Category Archives: Sierra Leone

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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My Return to Sierra Leone: Krio

My return to Sierra Leone was remarkable. Happily, my anxiety about what I’d experience thirty-five years later was for nought.  I’m still mulling over the best way to communicate the whole of it.  In the meantime I’m going to do some posts on various things that triggered memories for me. Say Krio, the common language of Sierra Leone.  There are many different tribal languages as well as English, but Krio is a shared language pretty much everyone uses.  When I lived there I used it at the market, when chatting with friends and neighbors, when bargaining with a taxi driver, and so forth. It was a language we Peace Corps Volunteers loved, filled with lovely phrases, expressions, and words. But when I returned to the US I had to use them silently as Americans would have looked at me oddly if I’d voiced them. Eventually, they drifted out of my mind as I never heard them or used them with anyone. Thus it was heavenly to hear Krio again, to have those wonderful words and expressions come back to me, and to begin using them myself.  Here are a few favorites (and since these are phonetic as I’m remembering them, I may be getting them wrong — anyone reading this who can correct me, please do in the comments):

    • Salone — what everyone calls Sierra Leone
    • Kusheo  — Hello
    • Aw de bodi? — How are you?
    • Osh yaa — That’s too bad/sorry
    • Usai you de go? — Where are you going?
    • Aw fa du — Oh well/what can you do?
    • Du ya — please
    • Gladi — happy
    • Pikin — child
    • Padi — friend
    • Palaver — lots of talk about something
    • Vex — angry
    • Sabi — know
    • Tif — thief
    • Tenki ya — thank you
    • Ah de go — Good-bye


Filed under Africa, Learning About Africa, Sierra Leone

Learning About Africa: Peace Corps in Sierra Leone

The first Peace Corps Volunteers in Sierra Leone arrived in 1962, just a year after the organization was founded.  There was a consistent presence until 1994 when the conflict in the country became too dangerous and the program suspended.  Happily, partially due to intense lobbying by the Friends of Sierra Leone the organization decided to resume the program and the first cohort has just completed their first year with a second starting training now.   I can’t wait to meet some of them and their families next week at our meeting.

One thing that amazes me is that several of the current volunteers are blogging.  Certainly communications are very different than they were in my time what with cell phones. That said, from reading the blogs and speaking with other recent volunteers who served in other nearby countries, much is still the same.

If you are interested in knowing more about what life is like today for a Sierra Leonean Peace Corps Volunteer there are a bunch of blogs to explore here.  Two I’ve especially from the first cohort are:

{dispatch} Sierra Leone

bryan meeker in sierra leone

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Learning About Africa: Going Back to Sierra Leone

Next Friday I’m heading back in time, so to speak.  That is, I’m going back to Freetown, Sierra Leone, for the first time since I left in 1976 after two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  My emotions are very complicated as I went to Freetown straight out of college, age twenty-one.  I was part of a large group of Peace Corps Volunteers serving in Sierra Leone at the time along with a number of British (VSO) and Canadian (CUSO) volunteers.  I can’t speak for all of them, but for me it was a seminal experience in my life.  So going back after so long and after a horrendous conflict is scary.  Will it seem familiar?  (I know the Cotton Tree will be even if the City Hotel is gone.) Will Krio come back to me?  (Kushe-o… How de body?…) My way around town?  Bargaining for a taxi? (Remembering that instead of it being two leones to the dollar it is now 4, 357.05 leones to the dollar.  Talk about inflation!)

Here’s my twenty-one year-old self upcountry circa 1976

I’m going for a meeting of the Friends of Sierra Leone, a group that came together when things were first falling apart in Sierra Leone and no one in the world media seemed to be paying any attention.  I remember several difficult meetings at the Sierra Leone Consulate here in NYC with Sierra Leoneans hopelessly talking about what we could do.  It took an invasion of Freetown for the world media to finally take notice and then it was mostly about child soldiers, blood diamonds, and amputating limbs.  Around that time I did a project with my fourth grade to raise money for Sierra Leone and draw attention to other aspects of the country than had been in the news to date.

In 2000 the Friends of Sierra Leone held its yearly meeting at Mystic Seaport to celebrate the Amistad. The replica of the ship was just completed and the museum had several exhibits about the captives and their stories.  While preoccupied with events in Sierra Leone I noticed that there had been children on the Amistad (something Spielberg left out of his movie) and later became obsessed with learning all about them (as they all came from what is now Sierra Leone). That turned into my story about Sarah Margru Kinson which is to be published by Candlewick Press in a couple of years (as it is an interactive book with envelopes and such it is complicated to create so while the writing is long done the designing and illustration is just getting underway).

The reason for this meeting is to celebrate Peace Corps return to Sierra Leone.  They had been there since the 60s, but were pulled when things go too dangerous in the mid-90s.  The Friends of Sierra Leone lobbied tirelessly to get Peace Corps to bring them back and finally last summer the first cohort returned and a second group is starting their training now.  And so we will be in Freetown shortly meeting with the current volunteers, returned volunteers (what Peace Corps calls those of us who served), family members of current volunteers, Sierra Leoneans who are also members of the organization, and many others.  If the weather prevails (it is the rainy season so who knows) we will visit Bunce Island, a notable slave fort that has great meaning and significance.  (I’ve always rued that I missed my chance to go during my own Peace Corps training because I was sick reacting to a shot of some sort —we got many.)  We will visit a school we’ve supported as an organization and help at another one.  Hopefully I will also visit the school I taught at, still there after all these years.

I will take photos and hope to blog as well — this grand adventure of mine.


Filed under History, Learning About Africa, Sierra Leone

Peace Corps Back in Sierra Leone

I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sierra Leone, 1974-76, and an important part of my life is to advocate for Sierra Leone and for the continent of Africa.  When I returned to the US no one had a clue where Sierra Leone was and even in the early 90s when the conflict started there was still minimal interest.  I worked with an advocacy group, The Friends of Sierra Leone, to get attention, but it seemed sadly hopeless — until the war came to Freetown where media had easier access. It then landed on the front page of US newspapers pretty much all about brutality.  I won’t go into the many experiences of racism, heartache, and more that happened around me when Sierra Leone came up other than to say we’ve still got a ways to go to even begin to help and understand Africa. Ten years ago one of my fourth grade classes tried to make a difference. They were wonderful.

That is long ago now.  And one of the happiest pieces of news I got this year was that the Peace Corps was returning to Sierra Leone (after leaving in 1994 during the worst of the conflict).  They returned a few months ago and I’ve been following several of the volunteers’ blogs (say this one and this one)  with great interest.  (Some things seem just the same — say the wonderful food —  and others — say having cell phones  and blogging — enormously different.)  Just now I  saw that NBC did a terrific feature on them earlier this month.  Please do check it out here.


Filed under Africa, Sierra Leone