The Returnee Files – Q&A with Sheka Forna

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I often say some people just have Sierra Leone running through their veins. They are drawn to Sierra Leone whether they like it or not. Here is a man who’s family strikes me as such. His dad, was the popular politician Mohamed Sorie Forna who dared to warn against some of the excesses of the Siaka Stevens regime, and for that he paid the ultimate price in 1975 when along with fourteen others he was executed. His sister Aminatta Forna delivered the highly acclaimed “The devil that danced on water” and during this Q&A he talked about his grown up daughter who visited Sierra Leone two years ago for a ‘long holiday’ and is still enjoying it – even though she had only visited Sierra Leone once before, aged 10! Even his baby son, is coming home.. even though he has no choice in the matter I’m sure he’ll love it. Here’s is a family with whom Sierra Leone is intrinsically linked.
Here is a man who takes the old myth that Sierra Leoneans are not entrepreneurial and blows it wide open.  The first time I met Sheka, we were both in the UK. At the time, he was running Regal Exchange, a firm he set up with his partner to provide business training and support services to clients in emerging markets. This, after being in sales and marketing for over 20 years with Carlton and ITV in the UK and Sierra Leone Airlines in Sierra Leone.
Our paths crossed many times after that and on one of those occasions while on a flight back from London in 2008, he told me he was relocating and also about his new business venture a Mobile Money Transfer Service, SPLASH. Such a cool name. With SPLASH launching a few weeks ago I thought he’d make a great subject for the Returnee Files….

When did you move back to Sierra Leone? How long where you out of the country? You here permanently?
SF: I Left in 1987 and move back permanently in January 2009.
Why did you decide to relocate to Sierra Leone?
SF: Since leaving I’ve had a long-term desire to return. My departure was intended to be temporary, but was prolonged by the deteriorating security & economic situations.
In 2004 I set up a company (www.regalexchange.com) focusing on providing continuing education for African professionals. This increased my interaction with Africa and heightened my desire to return to Sierra Leone. The clincher was reading in ‘The Economist’ an article about mobile payments in East Africa - an idea I thought would be deployable in Sierra Leone, and which I set out to achieve.
Did family and friends try to discourage you from returning home? If yes, can you share some of their concerns?
SF: My family, including ironically my Danish wife, were very supportive of my move. My stepmother, who is based in Freetown, had for some time been coaxing me to return. English friends were less enthusiastic. Many still had negative images of the civil war etched in their minds, imagining that I was returning to the country portrayed in the film ‘Blood Diamond’.
How and what steps did you take to prepare your move/relocation to Sierra Leone?
SF: I’d been visiting SL on a regular basis – once every 3 years or so. In the year before my return I visited 8 times, ensuring that the economic & political climate was ripe for my business idea, & that I had put the essentials in place for my & my wife’s arrival.

What is your profession? Have you been able to get the most out of your educational qualifications achieved abroad?
SF: I obtained a BA in Business Studies in the UK. I find that the business environment in Sierra Leone is somewhat different from that imagined in the rarified atmosphere of European academia. However prior to forming Regal Exchange my work experience in the UK was in marketing. This has proved useful in establishing my business.
If you own/run a business/organization, did you move to establish your business? How did you go about setting up the business and how did you find the experience?
SF: I did move to establish my own business. Before returning full time I visited on at least 8 occasions, establishing the relationships & obtaining the approvals I needed to proceed. Although intensely bureaucratic & time consuming compared to the UK, I found the process relatively straightforward. The biggest hurdle was a general lack of understanding of mobile payments on the part of regulatory authorities, which resulted in a need for much repeated explanation & many briefing sessions. As one senior regulator noted, the powers that be in Sierra Leone observe developments elsewhere, never for one moment imagining that they will one day come to Sierra Leone.
What type of business do you have? How can folks get in contact?
SF: splash-money I run Splash Mobile Money limited, a mobile payments system allowing customers to transfer money between mobile phone users by means of SMS messages.
Our website may be found at www.splash-cash.com. My e-mail address is sheka@splash-cash.com
What culture changes did you experience after your move? What surprised you the most about life here?
SF: Nobody seems to be in a hurry. Everything takes a long time. Everybody needs to be reminded, coaxed & cajoled. Everything needs to be checked & double-checked.
I wasn’t too surprised by too much on my return, with the exception of the Sierra Leonean ability to party. Even on ‘school nights’ you are likely to encounter supposedly gainfully employed individuals out on the town until the small hours.
Have you adjusted to the Sierra Leonean lifestyle or are you still living like you did abroad?
SF: I have a Danish wife, so will always have one foot in foreign climes. However I think that we have adjusted pretty well to a Sierra Leone lifestyle – of cold showers, of a lack of privacy, of the kongosa & lie lie
How have you handled the infrastructure limitations, including electricity, water, sanitation, etc.?
SF: On the domestic front I’m lucky enough to have I a flat within my cousin’s house, where all these things are taken care of.
Out of home you have to take things in your stride. If these things bother you, then Sierra Leone is not the country for you.
What’s the best thing about returning home?
SF: The food
The worst thing about returning?
SF: The roads
Do you think living abroad—education, work experience, culture— have enabled you to contribute to the development of Sierra Leone
SF: I hope so. In an ironic way I believe that that the war may yet prove to have been a watershed for Sierra Leone. Many people left for pro-longed periods allowing them to become truly exposed to functioning economies, democratic systems of government, a free press, well run companies, corporate social responsibility, the individual’s responsibility to the state, accountable government, human rights etc. etc. These are values that we are returning with & which I hope will prove to be positive influences for the country as a whole.
What challenges do you face in Sierra Leone? For example: at work, with friends and families, lifestyle?
SF: Nobody seems to be in a hurry. Everything takes a long time. Everybody needs to be reminded, coaxed & cajoled. Everything needs to be checked & double-checked.
In regards to family the last decade has fostered a culture of dependency, with those perceived to be better off expected to subsidise any & all who are worse of than them. No account appears to be taken of ones’s own circumstances.
Society is small & cultural activities limited. One has to be prepared to meet the same people when out & about & to hear the same anecdotes many times over.
If you are in Salone with your family, why did you decide to bring your children?  How have your children adjusted to the new lifestyle and culture?
SF: My, grown up daughter, came to visit Sierra Leone two years ago, ostensibly for a long holiday, having only visited once before – when she was ten. She is still here & loving it. My wife has recently given birth to a son. We intend that she will return with him shortly. I do not imagine he will have much to say on the matter.
Will you return to the country where you relocated from?
SF: I don’t imagine so. I will visit, but intend to make Sierra Leone my base.
What is your long-term vision or hope for Sierra Leone?
SF: That we will develop a broad based middle class, who will be able to contribute positively to Sierra Leone’s development. They exist, they’re just not here.
If you were asked to encourage others to return home, what would you do/advice? Any regrets?
SF: Do as did Caesar. Come & look if you want to conquer.
No regrets.

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