Posted by Lindsay Gorman and Mohammed Yassine
The driver’s side front wheel of a large overturned truck blocking the rugged dirt road spun swiftly as the rearview mirror of our diesel SUV narrowly side-swiped it. We’d been driving for 2 hours and had covered less than 30 miles on unpredictable terrain roads en route to a small country town of Sierra Leone’s Bo district. Located near one of the country’s largest mining corporations, the town is something of a settlement community for displaced land-owners throughout the chiefdom and faces increasing defamation of its once rich farmland.
We arrived in the early afternoon to an eager group of upwards of 40 local leaders, miners, and land-owning families who had been awaiting our arrival in the sweltering sun since 8 o’clock that morning. Our goal? To understand these people’s attitudes towards the nearby mining company and the concessions agreements nominally permitting the industrial activity.
The group of land-owning family heads we interviewed hailed from 13 different towns within the surrounding chiefdom. Over the course of the last 40 years, they had slowly left their homes, one family at a time, and migrated here as company caterpillars laid waste to their land, polluted their streams to an undrinkable level, and destroyed the trees many villagers use to construct their homes. The incensed frustration we’d observed in other communities and the youth was replaced here by a powerless resignation as these elderly men passionately and eloquently conveyed their stories. One man, educated in a training college in agricultural innovation, had walked for 2 hours the previous day to visit the land his ancestors had cultivated for him and his children: “Yesterday I watched the bulldozers destroy my land. I felt horrible and I was thinking about the future. I realized that when these companies leave, this land will never again be arable. My father planted these crops for me. Our children will not have any vegetation there to farm.”
Education is also very important in the other villages we visited. One 44-year old local land-owner, Kekora Amsila, had sent his three daughters and his son to complete secondary education in the city. For his daughters, staying in the village would have meant a brutal initiation into the Bondo secret society and preparation for marriage. Instead, Kekora wanted education for them; he was proud that they might support both the family and the community through their education: they would be able to hold senior-level employment and to communicate the community’s needs to authorities and international counterparts. He cited Christiana Thorpe, chair of the national electoral commission as his inspiration for how education can empower women to help their country.
We made our way one of the country’s poorest villages next to a large UK-based agricultural company. We received a warm welcome from the children running around the village. They were calling us by our names, guiding us through the village, and acquainting us with their houses and families. A six-year-old boy was holding a live yellow bird next to his chest and caressing it. He had caught it himself by constructing a tool made out of a wooden stick and a string – a genuine engineering feat! The children invited us to a game of soccer and offered us some cassava, a local delicacy which we had the pleasure of sharing with them. One teenager expressed his desire of studying arts once he completes secondary school to become a singer. He sang to us in a jovial atmosphere of singing and laughing. Another teen, Peter, also has dreams for the future: He wants to be a medical doctor. He is 19 years old but still has 6 years to complete secondary school. When we met him, he had been out of school for 2 weeks since his parents were not able to settle his school fees.
In our meeting with the town chief, we saw the agreement with the agricultural company allowing it access to the people’s best farmland. The chief and his people were very upset with this agreement and felt it was a very bad deal with grossly inadequate compensation, but were powerless to renegotiate it. Simeon Koroma – activist lawyer, founder of Timap for Justice, and our guide – immediately noticed discrepancies between the agreement and the national law which might render the contract invalid. Simeon stood up and offered, “I’m a lawyer and can help.” As he explained his ideas, the chief responded: “I feel like I have tears in my eyes. We’ve been looking for someone to help us for so long.”
We are looking forward to working with Simeon to empower local communities and improve their access to justice.