Sierra Leone Series
Hashima people. Although I returned from Sierra Leone a couple of months ago, I was so unsettled due to two deaths of people close to people who were close to me and could not separate the feelings relating to that from writing about the work I went to do. Thus I did not write… anything,. No stories, no poetry, or reflections, even my freelance work in London took a break as I became quite internal around my sense of agency in this world and in developmental work. I took one question into my reflections
“Who am I to think that I can help others? Why should anyone listen to me when I have so much to develop in my own self. I learned a lot about myself and have come to a place where I can now write about some of it.
Some of my reflection was based on my own identity as an African. I found that travelling to do ‘development’ work in Africa as a black man from the UK actually carried a great deal of complexity for me.
On the one hand, going to the continent of my parents, feels like I travelling home as I am usually welcomed as family by the people around me and this was certainly the case in Sierra Leone. On the other hand, being in Africa after growing up in the UK highlights attitudes, norms and behaviours that are different from those which Sierra Leon people practice. From expectations around greetings to how to treat someone asking for favours: I sometimes feel more English than anything else and that disturbed me!
As I left Lungi International Airport in Freetown, I was excited to think that I was carrying within me the (metaphorical) seeds of a new venture that with nurture could become powerfully beneficial to the communities I engaged with (and also to myself on a personal odyssey level).
At the same time I was conscious of the irony of someone from the west going to ‘help develop Africa.’ After all that well trodden path has much resonance with a colonial discourse of ‘benevolent Europe gifting civilisation to the poor benighted Africans.’ There exists a toxic historical narrative of power imbalance that defines the African European relationship to this day and I didn’t want to be part of it.
However, I may be a son of Africa, but I am uncomfortably aware that coming from the UK I too have a place in this narrative that is representative power and an imbalance that does not favour Africa. After all I have an easy access (that most Sierra Leoneans can only dream of) to a vast range of resources that I often take for granted. Worse still, this privilege comes not because I am more intelligent, better skilled or in anyway more deserving, but just by virtue of my coming from England.
Keeping this awareness of imbalance in mind (but with respect and love in my heart), I approached all my Sierra Leonean engagements with a humble attitude of curiosity and a willingness to learn. This proved to be wise as the people I met were very sharp and discerning people and this applied to nearly everyone. I do not exaggerate when I say that in Sierra Leone it is almost ordinary to meet people who bring an amazing conscious competence into achieving remarkable things with minimal resources.
An example of this is Kelvin Doe (http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=XOLOLrUBRBY) called the ‘engineering whizz kid. ’ He has been described as somewhat of a prodigy and yet he is not alone. Creatively adapting old technology into new manifestations is really not unusual in Sierra Leone and neither is finding innovative solutions to the problem of survival. This creative confidence which has nothing to do with formal education, is not something I experience as usual in England, even among people who attend elite schools.
I was so intrigued talking through insights into community development with people for whom creativity is second nature, but who lack the opportunity and resources to actualise their ideas: “what can I contribute here?” was the thought that recycled continuously in my mind on these occasions..
Pastor Francis Temba Farma who runs a youth group in the poverty riddled Spur Rd area of Freetown, is an example of a man who has creatively adapted his situation to benefit the youth of his local community. He is a minister who exemplifies a giving attitude. The youth meet every weekend in the yard of his house, which he has supplied with lights, speakers, a stage and other equipment for them. Although he seeks donations to develop programmes for the young people, much of what he gives comes from his own pocket.
I remember having my confidence in his integrity quietly reinforced when I observed a huge number of wrapped gift boxes in his house. They had been donated through his church. This is a usual thing in the Berean church and sometimes these boxes have mobile phones or other expensive items in them: even money. Everyone knows this. However it is not unusual- indeed it is considered common practice in Africa-for officials to open such boxes and cream the best things off, before presenting them to the children and young people.
I was pleased to note that Pastor Francis however did not break the seal on even one box, despite having a daughter who no one would have blamed him for offering preferential treatment and giving her the best of the gifts from the boxes. He didn’t do it and she didn’t expect him to and was I believe proud of him for that. Believe me when I tell you that this is very unusual.
Of course as in most well organised giving situations there are some powerful women involved too. Sister Aminata is the strong organiser that structures the pastor’s plans into realisation and is a profoundly giving person in her own right.
