Sierra Leone

I visited Sierra Leone in 2008 and wrote an article for The Times about the country’s urgent need for children’s books. I went back in 2010 to see some of the school libraries which had been set up in the intervening period, using books collected by schools and individuals in the UK who responded to my Times appeal. It was very moving to see how much the children appreciated the books but during the trip I got caught up in a terrifying outburst violence, which I wrote about in the Independent on Sunday. Below I publish all three of my Sierra Leone articles, with some of my photographs.

I’m also posting a link to a disturbing update (August 2011) from an African website on FGM which continues to cause immeasurable damage to the health of young women and girls, as I point out in my IoS article. Sadly, the government of Sierra Leone continues to be reluctant to outlaw this practice:


Drummers entertain crowd, Waterloo 2010

At a ceremony in Sierra Leone, a sudden jolt of violence, and a bloody ‘corpse’

Ten years after Britain’s intervention in west Africa, Joan Smith has a brief, intimidating encounter with one of the secret societies terrorising the country

Independent on Sunday, 30 May 2010

It was a swelteringly hot day. Under a clear blue African sky, the people of Waterloo had been gathering since 8am on the edges of a big square which had been cleared for the construction of a state-of-the-art library. Early arrivals managed to find shade under awnings, but the rest were exposed to the pitiless midday sun. The mood was festive, with drummers, dancers and stilt-walkers performing as the crowd waited for politicians to arrive from Freetown to celebrate the beginning of work on the library.

I had been asked to sit with the dignitaries, which meant I had to leave behind my photographer, Fid Thompson. I wasn’t worried, assuming that the worst either of us would have to cope with would be long speeches. After them, I began gathering my belongings – and suddenly all hell broke loose. Before I knew what was happening, I was on my own in the centre of an angry mob. Hands shot towards me, and I was jostled as men in costumes and masks demanded money. I began to panic: why had I been left alone? Where were the ministers, the MPs, the president’s representative? They were long gone, hustled away in their limos as the atmosphere began to sour.

Dancer with riot police, Waterloo 2010

In Sierra Leone, it’s not uncommon for public events to end in an outbreak of disorder, which is why I’d earlier seen police patrolling the site in such numbers. At that moment, a policeman in full riot gear began pushing his way towards me, thrusting the mob aside with a long baton. He was joined by another, dressed identically in blue overalls and a helmet, and I struggled to reach them. Together they got me out of the tent and I stumbled on the uneven ground. The mob rushed me again and another policeman ran up, brandishing a gun above his head.

The crowd fell back and the cops formed an escort, hurrying me to the road which runs past the building site. I had no idea where Fid was, my mobile didn’t work and I hadn’t a clue what to do next. I spotted a local politician I knew, and ran to him to ask for help. He turned his back on me with a shrug.

Fid appeared with two women guests from the UK. They were ashen, and I couldn’t immediately understand what they were saying. Someone gasped something about a corpse, a man whose throat had been cut, and Fid held up her camera: on the screen was a photograph of a man naked to the waist, spattered with blood and waving a knife.

She said he’d been dragging what appeared to be a dead body wrapped in a shroud, but she was threatened when she tried to take pictures of the corpse. The police kept back, clearly too scared to intervene, and the only thought in my head was that we had to get out before anything worse happened. I spotted the minibus we’d been using the previous day and we ran towards it, pulling open the doors and piling inside. The driver took off, hurrying us to a house on the other side of Waterloo which belongs to one of the town’s MPs.

Over the next couple of hours, as the adrenalin drained from my body, I asked everyone I met whether there had really been a killing at the construction site. One man tried to reassure me: the dead man was terminally ill, he said, and had been killed the previous evening as a sacrifice to ensure the success of the project. Another shuddered at my question, mentioned secret societies and clammed up, refusing to say more.

When the MP returned to his house, I told him what had happened and he rocked with laughter. “It’s just a ritual,” he chortled. Later in the day, someone else claimed to have seen the “corpse” on his feet and dancing, but it was clear my questions were unwelcome and some kind of damage-limitation exercise was going on.

No one wants to talk about secret societies in Sierra Leone. They wield enormous power but few people are prepared to admit that they belong to one, let alone reveal its workings. Yet the mini riot at the construction site and the blood-stained man dragging a “corpse” seemed to me to have no rational explanation other than as a demonstration of secret-society power.

