cars and jeeps – new models that can hardly be seen even on the streets of Europe. On New Year’s Eve 2014, I saw how the beach became the terrain of a pilgrimage to praise the owners of Ferraris and Armani suits.
The desperately poor didn’t seem to resent this; on the contrary. Young men and women, dressed in rags, could be seen hanging on the roadsides begging for money, all the while singing the praises of the giver. Rather than protest or hold to account, they admire the rich and powerful, I thought. They almost worship them, whilst dreaming to, one day, own big cars and build huge mansions, too. It does not seem to matter how all this wealth is acquired. Apparently we can forgive even the biggest criminal as long as he spreads a bit of his corrupt riches around. But a petty thief who steals a banana or an orange from a street stall can end up beaten to death.
Vices and follies
As I sat pondering this lack of morality, I was reminded of the words of philosopher Adam Smith, who observed the same phenomenon in the UK, two hundred years ago. “It is from our disposition to admire, and consequently to imitate, the rich and the great, that they are enabled to set, or to lead what is called the fashion. Their dress is the fashionable dress; the language of their conversation, the fashionable style; their air and deportment, the fashionable behaviour. Even their vices and follies are fashionable; and the greater part of men are proud to imitate and resemble them in the very qualities which dishonour and degrade them.” (1)
Two centuries ago, the rulers of the United Kingdom, too, had been fine with this situation. They needed an ample supply of the impecunious: especially those with strong backs, grateful hands and ignorant heads. But tides had turned after trade unions and other social movements called for reform. Mass protests led to the forming of the Labour Party that we know today.
We will need our new generations to push for social change
It is perhaps not surprising that our poor majority in Sierra Leone behaves like the poor in the days of Adam Smith. Like in the UK then, huge unemployment and rampant poverty reign in my country. Our opposition parties, trade unions, journalists and social movements for justice are under repression or completely voiceless. If we want to walk upright and leave the misery behind, we will need our new generations to push for social change. But how to make this happen as long as the youth look up to the wrong role models?
It was on that New Year’s Eve on Lumley Beach, that I thought I could perhaps be one of those who provide a different example. There are some of us who don’t own a sports car or dress in fancy suits, but have gone a different way. With my journalism and writing, perhaps I would be able to encourage young people to think critically. I decided it was time for me to return home.
A dream vanished
That was, as said, three months before Ebola struck. At that time, the opportunities in the country were enormous. The economy was moving like an out-of-control train. Returning would be better for me too: my chances for success in Europe became thinner as a result of the economic crisis. And being home with my family and old friends would bring me much joy and satisfaction. Then Ebola came and my dream to return home vanished.
As I was trying to provide my little drop in the ocean, raising funds to help fight the epidemic, CARE Netherlands asked me to be their ‘ambassador’ in Sierra Leone. They thought I could enhance public understanding about Ebola and help CARE showcase their work in my country. I accepted. Of course. How could I not?
But I first wanted to make a field visit to CARE’s Ebola projects. I needed to see how CARE used its money. In return I would write articles about my experiences.
Ironically, the timing of my trip coincided with the news about the missing Ebola money. The grim reality that the missing money almost equalled the total sum of aid we had collected in the Netherlands did not escape me, nor did it escape my countrymen and -women. Hundreds of Sierra Leonean expats in New York went out on the streets to demonstrate against President Ernest Bai Koroma when he visited there, demanding he account for the missing funds. My pride to be a Sierra Leonean –an identity that had always, at least in the eyes of the West, been associated mainly with evils like bloody civil war, Ebola, and corruption- grew a bit again when I saw that protest.
My pride to be a Sierra Leonean grew a bit again
There had been protests in Sierra Leone itself, too, but citizens who had tried to demonstrate against the theft of the Ebola money had been subjected to police brutality. The very state of emergency put in place to fight Ebola made any gathering without police clearance a criminal act. Ebola was now being used to muzzle the opposition.
It showed me how difficult it is for people in my country to stand up for their rights.
As I prepared to travel, my goal was to find some positive Sierra Leonean experiences that I could share with my readers. I wanted to show that we are more than just a country of civil war, Ebola and corruption. There had to be light at the end of the tunnel. Besides visiting the CARE projects, I made sure that there would be some time to visit my family and old friends, so that I could hear and document their stories.
A cold embrace
I arrived at Lungi airport in Sierra Leone on May 31st 2015. The discussion about the missing Ebola money had subsided by then, due to the fact that Ebola was on the retreat. The hundreds of cases per week had reduced to a single digit. Thanks to the local health workers and international Non-Governmental Organizations, the virus was on the run. Sierra Leoneans were now busy rebuilding their lives. In Freetown, nobody seemed to remember the theft of the money.
At the airport, a friend I had not seen since my last visit ran to embrace me. I was wary –the virus might be on the retreat, but I had no intention of being mowed down myself as it was running past. He felt my coldness. ‘Are you afraid of Ebola?’ he asked. ‘Of course I am,’ I answered. Then he said something that surprised me. ‘Ebola has gone long ago’.
“But as long as your Western friends send money, they will say Ebola is still alive.”
