Sometimes the individual dysfunctions of Sierra Leone collided into a wholesale collapse of possibility that I will call here the “Freetown conundrum.” The best way to explain it is to describe a hypothetical variant of the type: You awake. It’s 91 Fahrenheit in the shade, and the humidity is 87 percent. The sheets are stinking with sweat and insecticide. The cell phone’s battery is about to die. The generator at the office has broken, and even before it went down, the Internet collapsed. A diesel shortage means there’s no fuel for the generator at home. The ATMs are offline, so there’s no cash to get to a hotel to use its communications equipment. The only realistic option is to go back to bed, thwarted again by West Africa. However, even that is not an option, as it is now 95 in the shade and there’s no power for the bedroom fan. In situations like this, I periodically feared I might go mad.
It is not fair to judge all of Africa by Sierra Leone. My home for the past two years is not in the top category of dysfunctional states on the continent—Congo and Somalia are in a different league. However, Sierra Leone is much worse off than many African countries. Once, in Senegal, I was shocked and delighted to be able to buy a flight with a credit card through an efficient travel agent. Likewise, in Ivory Coast, the sophistication of the locals was wholly different from my experiences in Freetown.
At the same time, aspects of Sierra Leone are improving. Economic growth is high, and the infrastructure is strengthening. Electrical power is more plentiful than it was. The daily struggles of living there can blind you to this progress.
But it would be a lie to say that those struggles, over a period of two years, did not have an effect on me. Many Westerners I met in West Africa took it as an article of faith that all of the region’s woes were the result of outside malfeasance—someone else’s fault, going back to colonialism and the slave trade. After two years in Freetown I not only cannot agree, but I think such views—promulgating as they do an abdication of responsibility—are bad for Africa. The Western world undoubtedly committed atrocities to the continent. But today it is up to Africans to carve out a brighter future for themselves.
Local journalists in Sierra Leone face a situation that is substantially more difficult than my own. They are smart and well informed, and able to see subtleties in stories that I was blind to, but they lack institutional backing and have meager resources. Too many of them, I regret to say, resolve this problem by taking bribes. Freetown’s multiple newspapers therefore collectively present a shrill and often wildly sycophantic discourse. When I wrote about government corruption, they ran bizarre ad hominem attacks on me. A front-page story in the Awareness Times, “Misguided journalists on doomed mission,” complete with an unflattering photograph, was my favorite.
Given the low literacy rate in Sierra Leone, broadcasting has greater reach than print, but it, too, has problems. In the runup to the Sierra Leone election in November the theoretically independent Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation covered the ruling party twice as much as the opposition.
I learned a great deal about life, as well as journalism, in Sierra Leone. It is highly unreasonable, of course, but when I return home and speak to reporters who work in the First World, I sometimes feel something like scorn: They never had to fix a broken Td5 Land Rover engine, deal with the thuggish police who arrest their translator, or place ice on their feet to cool down enough to sleep. All in all, I did well by Sierra Leone, even if much of what the country taught me was that the world is a harder place than I had previously thought.