Since arriving in Toronto on Sunday, I’ve been asked about Sierra Leone (Salone) dozens of times. I haven’t properly articulated an answer to anyone. I use words like “incredible”, “amazing” and “fantastic”, but they are too clichéd to mean anything. So, I am going to try and write an answer here.
Sierra Leone is a stunningly beautiful place. If you like nature, or sunshine, or perfect beaches with nobody on them, then just go! I do have to say you must also need to like an adventure. Every day is an adventure in Salone.
On a professional level, the four months have made me think more about the craft of broadcast journalism. It’s quite a responsibility teaching other journalists who have not had the education I have had. For the most part, they wanted to learn and soak up what I had to say. A generous donor paid for me to be here. I wanted to get it right and make it count. I think the process has made me, and hopefully some of them, become better journalists.
Patience. Without patience in Sierra Leone, you will go crazy. Anyone who knows me, knows that impatience is my worst fault. I worked hard on it. I hope to hold on to some of that. I can hear some of you saying, “give him a week back in TV news.”
I lived a 10-minute walk from a road where I could get transport to the city. It normally took me 20 minutes to make that walk. Everyone in the neighbourhood knew my name and wanted to chat every morning and evening. Now that I am back in Toronto, I find myself smiling at people as they walk past me.
Anyone who has been to Sierra Leone will tell you about the aid culture. After the war, Sierra Leone saw dozens of NGOs and development agencies arrive to help. This has developed into a reliance on aid. Sierra Leone certainly still needs aid, but it has to stand on its own feet. The sooner it does so, the better. I’m not sure how that will happen, but it has to. The country has too much potential to be left behind any longer.
It almost goes without saying that the experience makes me appreciate what we have in countries like Canada and Ireland. This week I went straight to my sports doctor in Toronto to have treatment on my troublesome knees. My insurance covered most of the cost. That same morning, I learned that one of the young women I worked with in Freetown had just lost her mother to complications connected to a simple dog bite.
I’ve been asked if this was a life-changing experience. The answer to that is up to me and what I do with my life after this. I’ve also been asked if it was the experience of a lifetime. It is certainly not that, because I will go back. Sierra Leone is a place that you can not let go of. So much so, that Paddy the dog did not come back to Canada with me, after all. His owner misses Freetown too much and she is moving back there soon.
The most memorable day of my four months was undoubtedly my birthday. As outlined in a previous blog post, I got caught up in gunfire while doing a feature story about Freetown Golf Course. Far from being a dark moment, it was a professional highlight. I had my camera and my recorder with me, and I was the only reporter on the scene.
One moment during the incident summed-up the chaos and warmth of Sierra Leone. I was running away from the gunfire with a group of caddies, but they seemed more concerned with my safety than their own. As I followed their instructions by running a zig-zag line, with my head low to the ground, the senior caddy Daniel Conteh grinned and shouted across at me. “T.I.A., Red!”
I yelled back, “What?”
“This is Africa!”