25th anniversary conference of the Sierra Leone Ireland Partnership (SLIP)
Dublin, Ireland, 3 June 1016
By Umaru FOFANA
Mr Chairman, other executive members and ordinary members of the Sierra Leone Ireland Partnership (SLIP), distinguished guests, Good Evening.
I am very honoured to have been invited here to be the Guest Speaker at this three-in-one event marking 55 years of Sierra Leone’s independence from Britain, 25 years of the Sierra Leone Ireland Partnership conceived and born here in Ireland, and two years since the deadly Ebola virus was first diagnosed in eastern Sierra Leone in May 2014.
I am also heartened that all of this is happening as Ireland marks the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising which culminated in the country’s independence movement.
Sierra Leoneans are known for their hospitality. Ireland is rich with kindhearted people. For generations Ireland has been concerned about Sierra Leone. Such was its concern that it sent in not only missionaries but also Concern Worldwide. They went in with aid through IRISH AID to achieve one goal with the assistance of GOAL to provide true care also supported by TROCAIRE.
Perhaps one of the dissimilarities between Ireland and Sierra Leone – despite so many things we have in common such as our family values and size – is the history of how we gained our independence from Britain. May be that has come to make Sierra Leoneans treat our post-independence era with such cavalier attitude. So much so that our country has considerably eroded in its standing on the continent.
Despite having the first girls high school in sub-saharan Africa (The Annie Walsh), first boys’ school in West Africa (Sierra Leone Grammar School) and first Western-style university in Sub-Saharan Africa (Fourah Bay College), our education sector is in deep crisis. Despite having the first psychiatric hospital in Sub-Saharan Africa at the Kissy Mental Home, the country can only boast of one mental health specialist in Dr Edward Nahim who has passed his retirement age but has to remain in service as a consultant because there is no else to take over.
Sierra Leone also has one ophthalmologist, one radiologist in government service with a second one in private practice. We have no virologist since Dr Sheik Umar Khan died of Ebola as he led the fight against the virus. And even Dr Khan had to pay for his specialisation despite the state having promised to do so. In the lead up to that outbreak the country had less than 140 doctors for a population of over six million. 10 of them succumbed to the Ebola. Scores of nurses were also killed. Yes our health workers had no idea about Ebola before the virus arrived but poor training, lack of basic tools and gear such as gloves worsened things.
Since independence we have been confronted by dictatorships – both military and civilian. We have borne the brunt of a brutal civil war. And just as we were about to pick up the pieces from the war, with democracy holding roots and the economy turning around thanks to the iron ore find, Ebola struck. The country’s economy shrank. As I speak to you now our economy is in a deep crisis with some austerity measures having been put in place. Add to that rampant corruption, then you get a clearer picture.
But it is not all doom and gloom. Sierra Leoneans remain the resilient people they have been throughout history. And road infrastructure has improved considerably. This has been bolstered by assistance from our international partners among them and chiefly the European Union.
The EU, of which Ireland is a member, has taken care of the highways linking the country to its borders with its two neighbours. While the road to the northern border with Guinea was completed a few years ago, the one leading to the eastern border with Liberia was commissioned a few weeks ago. This, when completed in 36 months will open up an otherwise sleepy part of the country and will boost trade between Sierra Leone and Liberia.
The Sierra Leone Government has also carried on with its own self-funded road projects in main towns and cities.
Hours after arriving in Ireland this week, I had the honour of visiting a very wonderful lady at her retirement home. On the eve of meeting her, Sister Dr Hilary Lyons had been made an Honorary fellow of the Faculty of Public Health Medicine of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland. Thanks to Jim Owens and Geraldine Horgan who are themselves extraordinary Irish people with a heart for Sierra Leone many native Sierra Leoneans only pretend to have.
In the two hours or so I spent with her, Sister Hilary, the 92-year-old physician, paediatrician, surgeon and obstetrician took me on a journey of her 42 years of dedicated service to saving lives in Sierra Leone. Sometimes in fluent Krio. She was forced to leave Sierra Leone by rebels of the Revolutionary United Front.
That rebel war rudely ended the lives of one Irish nationals Father McAllister and his Belgian colleagues whose passing the people of Panguma are still reeling over.
But theirs was just the more recent version of an altruism that has gone on for 150 years. Ireland’s assistance, especially towards education and health in Sierra Leone, is legendary. The Serabu Hospital in in the east of the country continues to save lives up to today.
From the establishment of the St Joseph’s Convent in Makeni in northern Sierra Leone, to the St Edwards and St Joseph’s Convent secondary schools in Freetown in the west; from Christ the King College and the Queen of Rose School (QRS) in Bo, Convent in Moyamba and St Paul’s in Pujehun all in the south, to Trinity, Holy Ghost and Holy Rosary secondary schools in Kenema, Yengema Secondary School, Kissy Bendu and Penduma secondary schools in Kono all in the east, Irish missionaries have for generations helped build the human capacity of Sierra Leone.
But for their health care provision, many of today’s population would have been long lost; but for their schools dotted in all the regions of the country, ignorance emanating from a complete lack of education would have strangulated Sierra Leone. There is not a single Sierra Leonean whose life has not been directly impacted by Irish – ranging from God to humanity.
Unfortunately, largely owing to poor leadership over the generations, our human capacity is in deep crisis. This is because education has taking a battering while corruption has flourished.
Ireland is helping address some of the most fundamental things needed to deal with this.
