(Published in Village Magazine, June 2015)
In Sierra Leone an amusing assortment of greetings have evolved to replace any ‘pressing of the flesh’ that could give rise to Ebola contagion. From elbow jabs to clasped-hand bows, a gallows humour is derived from the enforced measures.
The reality of Ebola is hidden from visitors, the main reminder the hand-held, infra-red thermometers that assail passers-by at checkpoints that have been set up at regular intervals along most highways. Statements such as ‘Ebola Stops With Me’ are also emblazoned along roadsides, and posters showing symptoms are widely dispersed.
After an estimated 10,000 cases the steady flow has become a trickle, and the country is ready to move on from a disease that made the West shudder at the prospect of a plague that could carry all before all before it. But for Sierra Leoneans, accustomed to other epidemics such as AIDS and ubiquitous malaria, Ebola, while horrific for victims, is nothing new. Throw-in a frightening decade-long civil war that witnessed limb-severing among other horrific punishments, and you find a stoic people familiar with adversity.
Inhabiting temperate north-west Europe it is hard to grasp the challenge of this region’s climate. Throughout the year daytimes are stiflingly hot, rarely dipping below 30 degrees while during the wet season the force and duration of rain is such that at times one marvels at how much moisture the clouds contain.
The territory of Sierra Leone, like the rest of Africa, was framed by European colonisers without regard to its tribal constituents. But well before the ‘Scramble for Africa’ those societies had been destabilised by the arrival of European weapons and extensive raiding for the horrific trans-Atlantic slave trade. Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, like Monrovia in neighbouring Liberia, was established by the British as a colony for freed slaves and the national lingua franca Kreo comes from those first settlers. Sierra Leone became a British protectorate in 1896.
Today the human indicators in Sierra Leone are among the worst in Africa. Up to 40% of the population’s growth has been stunted due to poor nutrition in the womb and infancy. Rates of literacy are low. Above all it is poverty that makes the task of containing Ebola difficult.
Throughout the country electricity is intermittent and internet available only to a privileged few, albeit many of the poorest seem to carry mobile phones. Although there are some decent roads, heavy rains make light work of others. The undulating surfaces are ruinous to vehicles; any driver must be a mechanic.
Commerce is everywhere in Sierra Leone, at any road stop a line of individuals, mostly women and children, greet vehicles usually with vibrant fruits and vegetables. In Freetown and other cities market stalls and small shops line every artery. Money changes hands constantly, transactions negotiated at every turn. As the state provides little or nothing, individuals must carve out niches to survive.
A host of donor countries and NGOs, including Ireland Aid, assist the development of the country. It is said that the Chinese are building a new airport outside Freetown and a road through the north of the country to Liberia. One might question the bona fides of some of this aid which may be motivated by commercial interest, but its continued flow is crucial to raising human wellbeing.
But, unfortunately, environmental considerations rarely register. In time this may prove a grave mistake as Sierra Leone’s is reckoned to be the third most vulnerable country in the world to climate change.
Only a tiny proportion of Sierra Leone’s once abundant forests – part of the wider Upper Guinea belt – survives. Local wisdom has it that a meal is not complete without rice, but the impact of that crop which originated in Asia is apparent in the expanses of charred tree stumps everywhere apparent. This slash and burn agriculture requires a twenty year fallow period which has caused centuries of devastation to accumulate. A shift in dietary preferences towards other carbohydrate staples such as native cassava, plantain and yams that do not exert such a toll would be of great benefit, and would actually improve nutrition. The country’s future food security might depend on this as more and more land is degraded by demographic pressures. At least the presence of pests such as the tetsi fly deters large scale ranching though the goat, the main domesticated ruminant in Sierra Leone, is known in other locations for its impact on recovering forests.
The timber trade is also a leading cause of deforestation, with foreign companies implicated in its acquisition. Moreover, scaffolding for building works mainly comes in the form of bamboo derived from hard-pressed forests. A simple measure would at least require development agencies to import steel scaffolding for their construction projects.
Then there is mining, including of fabled ‘Blood Diamonds’ competition for whose extraction was an underlying cause of the Sierra Leonean civil war. Both rebels and government troops collaborated in their extraction which caused significant deforestation. Today as well as artisanal operations, bigger players including Western companies have moved to extract iron-ore, bauxite as well as diamonds.
The consequences of centuries of exploitation are everywhere apparent. With hillsides denuded of forest cover, top soil turns to suffocating dust in the dry season which is drained away when the rains arrive. Then the sea around Feetown acquires a brownish hue that stretches for miles. Millennia of accumulated humus cannot easily be regained.
The economic value of biodiversity, or natural capital, is increasingly recognised, especially in terms of clean water, food production and climate impact. But more slowly are we recognising its value as a good in and of itself. Unfortunately most Sierra Leoneans are too impoverished to be able to see beyond immediate material considerations but there is a growing appreciation of nature in a region which exhibits extraordinary diversity.
A trip to Tiawa island, situated along the River Moa, brought to mind Joseph Conrad’s description of a similar profusion of life along another African river: ‘Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest.’
Maintaining the integrity of the biodiversity on the island is a delicate balancing act that has required extensive consultation with local villages. An EU project has brought solar power to many nearby. In turn, village elders deter their tribesmen from hunting for the array of primates that populate the site. So-called bush meat is not highly prized by the local communities but poverty and ignorance impels some to seek it out.
Stopping hunting is not merely a sentimental concern. Diseases such as Ebola and Aids are zoonotic in character; that is they spread from one species to another, usually through the consumption of flesh. A species of fruit bat has been isolated as the reservoir host for Ebola while diseased monkey were responsible for AIDS. Curbing the consumption of bush meat is an important component in ending further zoonotic outbreaks.
The challenges involved with instigating projects are considerable in Sierra Leone. Even purchasing property is tricky as the state’s registry may issue more than one deed for the same land. Corruption and nepotism are endemic. This gives rise to a certain despondency as even the highly educated and energetic find advancement difficult. Career frustrations make the option of leaving the country appealing. The considerable environmental challenges are compounded by human intransigence.
Almost anything is available at the right price. Dramatic luxury co-exists with withering poverty. The latest US car models mingle with men dragging large wheelbarrows and women with heavy loads on their heads. With both actual and comparative poverty, it is hardly surprising that individuals should aspire to great wealth should circumstances permit. Inculcating a common interest between people is a serious challenge, and an understanding of the limitations of their natural environment is crucial.
Hope lies with the children who are increasingly literate, improved education and access to information can spur the next generation to re-build the country based on principles of fairness and sustainability. It is also a source of comfort that the sickly violent tide has turned. The developed world must also play its part, and the Ebola crisis exhibits the interconnectivity of the global village. Let us hope that greater cataclysms do not intercede to deter a favourable outcome.