The Language That You Cry In: Life Falling Heavily in Sierra Leone

On the 13th February 2016 I made the trip from Glasgow to Freetown via Paris. This trip saw me join colleagues from the NGO ‘commit and act’ to help progress the work that the organization is doing in Sierra Leone to empower local people to build more promising futures. This was my third visit to Sierra Leone, but was the first time that I had made the journey since 2013. A lot has happened in the country in the meantime. The outbreak of Ebola Virus Disease that began in the country in May 2014 resulted in the deaths of 4000 citizens of Sierra Leone (with nearly 14,000 cases of infection being reported in the country), and has had a profound effect on the lives of people living there as well as the country’s economy.

 

‘commit and act’ was started in 2010 by a Clinical Psychologist from Germany called Beate Ebert. In the intervening years it has grown in size with team members from the UK, Ireland, Germany and the US bolstering the organization’s capacities. I met with two other team members (Jennifer Nardozzi from the US and Saskia Schmidt from Germany) at Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris before making the onward trip to Freetown. We would be meeting up with other ‘commit and act’ representatives including Beate, Tien Mandell (from the UK), Ruben Rozental (from the US) and Brunhilda (from Germany) who had been in the country since 6th February 2016.

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We arrived into Freetown airport at 7.30pm into the hot embrace of the evening. In the wake of the EVD outbreak, it was evident that a range of procedures where still in place to reduce the potential risk of disease transition – hand sanitizers positioned at the passport inspection posts, posters about the signs and symptoms of the disease etc. There had been a flare up of two new cases of the disease identified 2 weeks prior to our arrival in the country and the authorities were alert to the risk of a fresh outbreak.

 

Upon leaving Freetown airport, new arrivals are thrust into the hustle and bustle of the enterprise opportunities that international travellers bring. Stewards vie for your attention, so that they might process your transportation from Lungi (the peninsula on which the airport is located) to Freetown, which is located on the opposite side of the bay. It is important to know in advance how much you are expected to pay for the 30 min boat journey across the bay (currently $40US) to avoid paying excessive amounts to the stewards. A bus is provided to take you the short drive from the airport terminal to the small ferry terminal. On arriving at the ferry terminal I got talking to some people who had travelled over from the US to do mental health related work in Sierra Leone. The group included Dr Mandy Garber (a Psychiatrist who was born in Sierra Leone but who has spent many years in Pittsburgh, US. It was great to learn more about the work that Mandy and her colleagues are engaged in and to see if there were opportunities for collaborating. Mandy is keen to conduct a scoping exercise to identify and connect all organizations engaged in mental health related work in Sierra Leone.

 

We were met at Aberdeen Bridge ferry terminal in Freetown by Hannah Bockarie (the Director of the ‘commit and act ‘ center in Bo, Sierra Leone). It was great to see Hannah’s smiling and welcoming face. It was the first time that I had seen her since July of 2015 when we attended the Association of Contextual Behavioural Science World Conference in Berlin, Germany. Hannah had arranged transport for to the compound of Fr Peter Conteh, which is located in the Kingtom area of Freetown. Fr Conteh had kindly agreed to provide accommodation for us in Freetown before we made the 3 hr road trip to Bo the next day. I had stayed with Fr Conteh on each of my two previous 2 visits to the country in 2012 and 2013, and it was great to see if again. He is a senior figure in Caritas in the country. After a comfortable night’s sleep, Saskia, Jennifer, Hannah and myself attended a mass being given by Fr Conteh in the nearby St Edward’s Church. There were over 200 members of the congregation present. It was the first Sunday of lent and also Valentine’s Day, and both of these special occasions were referred to by Fr Conteh. It was a lovely surprise to be greeted warmly by members of the congregation who had been recipients of training in psychosocial interventions that I had co-facilitated in both 2012 and 2013. Church services in Sierra Leone tend to be vibrant and colourful occasions. As the congregation sang hymns, they were accompanied by a drummer beating out the rhythm. There was swaying and dancing to accompany this rhythm.

 

After the completion of the church service we were driven in a transport kindly provided by Fr Conteh to Bo where we would meet with the other team members in the ‘commit and act’ centre. Although the economy in the country has struggled as a result of the EVD outbreak, it was pleasing to see that there had been some improvements made to the road surfaces between Freetown and Bo. Although not without its fair share of potholes and dusty surfaces, it was clear that projects (led largely by Chinese investment and construction companies) had helped to extend sections of new roads. The road trip served to re-emphasize the lack of resources available to the vast majority of the Sierra Leonian people – people living in small dwellings close to the roadside with basic amenities and limited, if any, access to a power supply;small shacks selling provisions; live chickens gathered together for selling to customers; people walking along the road carrying considerable loads on their heads; old vehicles stripped down – their parts cannonbalized by enterprising mechanics offering repairs to other vehicles; babies wrapped tightly against their mother’s backs; unfinished buildings stand like looming question marks as to whether sufficient funds can be secured to allow the work to be finished….

