Re-visiting our POV: Female Hitchhikers in Sierra Leone

Post by Aparna Surendra

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Our team spent most of last week tweaking (and re-tweaking!) our POV. We collected a lot of helpful feedback during the POV share-session, and Simeon’s local knowledge was especially insightful. In one of his comments, Simeon outlined several distinctions between Sierra Leoneon youth– for instance, youth from landowning families occupy a higher social status than do most others. The share-session was also helpful in that we learned of other teams’ approaches– we were particularly struck by the idea of leverage, and identifying potential touch-points for a chosen user to maneuver within the system.

With these ideas in mind, our team re-visited our POVs. We decided to focus on one user, a Sierra Leoneon youth from a land-owning family, and we fleshed out our user descriptions with Mustafa in mind. The Sierra Leoneon team met Mustafa at a community meeting, where he shared his family’s experiences with an exploitative surface-rent agreement. The local chief quickly dismissed Mustafa’s comments, “You are not the head, consult your father. He is the authority.”

As Chelsea, Jonny, Kevin and I thought through Mustafa’s frustrations, we began to explore the relationship between Sierra Leonean youth and their communities. Traditional hierarchy has little place for the youth, but their repression is compounded by an overarching fear of “lawlessness”.  Memories of the civil war are still fresh in many minds, and communities police any outspoken or disruptive behaviour, fearing it will spiral into violence. Much of this anxiety revolves around the youth, who have inherited a reputation of violence from the RUF youth of the 1990s.

As we stewed over this insight, I was reminded of Vanessa Veselka’s recent reflections on female hitchhiking.

“As a fifteen-year-old hitchhiker, my survival depended upon other people’s ability to envision a possible future for me. Without a Melvillean or Kerouacian framework, or at least some kind of narrative to spell out a potential beyond death, none of my resourcefulness or curiosity was recognizable, and therefore I was unrecognizable.”

Veselka’s words resonated with our analysis of Sierra Leoneon youth — as a consequence of the civil war, they are trapped in a narrative where their energy and eagerness to act can only be interpreted as the precursor to violence.

From this discussion emerged a refined POV:

  • Frustrated youth from landowning families
  • Need to take action that will protect their family interests and build community trust
  • Because traditional hierarchy and post-war community narratives (which define youth as violent and non-constructive) only allow these youth a negligible role [in land leasing decisions, in which they have high stakes].

The amount of time and thought invested in our POV manifested in a generative ideation session. We quickly agreed that our primary objective wasn’t to change the youth narrative; rather, we wanted youth actions to indirectly create a more positive narrative. This helped us filter out the solutions that didn’t actively engage the community (for instance, making youth fact-finders for Freetown-based NGOs or the international media).  Our final solution-set involves tying youth inclusion to the terms of community agreements with NGOs and grant-making bodies…more details in the next post!

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The define/POV phase was easily the most challenging part of the design process (but perhaps I shouldn’t speak so soon?). As Chelsea wrote in an earlier blog post, the two of us (having not visited Sierra Leone) found Jonny and Kevin’s field notes simultaneously “concrete and abstract”. Despite having read through the debrief notes and poured over the Yoni interviews, I only felt the ‘a-ha’ of a visceral connection when I slid Mustafa’s description over Veselka’s essay. While I’m neither a rural Sierra Leoneon youth nor a 16 year-old hitchhiker, I am an English Literature major who appreciates the value of narratives and their real-world implications. The design process asks that you bring all aspects of yourself — professional, personal, academic — to the table, and break off pieces as is appropriate. (The very existence of a stage called ‘Empathy’ reinforces the importance of these personal connections). At the same time, I’m curious about the limitations of this approach, especially when the user, like Mustafa, is remotely-located. How can we check the validity of assumptions and our visceral connections from afar?

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