Tag Archives: sierra leone

Sierra Leone and the spectre of electoral violence

In which I hold forth about the situation in a country where I’ve spent a mere three months over five years. So this is tube-written opinionising not in depth, on the ground knowledge.

Sierra Leone is holding elections very soon and I was alerted to a fund raising campaign by  the Canadian NGO Journalists for Human Rights via Anthony Zacharzewski‘s post on the Demsoc blog. That’s an appeal to raise a not insignificant amount of money with the aim of supporting local media in order to prevent a return to violence.

Two things strike me about this.

Continue reading Sierra Leone and the spectre of electoral violence

>Friday – Freetown Waste Management Company works yard #sierraleone

>Friday began with rain, and lots of it, but by the time we arrived at the Freetown Waste Management Company’s (FWMC) depot the sun was shining and the ground was dry.

The tour of the works yard was fascinating. Led from one constraint to another by the clearly very capable Foday Fornah we saw the Freetown equivalent to Hull’s Dalton Street depot. It would be more appropriate to think of it in terms of a graveyard holding the remains of both vehicles and strategic ideas.

I mentioned in a previous post that Hull has something like 60 vehicles for 117,000 households. These five vehicles account for about 40% of FWMC’s total vehicular strength. That’s to service the waste requirements of 2.5m people. And each of the ones in that picture, as well as another one elsewhere in the depot are in need of repairs placing an ever increasing burden on the vehicles that are working (well, they are for now).

We also saw the carcasses of the two earth moving vehicles that had, once upon a time, kept Kingtom and Kissy under control. Broken down, cannibalised for parts and now just left to rot.

In one corner were the yellow handcarts that had once been used by Klin Salone and other social enterprises to devolve the responsibility of collecting the waste still further. To enthusiastic youths who could collect the garbage and earn money from householders whilst FWMC gave them the tools and disposed of the waste. Because there were reports that some of them were taking money from householders and then dumping the waste round the corner rather than at the agreed sites meant this idea was knocked on the head. And so they sit in the corner of the works yard.

Elsewhere are the remains of these bins. The idea was simple – get some bins, go to retail businesses and charge them a monthly fee for locating the bins on their premises and FWMC will clear the garbage on a regular basis. Not only a way of generating some revenue but a further way of sensitising the Freetown population to use bins where they’re provided.

Unfortunately, as you can see, they’re completely unsuitable – made from a material that has rusted, without lids and not strong enough to stand the pressures they might have been subjected to. Nobody would pay to have bins like this on their premises. Chalk this one up to the ‘former management’.

Given the road network of Freetown and the fact that it’s not just streets of houses the solution isn’t as simple as providing a fleet of waste compacting vehicles like we would have here. In fact, the way in which waste is being moved from house, to central point, to dump, is an effective principal. So it was a good idea to look at the hand carts and think that a similar role could be met by providing motorised tricycles that could take waste from one site to another. On the Thursday evening we’d seen them in action in the city centre but, once again, the utility of these approaches is let down by the fact there’s more to go wrong. Of something like 20 vehicles, only 8 are in service.

We also had a look inside the stores – we saw some spare parts for the vehicles, and a few tyres and a collection of different bins including the familiar wheelie bins (without the wheels). Apparently they’re keen to experiment with these bins but the unit cost of approximately $150 was a barrier. This is in contrast to the £30 cost of a bin to us in Hull. As part of our new waste strategy we recently replaced 140 litre blue bins with larger capacity 240 litre ones. They’ve all been recycled now but could we have usefully sent them here instead? Obviously there’s a total cost to be worked out for shipping from here to there and it raises the contentious issue of #SWEDOW (‘Stuff We Don’t Want’) but that’s a debate for a blog of its own.

That’s an attempt to distil the more important issues identified on our visit to the works yard but you’d really miss out if you didn’t get it from Foday Fornah himself. There’s a lot of info in these four videos and apologies that neither sound or camerawork is necessarily perfect but it beat taking notes!

