As an American traveling internationally for the first time, there are things about Sierra Leone such as unsanitary toilets and undeveloped roads – that greatly frustrate me and make me want to scream. And I’ve noticed Sierra Leoneans don’t seem to scream because, unlike me, they are used to the status quo of this country. Things such as the unexpected absence of running water, sporadic electricity and undeveloped roads are normal for people who call this country home. At one point, I even foolishly wondered if the people who have resided their whole lives here might even like those things.
The key word is foolishly. It was a breath of fresh air when I learned that the people here are not in denial about where their country stands when it comes to development. I have met smart, articulate and educated Sierra Leoneans who are well aware of their country’s many social and economic problems and make no effort to sugarcoat the issues. But despite their awareness, something important still seems to be missing.
People are frustrated with Sierra Leone’s lack of progress since the war ended in 2002. Yet, I’ve noticed that this sentiment is expressed in private and never to the people who need to hear it.
There is a “hush hush” attitude that is pervasive among the people here when it comes to voicing one’s complaints and concerns about the lack of development in this nation.
Why the silent outrage? Why are there not regular protests in the street, similar to the ones we witnessed in Iran earlier this summer? Why does there appear to be such docile complacency among the people here when it comes to holding their government accountable?
One of my colleagues said that this is due to the lack of education, yet another social problem that is an epidemic in this country. The less educated people are, the less aware they are of the critical issues that affect them. Sierra Leone’s illiteracy rate is roughly 70 to 80 percent. They can’t read newspapers or scholarly journals or those cumbersome sensitization pamphlets the government loves to hand out to feign transparency. So of course, they can’t take a stand against a situation they are unable to understand.
This is not to say that Sierra Leoneans always allow themselves to be stepped on. Protesting in a nation like this can have deadly consequences look at the chaos that occurred in Iran earlier this summer. And protesting does not necessarily mean you automatically get what you want.
In December 2007, more than 400 Koidu residents protested against diamond mining that were taking place in their community, complaining that they were not being compensated enough. According to Reuters, two were killed and eight were injured after police broke up the crowd by force, using tear gas and bullets.
Earlier last month, the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists staged a demonstration one that was much more peaceful than Koidu – demanding for the repeal of the 1965 Criminal Libel Act and an implementation of a Freedom of Information Act so that Sierra Leone’s press can operate at their fullest potential.
Right now, many residents in Koidu still languish in poverty as outside companies profit from their natural resources. If a FOIA and a repeal of the 1965 act were to happen, it won’t be in the next decade.
Many people I’ve talked to say that a lack of education is why people are not storming the streets, demanding for their country’s improvement. One of my colleagues told me that this complacency would never happen in my home country of America “because everyone in America is educated.”
And that was when my ethnocentric attitude was slapped with a reality check. For eight years, we were led by an administration that approved illegal wire tapping, dragged us into a pointless war and gave the go-ahead to torture alleged terrorists some of whom were innocent men. Yes, people were angry at these occurrences, but they did not storm the streets demanding justice.
To many of my local friends’ surprise, America the richest nation in the world – has homeless people begging on the streets. No one marches for them.
If Sierra Leone can reach a point where a majority of its people is educated, I fear that there will still be complacency when it comes to demanding a better way of life. I fear people will care more about upgrading their Blackberries, getting an I Phone or watching random viral videos once hi-speed Internet can be implemented here.
I fear people will forfeit their rights for a life of superficiality and material things, essentially becoming the worst things that disgust me about America.
And that makes me want to scream more than the dirty toilets and the pot holes.