Black journalist in Sierra Leone: Chapter 3

Feb 18th, 2010 | By | Category: Reporter's Notebook

Editor’s Note: The following entry is from the reporter’s travel diary of Martin Ricard, who recently traveled to Sierra Leone to report on youths’ attitudes toward agriculture since the end of the country’s civil war in 2002. It originally appeared on Martin Ricard’s blog.

Feb. 2

I’ve been without the electricity or time now to jot down my daily thoughts for a while. But here are my recollections of the last few days.

On Friday, we traveled to Kono in the eastern part of the country. It is known as the breadbasket of the country because of its rich diamond resources. How do you know you’re in Kono? You can feel the bumpy roads along the way to the district (and, in the case of the video below, you can hear them as well).

I saw a mining site, where I interviewed a 25-year-old guy who had been working in the pit for about five years. Diamond miners spend the whole day swishing around gravel in a pan looking for the precious metals. The diamond boom here has subsided, so discoveries are quite rare these days. Most people just find these tiny black rocks which they call “black material,” which is supposed to indicate to the miners that a diamond is near. I asked the guy when’s the last time he found a diamond. He couldn’t remember (or maybe he wouldn’t tell me).

We visited a war memorial, which is housed in a rebuilt building where eight people were burned alive by the rebels during the civil war. On one of the posters inside the memorial read:

“Mammy Isata has described how in pain and death by fire the victims ‘gripped’ one another. The skeletons stood against the wall. One person escaped.”

That represents just a small portion of the destruction the war caused. You can see other remnants of the war in the hollowed-out buildings that still stand throughout most of the rural provinces.

I lost my footing on the way to one of the many farms I have visited here. I don’t know if it was because of exhaustion or just thinking this was another simple hike (it was not!), but it resulted in both of my shoes being baptized in the swamp mud.

On Sunday, we traveled to Pujehun in the southern region of the country. On the way, we stopped in Bo, the second-largest city in the country, to watch a soccer game in a sports bar where the Manchester United vs. Arsenal game was playing on the big screen. I noticed that the Africa Cup of Nations championship game was showing only on a bunch of small screens throughout the place, and no one was paying attention to it. Sahid said that’s because when African players play for their own countries, they aren’t as good as when they play for foreign teams.

We spent all Monday in Pujehun. The first thing I noticed about this place was how it looked like there was only one short block of homes in the center of the district with working electricity. Those homes provide the only glimmer of light for as far as the eye can see. As for the rest of the homes, many are subject to no electricity or running water. Theo told me everything is politicized here. You can tell where that is true.

We woke up early the next morning to visit the next set of groups, and I was glad to be spending the day in the environments of the youth farming groups. I spent a lot of time in the bush, where you can see acres and acres of cassava, palm trees, pineapple, coconut and even apples. I also saw benny, a staple crop here, but it was either brown or wilted because, like in Kono, the government gave the groups their seeds too late in the rainy season for them to harvest.

Later in the night, back at the guest house, we met up with another Sierra Leonean journalist who knows Sahid and Theo. We talked for hours, and during one of the conversations the journalist told me he heard about my arrival in Pujehun even before we had met. As a TV journalist for the southern region, he said it is his job to check in with the city council in the area everyday to check on the day’s events. He said he met with the council administrator, who told him he had met with a delegation of journalists earlier in the day, including a white man. The white man he was referring to was me. I couldn’t help but chuckle because I had been anticipating this moment while I was here. No doubt, my skin tone is fairer than about 99.99% of the people in Sierra Leone. For many of them, the only person they’ve seen with my same complexion was probably Barack Obama (as a matter of fact, many people here say I look like him). So most people here assumed I was black like Obama, meaning one of my parents is white. I explained that both of my parents are black, and that in the U.S. there are many shades of black. I don’t mind the misunderstanding, but I do mind that council administrator blatantly disrespecting us like that, especially since earlier that day we went out of our way to meet with him and explain what I was doing there. Another reminder that even though you may be a black man, let alone a black journalist, in Africa, sometimes you are still considered just another American.

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