Opinion

Visit to Sierra Leone gives a new appreciation for day-to-day services

This giant cotton tree which dominates downtown Freetown, Sierra Leone was very important to former slaves who returned to Africa in the late 1700s and early 1800s. They had to symbolically touch the tree to know that they were truly free of slavery. Freetown was set up as a refuge for former slaves, some of whom returned there from homes in Nova Scotia in the late 1700s.   - Frank Bucholtz/Langley Times
This giant cotton tree which dominates downtown Freetown, Sierra Leone was very important to former slaves who returned to Africa in the late 1700s and early 1800s. They had to symbolically touch the tree to know that they were truly free of slavery. Freetown was set up as a refuge for former slaves, some of whom returned there from homes in Nova Scotia in the late 1700s.
— image credit: Frank Bucholtz/Langley Times

After spending five weeks in West Africa, it is certainly good to be back home in B.C. I no longer take our day-to-day services for granted.

We visited Sierra Leone, one of the poorest countries in the world, along with Ghana, which is far more stable and prosperous. My daughter is teaching in Kabala, Sierra Leone this year, and has spent much of her time in the past six years in that country.

Sierra Leone has wonderful people and some positive prospects for the future, but the capital city Freetown is desperately overcrowded, with many people living in appalling conditions. There are more than a million people in the city, but the roads are often in very poor repair, there are no working traffic lights and life is a day-to-day struggle for many.

Electricity service is intermittent, which makes it very difficult for businesses to take part of today’s online world. Outside Freetown, electricity service is all but non-existent, except at two major iron ore mines which contribute a great deal to the country’s GDP.

There are no garbage, water or sanitatton services of any kind, and thousands of people in Freetown live in crowded shanties on a flood plain, with piles of garbage and farm animals all around them.

The airport is located across the harbour,  one of the best harbours in Africa, from the capital city and getting between the two can often be a four or five-hour journey. On Dec. 28, some people using a wooden canoe to get to Freetown from Lungi, where the airport is located, drowned when their boat was hit by a port shuttle boat after dark. The canoe had no life jackets or running lights and it is likely that most people aboard did not know how to swim.

Here in Langley, we take services like electricity, running water that is safe to drink,  garbage pickup and sewers for granted. If something interrupts them, even for a day, we complain loudly. In Sierra Leone, most people have no idea what these services are.

Our roads are kept in good repair. That is not the case there. Many roads in Freetown have giant potholes and have not seen repair crews for years. The rainy season means that many rural roads resemble some of the most remote forestry roads in the B.C. interior. One road we travelled on, within half an hour of Freetown and serving a beautiful beach area, is probably the worst road I have travelled on in my life.

Sierra Leone has many of these deficiencies because of a horrible civil war that left thousands dead or maimed in the 1990s. Many others lost all their possessions and had their homes and farms destroyed. The country’s infrastructure was very badly damaged.

Aid has poured into the country since that time, and continues to be a major part of economic activity. Many conditions have improved, but there is a long way to go.

Seeing how people live there has made me very grateful for what we have here. Our public services may be routine or even boring to us, but they are essential to our day-to-day lives.

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