Category Archives: Sierra Leone

Learning About Africa: The Realness of Ebola in Sierra Leone

This blog is a platform I normally reserve for the important issue of fashion in Sierra Leone, but this week, I’m struggling to find a fashion angle. Unless you’ve been living on mars, you will know that West Africa is suffering the worst ever outbreak of the world’s most deadly disease – Ebola. I traveled to Kenema district last week for an assignment to write about the outbreak. I live in Freetown and before leaving, the epidemic hadn’t really kicked off here. ‘EBOLA!’ (said with a loud voice and chuckle) was something that was happening in villages, places that didn’t affect the urban folk of Sierra Leone’s capital. I knew Kenema was a district suffering huge case numbers, but nothing prepared me for what I saw and heard in one of Sierra Leone’s most brutally affected areas.

From Human Tales of Ebola.

And here is a  New York Times video from one of the villages most affected.

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Learning About Africa: Ebola

Yet again Africa is in the news as the other, as a place of horror and misery.  So just a few reminders:

Ebola is not throughout Africa. You don’t need to worry when coming into contact with someone from the continent or someone who has been there recently. Africa is a big continent and Ebola is not everywhere.  In fact…

Ebola is currently in three West African countries:  Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. But…

Ebola is not an air-borne illness. You will not contract it by being in the same plane or auditorium or building as someone who has it or has come from one of the countries where it is prevalent. In fact…

you would need to be directly exposed to fluids from someone with the illness to be exposed. And that means that it is in the affected areas, in direct contact with those who have the illness, that you would be most at risk.  And that is just not true for those of us living in the United States. So stop worrying about getting it here. Instead worry…

that those in the affected areas do not have the basic health care we in the United States take for granted. And so while there is indeed not a cure for Ebola,…

with the sort of hospital care we in the US take for granted, treating the disease in early states, many who are dying would be saved.  But…

in the affected areas that sort of care is rare.

To learn more please read:

Stop Worrying About Ebola (And Start Worrying About What it Means)

As WHO Warns Ebola Death Toll is Underestimated, How Should Global Community Handle Dire Crisis?


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Learning About Africa: Congratulations to Joseph Opala


Historian Professor Joseph Opala receives
Sierra Leonean Passport

Sierra Leone’s Ambassador to the United States of America H.E. Bockari Kortu Stevens today presented Americo/ Sierra Leonean historian, Professor Joseph Opala with his Sierra Leonean passport. The impressive ceremony took place at the conference room of the Sierra Leone Embassy in Washington D.C.

On 20th May 2013, Professor Opala was sworn in as a Sierra Leonean citizen by H.E. President Ernest Bai Koroma. This was in recognition of his role in documenting the historical link between the Gullah people in the United States of America and Sierra Leone, and for his outstanding contribution in preserving Sierra Leone slave castle of ‘Bunce Island’ as a heritage site . The esteemed historian was also awarded Sierra Leone’s Order of the Rokel by President Koroma in 2012.

Welcoming the recipient, Ambassador Stevens narrated the excellent historical work and research conducted on the Atlantic slave trade in Sierra Leone by Professor Opala thereby drawing significant interest in the subject, particularly the direct historical connection between the Gullah people of South Carolina and the people of Sierra Leone. The Ambassador congratulated Professor Opala on his numerous achievements and hoped that he would use his Sierra Leone citizenship to serve as a Goodwill Ambassador for that country.

Responding, Professor Opala thanked Ambassador Stevens for taking the time off his busy schedule to present him with his new Sierra Leone passport. He noted that he was very proud to carry the Sierra Leonean passport and wished his Sierra Leonean wife, Fatmata, was there to witness the epoch occasion. He thanked the members of the Bunce Island Coalition and the Friends of Sierra Leone for honoring him with their presence.

Professor Opala was accompanied by a fifteen member delegation drawn from colleagues, family and close friends; some of whom came from as far away as Oklahoma City, Atlanta and New York. Before concluding, he presented the Ambassador with gifts and historical artifacts for display at the Embassy.


Thursday, December 12, 2013

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A Remarkable Young Inventor

I just heard about Kelvin Doe, a 15 year-old Sierra Leonean who is featured in the following video, part of an intriguing series about prodigies.


