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Sierra Leone News: CHETANYA’s View

CHETANYAI recently read an article that made me think twice about how I should write about Sierra Leone while I’m here. In the article, published in the online publication the Humanosphere, which focuses on global development and poverty, reporter Tom Murphy outlines the controversy over a recent piece in the UK Telegraph by Scottish actress Louise Linton, in which she describes her gap year volunteering in Zambia at the age of 18.
The piece, which was an excerpt from Linton’s memoir, was fiercely criticized on Twitter and in opinion columns all over the web for mixing outright inaccuracies and clichés into a patronizing and misleading stew. People also criticized how Linton presented herself as a “white savior” in the piece, swooping into Africa from Scotland to help fix the problems Africans can’t fix themselves.
Linton’s own problem was being oblivious about how her writing and perspective came across. As writer Matt Hershberger noted on the travel website the Matador Network, Linton thought her writing was doing good in raising awareness of issues in Zambia. In an apology on Twitter, she said she was dismayed that it angered so many people.
The Humanosphere piece I read also mentions a famous 2005 satirical essay by Kenyan writer and journalist Binyavanga Wainaina called “How to write about Africa.” The piece hilariously and mercilessly pounces on all the clichés, subtle and not so subtle, that Western writers use when they write about the continent.
“In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country,” Wainaina writes. “It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book.”
I’d like to think that while I’m writing about my experiences here in Sierra Leone, I’ll be aware enough to avoid the worst stereotypes and clichés. It bothers me when writers present the people who live in the country they’re writing about as less than full, human characters  and I dislike overly pessimistic writing that paints a country’s problems as inevitable, or blames them on its people.
But I think travel writing and international reporting have to strike a careful balance.
One of my favorite journalists is the long time British Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk, a columnist for the UK Independent. It’s his writing that inspired me to want to pursue journalism myself. And he is as pessimistic as you could imagine about the state of the Middle East and its prospects for peace.
The thing is, I trust Fisk’s pessimism, because his judgement comes from a place of authority  his forty years of reporting, much of it spent living in Lebanon and witnessing the modern history of the Middle East unfold.
There’s something very valuable about honestly exposing and talking about the problems you see and know are real. In his writing, Fisk calls it like it is  or at least, how he sees it.
This brings me to my own struggles. As a visitor, I’ve found Sierra Leone to be a friendly and gentle place on the whole  somewhere full of life and enthusiasm. I know there are rougher parts of Freetown and the country where there are high risks of theft. But the effortless friendliness of so many people I’ve met, and easy inclusivity toward a foreigner from another world across the sea, have me convinced this is somewhere I can feel at ease. It’s been difficult at times here, but I could never leave Sierra Leone thinking the whole country is a catastrophic mess.
But is this enough? The fact is that Sierra Leone is poor, underdeveloped, full of corruption, environmentally degraded, with a chronic lack of education and literacy, poor health infrastructure and services, and behind on women’s rights and equality, to name just a few of the problems I’m aware of.
It would be naïve of me to deny or pretend that these problems aren’t real. After all, they’re things that all but the very wealthiest Sierra Leoneans are touched by — things that kill, sicken and limit the potential of the whole nation and the people who live in it. To present Sierra Leone only as a place with friendly people, smiling children and hope seems just as condescending as writing it off as a savage hellscape. It leaves out so much of the story, and ignores the issues that so many Sierra Leoneans are working so hard to change.
The only answer I can think of is to find a balance of some kind. How would I want someone to write about my own country? Well, however they wanted  but how would I feel reading it? I’m not patriotic, but if someone painted the United States as a broken, hopeless place full of endless unsolvable problems, or wrote off the people there as ignorant, apathetic, greedy or cruel, I would be a little annoyed. Even if I agreed that all the problems were real or at least based in some reality, that narrative would leave out so much of the story.
Finding this balance surely requires empathy, as well as remembering that any one person’s viewpoint can never reflect the full reality. At the same time, trying to get as close to reality as possible  both the good and the bad  is really all we can do.
*Chetanya Robinson is a journalism intern from the University of Washington in Seattle. He is the 7th intern in as many years in an internship program with Awoko Newspaper
Tuesday July 19, 2016

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