The Returnee Files – Q&A with Brian Conton

Pa-ContonI’m often told that moving back is a courageous thing to do. It’s true but it’s harder for some than others. For me once I made up my mind, it really wasn’t a difficult. This right here though is some serious shizzle. This edition of Returnee Files focuses on someone I call my “poster child” for returnees. I always talk about him in an effort to convince others that they can make the move. I’m like “you know Brian Conton? Well he just moved back with his wife and four kids. Yes, four kids!”. How much more hardcore can it get? On a serious note, I have a lot of admiration for him (and his wife) on putting together this move.
I have met very few people like Brian. It is obvious he is a highly organized individual, very focused and highly driven. Actually, he’s also slightly eccentric, in an out of the box kind of way- a trait I think is really cool. I mean, how many licensed physiotherapists do you know that are also qualified engineers with and MBA. If that is not enough, he moulds marble like counter tops and sinks for kitchens and bathrooms; designs and implements  solutions for solar energy and constant water supply all working 24/7 in his house. He points out that one of the pillars of a successful family move is to be independent of erratic water and power supply which plagues so many households.  In addition to that, he is building  a clinic for his physiotherapy practice (I mean doing everything from the drawings to supervising concrete mixes) AND running the Leone Prep school? Not only does he do all this but he does it all in pursuit of excellence. I always have time to listen to what he has to say and I suggest you take the time to read his interview. Ladies and gentlemen… “Returnee” – Brian Conton….
1. When did you move back to Sierra Leone? How long where you out of the country?
We moved back permanently as a family in April 2010 and I have been out since 1992.
2. Are you permanently or just working here on a long term contract?
Not going anywhere here to stay.
3. Why did you decide to relocate to Sierra Leone?
I believe that with what I have learnt, it is possible to have a quality of life better than most other places when one takes into account the time and effort required to generate the finances to support whatever lifestyle. You can have a greater influence over your environment and have more time to build a better family life in Sierra Leone and contribute to national development.
4. Did family and friends try to discourage you from returning home? If yes, can you share some of their concerns?
It was rumoured that I had lost my marbles. The family and friends that tried to discourage me fall roughly into two categories The first group consists of those that were worried that I might not be able to provide an equitable life style for my family and get frustrated with the system. The other group was more concerned about their own displacement or the possibility that someone coming back might make them look bad for not having grown as much as they might/should have. From the former, once the realization that we were actually going to relocate sunk in, we got real help. I received solutions on how to overcome problems, food, loan of vehicles facilities and even resources. From the later group there was rarely anything but a litany of problems and reasons why I should not and often could not do the things that seemed perfectly achievable with a bit of extra effort. This was always preceded by the categorization that “we that are on the ground and know the limitations of this environment…..” Most of what they said was true and from their own experiences. However you have to filter the personal slants from the objective facts and use the information to prepare yourself. When you listen carefully, the bulk of what they say is about why they did not and could not, which can be extremely valuable in determining how you can and will. You just beware as soon as people start telling you that they are the people “on the ground” that phrase sometimes carries with it an undertone of resentment that transforms valuable experiences of even the most well meaning individuals to something else.
Admittedly, this is one of those delayed syndromes of the war. Those that endured the bullets and explosions to hold the fort do not want to give up the ground for which they have suffered. Especially so to those that they might see as deserters. Returnees are sometimes viewed as not asking permission from those that stayed behind to come home. They just bulldoze their way through. It is just amazing how even those that arrived the month before you adopt this cloth and wrap themselves in it. The bossy know it all attitude of some of the returnees/diasporans has done nothing to heal this divide. It is something that is very deep seated, divisive and damaging to the fabric of our society. We must at all costs find a way to air it and heal it.
5. How and what steps did you take to prepare your move/relocation to Sierra Leone?
We prepared this move as a family for close to three years. We brought in our god parents to hear each others needs and wants more clearly and articulate them objectively to myself and my wife. In something as life changing as a relocation, you can want it so badly that you hear what you want to hear and demote the importance of other concerns. This is either through just not hearing what is said or a belief that you can make the negatives go away. When we were guided through this process by some wise heads our (my) timeline grew from one year to three. During this time I came back at least twice annually and in the last 18 month four times of increasing duration each time.
6. If you are in full time employment, did you find a job before moving?
I have been very lucky in the sense that I have stepped into my mothers shoes and am helping her run the Leone Preparatory School which is my morning job. In the afternoons and evenings, I have a Physical Therapy practice inside of the Davidson Nicol Medical center so I guess I qualify as one of those that had a job before moving.
What is your profession? Have you been get the most out of your educational qualifications achieved abroad?
