Friday, 20 January 2012

Nar fityai*

It still amazes and irritates me in equal doses that some Western journalists think they can visit countries in Africa for relatively short periods, return home and and sum up complex societies with multiple cultures, people, and languages in a 1000 words or less. Even more incredulous is that these 'so-called' experts have spent all of a few months  or even weeks in the country, do not speak the local language nor understand the cultures and yet are quite comfortable writing accounts full of inaccuracies or worse still, laced with racial stereotypes.

One such article comes from a Simon Akam, Reuters correspondent in Sierra Leone who had been in the country for less than a year when he wrote this 'in depth' piece about the locals:

Fortunately someone, a British resident, who has spent years in Sierra Leone and has had the opportunity to witness change and observe the country beyond the superficial and often sensational accounts often found in the Western media saw fit to respond to Mr. Akam regarding his article.

Mike Warburton took issue with a number of inaccuracies in Mr. Akam's piece and wrote to him initially making general observations:

I have seen your recent piece on Sierra Leone. As a British resident of Freetown (as opposed to a short-term contracted ex-pat worker) I can say that it comes across as a typically superficial piece by a Western journalist who has spent his time in bars listening to the complaints and rumours of non-residents. It contains so many howling inaccuracies (which are too numerous to list) that, despite its upbeat ending, it has caused considerable offence among those of the local community unlucky enough to read it.

To pick only one gross error at random, your description of St George's Cathedral as a "colonial relic" hardly fits a thriving church where attendances number hundreds of local people including senior public figures, and a dynamic clergy who are far from being slavishly subservient to Canterbury. Your stylistic device of attempting to link the Victorian English of the cathedral memorials (which are the subject of great historical pride to the descendants) with aid agency jargon and Krio seems merely pretentious and serves no purpose.

In response to Mr. Akam's challenge for him to point out the inaccuracies in his article, Mike went on to say:

The nearest match to your use of "relic" to describe Freetown Cathedral that I can find in my various dictionaries is in Collins, " an object or custom which has survived from an earlier age". I dare say that Stonehenge fits this description, but you would not describe Heathrow Airport as "a relic of the early fifties" unless you were being pejorative.

The problem with the article is that it is couched entirely in terms of your short-term perceptions, rather than taking account of what has actually taken place in the recent past. I stress that I have no party political allegiance in Sierra Leone (or elsewhere), but you make no mention at all of the strenuous and fairly successful efforts of the Koroma government to encourage international investment in the last four years. Were you aware of, and did you attend the government's investment forum shortly after you arrived? I did, and it was well organised and well attended by potential investors from both in-country and abroad. It was a good opportunity to get a broad perspective of the Koroma government's economic development programme, as well as hearing how it is "spun" for international and domestic consumption. In terms of the infrastructure alone, progress has been considerable in the last four years. In default of a properly thought out platform, the opposition SLPP are courting the international media to try to represent that Sierra Leone has retreated from the golden age of their last term in office, which is, of course, nonsense.

There are not "countless" NGOs in Sierra Leone. There is a list which can be obtained of all NGO-type agencies. There have been very substantial reductions in recent years from a peak in about 2004. At that time, I organised an informal traffic survey which tended to show that 13% of all vehicles on the roads were owned by the UN, NGOs, etc, which had a major adverse effect on traffic. Clearly there has been a great reduction in this area. There are no longer any UN troops in Sierra Leone. The most telling indicator is that the UN have downsized their headquarters here from the Mami Yoko Hotel at Aberdeen, a very large modern hotel, to the Cabenda, a fairly small family-owned hotel in Signal Hill which the UN now leases.

Regarding your comments about NGO-speak infiltrating the local language, this is by no means a unique issue to Sierra Leone. All languages are subject to outside influences. English is particularly vulnerable to journalistic cliché, for example. "Capacity building", while a hackneyed expression, is the real issue here because of the tendency to hire in expatriates on short-term contracts who then do the project, trouser the money and go home. The real need is for people who can commit longer-term to ensure that the Sierra Leoneans who take their places can be mentored until they are fully up to speed in their roles.

Your description of sensitisation as white people telling black people not to do what they have always done is typical of the lazy, patronising attitude of many in journalism and academe where African matters are concerned. Your assertion that wife-beating is rife is not born out by the facts. It is a current issue which the government and police are taking measures to deal with. Certain areas of the country are historically more prone to this for cultural reasons, but it is certainly not endemic. One might as well say that wife-beating is rife in London or Glasgow. It undoubtedly takes place, but it's not a national sport as you imply.

