Sierra Leone Telegraph: 23 April 2016
Another year – another independence anniversary in four days time – 27th April, except that once again, there is not much to celebrate. Sierra Leone, after 55 years of independence is almost bankrupt, and is one of the poorest nations in the world.
Despite borrowing over $1 billion to invest in the country’s infrastructure, health and education, the Koroma government says that it has no money, and is looking to the World Bank, IMF and international donors to help pay for basic services.
Where is all that money gone? Accountability is a problem in Sierra Leone.
For several months now, there is water shortage in most parts of the capital Freetown, with less than 10% of the country’s households able to access electricity. (Listen to Emmerson’s latest song below).
People are dying needlessly of poverty and disease. Less than 40% of the population can afford more than one meal a day, with inflation running at over 30%, though official sources put this at about 9%.
Since Koroma came to power in 2007, the price of a bag of rice – the country’s staple food, has gone up by almost 200%. Average daily income is less than $1.50, with unemployment running at over 70%.
Yet, president Koroma and his supporters say that his government is making good progress in tackling poverty.
Almost all of the previous and present ministers and senior officials in the Koroma government, have become filthy rich, in less than ten years of the ruling party being in power.
None has ever properly declared their assets as required by Law, not even the president, says critics.
In 2007, Sierra Leone was classed as one of the poorest countries in the world. Nine years on, it still remains at the bottom of the global human development index.
Average mortality rate for adults in the country is less than 47 years. Most Sierra Leoneans are expected to die before they reach their 50th birthday. And thanks to a ever rising birth rate, the country’s population of young people – aged 15 – 45, are keeping the country ticking over.
Ebola may have taken a big toll on the economy, but corruption is the deadliest virus that is crippling the country today. It is sapping much needed funds from life saving services, such as provision of safe drinking water.
More than 50% of the annual revenue and international aid received by the government is either misappropriated, or wasted on capital projects for contract kick-backs.
Over $200 million in tax exemptions and concessions is granted to big foreign companies every year – money that should go towards paying for the education of the country’s vulnerable children, who rely on selling their bodies to pay school fees.
The two most vulnerable groups affected by poverty and corruption in Sierra Leone are the elderly and young people.
Listen to the latest song by Sierra Leone’s number one Musician – Emmerson Bockarie about the plight of the country’s poor:
This is what the UK Mail Online reporter FLORA DRURY said about life in the capital Freetown for young people:
The girls as young as FIVE earning less than £1 a DAY sifting through piles of rotting rubbish on Sierra Leone’s ‘Bomeh’ dumps.
On Sierra Leone’s rubbish dumps, children can be found picking plastic, which they can then sell on.
These children are providing vital income for their families, without which they would not be able to eat.
They have to spend all day on the dump, they can’t attend school – and are trapped in a cycle of poverty.
MailOnline travelled to Freetown in the week that UK charity Street Child launched their Girls Speak out campaign to meet some of the children and mothers forced to work on the capital’s rubbish tips just to survive.
The smell hits you long before you even see it: an acrid mix of poisonous smoke and rotting food, animal faeces and sweat.
Step through the gates, and the full extent of the horror is revealed. A vast, brown expanse littered with broken glass, rusted wire and scraps of material – some hellish wasteland, pockmarked with craters of fire spitting out their thick blanket of smoke, intensifying the already unbearable heat.
This is no place for children. And yet, here they are, picking their way through the things everyone else in Freetown has discarded, looking for the scraps which might – if they are lucky – make them less than a 70p for a full day’s work.
The dump – or ‘Bomeh’, as it is known locally – is where you can find some of Sierra Leone’s poorest residents, quite the claim in a country where 60 per cent of people live below the poverty line.
These are the people who have fallen between the cracks, those who have no choice but to send their children out onto the dump, wearing donated flip flops long past their best, because, if they don’t, there will be nothing to eat tonight.
Which is how Kadi ended up going into labour on the dump when she was still just a child herself.
Kadi had been sent to Freetown aged 11, to live with her aunt. But her world crumbled when her aunt and uncle divorced, and she was left with her uncle – and his new wife, a woman who demanded she earn her keep by selling items on the street.