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Learning About Africa: Sierra Leone Joining the Conversation

Last summer while in Sierra Leone I discovered firsthand the difficulties of connecting to the Internet when the only option was via satellite. I often sat fruitlessly watching the slow crawl of a site attempting to link up and it made me become more realistic about setting up relationships with schools in Sierra Leone using the Internet, knowing how hard it would be from their end. It also made me admire all the more the Peace Corps Volunteers who were blogging, say Bryan Meeker (whose latest post “What Makes a Volunteer” is incredibly moving).

So how wonderful to learn that today Sierra Leone is getting its first fibre optic cable that will make an enormous difference in the speed, reliability, and range of its Internet connections. The details are in this Reuters article:

Sierra Leone will secure its first fibre optic connection to the outside world on Monday with the arrival of theAfrica Coast to Europe (ACE) submarine cable in the capital Freetown.

Sierra Leone, which is still recovering from a devastating 11-year civil war that ended in 2002, is part of a dwindling group of countries still wholly reliant on highly expensive satellite bandwidthfor internet connections.

Numerous studies have identified cheap and fast Internet as a factor that can boost a country’s economic growth.

“The vessel that carries the fiber optic cable is currently within the shores of Sierra Leone,” Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Information said in a statement.

It added the vessel would dock and lay the cable later on Monday at a landing station by Lumley Beach in western Freetown.

When complete, the 17,000-km (11,000-mile) ACE cable will run from France to South Africa, connecting 23 countries. The cable was launched by France Telecom as part of a consortium with telecom operators in participating countries.

Sierra Leone, along with neighbouring Liberia, missed out on previous fibre optic cables laid down the West African coast, such as SAT-3.

“At that time we had a civil war, we didn’t have the opportunity to articulate the arrangement to have a landing station here,” said Senesie Kallon, deputy director general of Sierra Leone’s National Telecommunications Commission.

At present, Internet access in Sierra Leone is currently slow or expensive, and often both.

According to the National Telecommunications Commission, the country as a whole has just 155 Megabits of bandwidth, less than would serve a small American or European town.

The World Bank estimates that bandwidth in Sierra Leone costs 10 times the level in East Africa and 25 times the U.S. price. Barely one percent of the 5.4 million population have access to Internet services.

The World Bank is providing $30 million to fund the connection of Sierra Leone to the cable offshore.

“There was an opportunity to connect Sierra Leone to ACE in 2011 and if the country were to miss that it wasn’t clear there’d be further opportunities,” said Vijay Pillai, the bank’s country manager in Freetown.

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Happy 50th Anniversary, Peace Corps

Last week-end, in D.C., there were all sorts of celebrations for Peace Corps‘ 50th anniversary. Yes, it was 50 years ago that this organization began. As one of thousands who served, I can attest to its continuing importance. Especially today when so many are able to travel to remote parts of the world and also engage virtually, I feel Peace Corps more than ever affirms the importance of long-term engagement and commitment to a people and a place.

Sierra Leone was one of the first countries Peace Corps went to and I’ve gotten to know several who were in those early groups. It was sad, but understandable when they had to pull out for safety’s sake in the early 90s and all the more heartening that they are now back.

My return Sierra Leone last summer was incredible for many reasons, one of them the opportunity to visit with the current PCVs in country — there are two groups now, those who came in 2010 (the first group in fifteen years some of whom are in the panel above) and a second cohort that started this summer. I’d already been following some of the first group’s blogs (love this one especially) and it was great to meet them in person. Their enthusiasm, commitment, and tenacity was exhilarating to observe.  It was impossible for us returnees not to see ourselves in these young people, 35 years before.

Three fantastic Salone PCVs (one, er, from a long time ago)

Happy Birthday, Peace Corps. May you have many, many more!

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My Return to Sierra Leone: Stranded on the Sierra Leone River

From our intrepid leader, Amadu Massally:

47 Americans and 8 Sierra Leoneans Stuck

…in the Sierra Leone River and thereby discovered Friends of Sierra Leone Island.  This is newsworthy and in fact book-worthy.  The SL River, being the largest natural harbor in Africa (and 3rd largest in the World) holds hostage 47 Americans.

