Some news reports in the international media are proving to be much more damaging to our country’s image than even certain aspects of the recent civil war. At least during the war years, there were genuine concerns for our citizenry as the nation declined into lawlessness and chaos. The wanton brutality including the amputation of limbs, rape, child soldiers and unnecessary loss of life that were consequences of a greedy battle for supremacy and control over the Country’s natural resources aroused international concern and sympathy.
Since the end of the war, the successive governments have prioritised peace making, building and consolidation a principal objective for our development. While we can readily admit that our road to recovery has not been smooth the country as a whole have made tremendous progress in coming to terms with the violence unleashed in some cases by people previously living side by side as neighbours. It is a good thing that the War did not disintegrate into the lowly state of that in Rwanda which was primarily fought as a battle between tribes to the exclusion of previous inter-marriages that saw families killing families for the simple reason that they originate from different tribes. So therefore, it is a shame when foreigners who do not have a clue as to how a country that has gone through such a brutal experience can in so short a time attempt to build a nation together, but for them to visit this sacred land with such an ulterior motive, to go back and paint such a picture of recklessness, of despair and of downright primordial existence is in the least an abuse of our hospitality. Suffice it to say that the efforts of the past fifteen or so years stand to be greatly compromised by news reports that are not only manifestly untrue but they portray a picture of wilful neglect to basic humanity in such a way as to be more repressive than not and however these issues may be tagged, they are so linked to our cultural practices that it is now being categorised as accepted behaviour within the country as a whole and not the subject of isolated, rural communities who are yet to come to terms with the precepts of modern day sociological dynamics of accepted and legal behaviour.
One of the reports by an American Actress who recently visited Sierra Leone under the auspices of an international NGO doing some charity work in Sierra Leone openly announces that she intends to “spread the word” that Sierra Leone is a country where it is acceptable to rape children as young as up to under 1 year old! She has gone on media interviews in America to make reports of wanton rape and sexual abuse suffered by young girls in certain communities and has even extended her allegations that such a practice is common across the country. While she was referring in some way to the practice of child brides as a result of early marriages or child betrothal common in rural communities, she opined that the prospects for the girl child in Sierra Leone to survive sexual assault and rape are dismal.
The Wikipedia entry for Eva Mendes makes very interesting reading. She was admitted for substance abuse in 2008, dropped out of school to pursue an acting career, decries marriage as an archaic institution, does not want to have children declaring that they are cute but would not fit into her life style! And this is a woman who openly announces that the levels of rape in Sierra Leone is so high that she intends to “spread the word” to the international community that Sierra Leone is a country that openly allows children of under 6 months to be subject to such brutal treatment.
In the second article, Michael G Seamans a photographer at the Morning Sentinel in USA accompanied Greg Campbell the author of the now infamous “Blood Diamonds” book that was turned into a film that has heaped much malign on Sierra Leone, Michael Seamans article paints such a dire situation of poverty, squalor and corruption that characterises a nation at the brink of breakdown. He accuses everybody of being corrupt, beggars and officials are all on the take, he says. I am yet to see a corrupt beggar but then again, this is the story of someone who wants to ride on the back of vainglory for his own sake.
Blood Diamond was hugely successful and because of its Hollywood escapades, it made good cinema. However, it is loathed to find a Sierra Leonean who would attest to its veracity, even in the midst of the war. To say that book dehumanises our nation is an understatement but when such depictions are left unchecked and unquestioned, then the world at large is left with no alternative against which to compare. In his article, Seaman asserted that “Sierra Leone, which has a population of about 5.2 million, has been listed by the United Nations as among the world’s least liveable countries because of its civil wars, sexual slavery, torture, conscription of child soldiers and cannibalism. The average life expectancy there is 48 years.” Clearly, this statement does not describe Sierra Leone but rather abuses the high respect and privilege granted to such people when they visit our shores!
The above issues raised some very serious questions about where we are in our state of development. As a country, we exist within a very fragile state with weak institutions. We have had a poor record on democratic transition until very recently. This is a country that was plagued by a very brutal civil war, a significant part of which were played well away from the populace. Anecdotal evidence exists of those who for various reasons got involved in the destruction of our society and country for their own selfish reasons, the conscription of mercenaries to wage war on the populace, the invasion of the country by rebels and the resultant amputation of limbs in such brutal and wanton manner shocked the civilised world. But even with all that, the situation is not as hopeless as it is being painted now and that is where we should start to draw the line. We must, as a matter of national duty, refute these accusations!
While the Eva Mendes article shed some light on the vexed issue of child brides, early betrothal and early marriage, its conclusions were taken out of context and its veracity highly questionable. To impute that rape is sanctioned in Sierra Leone in any event or under any circumstance is despicable. She extended an argument that children are being raped with impunity without providing any evidence to substantiate that allegation, other than the unscientific and in most cases unreliable “accounts” of NGO workers. Development practitioners know only too well that NGO funding are apt to be directed to success stories. The more brutal and scary the situation, the more heart wrenching the audience gets in the West and the more financial and other support can be driven towards that particular cause. It will be foolhardy to deny that rape does not happen. In any event, certain traditional and cultural practices allow for child brides through early marriages, and child betrothal is technically rape, whenever a man beds a girl child under the age of consent. In Sierra Leone that age is 18, so the law of Sierra Leone makes it illegal for marriages by girls under that age and any sexual intercourse between a man and a girl under that age is unlawful. It is time to call on our institutions to take a firm grip on these matters, over to you, Attitudinal and Behavioural Change Secretariat!
In the event, this must be a welcome challenge for the new Minister for Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs!