Life in Sierra Leone – an interview with Pikin to Pikin Tok Project Manager Bella

Working in Sierra Leone

Bella at work, photo credit: Andrea Gordon Headshots

CtC: Hi Bella! You’ve just finished your work on the Pikin to Pikin Tok educational radio project, how are you feeling?

B: I am feeling a range of emotions ranging from emotional exhaustion to exhilaration! The reconfiguration of this project was a challenge in itself but doing it during the Ebola humanitarian crisis added extra complications and we were unable to visit the affected area. We hit the ground running and had to keep running to ensure the project ran as smoothly as possible.

I am saddened the radio programmes are no longer being broadcast* but I feel extremely privileged to have witnessed children grow in confidence and improve the way they communicate with their peers. I am also incredibly proud of the children that took part, their parents who became increasingly more receptive to the ideas being promoted which included listening to their children more and of course I am proud of our colleagues on the ground for their child-friendly skills and their commitment, which made the project such as success.

CtC: What did your role in Sierra Leone entail, in particular on a day to day basis?

B: As Programme Manager I had to keep the project on track. The workload varied, however the majority of the time was spent on working on budgets, problem solving, responding to feedback on the ground and planning the activities. No two days were ever the same though!

CtC: What attracted you to this specific project?

B: I’d visited Sierra Leone before and I knew that despite the numerous bad headlines that had come out of the country (to do with the Civil War, blood diamonds and now Ebola), the country was stunningly beautiful, with warm, friendly people and a passion for dancing whatever the weather! This was definitely a big pull for me. I also truly believed in the CtC project model ‘Getting Ready for School’ which builds children’s skills in order to break the cycle of school dropout, teenage pregnancy and poor parent-child relations.

CtC: How did you feel about living and working in Sierra Leone? Did you have any apprehensions about going?

B: I did have some apprehensions but when I reflected on these they were far outweighed by the benefits! I was under no illusions that Sierra Leone is a challenging place to live; road accident rates, petty theft and cases of malaria are all high, there are often power cuts, water shortages, poor internet connection and the health infrastructure is weak as well. Not only that, I knew there were deeper contextual and personal challenges. I often saw that boys were privileged over girls in decision making. Changing adults’ attitudes is a LONG process and getting adults to put new ideas into practice takes even longer! I was also apprehensive about the day to day challenges of being a young, western woman. Despite all this, the move was definitely the right choice!

Sierra Leone interviews

Interviewing locals, photo credit: Andrea Gordon Headshots

CtC: Could you tell us about your initial experiences upon arrival? What was daily life like living in an Ebola affected area?

B: I remember two distinct issues when I first came back to Sierra Leone after the Ebola crisis. One was that the price of basic necessities had gone up. The money flooding into Sierra Leone from different donors for Ebola had strengthened the currency and increased the price of some household items like couscous, rice and some vegetables. This affected many people who had lost their jobs during the Ebola outbreak so securing food for their families was increasingly a challenge. The other shock was that the usual warm greetings of loud exchanges accompanied by a hug or an animated handshake was a thing of the past because of fears of Ebola virus transmission. People still greeted one another, but much less animatedly and with no contact.

Apart from these two changes, I remember thinking how different the daily scenes I was seeing were from the almost-apocalyptic-type quarantined scenes presented to us in the European media during the height of the outbreak. I was able to go to a local bar with friends, ride in public transport and even occasionally go surfing on a weekend off.

CtC: What was daily life is like for these young boys and girls in Sierra Leone? Was there anything that was particularly shocking or challenging to deal with?

The lives of boys and girls in Sierra Leone often vary from district to district and even village to village. In Kailahun district the setting is much poorer than the capital Freetown for example. The costs of school books, school uniform and teachers fees, often made attending school very difficult for some children and this hardship is seen in high drop-out rates and some children not attending school at all because of a lack of uniforms or the high prevalence of child labour. Contributing to household chores was also a major issue affecting young people’s schooling. Boys often have to collect fire wood and girls commonly are responsible for household chores like collecting water, cleaning the house, preparing the food and taking care of younger siblings. Nevertheless, the children I met wanted to attend.

We saw cases of neglect, child marriage and child trafficking and on many occasions we had to pause our activities and respond to cases of child abuse which dramatically increased during the Ebola outbreak. On one occasion I was in the field and we had to halt all our activities due to an urgent case of child trafficking. A girl was hungry and had taken some rice which was cooking in a pan. Her mother spotted her and thought that this thievery must be punished so she held down the girl’s hands into boiling water. Naturally the girl was distraught and badly scolded so a neighbour called us. My colleagues at Pikin to Pikin quickly went to the girl’s house but the mother had already paid a local motorbike taxi to traffick the girl into nearby Guinea to cover her tracks. Luckily my colleagues were able to reach the motorbike taxi before it reached the border. They found the girl and took her to the local hospital and got the police to arrest the mother.

CtC: How did your Radio Project effect/change social attitudes towards sexual violence and the stigmatisation young girls face?

B: Sadly, sexual violence against children is commonly reported in Sierra Leone, especially against girls. We approached this from four angles: equipping girls with the knowledge of how to keep themselves and their peers safer; educating adults about the importance of keeping their children safe; educating adults about the warning signs to look out for in their children and what to do if they have been abused; and educating children and adults how to better support young pregnant teenagers.

We used a combination of different methods in the radio programmes such as testimonies by girls giving advice to their peers on how to keep safe (for example not walking alone from school or walking down dark alleyways at night) and recorded discussions between children and parents on safety and dangers. We also interviewed child advocates, teachers, community nurses, representatives from the ministry of social welfare, all advocating for the importance of keeping girls safe and specifically about the harms sexual violence does to a victim and the wider community.  After each broadcast, call-in sessions gave children the opportunity to discuss how the theme of the programme could be applied to their own lives. Adults also phoned in and some radio programmes were designed specifically for adults in the community to listen to the concerns and dangers their children face. It is important to advocate to the adults in the community who often make decisions at the community-level as safeguarding children is everyone’s responsibility.

Children's radio

Making change over the airwaves, photo credit: Michael Duff

CtC: What would you say to people out there who are unsure about the concept of child participation? Could you explain a little about what it is and its purpose?

B: Children’s participation is very simple, it is an approach which values children’s input into decision making. No one likes decisions being made on their behalf and how can anyone know if the decision they are making is a good one unless they have understood the opinion and impact on the people it will affect? Child participation recognises that we are all experts of our own lives. This rationale informs the design and implementation of projects, equip children with the skills needed to make better informed decisions in their lives. The more you give children the opportunity to consider their options, the more practiced they’ll be at decision making, the more they can think about their impact on others (developing empathy) and the more they will develop their agency and self-efficacy.

CtC: Thank you Bella for giving us such a great insight into the work of CtC and the realities of life in Sierra Leone. All the best in the future!


*An update on this is that we have secured some funding to continue broadcasts in 2017. To contribute to our work, donate here.