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.
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?
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.
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.