 

We arrived to a warm welcome from our colleagues at the ‘commit and act’ offices. It was the first time that I had the opportunity to visit, and it was a proud moment to see how the organization has grown over the last 5 years. It is fantastic to have access to such a great office space in what is Sierra Leone’s second largest city. There are 5 members of staff employed at the office – including Hannah, Fatmata Gbendeva and Edmond Barndon who take on the bulk of the responsibilities relating to the day-to-day running of the organization’s activities in Sierra Leone. ‘commit and act’ has received money from a German NGO calls Kinder Missio to fund the organization to create a shelter for girls and young women who are survivors of emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse. The shelter provides support to these individuals by temporally accommodating them, providing for their basic needs and liaising with other agencies such as the police and courts to bring about charges and potential convictions against the perpetrators of the abuse. At the time of our visit there were 10 girls being accommodated – along with 4 children of these women; the youngest of which was only 3 weeks old. ‘commit and act’ seek to liaise with the families of the girls to explore options for protecting their longer term safety and security. The organization takes referrals from agencies such as the police, but also has the facility to accept self-referrals. It was disturbing to learn more about the girls’ experiences and the challenges that they face. A key focus of ‘commit and act’ is to address social determinants of mental wellbeing and to reduce sources of social injustice that threaten mental wellbeing.

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Our visit to Sierra Leone had a range of aims and objectives that were specific to different work-streams that have previously been established relating to: finance, research and evaluation, grant applications, social enterprise opportunities and human resources. There were various meetings organized through the week that allowed time for team members to discuss these issues. I serve as the Deputy Chair Person of the organization but I am also involved in both the research and social enterprise workstreams.

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Beate and Tien had facilitated two training workshops during the week before our arrival in Makeni and Bo that focused on psychosocial interventions for non-specialist workers e.g. local NGO workers. In advance of these work-shops we had made arrangements for the completion of pre- and post-workshop measures to evaluate the impact of the training we offer. So, I allocated time to do a training session with the local ‘commit and act’ team reflecting on the need for evaluation and exploring research governance issues such as consent, confidentiality, data storage, data analysis, and interpretation. I also instructed a volunteer assistant in data-entry techniques so that he could assist with entering the data that we gathered from the workshops into an excel data file that had been created prior to the visit to SL. This will hopefully help with the publication of further research papers in the future to complement the recent paper that we published in Journal of Contetxual Behavioural Science (see http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2212144716300011). The members of the ‘commit and act’ team were sad not to have Corinna Stewart with us on this trip. Corinna has played a pivotal role in the research work-stream and also provided an important contribution in the preparations for the trip. Alas, PhD commitments mean that she was not able to come this time around. I also spent time entering data into another data file that relates to work that ‘commit and act’ did during the EVD outbreak using a ‘PROSOCIAL’ community-based approach to help limit the transmission of the disease. This work sought to assess levels of distress, educate communities about EVD, and bring about behaviour change aimed at reducing transmission. In recognition of the important work that ‘commit and act’ has been doing in Sierra Leone, we were granted a meeting with the Vice President of Sierra Leone – His Excellency Victor Bockarie Foh. The discussions with the Vice President were constructive and we were honoured that he took time from his busy schedule to meet with us for 1 hour to learn more about our work.

 

We visited Kalia a village about 30 minutes drive away from Bo. Here 38 people died during the EVD outbreak in September 2014, leaving 94 orphans in the village. Saskia’s charity ‘One Day’ (http://oneday-ev.de) have been working to set up sponsoring arrangements from the orphaned children in conjunction with the support of individuals in Germany which is aimed at providing monthly funds to support the basic needs of the children (including sustenance, health care needs and school uniforms). This was the first time that Saskia met with the children in person. She brought letters and photographs from the families of the people in Germany providing the sponsoring support. We were given a very warm welcome; the children had prepared individualized welcome placards with our names on them. There was singing, dancing and lots of handshakes. This is in stark contrast to the 42 days that the village was quarantined for during the EVD outbreak, when contact between the villagers and those from outside was forbidden and the movement of the villagers was highly restricted. This meant that the villagers were unable to tend their land and the crops failed. So, in addition to the devastating loss of life, the economic functioning of the village was markedly affected.

