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Sierra Leone Overview

Value Added: Located on the west coast of Africa, Sierra Leone is a beautiful country with abundant resources. Today, it’s a land of peace, yet it still bears the scars of terrible violence.
Sierra Leone Overview

Sierra Leone Overview

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Show 1526: Sierra Leone Overview
Air Date: June 28, 2015



Rob McClendon: Well, located on the west coast of Africa, Sierra Leone is a beautiful country with abundant natural resources. Today, it’s a land of peace, yet still bears the scars of terrible violence. For 11 years, the small African nation was torn apart by a gruesome civil war that enveloped the country leaving 50,000 dead and over 300,000 children orphaned. And it’s with these children that a group of Oklahomans are hoping to help this African nation by changing one young life at time. But before we go there, first some background.

Rob: With unspoiled beaches and a tropical local, Sierra Leone is a country of contrast. Rich in natural resources, it’s one of the leading producers of diamonds. Yet it is also desperately poor, a peaceful people recovering from years of war.

Rob: The 2006 movie “Blood Diamond” tells the story how this small nation was torn apart by those wanting to control the countries lucrative mineral resources. A civil war where children were often conscripted into the fight and war atrocities became common -- a gruesome story and one that those who lived through it are reluctant to talk about.

M.S. Kamara: I lose my mom during the war by, she was trying to rescue my dad.

Rob: M.S. Kamara was still a boy when rebels came to his village and began beating his father.

M.S. Kamara: So my mom rushed and said, “Oh, please don’t kill him, this is my husband and we have children, please don’t kill him.” And so they say, “Oh, you don’t want us to kill your husband.” She said, “Yes.” They said, “OK.” They push my dad in, and they throw my mom outside. And that’s when I run to my mom, and I just heard a gunshot.

Rob: Leaving her bloody and dying in the doorway of her own home.

M.S. Kamara: When I saw the blood, when she was bleeding, you know, I fall on top of her. I love my mom so much.

Rob: An all too common story in a land where almost everyone knows the pain of war.

Rob: Jacob was just a baby when a bullet ripped through his leg, leaving him with a lifetime of suffering.

Because the bone inside the leg used to move this flesh. So one day they go to the hospital and do operation with the bone. For him it was possible for that. And so, not one, not two.

Rob: But multiple surgeries over his young life.

Rob: And while such personal suffering is great, the entire country also struggles.

Michael Owen: Equipment smashed, buildings smashed for no particular reason other than just, you know, violence.

Rob: Michael Owen is U.S. ambassador to Sierra Leone.

Michael Owen: Before the civil war, which was really a devastating decade long civil war, Sierra Leone was a breadbasket of West Africa. But unfortunately during the war, farms were abandoned, people had to flee to the villages for their own safety. And even today if you drive out into central and eastern Sierra Leone, you see what were once prosperous farms overrun by bush, completely overgrown. So they are in the process of reclaiming that land. There is a tremendous amount of highly fertile and very, potentially very productive land that needs to be reclaimed. So I think there’s a tremendous potential here, and I think Sierra Leone could with sufficient effort again be the breadbasket of west Africa.

Rob: Which is what first brought OSU agricultural economist Mike Dicks here in 2008. Dicks has worked with developing nations for over 30 years, but none so ravaged by war.

Mike Dicks: This was the original location for the oil palm, and these were hybrids that were produced by Njolla University. And I think during the war when the palm oil production reduced, like Malaysia and those countries pulled ahead and started doing a lot of breeding. But this was the indigenous location, and they have, certainly have the capability of doing this once again and getting back into it, and of course these trees, these palm oil plantations will produce 10 times as much biofuel as you would get from ethanol from the same acres of corn.

Rob: So the only thing that holds them back is infrastructure?

Dicks: Yes.

Rob: But across this country little infrastructure remains. Charred shells still dot the Njolla University campus, an agricultural school still trying to teach classes amid the ashes.

Rosie Tijani: But when the war broke out, and it really hit the campus, and we found out that our students were involved in the rebel activity, those students were not making the grades, they were being expelled. And for a while at Njolla they were looking for staff that they think we are responsible for their failures. They were, you know, they killed a lot of staff that way. We had to run for our life to Freetown. It was not easy for us there.

Rob: Rosie Tijani teaches at Njolla.

Rosie Tijani: Half of Njolla was burned down. It’s only after the war that you see what is up now. The whole place was set on fire.

Rob: But the story of Njolla University is much more than grim tales of war atrocities. Scratch beneath the surface of these burned out buildings and what you’ll find is hope and transformation.

Joseph Kandeh: I do believe, Rob, that in the long run this university will be one of the best in the world.

Rob: Njolla University’s Joseph Kandeh.

Joseph Kandeh: Some of us stayed here in this country during the warring years. And we went through hell. And we understand what it was. You know, the experiences of killing people, slaughtering them, you know. My hopes are that the university will rise from the destruction. And I think that from the aspirations of the administration and the government, this university is already up to some point, but still struggling to be what it is supposed to be.

Rob: And needed more now than ever. With schools burned to the ground, fearing for their lives, teachers fled, leaving an entire generation with little formal education.

Rob: Inside this assembly hall, students swelter on a hot African afternoon. Many have walked miles just to get here, to come to a school that did not exist just months ago. Built with foreign donations, lessons here are simple, yet practical. A short walk down a dusty road, and you will find a garden in the middle of a jungle.

Rob: Now, inside this clearing here in the forest is a vegetable garden that students from Njolla University have put in. And the real key here is that the teaching that they are doing may well be to the kids, but it is the parents that they are trying to reach.

Aba: Well, we are doing this because they have not seen this before. This is the scientific way of producing vegetables. And it’s real neat to learn that experience because it’s a vocational school. If they drop out of school they can grow vegetables, and that will bring them income, and that is one of the reasons why. Again, we are teaching skills. Skills is a key thing, you know. These kids need to know how to do some of these skillful things.

Mike Dicks: Rob, if you look out you will see where the plantings were before. OK? What I was doing here is that this is the way to produce high intensity vegetable production. So they will increase their yields by doing it this way.

Rob: But of all the lessons being taught in this rebuilding nation, the most important may be both the simplest and the hardest: moving forward from years of strife, which brings us back to the man we first met, and now a pastor to his countrymen no matter their sins in what was the cruelest of civil wars.

M.S. Kamara: When I reflect my memory towards my mom, you know my mom’s situation, I nearly cry. It is heavy, but we need to forgive.

[music of the African culture]