On Thursday June 23rd, I had the opportunity to take 47 Americans and 8 of us Sierra Leoneans to Bunce Island.  We used a ‘Pampah’ (local boat) rented from the most popular boat transportation company in Freetown today, Pelican, to travel the route as our American friends most of them former or Returned Peace Corps and Current Peace Corps volunteers wanted the authentic experience.  There were a few parents of current Peace Corp Volunteers among us.

So I led the tour of Bunce Island and we had a good time.  On the way back however, with two Captains from the reputable company, we got stuck on a sandbar (think dirt bar in this case).  And very quickly, by the time most people jumped out to push, the water went from knee deep to ankle to dry, dry…

I do not want to tell the rest of the story just yet, because it will be written by a few people I hope, in an article sooner rather than later.

But I wanted to share one of the photos and felt obliged to introduce what may have turned out to be the most memorable experience of the Friends of Sierra Leone return to the country for their own 50th Birthday of the program in SL and worldwide.  Arguably, even more so than meeting with President Koroma.


Here are three more photos from me, Monica (and I was one of the last off the boat, I admit, as I feared greatly messing up my sad knees and back jumping down and trying to get back in):


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My Return to Sierra Leone: Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary

While Sierra Leone isn’t filled with the sort of wildlife many associate with Africa, is does have quite a bit.  We always heard about elephants, but I never met anyone who ever had seen one.  Sadly, even when I was there, poaching was causing havoc on the elephant population and that has only gotten worse in the ensuing years.  Monkeys, baboons, and chimps were more commonly seen, sometimes sadly as meat.  In 1988 Bala Amarasekaran and his wife Sharmila were traveling upcountry when they saw a baby chimp for sale.  They took him, named him Bruno, and so began their mission to save the chimps of Sierra Leone. Today  Tacaguma is an impressive sanctuary with thoughtful and caring professionals considering how best to help the chimpanzees of Sierra Leone.  Through the war and beyond they have persevered.  You can learn more of the dramatic history here.

I was incredibly fortunate in being able to visit the Sanctuary during my time in Sierra Leone.  It is a beautiful place and the thought and care taken with the chimps is impressive.  At this time one group is just about ready to be sent back to the wild, but first a proper and safe place for them must be found — not so easy given the prevalence of poachers.  The individual chimps all have remarkable stories, many of them available on the site here.  Bruno, however, is no longer among them.  In a dramatic incident he and a group of chimps escaped and, while some have returned, he is not one of them.

Here are some of my photos of the Sanctuary.

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My Return to Sierra Leone: Bunce Island

Of the many infamous slave castles that existed along the coast of West Africa, Sierra Leone’s Bunce Island is the most historically significant for the United States. While the slave traders at others of these dreadful places were sending captives throughout the Americas, the 18th century British traders of Bunce Island were specifically targeting, warehousing and then shipping thousands of Africans to the Southern Colonies of what is now the United States. Rice farmers in Georgia and South Carolina especially were looking for captives from the Rice Coast, an area that included what is now present-day Sierra Leone. Traditional rice farmers, they were much desired.

Anthropologist Joseph Opala, with whom I served in the Peace Corps, has researched the Sierra Leone – United States connection for over thirty years. In addition to Bunce Island, he helped to show links between the Gullah and Sierra Leoneans and continues to be an important scholar and advocate for Sierra Leone and the country’s historical connections to the United States. Even more connections are coming to the fore as many African Americans are learning through DNA testing that their ancestors came from Sierra Leone, very likely through Bunce Island. Say actor Isaiah Washington who, after learning of his Sierra Leonean DNA, gained his Sierra Leonean citizenship and contributes financially and emotionally to the country as well as to the development of Bunce Island as a historic site for visitors.

Having a chance to experience Bunce Island myself a few weeks ago after having read and learned so much about it was a remarkable experience. I’d been to Senegal’s House of the Slaves years ago and was certainly very moved by that experience, but found Bunce Island even more moving.  The overgrown ruins of walls, towers, captive pens, graves, and other vestiges of the horrors of what happened there made experiencing it firsthand something I won’t ever forget.

