Isaiah Washington, Ishmael Beah, John Karefa-Smart, & Eleanor Thomson @ Harvard for Sierra Leone’s Independence

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Sierra Leone Panel Focuses on FutureActor Isaiah Washington participates in a ‘volatile’ talk on post-war Sierra Leone
Published On Monday, April 28, 2008 12:27 AM in The Harvard Crimson
By AHMED N. MABRUK Contributing Writer

Actor-turned-activist Isaiah Washington has a new word in his vocabulary—“shillelagh.” The Irish word, which former Sierra Leonean Foreign Minister John Karefa-Smart defined as “big stick” at a panel discussion on Sierra Leone in Sever Hall Saturday, refers to a problem-solving tactic. Find the cause of the problem, and hit it with a “shillelagh.” But during the event, sponsored by the Harvard College Sierra Leone Initiative, Washington used a big stick in the typical context.

The actor often ignored time rules, spoke over the moderator, and raised his voice at an audience member before dismissing her question. One of the panel’s organizers, Amy T. Wu ’09, called the discussion “volatile” at times. But she added that the event, which gathered four activists to discuss Sierra Leone’s post-war future, accomplished its purpose: to get Sierra Leone, the least developed country in the world, according to the United Nations World Human Development Index, “on the radar.”

Though the statistics are grim, the panelists focused instead on development and community building in the country. “What I want is for all Sierra Leoneans to think of Sierra Leone as their country, not the north or the south as theirs,” said Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier in Sierra Leone’s 11-year-long civil war. “If we have schools in the south, let’s build some in the north. Together, we can maximize.” Each of the panelists called for improvements in the Sierra Leonean education system. Washington, who built a school in the Njala Kendema village last November, said that after corruption, education is the most important issue to Sierra Leoneans.

And John Karefa-Smart, who will turn 93 in June, said he would spend the rest of his life working to improve Sierra Leone’s 80-percent illiteracy rate. “Forget about the medicine, forget about the surgery, forget about the politics,” he said, alluding to his diverse career. “I hope in 10 years to reduce [the illiteracy rate] to something manageable. Then the economic, health and political problems can be more easily solved.” The message of education advocacy was well-received among the more than 70 students and faculty who attended the event. “For me, personally, I’m going into teaching next year, so I was excited to hear all the panelists say that education was a top priority,” said Lisette N. Enumah ’08, who added that she wants to work in Africa in the future. While the panelists agreed that it’s important for outsiders to build schools and supply scholarships, they stressed the necessity of empowering Sierra Leoneans—not making them dependent on charity. “Receiving is a negative form of charity,” Beah said. “We need to nurture the spirit of giving back.”

One panelist, Eleanor D. Thompson ’05, said giving back was a “responsibility” for Sierra Leoneans both inside and outside the country. “I have always felt as though I should use the opportunity that I’ve had here in the U.S. and as a Harvard student to, in some way, contribute to the development processes in Sierra Leone,” she said. “We need to acknowledge that it is our home.” Washington, who discovered his genetic link to the Mende people of Sierra Leone and will earn his Sierra Leonean citizenship next month, extended this idea to all African Americans. He said he urges African American celebrities to take up the cause, as well. “I believe that who we are is who we were,” he said.