This is Africa

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.

Bureh Beach, south of Freetown

Bureh Beach, south of Freetown.

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.

Team JHR. Hassan Bangura, Kaday Kamara, Yeama Thompson, Martha Kargbo, Ahmed Sesay and Kevin Lamdo

Team JHR. Hassan Bangura, me, Kaday Kamara, Yeama Thompson, Martha Kargbo, Ahmed Sesay and Kevin Lamdo

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.

Mabel Kabba and Keziah Gbondo. It was pleasure to work with journalists like them.

Mabel Kabba and Keziah Gbondo. It was pleasure to work with journalists like them.

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.”

Rainy season kicked-off before I left

Rainy season kicked-off before I left

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.

Kids on my street, having fun with a Judas effigy on Good Friday

Kids on my street having fun with a Judas effigy on Good Friday. They called me Mister Red.

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.

What once was my dinner of cassava leaves and rice. "4 for 4" was the 2012 election slogan of the ruling APC party.

Formerly my dinner of cassava leaves & rice. “4 for 4” was the 2012 election slogan of the ruling APC party.

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.

Kroo Bay in Freetown

Kroo Bay in Freetown

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.

Paddy and me.

Paddy and me. (Incidentally, the CBC t-shirt was quite a friend-maker.)

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.

Daniel Conteh (r) is the No. 1 Senior Caddy. His father was shot in the head during the civil war.

Daniel Conteh (r) is the No. 1 Senior Caddy at FGC. His father was shot in the head during the civil war.

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!”

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A story on every corner

My first full-time gig as a reporter was a wonderful summer in a small city in eastern Canada. Fredericton is the capital of New Brunswick. It’s home to the provincial legislative assembly and two universities. The problem for news-gatherers is that those three institutions are effectively in hibernation for the summer months. Between May and September, there isn’t much in the way of sensational news in Fredericton. I remember a day where the cameraman and I drove around looking for news. After a few hours of searching, we did a story about a small rise in the number of visitors to a provincial park.

Kambia is close the the Guinean border

Kambia is close the the Guinean border

Developed countries like Canada can be referred to as “developed”, because not much happens. Citizens are safe, healthy, secure and, for the most part, have their human rights respected. Here in Sierra Leone that is not the case. Before I came here, a former JHR trainer told me that “there is a story on every corner.” I think of that phrase almost every day.

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