My hunch was confirmed not long after I got back to London in an email from a friend in Sierra Leone. She told me she’d just attended the opening of an iron-ore mine, where the ceremony was once again disrupted by an ululating mob. In their midst was a half-naked man, covered in blood and brandishing a knife, whom she identified as a member of the all-male Poro secret society. “I really don’t know what to think about these secret societies,” she wrote. “I am inclined to think the body at Waterloo was not a real corpse. But I have no evidence to the contrary.”

A British Home Office report on Sierra Leone noted that Poro “has considerable local and national influence [and] would appear to be able to organise nationwide…. In some areas the membership would appear to comprise all of the adult male population.” It said that Poro initiation ceremonies involve scarification, and mentioned accounts in the Sierra Leone press of intimidation and “provocative demonstrations” of the kind I saw.

My father was stationed in Freetown during the Second World War, when he served on Atlantic convoys, and he talked about Sierra Leone endlessly when I was a child. Years later, the country impressed itself on my consciousness again when my friend Robin Cook spoke about it warmly, convinced that his decision to send British troops in May 2000 had put an end to its savage civil war. Cook’s intervention was crucial.

On my first visit to Sierra Leone in 2008, I met people in Freetown who’d watched British troops arrive, sending the coked-up rebels of the Revolutionary United Front – the teenage soldiers who chopped off arms and legs in the film Blood Diamond – into panicked flight. The war ended officially two years later, and since then international aid has poured into the country. It’s the biggest per capita recipient of aid from the British government, which spent £48.3m on projects to improve the country’s health, education and governance in 2008-09.

Aid to Sierra Leone is a controversial subject because the country is notoriously corrupt. President Ernest Bai Koroma is regarded as honest; he was the first president to declare his own assets, and he signed a wide-ranging anti-corruption law two years ago. But two government ministers were sacked last November; one of them, the former health minister, was immediately indicted by the country’s anti-corruption commission.

The UK’s National Audit Office recently looked at projects in Sierra Leone funded by the Department for International Development and found no evidence of money being siphoned off. But there is a perplexing incongruity between the amount of international aid going into the country and the everyday lives of most of its inhabitants. Seventy per cent of the population live below the poverty line; just over a third don’t get enough to eat each day; maternal and infant mortality (one in five children dies before the age of five) are among the highest in the world. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled to the capital during the civil war and they’re still there, living in shacks made of debris and corrugated iron, and picking over rubbish tips to make a living.

Perhaps the most tragic thing of all about Sierra Leone is the knowledge that the government won’t act to prevent the needless mutilation of thousands of girls. The men’s secret society that disrupts public events has a female equivalent, Bundu, which takes teenage and younger girls into the bush for months at a time to excise the clitoris and “prepare” them for womanhood. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is widespread in Sierra Leone. Unicef estimates that more than 90 per cent of the adult female population has been cut, although other organisations suggest it’s more like 65 per cent. It’s one reason why one in eight women die during pregnancy or childbirth. In the recent past, politicians in Sierra Leone actively encouraged FGM, regarding it as a vote winner; the wife of a presidential candidate once sponsored the mutilation of 1,500 girls during an election campaign.

Immediately after his election in 2007, Mr Koroma pledged to ban FGM, as other African governments have already done; a few months later, his social affairs minister Haja Musu Kandeh repeated the government’s pledge. But the promise hasn’t been carried out, girls are still being mutilated, and foreign donors seem curiously reluctant to exert pressure to make the President deliver.

No one with real power wants to take on the secret societies, it seems. I often think about the girls I met in Sierra Leone earlier this year, crowding round me with their favourite books and giggling as they begged to have their photographs taken. They want to be doctors, librarians and hotel receptionists, but in a year or two most of them will be taken off into the bush to be made into “women”.

My brush with one of Sierra Leone’s secret societies lasted a few minutes, but for the country’s women and girls the damage lasts a lifetime.


Boys at Bread of Life school, Sierra Leone 2010

Sierra Leone: a new chapter of hope in the wake of war

Books donated by Times readers are giving children in this troubled country faith in a better future

The Times, Saturday 27 February 2010

The children at Bread of Life school in the centre of Waterloo, Sierra Leone, were not expecting visitors. Almost 50 ten-year-olds were crammed into a single sweltering room, each of them wearing the school’s smart green uniform, and there was a moment’s confusion while they decided how to react. Then they burst into song: “We love our school,” they sang and clapped with spontaneous enthusiasm. Soon they were out of their desks and crowding round, wanting to show us their books — almost all of them donated by Times readers in this country.

