All is not well at Sierra Leone’s Social Welfare Ministry

James Fallah-Williams: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 10 January 2021:

I visited the Sierra Leone Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs to see the minister regarding our container of mobility aids for disabled people in the country. The minister sat in her office, looking rather intently at the documents in front of her. She took a pen and wrote at the bottom of the page she was reading. Without even lifting her head, she said to me: ‘They told me that you came here earlier and bad-mouthed me in my office.’ She waited for a response from me.

‘No, I didn’t; I hold you in high esteem,’ I replied. I was talking about your chief administrator, who has sat on our container documents for three weeks without reason. I told him that if he was expecting me to give him money before he released our documents, he was making a big mistake.’

The minister raised her head and looked at me, perhaps bemused by such audacity. ‘This is your document I have in front of me – I was only given it yesterday,’ she said. The rogue administrator had kept it on his desk for three weeks before I told him that I would be reporting him to the Chief Minister. Upon hearing this, he quickly took the documents to her for her signature and then discreetly told her that I had ‘bad-mouthed’ her.

Practical Tools Initiative works in partnership with the ministry to deliver key support services to some of the most vulnerable people in the country. Our container documents had never taken more than three days to be processed by the minister before. But on this occasion, her chief administrator had decided to display his authority with sinister intent; he had deliberately withheld the documents for three weeks in an attempt to get us to bribe him. He gave no consideration whatsoever to the damage this was causing to the community of working children, disabled people, and destitute women, nor to the huge demurrage costs that were accumulating because of the delay.

That morning, while sitting in the reception chair, waiting to be called into the minister’s office, I had seen bugs crawling on my black trousers. I had reached out and squashed one. Upon sniffing at my fingers, I was hit with the unmistakeable pungent smell of a chinch! I shot up and into the office of the minister’s secretary. ‘There are chinches in your chairs!’ I explained. ‘We have used insecticides so many times, and they are still not gone,’ she said. ‘The visitors bring them here.’

The minister is running the largest ministry in the country, yet it is the most deliberately underfunded and consistently neglected and deprived. I looked at the door into her office. At the bottom of it, sewer rats had gnawed a large hole through the red carpet and the door and were running riot in the air-conditioned offices.

Moments later, two young disabled hustlers on crutches came into the reception. One was holding a small black plastic bag containing a live poussin the size of a feral pigeon. The other was carrying a plastic bag containing a pathetic collection of vegetables. These were unsolicited gifts for the minister. ‘We cam for see de mammy!’ (‘We came to see the mother/lady!’) said the one carrying the little chicken to the secretary.

Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs is the equivalent of the UK’s Home Office; it is responsible for everything and anything social. However, unlike the UK’s Home Office, which has several sub-ministries, Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Social Welfare is managed by only one minister, who is female.

Like many female ministers in the country, her work is being undermined by insubordinate and grotesquely chauvinistic male administrators who will not yield to female authority and behave as though they are their own bosses.  A combination of this contemptuous male attitude towards female ministers and funding neglect is seriously undermining the ministry and has turned it into a death trap for even the most hardened public servant.

The buildings they are using are covered with asbestos roofing sheets and insulation materials from the 1950s and 1960s. These have been left to disintegrate.

This very dangerous substance contains silicate minerals with fibrous crystals which have even smaller fibrils. They can cause asbestosis – a serious long-term condition caused by prolonged exposure to asbestos – and can also cause cancer. Asbestos materials were brought to Sierra Leone by colonial administrators who found them useful in buildings because they are resistant to heat. They were used in large quantities to construct temporary administrative structures such as those in New England in Freetown.

Neglect and poor state leadership have ensured that these buildings are still being used today to the detriment of those who work in them daily. Even those who attempt to repair these dilapidated structures have no idea that they are filling their lungs with highly dangerous fibrils that will eventually kill them.

