Chasing Dreams to Sierra Leone

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Fashion designer Adama Kai at work in her Aschobi Designs boutique in Freetown. She is one of many Sierra Leoneans who have moved back after years abroad to start businesses now that the country is at peace. Jared Ferrie / The National

Jared Ferrie, Foreign Correspondent
Last Updated: May 25. 2008 11:14PM UAE / May 25. 2008 7:14PM GMT
FREETOWN // With its open gutters and bullet-scarred buildings, this ramshackle west African capital could hardly seem farther from the catwalks of New York or Paris. But Adama Kai, a clothing designer, has no regrets about returning home to make her mark in the fashion industry.
Although Ms Kai, 25, studied design and worked in both cities, opening her Aschobi Designs boutique in Freetown has created opportunities unavailable to her in New York or Paris.
“I’ve been wanting to do there what I’m doing here, but it’s been so hard,” she said.
“Here, I’ve been able to generate an income through selling my own designs.”
Referred as JCs, or “just comes”, Ms Kai was born in America of Sierra Leonean parents, but spent much time in Africa as a child. She shares the determination of many natives who have returned after years abroad to invest in their newly peaceful homeland.
And she is at pains to point out that her decision to return seven months ago was not just a business venture. She and others share a determination to rebuild their country, which was destroyed by a 10-year civil war that ended in 2002.
“So many of us left and that has devastated our manpower and also devastated our morale,” she said, adding that many of those who have returned form a close-knit community with shared values.
“I’m proud to be part of it,” said Ms Kai, as young men in wheelchairs begged for money from cars crawling through rush-hour traffic outside her shop.
It was her best friend and fellow Sierra Leonean, Vickie Remoe-Doherty, who persuaded her to leave New York to pursue her dream in Sierra Leone.
She left a job with the New York state health department to move to Freetown a year ago. She raised US$3,000 (Dh11,000) before leaving the US to start an internship programme here that provides work experience for youth.
Ms Remoe-Doherty, 23, spent her teenage years in Harlem, but never lost her attachment to the country of her birth. She would spend summers in between college terms as a volunteer teacher at a school in Freetown. “Everything I was doing was in preparation for my return,” she said.
In addition to running her internship programme, she is Ms Kai’s business partner, and works as a marketing director for a local internet service provider.
The hardest part of doing business in Sierra Leone is dealing with the government, she said.
For example, her company provides internet service to a ministry, which she refused to name. That ministry is constantly late with payments and when she complains, staff tell her she should not expect things to run the way they do in the US.
Government inefficiency and corruption are holding the country back, she said between bites of a burger at Diaspora, a cafe owned by another JC. It serves cappuccinos and sandwiches to development workers and middle-class Sierra Leoneans.
“I don’t want to say the country is doomed,” Ms Remoe-Doherty said.
“It’s not, but we need a lot more people coming back with the right attitude and wanting to contribute to development.”
When Jonathan Peters moved back to Sierra Leone after almost 40 years abroad and saw the political problems facing his country he decided to tackle them head on – now he’s running for mayor of Freetown. Initially, he took early retirement from teaching literature at the University of Maryland to raise money to build housing for people who had lost their homes during the war.
“Then I saw the filth in our city and I asked myself, ‘If you had US$18.2 million would you want to invest it here?’ And the answer was ‘no’,” said Mr Peters.
He added that cleaning up the city’s rubbish-strewn streets would be a priority if he were voted into office. Sierra Leone’s rough and tumble politics are considerably far removed from his comfortable life in academia, and friends in the US questioned his decision to move back in January.
“Are you sure this is what you want to do? Can you handle it?” he recalled them saying.Mr Peters admitted that he did get frustrated sometimes. For example, his neighbourhood has been without electricity for the past three days. “The amenities are not here,” he said.
Although Freetown’s power supply has improved in the past six months, it is still sporadic, which means Ms Kai often has to turn on a small generator when she uses her new electric embroidery machine.
She also faces challenges managing her staff.“How do you get them to understand they need to come in on time even if it is the rainy season?” Ms Kai asked with a touch of exasperation.
Still, she plans to expand the business and one day hopes to mass produce her clothing in a factory.“That may sound like a sweatshop or whatever,” she said. “But we need jobs; we need to create a flourishing economy.”
As well as contributing to economic growth in Sierra Leone, Ms Kai is confident that she can eventually market her Africana-meets-Manhattan designs internationally.“It’s not the common way to do it, but it’s possible,” she said, adding that in New York she was just one of hundreds of designers. “The advantage here is that I am very, very unique.”