It was an extraordinary moment. Fifteen months ago, after my first trip to Sierra Leone, I wrote about the schools in the town of Waterloo, 15km from the capital, Freetown. I invited Times readers to collect children’s books, hoping to send 50,000 to Sierra Leone, but the response exceeded all expectations. Up and down the UK, individuals and schools organised collections, producing an astonishing 300,000 books for shipping to Freetown. More than 100,000 of those books have already been distributed in Waterloo and nearby towns; they vary from children’s favourites to textbooks and hundreds of copies of the Harry Potter books generously donated by J. K. Rowling’s British publisher, Bloomsbury.

At Bread of Life the boys proudly showed me a book about the Romans, while one of the girls offered to read aloud a story by Beatrix Potter. She was a confident reader and it was clear that the books delivered to the school from the UK had already made a big impact. Shortly afterwards Bread of Life’s headmaster, the Rev John Kamara, took me into his office where the books — precious objects in a country where libraries and schools were deliberately destroyed during the civil war — are kept safe between lessons.

Kamara is a handsome, quietly spoken man whose dedication to his pupils is obvious. Now 54, he has been teaching since he finished his training more than 30 years ago. “We distribute the books every day,” he told me. “The children love them. It makes a huge difference — it makes them eager to come to school.”

The school has 400 pupils, aged 3-17. When I asked Kamara how many books he had received, he told me that he had been offered 2,500 but had accepted only 1,500 because he wanted to share with other schools. It was a selfless gesture, for Bread of Life remains short of resources. “We especially need dictionaries for the children and the teachers, and textbooks for the older children,” the headmaster said.

When I first talked to teachers in Waterloo in 2008, 24 schools were represented at the meeting. As word of the book collection spread, more head teachers got in touch; now 70 schools have received books or are about to receive them.

The scheme has created a spirit of optimism in a country of 5.8 million that was torn apart for more than a decade by a brutal civil war that ended in 2002. Last year Sierra Leone was third from the bottom of the UN development index. Waterloo is the gateway to the Freetown peninsula. It was occupied for long periods by the main rebel group, Foday Sankoh’s Revolutionary United Front, which became notorious for grotesque human rights abuses: rape, murder, the forced recruitment of 30,000 child soldiers who were given hard drugs to encourage them to kill, and the practice of amputating hands and feet to terrorise civilians.

What happened to Sierra Leone during and after the conflict leaves a bitter taste for an older generation who remember when Freetown was known as the Athens of West Africa. Now adult literacy rates have fallen to just under 40 per cent; among women it is even lower, with maybe a fifth of the female population able to read.

Ten days ago, when I met a group of 20 women from Waterloo and nearby villages, I got a startling insight into how widespread illiteracy is in the adult female population. Several of the women are “chairladies” of local women’s associations and my interpreter — the formidable Julia Tyler, who is a teacher — asked for a show of hands so that I could see how many of the women in the room were literate. Only two raised their hands. Seven had been to school but had left between the ages of 9 and 11 and never completed their education. “My parents refused to take me to school because they did not think a girl child’s education was important,” one of the women told me. “It is an ache to me because there are so many things I can’t do, such as signing my name in a bank.”

All the women have children and some have grandchildren. Every child is in school and the women shouted out a list of careers they would like for their kids: engineers, journalists, librarians and hotel managers. I asked whether the illiterate women would like to learn to read or whether they feel it’s too late. Even the oldest, 65-year-old Kaday Bundu, wanted to attend classes.

Illiteracy inflicts huge damage on women’s health. Healthcare is patchy in Sierra Leone, HIV is rife and most women have undergone a form of genital mutilation. Giving birth is risky — one woman in eight dies in childbirth.

The safe-sex message is everywhere, sometimes incongruously to European eyes. “A force for good uses condoms” a billboard declares outside Waterloo police station, illustrated by a picture of a cop in riot gear. But most women cannot read it or find their way to pavement organisations that provide free condoms and advice about resisting domestic violence.

Five years ago Claire Curtis-Thomas, the Labour MP, visited Waterloo. When she asked local people what they most needed, they asked for a library. Curtis-Thomas is an engineer and set up an NGO, Construction & Development Partnership, to build the library and train young people.