Photo: Dilapidated colonial administrative buildings still in use in New England, Freetown

While vague and invisible capital projects are being announced on a perpetual basis on national television to attract public support for an administration that does not even provide adequate food for its population, much-needed rehabilitation work on administrative buildings has not happened, especially for the New England offices. Even the toilets here don’t function; there is no running water. Water has to be carried in buckets from somewhere and poured to flush the toilets when they are full! You have to have a strong stomach to use one. Sanitation issues here are so grim that they are far worse than in Bang Kwan Central Prison in Thailand.

Successive governments have always appointed female ministers to run the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs, which is a classic and deliberate illustration of views around the gender role of women in traditional Sierra Leone society – of the perspective that women are responsible for managing children, disabled people and elderly people. It also demonstrates the view that the office can be totally neglected and still function. While smaller and less significant ministries enjoy better standards of office space and support, the Ministry of Social Welfare has been left to rot in colonial shacks with considerable health and safety challenges. Even the chairs in the offices are broken and have become colonies for bedbugs.

I walked out of the minister’s office to be greeted by an overflowing skip which has been left to the elements and was being plundered by stray dogs. The smell was so overpowering in the heat that I choked on my breath. The minister’s office is about twenty feet away from this decay and fetidity. The male administrators who are exercising their discontented attitudes towards female leadership pass by every moment and do nothing about it, believing that it is the woman’s job to clean it up. What sort of country is this?

Photo: This overflowing skip is only twenty feet away from the minister’s office in New England, Freetown

This is one of the few times in my life I have felt sorry for a politician. I asked myself why anyone would want to take on this responsibility. I felt deep down that it was perhaps out of love for her country that she decided to leave the UK and come to do this job. But the challenge is not only hers;  I went to see another female minister and the situation was the same, involving harassment, disregard and insubordination by male colleagues.

In another ministry, a male director had told me quite unashamedly that female ministers are ‘lazy’ and do not come to work early enough, and that they are also the first to leave the office for home because they feel ‘tired’. He said: ‘I am not being gender-biased, but female ministers are  not working hard enough. They are the first to leave the office for the day, and they always have piles of work on their desks to do. When there was a male minister in this office, we used to work until 9pm.’ This is the sort of excuse typical racists in England always use: ‘I am not racist, but I find it difficult to work with black people because …’ I looked at the director and thought: the woman you are talking about has a PhD from abroad; if she is as lazy as you suppose, she wouldn’t have had the slightest of chances to achieve that.

You are not at that level academically, and now you want to challenge her commitment to her work simply because she is a woman.  The only thing the director has developed since coming into office is his potbelly.

One of the most common signs of insubordination and misogyny you will find in male public administrators in Sierra Leone is deliberately cultivated potbellies. Within six months of taking public office, male administrators quickly develop unsightly potbellies to show their authority and as a misconstrued sign of ‘good living’ – eating bad food and drinking excessive and chemical-laden beer. Among this so-called middle class, the majority of those who die of heart attacks and strokes are male public officials with gross potbellies.

A research report published in 2020 by the Institute of Applied Research, University of Birmingham, UK, highlighted that cardiovascular disease risk factors in Sierra Leone are highly prevalent. The research, which was conducted from September to November 2018, found that over three quarters of people older than forty in Sierra Leone had at least one cardiovascular disease risk factor. Almost half of the study population over the age of forty had hypertension!

Male public figures in Sierra Leone see eating excessively and drinking synthetic beer to develop a potbelly as a sign of power and ‘good living’. Within months of taking office, the president, the vice president, the chief minister, and male sub-ministers all developed jaw-dropping potbellies. The president now even finds it difficult to walk long distances without running out of breath. These are supposed to be educated men, and they should know better.

The chief minister, a man who was an academic before becoming a politician, found it extremely challenging to wriggle through the sunroof of his four-wheel drive to wave to his supporters when he went to Kenema. It was like watching a bad Nigerian animated comedy of a genetically enhanced, shapeshifting mole forcing its way through a hole with great effort to address its clan. A friend bent over my shoulder and whispered, ‘If you want an academic to behave like a buffoon, give them political responsibility!’

