Foreign Bloggers in Sierra Leone: the good, the bad, and the culturally insensitive
I have been blogging for a year or so now and its been great. Recently I got an email from http://www.globalvoicesonline.org/ and was asked to be a volunteer author/blogger for Sierra Leone. My responsibility would be to do a round up of interesting Salone related issues that bloggers were discussing. That means I have to read any and all blogs that discussed Salone. In the course of this process, I’ve discovered two things: (1) most people blogging about Salone are foreigners living there (2) I don’t completely like the way some of these bloggers present/discuss Salone and its people.
The assumption is that any person who leaves the luxuries of their western ‘developed’ country to venture to the ‘2/3rds world or global south’ has to be a good person with good intentions. I know this is true for the most part but there are poor and disadvantaged people in every country including here in the US….one could commit their lives to working for social justice in their own country…so its not just that they are a good person. Included in their interest/willingness to volunteer/work abroad is the exoticness/otherness factor.
I think it’s a wonderful and laudable thing for someone to feel compassion for people miles and miles away and want to help them. But lets not pretend that the perceptions/prejudices of these people do not affect they type of work they will do abroad and color/taint they way they discuss or view “the locals”. Being a volunteer in Sierra Leone especially if you are white and delivering a social service/ religion is a very powerful position. You can partake of the culture and help people but for the most part you live above the ‘local’ people.
A country like Sierra Leone in so much need that it can not pick and choose the kinds of volunteers or services it receives neither can it monitor the value of work an international volunteer can contribute. There is a clear difference between someone who goes to Sierra Leone for say 2 years and someone who is only there for a couple months. Most of these volunteers are young and never lived in Africa before, what they know is what they’ve read or been told. Many of these volunteers gain more from their experience than they actually contribute. They build there resumes and get the value experience of working in the 2/3rds world. These same individuals will come years later as paid international consultants to Sierra Leone. If you don’t believe me read: Confessions of an Economic hit man (by J. Perkins who started off as a peace corps volunteer and came back as an economic specialist to drain the oil and destroy local communities in the rain forest).
As I go through individual blogs there are some things that these intvol say that irks me to the bone…..over generalizations of Sierra Leoneans or Africa show up time and time again. And descriptions that show cultural incompetence or a lack of respect or appreciation for their experience in Sierra Leone, salone culture or its people. The blogs like http://www.kurankoland.blogspot.com/ and http://www.sandralako.blogspot.com/ are less problematic to read….I especially appreciate the writing of Emily on Kurankoland that talk about particular individuals/events that she does not use to generalize about Salone peoples in general and Sandra is doing some great work and she usually backs up the stuff she says with factual studies/statistics.
I am in no way saying that there is no value for expat (not expert but expatriate) blogs etc… just want people to realize that not all of these people have good intentions or that not all of these people have any kind of cultural competency or been trained on ethics of foreign reporting/correspondence (granted i know there are no rules in the blog world). We should always question everyone and everything….I don’t deny the importance of the work many of these individuals are involved in but we must pay close attention to who they are, what they are doing etc.
For example I am not sure how ethical it is to take pictures of medical patients and put on your personal blog. Whether people agree to have the picture taken or not, I doubt they know its posted on a blog or that someone is explaining to them what a blog is and that anyone in the world can see their face and know their personal and intimate story.
Additionally, I see too many pictures of faces of children with no names on these blogs……I am tired of nameless innocent African faces….I have been living in America for 8 years, I’ve never once gone around to take pictures of little children I didn’t know or even children that I did know.
Anyway I guess I’ll stop here. Beware and Be sensible when reading expat blogs And if you are Sierra Leonean living in Salone or elsewhere please consider starting your own blog so that we can diversify the options out in the blog world. Tell our own perspectives and not have to scroll through other peoples ideas and perceptions of us. If you don’t think people read these blogs,……think again.
Below are selected excerpts from some blogs…. PS- most of these volunteers are working with faith based institutions (I need not reminder of how Things Fall Apart….but I will. Soon afterward, six missionaries travel to Mbanta. Through an interpreter named Mr. Kiaga, the missionaries’ leader, Mr. Brown… his aim is to convert the residents of Umuofia to Christianity. The District Commissioner is upset by the burning of the church and requests that the leaders of Umuofia meet with him. Once they are gathered, however, the leaders are handcuffed and thrown in jail, where they suffer insults and physical abuse….. The commissioner, who is writing a book about Africa, believes that the story of Okonkwo’s rebellion and death will make for an interesting paragraph or two. He has already chosen the book’s title: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.