Eight days ago three Sierra Leonean government ministers, including the Education Minister, Dr Minkailu Bah, attended a ceremony to mark the beginning of construction. The most moving moment came when a girl of 8 or 9 delivered a word- perfect speech about the importance of education for the future of Sierra Leone.

In a couple of years’ time Waterloo will have the biggest library in West Africa. In the meantime the project to build literacy continues, with a new target of collecting and sending a million books. This time we are asking for school textbooks and medical books as well as storybooks, and for a small donation (20p per book) towards the cost of shipping them to Sierra Leone.

“We understand the moral value of education,” John Kamara said. “The children love books so much they want to take them home to show their families.”

He is proud that his former pupils, from a time before Sierra Leone was ravaged by civil war, include a current Member of Parliament and several army officers. Like other teachers in Sierra Leone, he is ready to produce the new generation of professionals that the country needs to rebuild itself — but he can’t do it without your help.

If you would like to collect books for Sierra Leone or raise funds to pay for shipping, please visit the Construction & Development Partnership website:


Schoolgirl, Waterloo 2010

Sierra Leone faces a fight for literacy

Joan Smith calls for readers’ support to build the biggest library in West Africa

The Times, Saturday 14 November 2008

The room is dusty, the furniture old and broken. There is a word test on the blackboard, and children’s drawings taped to the walls. I can see no books but these children are the lucky ones, able to learn indoors. Next door are the worn stone benches where they used to have lessons in the open air, despite living in a West African country that has two rainy seasons a year.

This is Sierra Leone, a former British colony desperately trying to reco-ver from 11 years of civil war. That conflict, infamous for the recruitment of thousands of child soldiers and the rebels’ practice of chopping off hands and feet, has left Sierra Leone one of the poorest countries in the world. It needs electricity, hospitals, sanitation, vaccination programmes – but above all it needs books. When my friend Claire Curtis-Thomas, the Labour MP for Crosby, visited Sierra Leone for the first time five years ago, she asked people what they most wanted. Curtis-Thomas is an engineer and the answer she expected was a health clinic or a water-treatment plant; they asked for a library.

When I talked to parents, teachers and government ministers in Sierra Leone a couple of months ago, the reasons behind that choice became obvious. In a country of almost six million people, there are only 20,000 library books – one for every 300 people. Only two adults in five can read, and they know that their country will continue to be dependent on foreign aid unless the next generation gets a decent education. It is the key to development, but people are also becoming aware of an astonishing statistic: life expectancy increases three years with each 10 per cent increase in female literacy. Teaching girls and women to read is literally a life-saving intervention in a country that has the highest rates of infant and maternal mortality in the world.

I recently visited Waterloo, the town near Freetown where Curtis-Thomas plans to build the biggest library in West Africa. Children from some of the town’s 41 schools turned out in pristine school uniform, clutching banners they had made to show off their writing skills. Their teachers are amazing people, doing the best they can without the most basic resources; the Government is so poor that it can provide only one textbook for every five children. When I asked the teachers what they needed, I got the same reply as Curtis-Thomas: books. Could I get children’s books from England, they asked eagerly?  

In recent years, the town has had a tragic history. Situated at the gateway to the Freetown peninsula, it was a prime target for the Revolutionary United Front, the rebel group led by Foday Sankoh. While the rebels held Waterloo, almost every woman was raped and amputations were common; I met a pastor who woke up each morning to find three decapitated corpses outside his church, the heads removed to place on pikes at checkpoints in the town.

All this finally began to come to an end in May 2000, when Robin Cook sent the British Army into Freetown. “You saved us,” local people tell British visitors, and their hunger for British culture – from football to Harry Potter – is startling. Curtis-Thomas chairs a charity, Codep, that has already raised £1.4 million to start building the library in Waterloo, and the project will be used to train local people in building techniques.

But the most urgent task is rebuilding a culture of literacy in what used to be the second-richest country in Africa. That’s where you can help: if you have children’s books on your shelves, much loved but no longer read, donating them to the schools in Waterloo will change the lives of thousands of children. The need is desperate, and the gratitude enormous: “You are taking us from the dust and helping us to rise again,” says head man Leslie Whengle.

Photographs of Sierra Leone (c) Joan Smith 2010