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Sierra Leone News: CHETANYA’s View: A visit to Kroo Bay slum

CHETANYA

CHETANYA

Turn off the paved downhill road leading to Kroo Bay slum, and you enter a city within a city, only without streets. Instead there are narrow walkways between the tin-roofed houses, flooded by growing puddles of brown water. When my colleague Betty and I walked into the slum, we tiptoed through the puddle greeting us at the entrance, and passed a woman tending to a pot heated by a fire built from scraps of wood. Next to her, another woman wrung clothing against a washboard, and not far away, a huge pig rested in the dirt.
We were in Freetown, but it was clearly another Freetown. Unlike the paved downtown area, the slum looked a purely functional place meant for the people living there. It wasn’t built for visitors  why would it be? I felt like we were out of place, especially me.
We’d come to talk to people about how Sierra Leone’s powerful August rainy season and its floods were affecting life in the slum. In previous years, rains had carried away houses here.
A woman directed Betty to the slum chief’s house, and we stepped inside, past a narrow and dark hallway where clothing dried on clotheslines, to an empty room filled with benches. Some kids were playing outside the room  a little boy as tall as my knee looked up at me curiously and hugged my leg.
Soon we met the chief, who was wearing a black and white striped skullcap. He and the slum’s youth representative talked to Betty in Krio for about 15 minutes. Once or twice the chief interrupted to shout stern warnings at the children to be quiet.
Betty was trying to get the chief’s go-ahead for an interview, and to introduce us to other people in the slum we could interview. But he was reluctant. The youth representative explained that for ten years the people of Kroo Bay had been talking to the press about what they needed: a bridge and major upgrades to the slums. Nothing had changed. In fact, residents feared things were getting worse and the government wanted to evict them to build on the area, and perhaps send them to a place in the countryside where it would be hard to make a living. The media attention all these years hadn’t done anything for them, and this time, the chief said, they decided they didn’t want to talk to the press.
Betty gave an admirable and frankly inspiring argument about the power of the press to inform people and make change: she took out a copy of Awoko and showed them what kinds of articles the newspaper runs. But no luck; they had made up their minds.
I was a little disappointed, but I understand that people living in a slum have different priorities than journalists. Journalists hope their work will have an impact, and sometimes it can do the right thing in a way other institutions can’t. I’ve been thinking a lot about the 2015 movie Spotlight after watching it for the third time about a month ago. It tells the story of how the Boston Globe newspaper exposed how hundreds of children had been sexually abused by Catholic priests, and the church had done nothing to stop it. If it hadn’t been for the newspaper, nothing would have changed, no one would have known, and the victims would have continued living in the dark.
But I understand the reluctance of people in Kroo Bay to talk if they don’t see the positive impacts of the press on their lives. I still think that it’s better if more information and stories are shared with the public, though.
The youth affairs representative was very accommodating, showing me some places in the slum and letting me take pictures. The slum was dominated by houses made of tin sheeting, or harder crumbling walls made of some kind of concrete. There were piles of trash in places, especially near the river. Pigs of all sizes rooted around and swam in the muddy river, constantly searching for food and gobbling it among the trash.
The slum was full of activity. Clothes hung between buildings, pots bubbled, and baskets of vegetables sat waiting to be processed or sold. It didn’t look like an easy place to live, but it didn’t look hopeless. I only saw the slum briefly, so my impressions don’t mean much, but it seemed like a community that coped and made things work in its own self-contained world, despite the difficulties.
Of course, the fact is that the people living in Kroo Bay are in a vulnerable position, and need assistance. They’re at risk from floods, diseases, food shortages, and meddling government actions. I hope going forward, media coverage will start to have a genuine impact on their lives. After years of nothing changing, they deserve this.
*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
Monday August 08, 2016

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