As a physiotherapist, the scope of care that I offer here is wider than anything that I did in the States. You tend to get very specialized in the US. Even though I owned a practice that saw a wide spectrum of patients, it is nothing compared to what I see here. I have a Doctorate in Physical Therapy specializing in workforce development. That means I look at the state of a profession, examine the socio-cultural outlook and how it fits into the whole development/political agenda of a nation. I then examine whether all the building blocks (policies, curricula, examinations, culture, general education ect) are consistent with the fulfillment of the professional goals. In this I am extremely fulfilled in running a school. I get to see first hand what is or is not done to prepare our workforce. As an MBA holder I run my own business and a family business. As an engineer (my first degree) I am doing some building and solar installations. I could not be more fulfilled professionally
7. How did you go about setting up the business and how did you find the experience?
I transferred my physical Therapy business from the states over here. As of now I practice inside a hospital as an individual so I have not had to go through the difficulties of business registration yet.
8. What type of business do you have? How can folks get in contact?
I have the Physical Therapy business. I also run the family business which is a primary school. There is however this budding market as a relocation consultant that people just seem to contact me a lot about. Maybe I should have a website. The easiest way to reach me is at the school on kingharman road in the mornings or Davidson Nicol Medical Center in the afternoons. Email works just fine too,
9. What culture changes did you experience after your move? What surprised you the most about life here?
The total disregard for other people’s property/laws on the one hand and the acceptance of mediocrity/status quo on the other. It is amazing how people grumble about the “system” and how so a greedy few are making millions off the backs of the already disenfranchised, but try and change things and you find out that it is those same people waiting for their turn at the top of the pole
10. Have you adjusted to the Sierra Leonean lifestyle or are you still living like you did abroad?
I don’t know that I want to accept this premise of the “Sierra Leonean Lifestyle”. It is too slippery a slope for me to start thinking that way. What should it not incorporate? Are Sierra Leoneans capable of defying physics and physiology? Is it possible for them to live on unclean water or commute efficiently without proper roads? Or survive on qualitatively and quantitatively insufficient food? Should we be content to have our children sit in a classroom with no teacher? Should we suffer in silence with no electricity or water and have these utilities extort money for their non existent services? I think not, and the sooner we stop accepting these things as a “Sierra Leonean” lifestyle and view them as unacceptable the better. Eventually, it these acceptances that kill you and place you at the bottom of the development index. I would just say I am living a lifestyle that makes sense given my experience and background. One that will give me “cold heart and well body”
11. How have you handled the infrastructure limitations, including electricity, water, sanitation, etc.?
I started from scratch redid everything with new technology. My house is completely solar powered, dug a water well and have enough back up pumps and generators to live off the grid completely. I am not connected to NPA or Guma. The upfront cost is high, but I know that I will have electricity tonight, and cold water and a fan if it gets too hot. Above all my appliances will not suffer from voltage fluctuations. I wont have the high maintenance and running costs of a generator either.
12. What’s the best thing about returning home?
Just the feeling of being among my own people and contributing to much needed development.
13. The worst thing about returning?
The utter disregard by even officials for law order and other peoples property. Everyone just does what they want without regard for the impact on others. It is to all intents and purposes the wild west.
14. Do you think living abroad—education, work experience, culture— have enabled you to contribute to the development of Sierra Leone
Forget about education and work experience. The most important thing is we have experienced the productivity of discipline, respect for law and order and ethics. If the only thing that we bring back is work ethic: doing what we are paid for in our jobs with a sense of service and timeliness, this country will move forward light years. You really do not have to have a highly specialized field of service.
15. What challenges do you face in Sierra Leone? For example: at work, with friends and families, lifestyle?
Getting simple things done takes so much more time and organization. There is no simple straight forward way of doing something as simple as getting your driving license or registering your vehicle. You have to have “your man” on the inside that will facilitate processes for you otherwise you may have to take a tent and spend a couple of days trying to get the right form. I say that in Sierra Leone getting a day’s worth of food takes two and a half days of foraging. So you are always playing catch up.
16. 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?
The children have adjusted just fine. Invariably children especially if they are young are very resilient and just want to get on with life. They tend to find the concept of Space and freedom in Sierra Leone most captivating.
17. Will you return to the country where you relocated from?
No, we are happy here
18. What is your long-term vision or hope for Sierra Leone?
Discipline with respect for law and order. Taxis that pull over to the side of the road to pick up passengers. Officials that respect their customers and people that stand up for their rights.
19. If you were asked to encourage others to return home, what would you do/advice? Any regrets?
No amount of advance preparation is too much No regrets this is home where visiting soldiers resign their commission to resettle because it is so nice. Why the heck should we not be able to see our own country through those same eyes. Enjoy our birth place in the same way. There are beaches, breathtaking mountains, scenic lakes, historical places. We need to visit Sierra Leone and enjoy it as we do other countries and as other Nationals enjoy it.