I left my village of Kangahun in the eastern part of Sierra Leone 25 years ago after serving two years as a Peace Corps volunteer. Kangahun was accessible primarily on foot on a barely passable road that coursed up and down through the Gori Hills of the Kono District, Sierra Leone’s famed diamond mining district. Even today, published maps either don’t show the village or have it in the wrong place. During my PC service, I reached there by motorcycle, the only one in the area. Drinking water was drawn from a local stream. Many children had extended bellies, skinny arms and legs, diarrhea and runny noses typical of parasitic infestation, malnutrition and other water borne diseases. Half the children died in Sierra Leone before their fifth birthday. Still, the people of Sierra Leone were kind and gave freely of what little they had, never quite understanding why someone would come from a country with so much to a country with so little, just to work.
When I left in 1988, I don’t recall if I thought I’d ever go back. I certainly had no idea that, in a few short years, more than a decade of hell would come to even this remote part of a peaceful and safe country. The civil war of the 1990s and 2000s was a well-documented, relentless horror. You can find bad news about Sierra Leone everywhere. This story is about the good in Sierra Leone.
As the time neared for us to leave for Sierra Leone, the trepidation regarding our safety, ability to reach our villages, and concern for our health gave way to recollection that Sierra Leoneons would help us as they always had. This was small consolation to our families and friends who had never been there and only knew of Sierra Leone from the war.
Villagers I left as teenagers were now in influential positions in the government. When they heard we were coming, they arranged transportation for us all the way to our home villages, and some of them accompanied us on the journey as well. They told me Kangahun was not as I had left it, with many changes.
The first thing I noticed in the village was how healthy the children were. Strong bodies. No extended bellies. Just a few runny noses. Adults were healthy, too. Even the dogs were healthy! There were several water spigots around town, which brought clean water piped from the nearby hills. Other changes were evident. All the children had footware of some kind. Kerosene lamps were gone and people now used LED lights at night. Cell phones were ubiquitous.
Motorcycle taxis were everywhere, and appropriate for the poor roads. You could catch a ride to the next village or all the way to the district capital any day you wanted. Agriculture goods like mangoes that formerly rotted on the ground because there was no transporation to urban areas could now be sent to market and sold with a phone call.
With improved health, production of agricultural goods seemed increased as well. Farmers practice slash and burn rice cultivation. Before the war, fallow periods between slashings were about seven years. With the war, the bush lay fallow for nearly two decades. The jungle took over the town, and villagers told me monkeys, which I never saw in my two years there, were now common. The rainforest was rejuvenated and enormous. Whereas a new farm would have to be cleared every year in the past, the same plot now could be planted in at least two succesive years due to the soil fertility.
In the evening, another surpise — two generators were going in different parts of town. One powered a DVD player for nightly movies. The other powered a light in front of a small shop. Both recharged cell phones for a fee. The school had a bank of batteries that were charged by a small solar panel that would power lights the school children could take home so they could study after dark. The school seemed well-supplied with books and paper.
Harvested rice was now thrashed by a machine rather than by the women with a mortar and pestle. Leafy greens onced minced by mortar and pestle for sauces that topped the daily meal of rice were now ground with hand grinders. These conveniences were welcomed by the farmer’s wives — the only people who work harder than the farmers themselves.
The fish ponds I built with farmers were overgrown. The farmers planned to renew the ponds, particularly with the high price of fish, but that would have to wait. Coffee, cocoa and oil palm plantations overgrown during the war had to be brushed back, after the rice was planted. They had houses to build. The mudbrick homes there when I left disintigrated when the roofs collapsed after the rebels burned them. From Freetown to my village, construction was evident everywhere. The country was booming with construction, as well as gold, iron, rutile and diamond mining. Workers in all these industries needed to be fed, and the farmers found ready markets for surplus agricultural products. They would get to their fish in due time.
One of my colleagues brought photo albums to his village, perhaps the biggest gift any of us had taken. Most lost their photos during the war, and these photos were their only memories of their elders who had passed away in the preceeding decades. A photo album is at the top of my list for my next trip.
Residents of my village may not have computers or televisions or microwaves or even a power grid. But they now have better health and a higher standard of living. Those who survived the war are not only doing better, but prospering.
• For more stories of Sierra Leone, visit Stopha’s company’s site goodsalmon.org and check out the fisherman’s blog.