>Thursday – Kingtom #sierraleone

>Kingtom was known to me from my previous visit to Sierra Leone. It was where I’d spent my first nights in country. But I didn’t venture near the dump.

Freetown has two. There’s one at Kissy and there’s this one at Kingtom. It’s in the heart of the city and borders a water course. It’s far removed from how we manage landfill here.

For starters people can roam freely. Whilst they’re not supposed to, it hasn’t stopped people building homes, scavenging for reusable materials or even indulging in a little bit of agriculture. In fact, when it comes to using the landfill as temporary farmland that’s a source of revenue for the Freetown Waste Management Company/Freetown City Council.

Add to that the absence of measuring the waste that comes in. There’s no earth moving equipment to keep on top of the garbage. This means that during the rainy season only half the site is safe to use (hence providing the opportunity for agriculture). Lorries come right into the dump, drive onto the rubbish and choose somewhere to dump it without any sorting.

We weren’t sure who was staff but we came to the conclusion that if they had wellies then that probably meant they were legitimate. However, that was the extent of protective equipment. As medical waste is treated in the same way as everything else that places these men, women and children at huge risk of needle stick injuries.

On the up side the road that ran through it was amongst the best in Freetown…

>Thursday – Transit Sites #sierraleone

>Here’s a retrospective look at the week we spent in Sierra Leone. A blow by blow account of each day. As you might expect, that’s going to involve a lot of looking at rubbish!

Day one, Thursday saw us meeting with the Chief Administrator of Freetown City Council (FCC), Bowenson Philips and put together an idea of what we would look at for the rest of the week. We spent some time with Freetown’s elected members and then we headed off to learn about how a city of 2.5m deals with the rubbish it produces.

Waste is once again the responsibility of FCC. For the last few years the issue of waste was handled by an independent, arms length company created by the World Bank called Freetown Waste Management Company (FWMC). Now that the direct involvement of the World Bank has come to an end without FWMC being in a position to operate independently it has been brought back ‘in-house’ (although the noises from FCC suggested they were in favour of returning to a commissioned service as soon as possible). Donald Tweed, the head of FWMC, took us to see how things worked. The first things we saw were two ‘transit sites’.

These are places in the city which are agreed points for dumping garbage. The council’s ‘fleet’ of waste compactor lorries then roams the streets of the city (almost continuously) going from transit site to transit site where it is then transferred from its holding bays into the back of the lorries. When they’re full they go to one of two dumps to be emptied.

Essentially this means that all waste is handled three times. You have those who are collecting waste from households, or businesses, or stall holders. Some of those are employees of FWMC, some are social entrepreneurs whose payment comes from those whose waste they collect. Either way their rubbish is dumped at these 40 odd transit sites. Freetown Waste Management Company then come along, empty the transit sites onto the ground, and shift it all into the back of the waste compacting vehicles.

FWMC had enjoyed working with the youth enterprises that were collecting waste and had provided them with the yellow carts you can see in the videos and the pictures. However, some of them had begun taking payment from householders to collect waste but were then choosing to dump it wherever they liked rather than at the transit sites. As a result FWMC were collecting the carts back in (and you can see evidence of this at the works yard).

Immediately we came up against the difficulties Freetown faces in getting waste off the streets. Although there was some evidence of sorting pretty much all the waste is lumped together. This includes medical waste as well as the high proportion of organic material sent to landfill. The strain this places on the city is compounded by a lack of vehicles to service a city of this size. In Hull, we have about 60 of these vehicles for 117,000 households all of whom receive a doorstep collection. Freetown has 10, not all of which work. Moreover, they’re lorries designed for door to door collection and that’s not really what Freetown needs.

Ideas were already forming about how processes might be improved. One of the suggestions was that it would be possible to increase the speed with which waste was collected by using front loading vehicles like the one picture above. However, it may well speed up the collection of waste and reduce the number of staff required but vehicles like that cost in excess of £100,000.