What did he mean, ‘long ago’, I asked. He responded that it had been a while that he heard of any new cases. ‘But as long as you and your Western friends send money, those profiting from it will say Ebola is still alive.’ My remark that he sounded very bitter only made him go on: ‘Millions of people are struggling to make ends meet. Hundreds of orphans whose parents were killed by Ebola are on the streets, survivors struggle with medical complications. Our health system is in tatters. Businesses are going bankrupt because people have no money to buy things. The education system is in disarray too. But those responsible for the mess don’t do anything about that. Instead they make speeches about ‘hunting the virus case by case.’ They are simply hunting for more foreign aid.”
Aid workers and miniskirts
From the airport I returned to the very same bar on Lumley Beach where I had been on New Year’s Eve. Remarkably, this time it were not Sierra Leoneans who paraded the street but the flocks of western aid workers. Some of them were walking hand in hand, shaking hands, rubbing shoulders and caressing. Young local girls in mini-skirts waited patiently to be picked up.
I was shocked. These people were here to fight Ebola, but behaved as if there was no such thing anymore. What message were they sending to Sierra Leoneans?
I complained to the waiter that these people were not taking the threat of the virus seriously, but he just laughed: “If you come to look for Ebola you will find it, but if that is not your industry then just go about your life as normal.”
I had realised by now that most people outside of Ebola projects believed it to be no more than a profit making business. But what about the many foreigners, and even more so our local heroic health workers, who had risked their lives to save people? Their selfless, hard work which we had seen on TV across the world, had been heart- warming. It had showed me how people were still guided by Ubuntu, our traditional philosophy that prescribes that we should work for the general good of mankind and not our own selfish needs.
Ebola had torn apart this very collectiveness. Mothers could not hug children; we couldn’t embrace or even shake hands. We were terrified of one another and had to live in isolation. But collectively, we had also fought it. Never mind that many at the top had stolen money; many more people had stood valiantly to help loved ones and communities. How could my friend at the airport, and now this waiter, dismiss that great effort?
But back on Lumley Beach in May 2015, it all seemed to have been a nightmare. As if Ebola hadn’t been real. That those who wanted foreign donor money had made it all up. That the images of the terrible epidemic I had seen on television in The Netherlands were fabricated images that depicted an untrue story.
Sensitive and political
Two days after my arrival I was on my way to Makeni town, the headquarters of Bombali District in the North. I asked the CARE worker who was my guide why the Ebola projects they ran were all located in the north. He let on that this question was sensitive and political. “There are rumours that the ruling APC party that is highly represented in the north uses aid organisations to render help to their tribesmen in that part of the country,” he said. He denied however that CARE had ‘been coerced’ in this way. “It was just an issue of dividing areas of intervention between themselves and other international aid organisations.”
Political leaders and their foreign partners had all implemented projects in the north
But an article I read later, in The Economist, lent credence to the earlier rumour. The Economist said that virtually all foreign NGO efforts to fight Ebola–and not only CARE’s- had been concentrated in the north. The article highlighted that political leaders and their foreign partners had all implemented projects in this region. Ironically, it continued, this had even hampered the effort to fight the epidemic. The article said that there had been so many different interests and so much competition that confusion had prevailed. It also pointed out that Ebola had been more effectively contained in the South-East, where local chiefs had been in charge.
From my own experience, however, I know there is another factor, too. The southern region is the more literate one, with a higher proportion of educated people. There is more general prevalence of law and order. The lack of this, and the rate of illiteracy in the north, are in my view the main reasons why the region is lagging behind in the fight with Ebola.
Stories from a scary movie
In the villages I visited, people were still clearly in need of help. CARE was providing that help: testing for Ebola symptoms where necessary, assisting farmers, and employing survivors as frontline community workers. I met farmers who had been quarantined for months. They had not been able to work the land and had lost their livelihood. Businesses had collapsed and almost every single household lost a member to the virus. I met survivors whose stories seemed to come from a scary movie. One would have a heart of stone to say, after that, that CARE should rather not do this. CARE is not only saving lives but giving hope to a people desperate to make ends meet.
We would not need development projects if we had a good government
But the truth is that we would not need development projects from NGOs like CARE if we would have a capable, transparent, trustworthy government. My feeling is that we can get to such a government, if we first fight the ignorance that causes people to vote leaders into office in exchange for a bag of rice, or simply because they are from the same area, tribe and religion. It is probably not the whole solution, but won’t a literate people be more likely to hold their leaders accountable? And won’t that already go a long way to prevent mismanagement of healthcare, and thereby prevent epidemics like Ebola, in the future?
Fundamentally, however, -and even to achieve better education- we need new leaders and role models to push for social change. We need a huge collective effort, inspired by the same heroic selflessness that we saw in those who fought Ebola. We need those who put the country in front of their own personal interests to be our leaders; not the Lumley Beach show-offs who only dress to impress.
Update: according to the Sierra Leone news site Salone Today our President is now spending over US$ 500 000 on a 50-strong delegation visiting the 70th UN session in New York. This as over ten thousand victims of recent floods in Freetown, now homeless, still wait for help in an open-air stadium in the city.
Babah Tarawally is a Sierra Leonean author who lives in the Netherlands (for now). He is eager to talk change and connect to countrymen and –women who feel likewise. Connect with him on Facebook or tweet @btarawally2.
(1) Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759