‘This woman was pressuring me to sell water on the streets,’ she explained, telling her story to MailOnline as charity Street Child launches its ambitious new Girls Speak Out appeal. ‘One day I went to the street to sell water but I lost the money.
‘She was furious, she asked me to find the money at any cost.’
It was then Kadi met a boy who offered to give her some of the amount, which she offered to the aunt. But it wasn’t enough.
‘She chased me out, and I went back to the boy and slept the night,’ she said. Kadi returned home in the morning, but when her uncle discovered what she had done he drove her from the house forever.
At just 14, she found herself alone – and, as she was soon to discover, pregnant.
By the time she was full term, she was working alongside her sister, picking rubbish from the dump – a place many who live in the city have never seen up close, despite it being in the heart of Freetown’s east end. Hidden behind high walls, the thousands who pass it every day on the noisy, busy road which runs alongside could almost pretend it doesn’t exist – if not for the smell.
Kadi could do no such thing. The dump had become her lifeline, despite its dangers.
‘I was scared for my baby, I was scared for myself,’ she told MailOnline.
Her terror was compounded when, one day amid the rubbish, rats and strangers, she went into labour. ‘I was so afraid,’ she said. ‘I was scared to give birth in this place.’
Hidden danger: The smoke, which rises from pockets of burning rubbish spread out across the dump, are full of cancer-causing fumes. Here, plastic bottles burn alongside kitchen waste – causing yet another hazard for the children forced to make a living here
Trapped: The families who live here – some literally on the dump (shacks pictured back) – are trapped in a cycle of poverty. They have so little they need their children to work so everyone can eat, but then they don’t go to school and learn – so can’t ever get away
Babies and toddlers are not an uncommon sight on the dump. When there is so little to spare, mothers are forced to bring their children with – mothers like Isata.
For five years, she made her living on the dump. Her two youngest were tied to her back the first time she brought them along.
‘I could earn 20,000 leones on a good day, and 10,000 on a bad,’ she told MailOnline. ‘The children would always come with me.’
These people are poor, they have no education – no opportunity. They look for the easiest way to make money. You sell, you eat, and then the next day you do it again.
At best, that meant the mother-of-five had £2.50 a day to support her growing family on.
Isata had little choice, however. She had grown up during the years of the civil war, which raged across the country from 1991 until 2002, and at 35 was unable to read or write.
‘I was just doing it because I had no alternative. I didn’t want to bring the children, but what could I do?’ she asked MailOnline.
Sia Lajaku-Williams, operations director of Street Child of Sierra Leone, recongises her story. It is one she and her team see time and time again.
‘These people are poor, they have no education – no opportunity,’ she said. ‘They look for the easiest way to make money. You sell, you eat, and then the next day you do it again.
‘And the children are joining you – but if you do this, they are also missing out. They won’t have the opportunity to learn. It just goes on and on.’
Frances’ little girls were trapped just like this, in an endless cycle of poverty: Zainab, 10, and Mariama, eight, were just seven and six respectively when they first stepped foot here.
‘It was bad,’ Zainab said. ‘I was very, very sacred. It was more dangerous because of the different objects. They hurt my feet.
‘And the bad smell… so bad.’
The smell is, in part, thanks to the burning plastic, emitting poisonous chemicals which have been shown to cause respiratory diseases and cancer – dangerous for adults, but surely 10 times worse for growing children.
‘It is very smokey,’ said Sia. ‘It is not good for the child. Sometimes even as adults we can hardly bare to stay for an hour.
‘But there are also the sharp objects. The children often don’t have good shoes, and they step on broken bottles. Sometimes the plastic is burning on their feet.
I saw a film where a woman was very poor and dreamed of becoming an air hostess. And she did it. Now I want to be an air hostess. I want to fly to London and Australia – far away.
‘There are also issues around sexual abuse – boys are hanging around the dump. It just goes on and on.’
Zainab thinks she and her sister were sick at least once a month during the years they spent at the dump, years in which they weren’t regular attenders at school.
Isatu was also trapped working on the dump, but, at just 10, she was there alone.