Then there is local legend Mama G, a business woman who owns a fair amount of land in the area and has had a hand in raising generations of the neighbourhood children. She is well known for her hugely generous heart, her discerning nature and also for being a no nonsense woman who does not suffer fools gladly. She is honest to a fault and the locals trust her to hold money for them; to babysit and more.
They come to her for guidance on many matters and she is fiercely protective of those she loves, especially the young people. Given this, the unadulturated support she gives to Pastor Francis’s endeavours is in my view a more true testimony of the integrity of the work he does, than a DBS or references might be here in the UK!
As well as ministering to the young people (he is a pastor after all(!)- Francis Farma runs a weekly personal development session for them. He says
“I want the youth to know their own value, to feel confident in their ability to make their own way together. The education in Sierra Leone is not stimulating, it does not include art, drama, music or anything creative. So when we gather weekly these are the things we focus on, as well as helping them to think through their aspirations, academic and otherwise.”
I sat in on two of their sessions and also led one. The young people were articulate, enthusiastic and passionate. Their intelligence was infectious and I could see why the pastor loves them so much. They clearly demonstrated training in public speaking and also performed a drama piece with music and dance for us. The group was mixed, with youth 14-25 and children as young as 6! However there was a definite sense of mentoring and nurturing from the older guys that seemed an integral part of their own learning experience.
When I used the creative facilitation techniques which are my trade, demonstrating artful ways of encouraging participation and commitment the Pastor and the older young people were very excited. They saw the learning potential in these and wanted to learn more.
Knowing the funding situation in the UK it was clear to me that the young people would have to be organised into a discreet (14-19 year old or thereabouts) youth group with a mission statement, aims objectives and regular meetings. A group that might be guided by the pastor and other elders, but which is also ultimately self directive and empowered with an entrepreneurial objective.
This group would learn creative facilitation techniques and project management and develop entrepreneurial activities to develop themselves with the aim of benefiting other young people and children in their locality and beyond. One thing we discussed was developing performative pieces to inspire learning in rural areas, another was creating a reading project in conjunction with the university, as literacy is so low in the villages and most urban areas.
The young people were concerned about not being able to determine their own lives and also not being able to progress past secondary school, due to lack of opportunity and were eager for a chance to develop their own opportunity. Pastor was in full support of this and has as his major vision building an environmental and creative education centre with its own farm to grow both food and medicine and teaches a fully creative academic programme underpinned by a social curriculum teaching things like deep listening, KaZimba Ngoma (African movement arts) approach to fitness communication, self awareness and mindfulness.
Pastor Francis believes that 21st century Africans can innovate a revolution in education that transforms African society at all levels…
We discussed what next steps might look like and this is what we decided.
Short term 0-6 months
Incorporate the young people into a constituted group
Establish a youth council
Locate funding streams (Erasmus etc)
Observe working models (don’t reinvent the wheel) such as The Vessel in Gambia
Make links with Fourah Bay College University of Sierra Leone
Design and deliver a creative facilitation programme including fitness and health (KaZiimba Ngoma) for youth serving workers
Collaborate on creating sustainable business model
Mid term 6months – 2 years
Continue training the youth serving workers to design and deliver a creative practice education programme for young people
Begin to establish creative practice in reading programme in conjunction with Fourah Bay College
Link with Fourah Bay College and University of Ife (Nigeria) to establish African medicinal herbs workshops for youth serving workers
Regular youth council meeting and collaboration with relevant UK youth org
Seed creative entrepreneurial endeavour in different districts of Sierra Leone
Develop a number of performance pieces, creative workshops and art works as means of raising money to buy land to build an environmental and creative education centre
Develop enterprise and sustainable business model
Develop a young leaders programme with a potential accreditation route in conjunction with Fourah Bay College
Long term 2 years -20 years
Build Environmental and creative education centre
Further develop creative entrepreneurial endeavour in different districts of Sierra Leone
Degree programme in Creative practice etc
Develop complementary health programme with serious research and application into African medicine and movement art forms
Seed creative entrepreneurial endeavour in different districts of Sierra Leone
Be fully sustainable in food production
Be fully sustainable economically