Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Leaden-Eyed

Let not young souls be smothered out before
They do quaint deeds and fully flaunt their pride.
It is the world’s one crime its babes grow dull,
Its poor are ox-like, limp and leaden-eyed.
Not that they starve, but starve so dreamlessly,
Not that they sow, but that they seldom reap,
Not that they serve, but have no gods to serve,
Not that they die, but that they die like sheep.

- Vachel Lindsay

Oh, Salone! It is a sad but frequent saying here in Sierra Leone. It denotes the despair many Sierra Leoneans feel about their beloved country that has fallen into such disrepair. Among currently developing countries, Sierra Leone is interesting if not unique in that it was once the pride of West Africa. It had a railroad that brought agricultural produce and mineral ores from the interior to Freetown, home of one of the largest natural harbors in the worlds. It had paved roads criss-crossing the country. It had universities that attracted the brightest scholars from all over Africa.

Today there are remnants of all of these things, but decades of corrupt government after independence from Britain and the violence of the civil war left little more than remnants. The railroads were stripped, their components sold off for scrap, and their beds turned into automobile roads. Mines lie unworked because the roads are in such terrible states that transporting what is mined is impractical. Vast numbers of people gave up their farms when they were invaded by rebel or government troops and have never returned. Chunks of asphalt jut out in the middle of what are now roads fit only for four-wheel-drive vehicles. The universities are reopened, but most well-educated Sierra Leoneans receive part if not all of their education abroad. Rather than developing, Sierra Leone could more accurately be said to be redeveloping.

A BBC segment on Christmas Day cited a UN report that named Sierra Leone as the poorest country in the world, with over seventy percent of its population living on less than a dollar a day. Several local people here said they believed this figure was an exaggeration, probably resulting from a lack of reliable statistics and corrupt government practices that aim to garner as much foreign aid as possible. The country's pervasive poverty mentality was several times identified as the ultimate culprit in this international hoodwinking.

Oh, Salone! What were sources of pride for its people are simply reminders of what they have lost and of the great need that is left behind. These reminders are too weak for many who never really benefitted from them to begin with, namely the illiterate from rural backgrounds who understood what they were missing upcountry only once they arrived in Freetown and saw their foreign-educated compatriots driving luxury cars and watching satellite TV from the comfort of their air-conditioned homes. But not everyone reacted in the same way.

Of those who have crowded into Freetown's limits, many have opted to ride the charity wagon. They are the one's begging on the streets, hanging out on the curbs, sleeping on the beaches. They tend to see children as income earners and keep their children out of school. Others have started up hundreds if not thousands of small enterprises selling prepared food or sewing school uniforms or building charcoal stoves, often with the help of NGO-supported programs. They insist that their children stay at home to study after school instead of heading to the market to earn a few thousand leones. Still others opted either to stay upcountry or to return after the war. There life is simpler. Temptations of consumer goods are fewer. The air is cleaner. The land is lush with rainforest and grassland high up in the mountains. I have heard that schools are being built in some of these areas, and that where possible these parents, especially those from tribes in the south and east of the country, send their children to school.

One cannot tell the the difference between these children by looking at them unless of course the child is trying to sell you a tiny cup of peanuts or a plastic bag of colored, sugary water or is wearing one of the brightly colored cotton uniforms of a local government or private school. If young enough, even the most badly exploited child will still not know enough to feel sorry for himself or not to play around when the chance arises. They have not yet been convinced that their futures are dependent on the charity of others. It is for this reason that keeping these children in school is vital to a future of self-sustainability in Sierra Leone as they are the ones whose quaint deeds and pride will form such a society of self-reliant individuals.

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