 

The welcoming ceremony happened just in front of a new school building that has been built by funds raised by One Day, and close to an older building that was used to house the bodies of those that fell with EVD. All of the children from the village were in attendance along with various dignitaries from the local community including the deputy to the local Paramount Chief for the area. A variety of different languages were represented by people attending the event including: English, German and languages specific to Sierra Leone. Hannah chaired the proceedings and addressed the assembled members of the community in the Krio language – derived from English but incorporating up to a dozen local languages including local tribal languages in Sierra Leone such as Mende and Temne. Hannah was able to instantly capture the assembled children’s attention by saying ‘Hel-lllo’, to which the children instantly responded in unison with a ‘Hhhiiiiii’. Examples of spoken Krio can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JycdrjPTJSQ. Hannah, and other people living in Bo and nearby villages (such as Kalia), is a native Mende speaker. The Mende language features heavily in the 1998 documentary called ‘The Language You Cry In’ – the story of the efforts of linguists, anthropologists and enthomusicologists to trace the origins of a song sung by Amelia Dawley (a member of the Gullah people of Georgia in the US) to an academic linguist named Lorenzo Turner in the 1930s. The documentary relating to the ‘homecoming’ of this song back to Mende speaking people in Sierra Leone can be viewed here: http://www.folkstreams.net/film,270 It is a fascinating story of the persistence of language and cultural practice across time and geography. The documentary also highlights how groups of Mende speaking men in Sierra Leone were organized into local militias (called Kamajors) to fight rebels during the civil war that took place in the country from 1991 to 2002. The following Mende proverb that is quoted in the documentary is particularly relevant to work that I am contributing to the ‘Researching Multilingually at the Borders of Language, the Body, Law and the State’ research project (http://researching-multilingually-at-borders.com):

 

‘You can speak another language, you can live in another culture, but to cry over the dead, you always go back to your mother tongue, the language you cry in’. – Mende Proverb, Sierra Leone

 

The trip to Sierra Leone provided us with the opportunity to discuss plans for directly addressing economic hardship and inequality in communities in the Bo district through ‘social enterprise’ opportunities. Jennifer, Fatmata and myself are working with colleagues at the University of Glasgow to develop sustainable business ideas that will provide income generation, facilitate disadvantaged people to learn new skills and help to support ‘commit and acts’ efforts in Sierra Leone to empower people to build promising futures. Working with local women’s groups that ‘commit and act’ has set up in local communities seems like a good place to start with these plans. Jennifer and Beate first established these groups in 2012, and in the intervening period Edmond has helped to introduce a saving scheme system that facilitates opportunities for members to get access to micro-loans. This has been instrumental in helping local women to generate income. One evening we visited a local women’s group and heard testimonies from the women about the benefits that being involved in the group can bring.

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A lot of water has passed under the bridge since my last visit to the country. Whilst there are some signs of progress in terms of improvements in the road network, it is clear that the country and its people are continuing to struggle in the aftermath of the EVD outbreak. In addition, there have been a number of personal crises that have affected ‘commit and act’ staff in recent times. As a team, we took the time to reflect on these circumstances and to think about how we can best support each other during challenging times. In previous blog entries relating to my visit to Sierra Leone in 2013, I discussed the harsh realities of life in resource-scare settings. In particular, a lack of adequately trained medical specialists and/or appropriate treatments in Sierra Leone means that people can endure considerable suffering in ways that could be avoided in high-income countries. In this way, life can fall heavily for the people of Sierra Leone. In light of the challenges that people in the country are experiencing, please do consider making a donation to support the work that ‘commit and act’ is doing in Sierra Leone and empower people to have more promising futures: http://commitandact.com

 

It was an emotional and enriching return to Sierra Leone. Old friendships were renewed and new friendships were begun. Important and powerful stories were shared, whilst at other times silence spoke louder than any words ever could – people left bereft of a voice when words simply failed to capture the gravity of the pain that people had experienced….

 

Being together again with other ‘commit and act’ team members only served to increase the respect and admiration that I have for a group of people that I feel blessed to know. We are looking forward to the next chapter – there is much work to be done.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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One thought on “The Language That You Cry In: Life Falling Heavily in Sierra Leone

  1. Thank you for a great blog post, Ross. I enjoyed reading about your experience working with ‘commit and act’ and the Mende proverb evoked a moment of reflection. In a way, I feel we all share the same mother tongue when crying over the dead or smiling when a child is born – that of being human.

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