Back to the Ministry of Social Welfare. I took a photograph of a burnt-out and dilapidated building. I was told that it used to be the accounts department for the ministry, but it was deliberately set on fire by corrupt government officials who were determined to destroy accounting documents when they lost the general election in 2018. At that time, the ministry was also headed by a female minister.

Photo: Burnt-out accounts building in New England, Freetown

This attitude towards the ministry has made it extremely challenging to fight against deeply entrenched child poverty, domestic violence, and other social issues in the country. Even where the current social welfare minister is doing her best, better political decision-making is urgently required, as thousands of children are still engaged in slave labour across the country.

About the author

James Fallah-Williams is Programme Director for Practical Tools Initiative, an NGO in Sierra Leone.

James@practicaltoolsinitiative.org

10 Comments

  1. This was a long read. It amazes me that the writer did not find anything commendable or delightful to mention. I am sure after this a lot will change but I am also sure there must have been a tiny bit of something right in that Ministry

  2. This write-up is a masterpiece, corrupt practices are the order of the day in every ministry you visit in Sierra Leone. The writer needs to visit and throw light on what is happening at the port (water-quay).

  3. I want to thank the writer for laying bare the disgraceful manner in which our public sector guardians carry out their functions. It is about time for health and safety to be taken seriously as these health risks are all death traps and disasters waiting to happen if not already and would have impacted and led to the deaths of civil servants and others using these buildings. When President Bio won the elections although by the smallest margin in our modern day democracy the expectation was the change he promised. However, by the look of things it is gradually becoming business as usual. We pray that our beloved country will one day get a selfless and transformational leader who will put the interest of Sierra Leone above all other interests.

  4. To be quiet candid, the only surprise in this story or first hand experience of the writer, is that we as Sierra Leoneans are actually surprised at the level of neglect both in terms of how our institutions work and the level of poor delivery of service that can be found in every public service sector for when the need arises. Try to clear your goods at customs, you will be in for an almighty shock. You will be forgiven for thinking you are trying to paying your tax dues in helping develop our country as stipulated by law. But realistically, you are treated like you are committing a crime against the state. You are not only faced rightly so, to pay your usual tax bill which you are happy to do, but you have to contend with the usual array of delay tactics until you bribe the “BRAH ” otherwise your goods will be stuck in the port. The experience leaves you with a bitter taste in the mouth. It is akin to a Mafia shake-down.

    Any Sierra Leonean that has gone through that experience will attest to that. Nothing that has been said is new. Bio was democratically elected, and entrusted with power to govern and figure out how to improve the lives of our people and reduce the levels of degradation and desperation for the long suffering people of Sierra Leone. It was something he dreamt about just like any young person having their dreams for their future. By the looks of it, Bio, was certainly ill prepared for the job of being president of the Republic. He is in power, but not in control. He has allowed other people with different agendas to hijack his presidency. We on the outside can clearly see all the road blocks erected to stop our country’s development. Corruption being the main cause. Bio is behaving like a hedgehog, whose only focus is limited to the tiny light in the tunnel. For him the idea of changing track and looking for alternative routes is beyond his comprehension. After three years in power, we are yet to see the changes he promised us.

  5. This Mr. Williams shall one day be a BBC reporter. This is one of the most amazing articles I have ever read raising important issues in the country that affect the country. God bless your practical tool initiative.

  6. Asbestos roofing sheets that can cause acute lung cancer, sewer rats that can transmit diseases like rat-bite fever and Salmonellosis, rabid erratic stray dogs feeding on refuse, bed bugs on the prowl crawling and chowing down human blood, corrupt Paopa administrators waiting for bribes, filthy, disgusting SLPP toilets that don’t flush and a neglected dilapidated building – And there you have it, a nation on the brink of collapse, hopelessly lost in acts of pettiness negligence and trivialities. This Criminal SLPP government is overcrowded with opportunists and freeloaders hell-bent on getting themselves rich overnight in order to prove to their gullible tribesmen that they have become successful in Sierra Leone, a land of very few opportunities for her struggling poor people. And then there is the offensive issue of gender bias against female leaders.