My critic of these blogs is not a question of who has legitimacy in blogging…..or to claim that anything i have to say is more valid or of more importance because i am sierra leonean. However, it is about representation and the complexities of representing people from a culture/country different to yours and how prejudices/presumptions can influence our perspectives and be unintentionally insensitive and disrespectful
EXCEPTS FROM FOREIGN BLOGS…i’ve highlighted some good and bad things that stood out to me.
http://www.livefromfreetown.com/ posts a picture about a patient and writes: This little girl came to New Steps. She had been burned quite a while ago and had not been properly treated. Because nobody applied compression bandages, her scars are now permanently raised. She was only brought in when the burn started to itch badly. The solution: a normal bottle of moisturizer.
And right underneath that he posts a picture of a monkey in the same thread and writes:
Bruno is a large chimp. This bad boy, along with a few of his buddies, escaped the sanctuary a few months ago went on a rampage, killing three people. He remains loose, terrorizing the countryside and instilling fear into the hearts of man.
In another post he writes “I, quite sternly, asked him if he knew what it meant for the government to be transparent and asked why he was so personally offended that we ask for a receipt for the amount we paid. He wasn’t quite sure how to respond. I proceeded to tear a strip off him, and made sure he knew he knew he was part of the problem, and that the country wouldn’t get anywhere with people like him in government. More from livefromfreetown : ”
He writes in another post: The dog is a living, breathing example of certain aspects of this country.”
“I saw over a thousand people, many of whom probably paid more than a day’s wage to witness the Western phenomenon of chauvinism and vanity mixed together in a cheap soup.”
Duration in Sierra Leone: 1 year with mercyships
Another blogger :mel on a mission
Mel on a mission http://www.minxproductions.com/mel/?p=168 writes “Sandra noticed some locals had climbed up to poke their heads above the rail. We assumed they just wanted to see what was going on until shortly we heard a scraping sound. On turning to look, we noticed one of them had a long stick and was trying to drag a tied up plastic bag towards the fence so they could steal it. Mel said “NO”. The plastic bag didn’t look like much….”
On another day she writes “people everywhere…No one’s really sure why they’re all out at night, but one theory from the staff here is that the houses / huts are crowded and dark (no electricity), so why not hang out on the streets.
Duration in SL :Feb-Nov 2007
Another blogger: http://www.sandalako.blogspot.com
Sandra’s latest writes “I saw 56 patients and many conditions including malaria, anemia, chest infections, giardia, schistosomiasis, prematurity, malnutrition etc.”
Duration in SL: past 2 years as community health physician
Another blog: www.jilldan.blogspot.com
Jill from jillanddan writes “5 boys in wheelchairs came over to talk to me. One boy, not in a wheelchair asked if I would be his mother. He sleeps on the streets and Wedding planning has stepped up quite a bit.
Dan writes “The tribal language spoken out there is Mende”
Jillanddan duration in SL so far 4-5mths. Dan is works for Catholic relief services (CRS)..mostly involved with USAID funded LINKS Program visit the site: http://www.crs.org/our_work/where_we_work/overseas/africa/sierra_leone/links.cfm
Another Blog: www.kurankoland.blogspot.com
Emily from Kurankoland.blogspot writes “All of the water (for a city of 1.2 million) comes down in a pipe from the Guma Valley Reservoir, about 45 minutes drive south of the city. The problem isn’t lack of rain (this I can verify!) it’s incessant cutting of the supposedly protected Guma Forest Reserve that surrounds the reservoir. One of the latest big culprits is the new construction of a US Embassy for which all of a mountainside has been clear cut, and which has triggered the cutting, clearing, etc. of another major chunk of the reserve. Without the forest to hold and regulate the retention of water, the reservoir just can’t serve the large and growing population in Freetown… and there aren’t any other particularly viable alternatives. The other issue is, of course, the growing population of the city. It tripled over the course of the war (’92-’02) with little infrastructure development to support it – in truth, major infrastructure regression.
Another day Emily writes : Cell phones, satellites, BBC radio… all these things are swiftly encroaching on this region. They haven’t made their way to Foria yet, but it won’t be long. What happens as more influences of ‘western’ and ‘rational’ and ‘linear’ thinking hit a region like this? We put great hopes in the positive things: medicine, education, etc. I wonder if we know enough about the traditions that are ‘replaced’ and ‘lost’ and what roles they serve.
More from Emily: “A significant historical event has just occurred in Foria. A vote has been taken (and passed unanimously) that will enable a person from any family to be eligible for town chief.”
“Freetown is considered a ‘world-away’ up here in the north of the country. The current president has never, so far as anyone here remembers, actually driven the roads of the northern provinces.”