Tuesday, 6 February 2007

Kicking about in Kailahun

Tuesday 6 Feb
I’ve been in Kailahun since Sunday. It’s pronounced ‘cai-la-ow-n’, the h disappears, it’s only trace being to elongate the u. Anyway, Kailahun is on the eastern border of Sierra Leone, just shy of 300 miles from Freetown, and approximately 30 years away too. Kailahun is the town time forgot. It was home to the RUF, the rebel group who kicked off the ten year conflict. In surrounding villages, people will show you the ‘slaughterhouses’ unblinkingly. Just a local building which became the home to so many executions during the war; blood spots still discernible on the floors. The district was the last to achieve peace and so the last to receive any kind of outside assistance after the war ended. And since then, the government seems to have lost interest. I have met countless local people who all employ the same stark phrase, ‘we feel like we’re not part of Sierra Leone’.

And well they might, many newly-qualified public sector employees, teachers, nurses, the like, promptly quit the profession when posted to Kailahun. Unlike most district capitals, Kailahun doesn’t have tar roads, and it is littered with bombed out buildings. Its colonial past is evident in manys a crumbling balcony. People live in shacks near the foundations. I always wonder why in a country where so much is informally recycled, no-one has taken down the bombed and burnt buildings; surely the bricks could be reused? Or the foundations? I have no answer for you there. Colleagues don’t know either. But then, most of my Kailahun colleagues, and indeed most of the staff in all of the INGOs here, aren’t from Kailahun. The educated fled during the war and went elsewhere subsequently - followed the money to other towns.

Kailahun’s shops are small wooden shacks, its produce is all brought in from the next district town of Kenema or from just across the border in Guinea. You can’t get expat food here, you can barely get fresh fruit and veg, the only real beverages to be bought are Star Beer and those made by the Coca Cola Company (naturally). It’s the countryside. Coming from Freetown, life is blissfully slow. A small dark shack of a bar sells popcorn in the evenings from an ancient machine; the talk of the town. Naturally I love it here. It would be bonkers to say it feels like home, but it feels more like the kind of home I identify with than Freetown.

What I don’t like about Kailahun is the sense of guilt it inspires in me. The district has become an NGO circus. People have learnt a whole new language of development that they should have been shielded from. Local people will tell you how they need their ‘capacity building’ in order to grow groundnut, when they mean they need tools. Worse, they use acronyms such as GBV (gender-based violence), and talk about needing to ‘put in place modalities’. It’s depressing. Here’s how it happens. Expatriate staff with MAs in development studies train national staff using the language of development. The national staff either want to show how clever they are, follow instructions, or don’t see the need to convert the vocabulary for domestic consumption; or worse, don’t really understand it themselves, and use it to cover that fact. Add to this the fact that Sierra Leone loves a good acronym and you have a recipe for a nightmarish vision, an entire country speaking a new and pompous jargon. What’s sad is often this language is empty, meaningless, because people don’t really understand what they’re saying.

I wince every time I drive past a sign board announcing some new and useless building sponsored by the World Bank or the EU, or our own DfID. Useless because often the grant didn’t extend to providing staff, or didn’t think to the long term – who’ll fix it when it breaks? In one town that I visited, the male staff member at the Women’s GBV (see above, keep up) Centre had finished his contract and gone home. The women still go to the centre, but they use it as a place to sew and gossip because it’s cool. Maybe that’s quite fitting actually. And demonstrates the ill-planning of the well-meaning. INGOs tend to be a bit smarter (we made plenty of mistakes, just years ago when you could get away with them, and we learnt from them, a bit).

I fear, and have feared since my first months here that a generation of children is growing up imagining that this is normal, that all countries are swarming with INGOs and UN agencies (of which there are myriad; UNDP, UNHCR, WFP, UNFPA, UNICEF... the list goes on). The only real incomes in this town are provided by NGOs. The only major company represented here is Celtel, the mobile phone company. But they don’t have an office, just a mast.

If I were being self-righteous (and remember I’m the PR person for my organisation), I’d say how proud I am that we don’t put up signs everywhere we go, like a gingerbread house trail for new villages keen for development cash. But the only reason we don’t do it is because we don’t have donors who ask us to. Our donors are the people who give £3 a month through a direct debit, the people who get stopped on the street and can’t resist a pretty face.

But whether they use jargon or not, the people of Kailahun are kind, warm and above all proactive. Whenever I get tired in Freetown of hearing people tell me how much better this country would be if the British recolonised it, I remember the people I’ve met in Kailahun who would be disgusted with such an attitude. After years of abandonment by the government, and a fair bit of abandonment by INGOs (who left with the refugees), the people here have realised that if they don’t do it, no-one else will. I’m not trying to romanticise some rural idyll. It’s tough as all hell here, and people do expect some handouts. Our Child Welfare Committees frequently ask us for a stipend, but if I was a subsistence farmer being asked to do the job of the Ministry of Social Welfare (which they essentially are, reporting abuse, tackling rapists), I’d probably ask for a bit of cash too. Our staff explain that it’s not about us, it’s about them and their communities, and that when we leave, these committees must keep chugging along. When I came here in Jan 2005 I had my doubts, two years on I have a tremendous faith in their ability to do it. I meet CWC members who blow me away with their grasp of child rights and protection. I remember Mr Bundu in Buedu telling me how he was negotiating with a 52 year old Paramount Chief who was trying to marry a 14 year old girl – his 26th wife. This man was a diplomat, tackling the most powerful man in the Chiefdom because ‘it’s a rights violation, and girls of that age die in childbirth. Girls deserve education just as much as boys, and she would be economically vulnerable when that chief dies’. He told me he wanted his children to go to school, as he hadn’t had the chance, and then said ‘You see, I am just an ignorant man’. I have never felt so humbled. Pretty much every time I interview someone connected with us I have that experience.

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