On the re-opening of SLPP Office … “We would never encourage violence” John Benjamin...

Travelogue On the road to Liberia Border- the Good, bad and ugly

After receiving several correspondences from Deutsche Welle Akademie trainers in Germany and necessary contacts from the President of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, Umaru Fofana, that I have been selected to participate in a two-week training on the extractive industry in Liberia with funds from German International Corporation (GIZ), I was thrilled to grab the opportunity
Details of the course outline were discussed with my Managing Editor, Kelvin Lewis, and as usual gave his blessing and support which I remain very grateful. My deputy Editor Samuel John also gave me the necessary advice about the trip to Liberia. After serving for days and weeks as News Editor which involved conducting editorial meetings every day at 9:00 am, assigning reporters to cover stories on specific issues and also ensuring that stories are well-edited and printed which usually ends around 10:00 pm and above at night.
I was calm with strong passion for investigative journalism when silence ran over the office that Saidu Bah will be departing for Monrovia on Saturday morning and the pickup point was SLAJ office with a vehicle hired by GIZ Sierra Leone office.
It took me months, weeks and days preparing the Free Health Report in close partnership with Jessica MacDiarmid, a Canadian trainer from Journalists for Human Right (JHR). I would have loved to see the first edition of the exclusive report on the free health care one year on
My wife, Chernor Jarieu Bah, was nervous when news reached her that I will be travelling to Liberia for two weeks which means my six-month old son, Suleiman Saidu Bah, will also not get her usual warm shake and broad smiles every morning from his father before going to work.
Having won the Best Report on Mining during the 2009/2010 Independent Media Commission national annual award ceremony for quality journalism, I took the invitation with credit to fulfil my passion to educate the public about the extractives industry to ensure transparency and accountability. I woke up before six in the morning to catch up with a hired vehicle at Campbell Street, fortunately managed to join my colleagues for the trip. We chatted and discussed several issues about politics and development.
During the trip, we had breakfast at Moyamba Junction, though majority of my colleagues had rice and soup. I deliberately ate cassava and soup, wetting my long appetite for my favorite dish since my child hood days in Bonthe Island.
The road from Freetown to Kenema was good, but was short lived when we left Kenema City and took the bumpy trunk road, motor bikes meandering with passengers in two’s and three’s, luggage hanging on both sides of the vehicle.
Legacies of the past war in Sierra Leone are still visible in majority of the Towns and Villages we passed by, residents doing their normal activities and kids dressed in rags running around huts.
Majority of the towns and villages were dotted with donor funded project sign boards, abandoned community centers, and markets. We were also told that the Bo/Portoru Road could have been shorter to the border but the ferry crossing was not functional at the time due to technical problems. Upon arrival at Zimmi check point, our passports were taken from us and registered by immigration officers; we later continued the drive to the most deplorable road network with several ditches and flooded areas. Our border towns are completely underdeveloped, we only arrived at Gendema at five in the evening after spending over twelve hours going through one of the worst road networks in the country despite its viability in connecting Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Upon arrival at the Malema Police station, I saw children out there, some standing around in groups talking, others running about, commercial bike riders crossing the road, a six-tire truck loaded with tires and assorted goods, as our passports were whisked to the Police Station for registration. “We don’t listen to Sierra Leone news, we only get Monrovia-based radio stations” and when he realized that we are journalists he complained as indicated in our passport.
Some boys kicking football against the wall opposite, there is a kid that’s been beaten, possibly by his parents not just slapped around, but badly abused physically and mentally. You don’t have to be a social worker to say this, I observed.
At the Gendema Police Post, our passports were also taken and registered at the Police Station; moments later we went to a local guest house and booked for a night.
I was standing beneath the shower in my room, trying to reactivate my mind as well as my body as if someone had spent the day systematically beating about my head with plank due the terrible ditches along the 79 miles from Kenema.
Liberian politics in Sierra Leone
Liberians will go to the pools in October 11, 2011 with seeming political activities deeply rooted in neighbouring Sierra Leone; people say security still remains a concern during and after the Liberian election.
Amadu Kaikai the current Local Unit Commander at Gendema in the Sorogbema Chiefdom Pujehun District says security concerns are still on the minds of many people raising fears over violence related cases.
He went on to explain that their potential security risks in the border town and assured the public not to panic as security personnel are on top of the situation and if there is need they will call for backup from Kenema or Freetown.
The Military Base at Mappe has also been dislocated with only little military presence in the area. He called on the government to increase and strengthen the capacity of both the military and the Police during and after the Liberian elections. Locals interviewed by this reporter said several campaign materials of Presidential and Parliamentary candidates are posted in major towns and villages on the Sierra Leonean soil around the border area with Liberia.
However it was also confirmed to this reporter that some people resident in Sierra Leone did register for voting during the Liberian elections at the border due to their family ties with Liberia and business interests.
Speaking further, a resident of Gendema town, Mamie Konneh, said most people from the Mende and Kissi tribes are not as aliens or foreigners in Liberia despite coming from Sierra Leone.
Gendema town is one of the least developed border posts as compared to Liberia border towns.
Residents say bad roads are hampering the movement of people and goods from the border town to Freetown, and as a result, several businesses are normally carried out in Monrovia.
This reporter also observed at Gendema town that the Sierra Leone currency (the Leone) is little or of no value along the borders with Liberia because the Liberian Dollar is seemingly regarded as the easiest and most convenient way of transacting business.
Gendema town is seventy-nine miles from Kenema but the deplorable road network makes it worse for the movement of residents with their goods, causing hike in prices for basic commodities in the local market.
At Gendema town, both Liberia and Sierra Leone mobile phone networks are available, but sadly residents say they do not get Sierra Leonean radio stations at the border town, instead they listen to Liberia Radio Stations for news and music.
Residents called on the government to rehabilitate the road and bridges linking Gendema to Kenema for the free movement of motorists and pedestrians.
A bag of rice is sold at Le 180, 000 (one hundred and eighty thousand Leones) and above while prices for other goods have also doubled, but residents say it is cheaper to buy with Liberian Dollar than the Leone.
At Mano River Bridge, this reporter also observed that both the Police and the Military are working under difficult circumstances as most of the check points on the bridge are made of sticks and badly placed ropes across the bridge.
Majority of the checkpoints are made of makeshift structures with palm leaves as roofs and sticks with a cramped table shoved beneath.

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