The fort’s outer wall

Facing out defensively are a bunch of cannons

A wall of the interior house. our guide Amadu Massally told us of a visitor who looked out her window, was horrified by the captive pen she saw, and so wrote about it as an abolitionist upon her return to England.

One of the pens for captives

The original jetty from which captives were taken by canoe to the slave ships.

For now Bunce Island is still somewhat off the usual African tourist path (as is Sierra Leone), but hopefully for not too much longer.  Efforts are underway to make it more accessible and a destination as significant as others on Africa’s west coast.  You can learn more about Bunce Island here and by exploring the various links here.

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My Return to Sierra Leone: Freetown

I’d been thinking about returning to Sierra Leone for years, but it took the Friends of Sierra Leone to make it a reality.  I can’t thank the organizers enough for all they did to make a potentially very difficult experience a great one. In addition to worrying about the basics of travel, as the one Returned Peace Corps Volunteer of our group who had served in the country’s capital of Freetown I was incredibly nervous about what I would see.  I’ve already posted about how Krio came back to me.  So, I’m happy to report,  did Freetown. That city where I spent two years of my youth looked incredibly and reassuringly familiar.

Certainly there were differences, only to be expected after so much time.  For one thing, there are many more people now in Freetown.

During the war they fled there and many just stayed. And so, many places that are not really suitable and where no one lived in my day (say a ravine or a watershed) are filled now with simple shacks and people. For someone unused to Africa it would probably look disturbing, but to me it just looked like a larger version of what I knew.

The Cotton Tree is one of the icons of Freetown and it was great to see it proud as ever.

I worked just up the hill and walked past it daily for two years. In front of it is the Law Court looking even better than ever, and then there is State House.  My school and the A.V. Centre where I worked my second year were located just above that and the buildings are still there, now part of the Ministry of Defense complex (so no photos:).  We spent every weekend at Lumley Beach, often at the still-there Atlantic Club, but boy is it different there now!  Back then no Sierra Leoneans every went to the beach, but today happily they do and so the place is packed and busy in a way that it wasn’t when I lived there.

The original Peace Corps office building where I went every day is still there. Since we didn’t have cell phones (or any phones for that matter) it was our gathering point, the place where we could find each other, go to lunch, and make plans for the evening and beyond. Today it is a law school, but it is painted the same colors as in my day and looks just the same.

As for the new Peace Corps compound, it is near the hospital I stayed in when I got malaria the first time — up on one of the hills and gorgeous.

Another downtown landmark was the basket market.  While in the same location it was rebuild and now, while the baskets and other household items are still available, there is now a second floor with cloth and things more for visitors than locals.  (I had been warned and so was prepared to see differences in the cloth, but I was surprised at the differences in the baskets — not as finely made as the ones I still have from long ago).

Pure nostalgia for many of us was the space that once held the City Hotel.  This iconic place mentioned by Graham Greene and others was where we would spend happy hours on the second floor veranda.  After reading of its demise, I wrote the following letter to the New York Times:

To the Editor:

I was one of the hundreds of Peace Corps volunteers who whiled away many an hour on the second-floor veranda of the City Hotel in Freetown, Sierra Leone (Freetown Journal, June 26), drinking Star beer and taking in the Graham Greene-like colonial atmosphere while watching the late-afternoon flight of the bats out of the palm trees along the street.

While the City Hotel may be in ruins, the huge old tree known as the Cotton Tree still stands in Freetown, a hopeful omen that this raked-over country badly needs.


New York, June 26, 2000

So we all had to take a photo of the ghost of it.

One of the places that was especially meaningful to me was my home. It is still there on one of the main roads and I choked up every time we passed it. Also Choitram’s Supermarket where I shopped. (One of my friends reminded me that it was the only place we could get ice cream — those bricks of strawberry, chocolate, and vanilla that tasted all the same.)

And so Freetown, where I spent an important part of my life, is looking great.  And, if things continue to improve, hopefully many others will get to see the city as from there you can head out to one of the most beautiful countries in the world.


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