    I have always maintained that all the women in our beloved country should steer clear of SLPP leaders because they are chauvinistic males who have very little respect, consideration or regard for women; they are idiots who stupidly believe that by mistreating women and treating them as objects of sexual pleasures and desire, they are rightfully reaffirming their widely held cultural beliefs of male superiority over the opposite sex. Again, Mr Williams has done a wonderful job in getting down to the nitty-gritty of the problems the Ministry of Social Welfare is facing; he has been specific, practical, empathetic and informative to those of us with discerning minds anxious for sustainable change and progress in our beloved Sierra Leone. Answer – What kind of nation are we that neglect the orphan, poor, disabled and mentally ill?

    And tell me, who is it that person overfeeding himself in State House in a quest to grow an oxygen-balloon sized potbelly while thousands of our poor children are starving to death and being exploited as slave laborers all over our country? Someone wake these people up. What’s the point of being born in a country where no one cares if you live or perish in the unforgiving grips of abject poverty? When will this evil blatant disregard for the rights of citizens ever come to an end? Sierra Leone, my only home is a place it seems where people will forever continue to moan and groan in suffering, yearning and excruciating pain.

  7. Thank you, Mr. Williams, for telling the truth about Sierra Leone. Chinches come from the prolonged collection of trash. A sad reflection of inferred good governance.

  8. Hay hay hay – my belleh is busing with laughter!! Please pardon my bad English! Lol. If this story was not about a very serious matter, I would have thought I was reading or watching a Nollywood movie. This guy is a great writer and thanks to the Sierra Leone Telegraph for publishing this expose. And thank you Mr Fallah-Williams for your story. God bless you sir.

    President Bio should be ashamed of himself; after lying to the people of Sierra Leone that he will be conducting spot checks every morning at every government ministry. But how can he, when he can hardly walk because of the size of his potbelly! These leaders have no shame or self-esteem. Who works in an office so deplorable – infested with both human fleas that prey on poor people’s hard earned cash in their pockets, and chinches (bedbugs – or should I say settee bugs) that make your life uncomfortable sitting down waiting for corrupt government officials to listen to your case without asking for bribe. Shameless!

    Every single ministry in Sierra Leone tells the same story of bribery and corruption which this Bio government promised to eradicate. But how can you appoint a thief to catch a thief? Asking the mouse to guard the cheese. When he came to office in 2018, President sacked all the senior heads of ministries and departments, claiming they were former APC government supporters who if not sacked will sabotage his government. But now we know who is sabotaging the work of the SLPP government – their own corrupt officials brought in to replace those appointed by the former APC government. Wonders never cease to amaze!!

  9. Wow, wow, wow! A meticulously written, eye opener, and factually revealing article, with a bird’s eye view into the microcosm of a typical Sierra Leone government ministry’s internal leadership’s appalling behaviour. Absolutely nothing is disputable in terms of what Mr. Williams has relayed here, especially so regarding the pompousness and arrogance of the male officials overseeing administrative roles at these ministries. Over the years, I have given up visiting these male dominated ministries, after countless frustrating experiences encountered in trying to accomplish vital documentation or administrative task pertaining to my personal investment.

    I opted instead to send someone whenever I need any documentation done, saving myself a ton of headaches along with the risk of developing high blood pressure. If you don’t bribe your way, expect delaying tactics. The potbelly administrators rely on bribes for their daily alcohol consumption.

    On a typical working day, they will show up very late in the afternoon, and just after signing a few documents for the day, along with collecting bribes, these incompetent individuals will immediately head back out to their usual meeting places to consume alcohol, with a possibility of branching off at a guest house with a concubine before heading home to their wives very late at night. This is the same behaviour no matter what ministry you happen to visit. Then we wonder why our nation continues to dwindle with no hope in sight!

  10. I laughed all the way to the end when reading this article. ‘Chinches’ – I have never seen this spelling before. On a serious note, it shows that we as a nation have lost our incredibly high standards that we had many moons ago. What a shame.

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