December 15th 2008 marked my first year in being back in Sierra Leone. Friends know I said it was a one year project… but they also know things take longer in Sierra Leone so I’ll be hanging around these for a while longer... a long while longer by the looks of it. Why has it taken my over 3 additional months to write my obligatory ‘1 year on’ post? Combination of factors… busy December, exhausted January and uninspired February.
Let’s face it, for most people that have been following the progress of Sierra Leone over the past few years the general view is that the country has been seeing consistent growth. Slow - but growth nonetheless. This year, the economy is set to shrink mainly because of a combination of factors, mainly the global economic situation, fall in diamond revenues, fall in remittances and - if you believe it - the decline in the cocaine transit trade.
I haven’t lost the optimism that accompanied me back home, just an even starker realisation of the challenges this country faces. Man, there’s work to be done here. Now and again you’ll get something will renew your sense of optimism only to have something else burst that enthusiasm. I quite often around and wonder how a country that was once a shining example for others in the region just sink so low. The biggest threat probably facing this country what seems increasing gap between the North and the South which politicians may seek to exploit. This is probably manifesting itself in the increasing clashes between the ruling APC and the opposition SLPP. If the politicians don’t practice mature politics and put country before self, then I do not want to think where this could lead us if this trend continues unabated.
Visit Sierra Leone is still coming along nicely. There have obviously been a lot of changes since coming back, and trying to run a mainly online outfit in Sierra Leone has its drawbacks. Still, there is a level of satisfaction when you get up in the morning and look forward to the day because you’ll be doing exactly what you want to. Priceless. It is promising as a business, but still struggles because of the limited tourism industry. We are now working on bringing tourists in with Rainbow Tours who are a reputable and experienced tour operator, the first major tour operator to actively market Sierra Leone as a destination for their clients. They have been doing a good job of it too.
On the negative side, I regret not being able travel around the country as much as I would like mainly because it gets rather busy. I’d also love to be on the forums a bit more bit the crazy Internet connection doesn’t always make this possible. I’m very grateful that the community spurred on by committed members, moderators and senior members has continued to thrive. I’m proud of VSL forumites because so many of us have made the move back home while many others continue to make plans to do so.
Returnees vs. homebase
I’m very interested in the dynamics between us, the folks who were away especially during the period of 1995-2001 and those who never left. I’ll be clear and say I don’t think those who where away during the war should feel guilty, because few people stayed by choice. However, I feel mutual respect is very important. Some of us returnees can be quite arrogant and bullish in our approach because we feel that we know how to fix things, while some of the homebase are often standoffish and defensive plus they actually know how things work and can frustrate the hell out of you if they wish to. I’ve had horrible experiences with both sets. Both groups have a tremendous part to play if Sierra Leone is to experience renaissance.
The President has called for more of us to come back home which would be a fantastic thing for many reasons but I guess the question is how you harness the positive characteristics of both groups so we understand and appreciate that we’re working towards the same goal. What can we learn from each other? How do we learn from the experiences of both groups and use it positively for the development of this country we claim to love? How do we make sure there are enough job opportunities to go around for all? Or that those who want to invest are actively encouraged in doing so rather than be greeted with unnecessary hurdles every step of the way. This is the challenge.
If there was one sector that I’d love to see more Sierra Leoneans come back to get involved in, it would be the health sector. It needs investment in almost all areas with well trained people. Some of the experiences I’ve heard from friends who are involved in the sector have been depressing. A common joke is that if you fall ill you almost have to pray you have typhoid or malaria, because that is what you will be treated for anyway. But seriously, significant attention needs to be put into developing some strategy to get medical professionals back home. In a nation I wouldn’t call healthy, retaining newly trained doctors is difficult and some of our most experienced specialists are now approaching retirement age or past it. Surely, this doesn’t bode well for the future.
Hopes and Aspirations
As mentioned, I am still very optimistic about Sierra Leone’s future mostly because I know the country has all it takes, if only we could harness the real power within rather than always look for solutions elsewhere. I’m spurred on even more as I see more of us coming home to participate in nation building in our own little way.
For others thinking of relocating
We need more folks to come back home… we really do. It’s just important that you know exactly what you’re letting yourself into… things may not happen as fast as you wish them to but they will happen. Don’t stand on the fence, if you think you’re ready to make the move then actively plan for it. It’s not a bad option – but it can be frustrating as hell. Just don’t be under any false illusions… it’s not a decision to be taken lightly especially when the stakes are high. We need Sierra Leonean investors, artists, medics, intellectuals, educationists, planners, managers... we need reinforcement! Together, let us clean our house and make it even more welcoming to strangers.
None. With a bit of inspired leadership there is no telling the heights this country can reach. As a people and as a nation we deserve better. Giving back is a must, we owe it to our children and those that will come after them. We owe it to our people who fell during the war and our brothers and sisters who continue to die from curable diseases. Every avoidable death feels to me like a failure of a nation to protect their own.
So no doubt there will be challenges aplenty and frustrations in abundance but as we all continue to do our little bit – maybe we can finally do this beautiful country some justice.
No regrets. No retreat, no surrender.