I have met Aminata Forna and I have read some of her work. I have to say that, having had recent administrative dealings in both the UK and Sierra Leone, my experience is that bureaucratic processes here are usually easily accomplished, often with considerably courtesy. It is Britain whose large institutions, both public and private, are creaking with staff cuts, arbitrary reductions of service, etc.

The Western diplomat who suggested to you that local people believe NGO jargon has near-mystical powers was either joking or else he should get out of his office more. There is a minority of expatriates who live in expatriate suburbs and never dare or deign to go into the centre of Freetown. If you know London, this is like living in Cockfosters without ever going to Whitehall or Piccadilly. I have always found that most Sierra Leoneans are extremely politically aware.

There is a widespread acceptance of traditional healing and magic, but as in any business the practitioners are adept at making inflated claims of their own effectiveness to encourage clients to use their services (see internet). Where did you get the story about the "witch guns" being found at Freetown Airport? This was clearly cooked up for foreign consumption because a "witch gun" is not a piece of equipment. It is the actual spell that the practitioner will put on someone to do them harm, etc on behalf of a client, who will of course pay for the service. What were the traditional healers doing at the airport? Using their magical powers to help Security and Customs detect prohibited items?

My personal opinion is that much traditional medicine/magic is a historical form of social control on the lines of "something nasty will happen if you steal/commit adultery/damage my crops" etc. I have seen a Baton man at work. He is the traditional thief catcher who will do a ritual to find out, say, which of your employees has stolen a missing item. When I saw this done, the body language of the test subjects made it fairly obvious which of the group were the likely suspects. I have also met someone who claimed to be able to turn into a crocodile. I resisted the temptation to say "Go on, then!"

One could make a case either way regarding Krio's status as a "proper" language, but the point is that many people of small education only speak Krio, rather than speaking English and using Krio out of custom. Krio is the day-to-day language for almost everyone in Freetown, and like speaking French in Paris it is regarded as good manners to have some grasp of it. It is very useful as a bridge to the languages of other parts of the country like Mende, Temne and Limba. It should be remembered that Krio has probably only been a written language since World War 2 and wasn't taught in schools until at least the 1970s, so it's development can't be compared with that of English or French. It does have a certain global spread, being spoken in Jamaica, Mauritius, Cameroun and the sea islands of South Carolina where it is called Gullah.

Personally I have never struggled with the orthography of Krio. Having once gone to a church service to find that it was all in Krio, I used the service sheet to identify a hymn with which I was familiar, and after about ten minutes I had understood the pronunciation of the additional characters, and I could take a full part in the service. The Krio word for "breast" is actually spelt "bohbi", pronounced "bobby", "mummy" is spelled "mami" and all my Krio-speaking contacts assert that the Krio word for "sex" is in fact "sex".

Despite the oppressive negativity of most of your article, your final paragraph approximates to an upbeat summary of the current situation. The offensive aspect of your piece is that it completely fails to deal with what has actually been achieved. The fortitude of the people in circumstances which would have many English people running to appear on therapy-based TV shows is a never-ending source of inspiration. A friend of mine was present when Robin Cook came to Sierra Leone as Foreign Secretary. He was taken to see a school where the headmaster, who had had both hands amputated, was energetically putting the school back together. My friend asked him "Don't you ever despair of the situation you're in?" To which the headmaster replied "Well, what do you expect me to do...give up?"

If your article had been written in about 2003 it would have been very accurate, but we have come a very long way since then.

In an earlier email Mike had written:

In short, as a guide to current conditions in Sierra Leone, your article is about as valuable as Borat's pronouncements would be to a person seeking advice on modern-day Kazakhstan.

Despite this gratuitous affront to the population of Sierra Leone, many of whom have suffered hardship and danger that you could not imagine, I am very willing to meet you if you are still in country to give you accurate advice on the situation here so that you do not commit the same errors in future writings about this country. Please do not hesitate to contact me. 

I hope for the sake of all Sierra Leoneans that Simon Akam will take Mike up on his offer and if he takes anything away from these email exchanges, it should be his lack of respect for a complex country inhabited by sixteen ethnic groups who each speak their own language reflects more on his journalistic abilities than it does the people he pretends to portray. Just as it would be absurd for a Nigerian journalist with little grasp of the English language, to land in England and six months later attempt to sum up the country's problems in 998 words account which passes itself off as a factual piece, so is it equally absurd for this article to be published and offered up as a respectable piece of journalism.

*'The cheek of it!' (loosely translated from Krio, the lingua franca of Sierra Leone)

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