Two years ago I spent some time in Sierra Leone researching my Masters dissertation. According to the UNDP’s Human Development Index it’s the poorest country on the planet. The conflict that tore that country apart is a harrowing story of child soldiers, brutal amputations and destroyed communities. My dissertation examined the gap between the ‘peace’ of Special Courts and Truth & Reconciliation Committees (TRC) and the reality of that ‘peace’ as experienced by men, women and children without homes or prospects and carrying the scars of the conflict.

Central to that debate was justice. On the one hand the belief that criminal justice equates to peace and in stark contrast the reality on the ground. The work of the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society addressed the needs of lives torn apart by conflict by seeking advocacy and reconciliation, particularly on behalf of child soldiers.

The consequence was not communities that rejected these men and women, often guilty of heinous crimes, but to actively engage in reconciliation and the rebuilding of their lives together. Clearly it wasn’t enough to try Foday Sankoh or Charles Taylor. Not only did everyone know that those indicted were guilty but most of them died prior to facing trial. So what did attempted legal restitution achieve? The lives of those I met were being pieced together by people getting together, talking and forgiving before moving on as a restored community.

This is the poorest and the least developed country in the world recovering from untold evil. Not by punishing the people responsible for those crimes but actively welcoming them back into their midst. Very challenging.

The reason this is brought to mind is the recent media attention surrounding Ronnie Briggs, Peter Connelly and Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi. Briggs has been released from prison on compassionate grounds and it’s being suggested that the same thing should be possible for al-Megrahi whilst the identities of those involved in the death of Peter Connelly have this week been made public. Alongside those pictures have been discussions about giving them new identities when they are released from prison, causing outrange at the waste of taxpayers’ cash.

Predictably there are loud voices of dissent. And it’s the same whenever someone is sentenced for a high profile crime. Wherever there is the pain of loss, those responsible need to suffer in a way that ‘fits the crime’. But what punishment ever truly fits a crime on that basis? Is it like for like? One life for another?

I question whether that is a justice that gives peace? If our response is to require someone to suffer in our stead it doesn’t stop our pain or make us feel any less raw. The more you punish,the more you pursue an impossible criteria for restitution. And so we’ve developed an incredibly sophisticated justice system that provides an agreed standard of societal justice. The British hand over responsibility for justice to those who have spent their lives studying the law and analysing defendants. On our behalf, and speaking for society, these men and women declare what punishment is appropriate and what justice is.

But then we can’t accept that it has atoned for the crime.

Because the issues aren’t just with sentencing, they’re at release too. When granted freedom ex-cons have atoned for their actions in the eyes of the law (and by extension the rest of society). It doesn’t matter whether or not they’re unrepentant, or seek restitution and reconciliation with those they’ve hurt because that’s beyond the remit of a secular justice system. Except that we don’t see it that way. Former prisoners face barriers to engaging with society, which some would say should be expected. But aren’t those barriers only going to perpetuate those destructive behaviours? When Tracey Connelly, her picture widely publicised, leaves prison she will do so into the arms of a society ready to exact vengeance on her son’s behalf.

Even though justice will have been served.

Not justice in terms of what some would demand but on that day she will have done what the state demands to provide restitution to the population of Britain.

If on that day she requires a new identity it will be because the papers who first bemoan her sentence and then her false identity are the same people who give credibility to a position that says ‘the justice system is broken, it doesn’t go far enough and she needs to suffer for what she did’.

Fundamentally, British society believes that there’s something people have to do to make themselves right with us; some standard of acceptability to achieve; or some punishment that resolves the past in order to change the future.

I don’t believe that.

I found Sierra Leone an incredibly challenging experience for a variety of reasons but fortunately we don’t have to visit West Africa to see life changing behaviour in action. Gee Verona-Walker, the mother of Anthony Walker, forgave her son’s killers. She knew that carrying the pain did nothing. She knows that it is no disrespect to the memory of her son to celebrate his life rather than searching for a potentially non-existent criteria for satisfaction.

As a Christian I fundamentally believe that lives do not have to depend on histories. And I believe that forgiveness, true past-forgetting unconditional forgiveness can heal anything. Impossible? Perhaps. Hard? Certainly. But the things that I believe rotate around that central, crucial, life transforming principle.