I reckon Sierra Leone is still the newest member of the International Surfing Association after it became its 98th member early this year. You wonder why I am talking about this? Or maybe not, because after all Ireland does some great surging. Shane O’Connor has been an aid worker in Sierra Leone for many years. The single handed efforts of this Irishman brought the country to the pedestal of surfing membership. Shane went to Bureh Beach, one of the many beautiful beaches dotted along the Freetown peninsula and fell in love with the warmth of Atlantic Ocean and the beautiful mountains overlooking the shores and thought that would make a mecca for surfing. He later provided the Bureh village community with surf boards and trained the youth how to surf. That attracted tourists to the community and the surf club Shane founded has been using proceeds to pay school fees for the children in the village. And the country became a member of the International Surfing Association.
Irish government presence:
Since it opened its office in Freetown in 2005, Irish Aid has helped in a wide range of area including peace consolidation to recovery, and poverty reduction. This has included the provision of funds and policy guidance. In more recent times the Irish government aid agency has spent millions of Euros focusing on health especially in the area of maternal and child care, food security and nutrition. This has included funding key hospital services in Kenema such as the purchase of essential drugs and a blood transfusion service. Irish Aid also supported 1,200 farm families to help them increase rice production both for their own consumption, and as a means of making a living.
Other Irish agencies have also been helping tremendously to improve the lives of Sierra Leoneans. Concern Worldwide, Goal and Trocaire.
You may have noticed that the central theme of my speech has been education. Like those Irish missionaries who invested so much into schools all the generations, I believe education is the key to unlocking someone’s potential. Building the human capacity of a nation is what moves it forward. In fact I believe education is not the BEST gift to a child – rather it is THE ONLY gift.
In this regard, I wish to plead with the Irish people to return to salvage the collapsing state of education in Sierra Leone. A massive teacher training is required, as well as teachers to fill in the gaps that currently exist in numbers of teachers. Heartily, the school enrolment rates are high because every parent now wants an education for their children. But the reality on the ground is displeasing. Classroom facilities are poor in many public schools, teacher quality is abysmal.
This intervention could be done through the Sierra Leone Teachers’ Union as local partners, as well as the teacher training colleges. It can include curriculum review for training future teachers, and a remedial or refresher training programme for those who currently teach. Please take back our schools as education is on a slippery slope.
Official corruption in Sierra Leone is more than just a perception. Ireland has its own problem to grapple with hence cannot be expected to be helping Sierra Leone forever. Sierra Leone managing its own resources and not its leaders siphoning it into their private bank accounts is the sustainable solution.
My country has a very good Anti-Corruption Law. It gives the commission prosecutorial powers and it obliges assets declaration by public officials. Under the law unexplained wealth and illicit enrichment are corruption offences. But everyone sees the sudden change of life after people are appointed to public positions.
The ACC has a new and younger leadership. But through my observation as a journalist, it needs capacity-building. The assets declaration is to be done every year for obvious reasons of making comparison. But as things stand it is not. I do not think this is due to reluctance on the part of the commission, but rather the lack of required capacity not least because of the confidentiality nature of handling those assets declaration forms.
But the commission should also be urged to be eschew the notion of sacred cows. People should not be charged with corruption – or spared – because of political affinity. And I say this not just based on the fact that they support or oppose the ruling party, but rather even within a party there are vested interests in certain individuals. This must be discouraged!
Until we fix education, we cannot adequately train our health workers and engineers and teachers and leaders. Until we fight corruption we cannot afford to fix education for the Irelands of this world are not going to be there forever.
I have probably saved the best for the last. The good work of SLIP is acknowledged by all. 25 years may seem a short period, but 25 years of SLIP has witnessed a sea change in Sierra Leone-Ireland relations. The outgoing Irish high commissioner to Sierra Leone acknowledges the fact that their intervention in Sierra Leone recently has been made possible, largely through this partnership.
Some five years or so ago I was to visit this great country with so many Nobel laureates in literature and Roy Keane and John O’Shea of Manchester United fame, and West Life. I could not. I had been invited by Concern Worldwide. But by the time my visa arrived the conference had already got underway. This time around I got it in a couple of days. The opening of the Irish embassy in Freetown made that possible. And I understand SLIP was very pivotal in making this happen. Maybe SLIP should have a branch in Sierra Leone as well to give it more visibility. A great job you are doing
Through that Irish mission which was upgraded in 2014, so much has been achieved. During the Ebola crisis I saw at first hand the involvement of Sinead Walsh in the fight against the outbreak.
Talking about the Irish ambassador and the Ebola response, I sometimes wonder what the fight against virus would have been like with Concern Worldwide. Their management of safe and dignified burial through their running of the two official cemeteries allow for burial almost throughout crisis helped stem the spread. You may know that an Ebola corpse is far more contagious than a sick person. They handled that very well and redefined the meaning of respect for the dead, and keeping records of the dead.
Through great initiatives and intervention, and the development cooperation programme they have built, Sierra Leone has become one of Irish Aid’s eight top priority countries worldwide. In her speech on St Patrick’s day this year, the ambassador said “The work carried out in Ireland for the last 25 years by the Sierra Leone Ireland Partnership group is also a key contribution in strengthening the relationship between our two countries. What’s more, the developing country representative on the Irish Aid global advisory panel is a Sierra Leonean since 2014.”
Irish Aid has invested over €100m in Sierra Leone in the last decade in areas including health, nutrition, gender and governance. I am personally happy that the governance intervention now includes press freedom especially a repeal of criminal defamation.
They are also helping curb teenage pregnancy which is alarming in Sierra leone today, and in the education of pregnant girls. A third of the children born in the country are born to other children. This has not only added to the grim statistics of maternal deaths, it has also increased the rate of school dropouts as an official government policy says the pregnant girls cannot be allowed in class with other girls. An ongoing fellowship programme should be strengthened to emphasise teacher training.
Thank you Ireland.
Thank you and long live SLIP!