It was the beginning of the Ebola outbreak, and her father had just died. Isatu’s mother knew she could not afford to keep her, and feed the younger children.
‘Her mother asked me to take her,’ explained Fatu, the young woman who took Isatu in.
‘I told her I had nothing, but she insisted. She thought things would be better in the city.’
Fatu was barely surviving as it was, living in a small, windowless two room shack, just a few moments from the dump.
So, when Isatu arrived, it made sense that she would make her living here, working from 8am until 5pm every day, collecting pieces of plastic which could then be shipped up the coast to Gambia, where they are recycled and made into household items.
‘We come here to collect plastic,’ Isatu told MailOnline, pointing to the ground.
‘Plastic like this piece here. Then we put it in a bag. And go to sell it in town. Then we eat.’
Isatu clung to a small group of friends, who stuck together for fear of the groups of older men who worked the dump, threatening them when they infringed too much on their own earnings from the dump.
‘It was not really too good at the dump site,’ Isatu she added, with the characteristic understatement of the Krio language.
And so it could have gone on, for all of these girls, if they hadn’t been noticed by social workers working with the charity Street Child.
Now, instead of spending their days on the dump, the younger girls are all in school – thanks to the help their parents and carers got setting up new businesses, taking them away from the dump.
It is a tried and tested method: more than 7,000 families were helped to set up a small business in 2015, with the vast majority now supporting their children through school.
‘When we send a child to school, that is an income lost,’ explained Sia. ‘The families need something to replace that.’
So Fatu and Isata were set up with a grant, allowing them to set up their own small businesses – as well as a little bit of training on things like ‘not to sell umbrellas in the dry season’, as well as how to save.
Women like Fatu set up movable businesses, selling whatever is in season – or what is popular that week – while Isata sells fried food around the neighbourhood.
Both are making far more than they ever did on the dump: both are fiercely proud of what they have built so far.
And for the next year – until their businesses are properly established – their children will be supported in school by Street Child. After that, it is hoped they will be able to support them themselves, like so many before them.
Isatu, she has her sights set on a future as far away from the dump in Sierra Leone as she could possibly get.
‘I saw a film where a woman was very poor and dreamed of becoming an air hostess,’ she told MailOnline. ‘And she did it.
‘Now I want to be an air hostess. I want to fly to London and Australia – far away.’
The sisters beam with pride as they show off their uniforms, listing their favourite subjects.
But then they are asked about the children they still know, working on the dump. A list of names follows: Aminata, Aisha, Ramatu. All girls with little or no access to education.
Kadi, whose family live in the shadows of this horrendous place, their home looking out at the burning pile, the small stream which runs along behind teeming with plastic, food and rats, is also being helped by Street Child – and is hoping to soon be back in education or training, one of 500 pregnant teens the charity hopes to help, thanks to the new appeal.
And Street Child is hoping to help many more families like this, with its new Girls Speak Out appeal, which aims to raise £1million.
‘The Bomehs in Freetown are a brutal place for anyone to try to exist,’ said Tom Dannatt, Street Child’s chief executive.
‘But, for many families, they are the only potential income source they know, however grim. As a result, girls who may otherwise be able to gain an education that will help lift their own family from poverty are left scavenging to help make ends meet.
‘If we can raise enough money through this Girls Speak Out appeal, we will be able to offer 5,000 families the chance to benefit from a grant and small business training that will help them gain a secure income and, vitally, ensure that their daughters can benefit from a sustainable education.
‘Every year a girl gets in school dramatically changes their life prospects – each year adds up to 25 per cent to expected lifetime earnings.
‘It is Street Child’s hope that MailOnline readers will really get behind this appeal and help us ensure that thousands of girls’ families are not forced to rely on child labour to survive. And with the government doubling every pound we raise through this appeal, together, we have the chance to achieve twice as much.’
Street Child launches its Girls Speak Out appeal this week to help ensure that girls’ voices are heard and their issues confronted.
The appeal aims to raise a minimum of £1million to help 20,000 children gain a quality education and the chance to stay in school. All donations between April 18 – July 17 will be doubled by the UK government. Visit Street Child to support the appeal.