It was a sheer coincidence. But it looked like an orchestrated spectacle. It happened not once, not twice. It happened more three times, in quick succession and with different personae.
An old lady walked up to my car, looking really old, feeble and almost broken. She held a walking stick which she could barely carry. She looked hungry, emaciated and exhausted! She waved to me and pointed to her stomach, and then to her mouth. It’s a familiar gesticulation during the war days, when kids especially upcountry would make signs to UN peacekeepers. I pulled over and wound down my front-door passenger-seat glass.
In broken Krio, the old lady, looking dishevelled, told me of how her son could not provide for her for almost a week. The son, who works as a security guard, according to the old lady, has been complaining of late that his salary which has always been inadequate is getting increasingly useless and he is thinking of quitting the job. You may ask what else to do if he leaves the job. But the answer, according to the old lady, lay in a question; a rhetoric one too. “What is my son saving in the job when all of his money is spent on transport?” Anyway I parted with some money to her.
In quick succession, I got to down town Freetown and fell in an apparent ambush. People on crutches dashed towards me asking…eh … sorry begging if not demanding, for money. I told them about the hard times to which one of them remarked, rather cleverly, that if it is tough for able-bodied people, the handicapped are in even bigger trouble. Those through whom God provide for them us are hard up.
I also met a civil servant on the same day who told me that he trekked from PZ to Youyi Building “on an empty stomach”. Hunger was boldly written on his lips, while hopelessness as to what the evening would bring, had wedded his face.
Familiar stories I am sure. Global trend, I know. No-one needs telling that there is a world-wide increase in fuel and food prices. There is hardship galore in the world. Credit crunch, credit squeeze, call it what you may; From Africa to Asia, from Europe to America. Everywhere!
Ironically all of this is happening at a time when the target year of 2015 approaches for the UN millennium development goals, topped by hunger eradication, to be achieved. You can see why the Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade was furious with the UN’s food and agriculture organisation, and even called for its disbanding.
So, different countries are pursuing different approaches. In the West, banks are lowering interest rates for creditors. In some other countries, salaries are being increased; customs duties are being slashed off essential food stuffs.
I do not need to be an economist to know that the performance of the country’s economy is an essential determinant for a salary increase. I also know that the Government’s financial projections for the year will be badly affected if there is a reduction in customs duties. Invariably, I also do not need to be a rocket scientist to know that if the current hardship in Sierra Leone, which, agreed is a global trend, continues unaddressed, it could lead to civil strife. An empty stomach is an empty head. A man who is hungry does not rationalise. No time for it, no patience for it, no strength for it. “If hunger makes you irritable, better eat and be pleasant” says Sefer Hasidim. But without that food, the pleasantness will refuse all beckoning.
Like you I am sure, I have noticed an increasing number of people walking to the city centre from both the west and the east. They do not like doing it. They are being squeezed by the economic squeeze. And some of them blame it on the ordinary man driving by. They feel you are the reason that things are tough and rough for them. What that does is to force hoodlums to direct their predicament against innocent people.
The other day I heard a senior government official insinuating a price control mechanism. That is a precursor for more trouble. The traders will hoard their goods. And we will suffer even more.
To cushion the effect of the current hard times on especially the ordinary man, a salary increase is a must. And not just a salary increase for the sake of it. The prices of food stuffs have shot up by at least fifty percent. Fuel price increases in the last few months mean an increase in their prices by a third in the last few months. So the salary increase must not be anything less than 30%. These economic theories must be thrown over the window and let the people be saved now.
The social and security implications of not acting now will be far more serious than fiscal ramifications of an increase. Anything short of a salary increase would mean low turnout in offices. It will mean low morale. All of that will have the same knock-on effect on our projections worse. Worse still, it will breed more corruption in a country as graft-prone as ours. What will be worse than corruption will emerge: day-light robbery in offices.
And by salary increase I do not just mean for Government employees, even though they probably need it the most because of their appalling salary scale. I am talking of all employers because the price increases are blind. They can’t see to discriminate.
The long term solution to our sorrowful state of hunger lies in the prioritisation of farming. But here, the farmers are hungry. The annual budget allocates only 1.6% of itself to agriculture. Yet there is talk that after the realisation of electricity by mid-year, whatever that means, agriculture will receive the utmost attention and priority. But can anything change? Where will the extra funds come from when a budget is already drawn for the fiscal year? If you remember the friend I told you about a few weeks ago who resigned from the Bumbuna Hydro project, he is mobilising the people in his home village, around Mile 91, to farm. From pictures I have seen of it, it is a biggie. But he has walked to bending proportions all his three pairs of shoes looking for a tractor without success. And he is not alone.
For now all of that is long term. The now requires a now solution. The salary increase is the only way out for now. Apologies to those who are out of job, and they are in the majority.
But I leave you with the words of the thirteenth century Italian saint and theologian, saint Thomas Aquinas: “He who is dying of hunger must be fed rather than taught.” See you on Monday when we discuss the quagmire in which the president apparently finds himself. A nice weekend I wish you. And if you are Manchester United fan, may Wigan be pushovers; and may Bolton Wanderers not wander in Chelsea’s defence. May they make Avram Gnant grow grey hair! By Umaru Fofana