Anyone who visits Salone in the rainy season will inevitably remember the country’s color as green – a vivid, lush, and verdant landscape broken up by the contrasting deep reddish copper color of the dirt roads that wind through the most isolated villages, and by the dry yellow of huts built from sticks and thatch. My memories of the summer months will forever be imbued with the sound of rain pounding heavily on the zinc roof of my room, the taste of roasted corn and coconut water sold by roadside vendors, and the thrilling but absolutely terrifying okada [motorcycle] rides whizzing through the countryside. The way the weather cools off in the rain, leaving me almost chilly during my morning bucket baths of cold water. The beautiful ride over the breathtaking Sewa river that borders my village.
I don’t intend to romanticize rural poverty. Certainly, those moments of beauty I observe and appreciate also inevitably contain moments of heartbreak and devastation for Sierra Leoneans. While rural poverty may not appear, on its face, as harsh as life in the urban slums – surrounded as the villagers are by greenery, light, and open spaces devoid of congestion, refuse, and pollution – life remains painful underneath. Life expectancy is only 47 years, under-5 mortality is one of the highest in the world, and 53% of the population lives below $1.25 a day. There is nothing remotely romantic about the hard statistics, which only underscore the reality: life is tough, incredibly tough, for the rural poor in Sierra Leone.
Yet, for a stranger like me, passing through Salone for a brief two months, its hard to ignore the beauty of life here – from the breathtaking natural endowments of the country to the way each individual feels supported, and never truly alone or abandoned, by virtue of the survival of the village community.
And yet, the natural beauty leads to abuses – Sierra Leone, rich in natural resources, perpetually has been exploited by foreign investors and speculators willing to use locals as a means to an end. The civil war, between 1996 and 2001, was fueled in part by warlords financed by diamonds mined in Sierra Leone. Today, mining companies coming into rural communities to access diamonds or iron pay men extremely minimal wages to do backbreaking and often highly dangerous work. How much of the profits from mining go to improve Sierra Leone — and how much instead goes into the coffers of corporations and complicit government officials?
Exploitation of labor, amidst the backdrop of a breathtaking landscape. Singing, dancing, laughing, smiling – joy, in a place of poverty and lack of healthcare. The strong ties of community that leaves none behind – and yet, pervasive customs that impede women’s rights, abuses by traditional authorities, and interpersonal conflict exacerbated by these very community bonds. These are some of the contradictions of Sierra Leone.
How does one resolve these seemingly irresolvable incongruities?
Perhaps we cannot – but simply recognize that there are contradictions in our own lives, as well. In America, perhaps the wealthiest nation in the world, we die (less so now, thankfully!) – for lack of healthcare. In America, where women are CEOs and politicians, one in three women experience gender-based violence. In America, we have every modern convenience – but we still have people homeless on our streets. In America, we have Facebook, Twitter, and super-speed internet, but high rates of depression because perhaps, we have never been so alone.
There are contradictions everywhere, you see. So perhaps we are all not as different as appears on first glance. And as does not need to be said, even in places where exists poverty and violence, one can find incredible joy in connection, in dancing, singing and wholeheartedly embracing life. And yet – in a big city like New York – one can have every facet of modernity at his disposal, and still find himself profoundly and resoundingly – alone.
Boys playing (rather, posing) in Gondama, Sierra Leone
Women welcoming us to their community for a community meeting and legal awareness session
View from the ferry between Lungi international airport and downtown Freetown
View from a house in Murray Town, Freetown