Years after civil war wracked Sierra Leone, one young woman returns home to help the nation rebuild and start a "brain gain" revolution.
The first time I left Sierra Leone was on an airplane headed for Ethiopia. It was 1994 and I was 10 years old. Three years later, after having returned home to relieve a serious case of home sickness, I was leaving again. Only this time it was on the back of a bus, fleeing my war torn homeland in the dead of night to find a safe haven in neighboring Conakry, Guinea. As I entered refugeedom, I didn't realize back then that ten years later, I would still be in it.
When I received my green card in 2003- the second semester of my freshman year at Haverford College- the final peace accord ending the war in Sierra Leone had been signed in LomÃƒÂ© a year earlier. With my green card in hand I was sure that I would be in Sweet Sierra Leone before the end of the year. But so much had happened since, I had cried with my father watching Sorious Samura's Cry Freetown on CNN. My heart ached for the countless amputee men, women, and children living all over the country. Knowing what I did, I couldn't go back home empty handed. I rallied some friends to put together a calendar which we could sell to raise money for several hundred families living in the S. Rokel Amputee Camp in Freetown. We didn't have a dime to start the project so I sent a letter to my college president outlining our plan and the situation in Sierra Leone. Two days later, I was in his office pitching the calendar to him. A week later he wrote a check for 500 dollars to jump start the project. The entire calendar was created in the space of weeks. My friends and I raised 2000 dollars that semester that I took with me to Sierra Leone after receiving a grant from Haverford College's Center for Peace & Global Citizenship. Two thousand dollars translated into 200 bags of rice for families at the camp. After returning home in 2003, I affirmed two things: the first was that I loved Sierra Leone and the second that I had to do everything in my power to contribute to rebuilding my country. Since then I have returned to Sierra Leone four times. Each time I go back the experience is more enlightening and I become more aware of the colossal task ahead of rebuilding Sweet Salone.
As I graduated from college last year, I was overwhelmed by the need to go back home. But questions about the amount and quality of the contribution I could make to Sierra Leone with no money and a first degree in Political Science and French filled my mind. With no skills of which to boast except for a boatload of knowledge on Sierra Leone from my thesis research, a strong commitment to social and economic justice and an even stronger sense of service, I had to make a plan to succeed. I asked my self two questions: (1) What is most needed in Sierra Leone? (2) Based on where I am in my life now, how can I best contribute to that need? After brainstorming over the course of several weeks the THINK-BUILD-CHANGE-SALONE (TBCS) INITIATIVE was born. The goal of the initiative was to ensure that Sierra Leoneans at home and abroad could participate in the nation's rebirth. The venture would include an internship program that enabled youth living back home to gain work experience with NGOs, and businesses. My role was fundraising money to cover stipends for the youth so they could earn an income in the process. The other aspect of the Initiative was to encourage Sierra Leoneans in the diaspora to volunteer their time with NGOs when they were at home on vacation. This meant setting up a website so that diasporans would be able to find out about on going development projects in which they could participate before they arrived.
After developing the Initiative, I realized that it was not a one woman task. I needed help. Serendipity happened as I discovered Sierra Visions Inc.- a three year old non profit organization started by young Sierra Leonean professionals living in the US. Sierra Visions recruits professionals from the diaspora with cutting edge expertise and experience to conduct training sessions in Sierra Leone in an effort to reverse the country's brain drain into a brain gain. These training sessions are provided free of charge to the public with support from corporate sponsors in Sierra Leone such as the SBTS group, Access Point Africa, and recently added Celtel SL LTD. The organization liked my idea and believed that it would merge well with some of their on going projects. By January of this year I was a member of Sierra Visions, Inc and program manager for the THINK-BUILD-CHANGE-SALONE (TBCS) INITIATIVE. The past couple months have been spent raising financial support for the project. This has been no easy feat but I've received really great feedback from the Sierra Leone community and am moving back to Sierra Leone in two weeks to begin implementing the project.
One of the biggest issues after job training will be work placement. That's where the private sector comes in. Private sector development needs to occur at a faster pace if Sierra Leone is going to move from the bottom of the United Nations Human Development Index. Last year the GoSL and the UK DFID embarked on the "Sierra Leone: Back in Business" Campaign; an effort to bring investors back into Sierra Leone.
Unfortunately, when poor countries are wooing potential investors they usually embark on what I term as "state led prostitution." The government is forced to barter itself and its resources to any one willing to bid (not even the highest bidder). In the name of privatization and foreign direct investment many African nations, including Sierra Leone, have given tax breaks and signed deals that favor the foreign companies' interests more than their own national interests. These investors make opportunistic deals to avoid corporate social responsibility or restrictions in other countries that respect their citizen's welfare. The tricky thing about this unequal system is that the market is highly competitive. "It's a prostitute eat prostitute world." There is always the threat that another state in Africa or elsewhere could make a more attractive offer to the investing client. The question for states like Sierra Leone then becomes: "How can I make my country attractive for investment and avoid these pitfalls?"
Luckily, and rarely, an investor comes along that believes in corporate social responsibility and is willing to invest capital in human development and national welfare. Celtel International B.V, SBTS Group, and Access Point Africa are doing just that in Sierra Leone proving that corporate responsibility and profit are not mutually exclusive. In 2000 when the biggest investor in the country was probably the UNAMSIL peace keepers; CELTEL International B.V became one of the first multinational companies to begin operations in Sierra Leone. Since then many other companies have followed suit.
Celtel has even opened a training academy in Freetown that will bring "world class educational opportunity combined with the depth and speed of information technology and the internet" to Sierra Leone. If Sierra Leoneans are endowed with cutting edge skills then companies like Celtel will reduce their dependence on foreign expats. With this training academy, Celtel is making a decision to not only invest in infrastructure but also in people. Infrastructural developments are good but without skills, brain power, and leadership; buildings and roads will crumble and decay. Another example of Celtel's commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility in Sierra Leone is the recently launched the "Build Our Nation" campaign. The goal of this campaign is to provide much needed school supplies and books to secondary schools in need. The company has set aside a total of Le. 450 million (150,724 dollars) for the first year of implementation. Additionally, the "Come Back Home" Campaign in an effort to recruit Sierra Leoneans and other Africans in the diaspora who are interested in living and working in Africa to join their corporate family. The company will be participating in career fairs in the UK and the US during the course of this year to make Sierra Leoneans aware of the opportunities available with Celtel.
Last year AccessPoint Africa Incorporated (APA) with CEO Conrad Coyanda-Parkzes hosted a free community training class at its Bo Internetworking center. The training class was provided as a collaborative effort between Sierra Visions and The African Network-TAN. Participants in the training included students and professionals from local institutions such as Bo Town Council, Bo Kenema Power Systems (BKPS), SLBS, Bo Government Hospital and Njala University. The training introduced participants to Internet concepts and covered different areas including the use of search engines, and email registration.
The efforts of these companies, NGOs, and concerned individuals doing all they can to contribute to Sierra Leone's development is exactly what the nation needs to take advantage of the recent international media attention garnered by best selling author and former child soldier Ishmael Beah and the Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars. The journey ahead is going to be long and hard but it is far from impossible. As I leave for Sierra Leone in the next couple of days, I am excited, happy, and optimistic not only for myself but because I know that change is possible and on the way. Sierra Leone is back in business and moving forward one step at a time.