About two years ago, I took a position as a freelance correspondent for Reuters in the West African nation of Sierra Leone. As I am now preparing to leave, I think there is value in laying out the practical aspects of operating as a journalist in one of the world’s poorest countries. Sierra Leone emerged from a bloody civil war in 2002; six years later, it still held the last place among 179 countries in the UN’s human development index. By 2011, it had risen off the bottom but was still ranked 180 out of 187. Gross income per capita remained just $340 per year.
In Britain, my home country, Sierra Leone is still widely considered a conflict zone. Tony Blair deployed British troops there in 2000, searing the civil war onto the British consciousness. Today, though, Sierra Leone is astonishingly safe. That is not to say it is absolutely safe; one night, men cut their way into my house in Freetown, the capital, with bolt cutters, and I awoke with them in my bedroom. They made off with a haul of electronics and dropped a knife on the way out. However, such instances are rare. Risk is largely confined to the country’s lethal roads and the what-if scenarios created by the lack of medical resources.
Instead of risk, the reporter in Sierra Leone faces difficulty. For me, Freetown life largely pares down to a continual quest for three commodities: electrical energy, functional telecommunications, and cash.
First, electricity: Sierra Leone has extremely limited grid power. Voltage spikes can blow up irreplaceable laptop chargers, unless bulky anti-surge protectors are used. And with grid power so scarce, you rely on diesel generators, which are prohibitively expensive to run all day.
Second, communications: When I arrived in Sierra Leone the country was one of a dwindling band of nations still lacking fiber-optic connections to the outside world (Chad and Eritrea were others). It was not unusual to spend half an hour trying to send an email. A year later, cable made landfall on Lumley Beach in western Freetown, but more than a year after that, the cable has yet to come online. The consequence is that data communications—required to digitally file copy—are horrifyingly slow.
So my initial months in Freetown were dominated by a perambulation around the few establishments in the city—hotels, mainly—that maintained generator power all day and had Internet connections. After almost a year, I persuaded my masters that this situation was unsustainable. In response, they gave me a satellite phone. For a giddy month, I worked on my veranda, my BGAN Explorer 300 pointed at the eastern sky like theological apparatus used in the veneration of a pre-Christian god. Then the bill came, north of $2000. Reuters promptly decided that the BGAN was only for emergencies. The company instead let me rent a desk in an office—with power and Internet, albeit a temperamental connection.
The office could not solve the third Freetown scarcity, cash. Sierra Leone’s currency, the “leone,” retails at around 4,400 to the dollar. The highest denomination note remains the 10,000. Such devaluation renders the wallet ineffectual for the carriage of serious wealth (you can carry $30 worth, not $300). For substantial sums, I favor instead the black plastic bag.
The bigger problem is not the bulk of the currency but the difficulties in obtaining it. You can pay for almost nothing with a credit card in Sierra Leone; all transactions are cash. I befriended Titus, the operator of the Visa cash-advance machine in Ecobank’s Freetown branch. Titus is a good man. But his contraption, like all electromechanical devices in Sierra Leone, is routinely broken. (And now Ecobank has abandoned the service altogether.) And so, all too often, I reverted to Freetown’s semi-functional fleet of ATMs, constantly jamming themselves on wads of near-worthless paper. You can spend hours traversing the capital, searching for a working ATM to get money to buy supper.