After 26 hours spent on planes and in the airports and on the runways of Washington DC, Brussels, Belgium, and Dakar, Senegal, and the five hours spent in a taxi, SUV racing along island highways, parked on a packed-to-the-gills ocean ferry, and stuck in a perpetual traffic jam on the streets of the city — my mother and I finally arrived at our hotel in Freetown, Sierra Leone at 11 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 8, 2010. We went to bed by 1:30 a.m., but, being six hours ahead of New Mexico time, it only seemed to be around 7:30 p.m. After stubbornly willing the very slow internet connection to work for half an hour, we were able to send out a couple of emails to friends and family to reassure them of our safe arrival, and then we went to bed.
The next morning, after very cold and short (but appreciated!) bucket showers, my mother and I went down to breakfast and ate bananas, toast, and African omelets, as we drank copious amounts of tea and coffee. The open windows of the restaurant let in a breeze partly relieving the unbelievable humidity. The Hill Valley Hotel, although located rather out of the way as we would find, had an incredible view of the Atlantic Coast, which we could see from where we were eating.
We had the opportunity to meet several people during our time at the hotel. Several of the staff took care of us, one even going as far to go out and take a taxi to purchase a local cell phone and phone card so that we would be able to communicate with people when my mother’s cell phone didn’t work. We also met a few groups of guests staying in the hotel, including: a group of doctors from Seattle, WA who run a free clinic in Sierra Leone; and, the Sierra Leonean National Soccer Team who were eating huge amounts of food in the restaurant and boisterously watching the international soccer games playing on the TV as they prepared for their own match against South Africa on Oct. 10, 2010.
On Saturday night (Oct. 9) we walked down the hill from our hotel to the headquarters of the United Nations in Sierra Leone, and the one-time headquarters of the largest UN peacekeeping mission in history, during the Sierra Leonean civil war. There we met with Michael Schulenburg, the Special Representative of the Secretary General for Sierra Leone. We were fortunate to have this meeting with him in his own home within the UN complex, as he offered us tea and coffee surrounded by his impressive collection of African cultural art. We also got to know his dog (a Sierra Leone “street selection,” luckier than most of her compatriots) who kept mischievously trying to lie down on the table.
Before coming to Sierra Leone, Schulenburg had served the UN for many years in Iraq and Afghanistan. He talked to us about the current state of the country, the decline of traditional life, the disintegration of the educational system, the drastic urbanization, and the rampant unemployment.
Although my mother’s main interest for the interview concerned peace keeping and transitional justice, I was able to ask him some questions specifically on the subject of youth. During the war, one of the greatest resources of the rebel groups and armies was youth. Youth are easily radicalized, easily mobilized, and when they have no hope or family support, have a large potential for violence. Now, with approximately 60 percent of the country under the age of 20, and 70 percent unemployment in this age bracket, coupled with low education rates and high concentration of youth in the city, Schulenburg says this potential is higher than it has ever been.
Sierra Leone youth are defined as people who have not yet found their roots, goals, or role in society. These youth have been largely left behind by the war: they are uneducated, unemployed, alienated from traditional backgrounds, and normally to not belong to any community or social groups. But now, they are being reached out to by political parties, and with a voting age of 18, these youth hold huge political clout, which will most like determine the outcome of the upcoming 2012 presidential election. Schulenburg believes this election is a turning point and will determine the country’s future, and if it begins going in a direction of development and sustainability, it will be time for the UN to begin their exit, and give the nation a chance to be self-sustaining.
After thanking him, my mother and I returned to our hotel to have dinner. We had fish and chips, and I am quite happy to report that Sierra Leonean ketchup is quite up to par. At dinner we also found that the hotel’s internet connection was working much better; and, to my mother’s chagrin, I was able to get on Facebook! Apart from the opportunities we have here, I think that one of my mother’s favorite aspects of this trip is my reduced access to technology and ability to be constantly communicating, so I didn’t make it through emailing and Facebooking without a significant amount of nagging.
By: Kyra Ellis-Moore