By Patrice D. Juah
Sierra Leone, affectionately called Salone, has always felt somewhat like home to me. I’ve had a strong connection to the country, although I only visited it briefly as a child refugee, when my family and I transited there, while fleeing from the 1996 civil war in Liberia. Rebels stormed Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, and our only means of escape was Victory Reefer, a cargo ship. We were aboard the ship for three long days. We hadn’t planned for this journey and took along none of our belongings. We had no idea what to expect.
Business executives, expatriates and ordinary Liberians were all on board. My family was en route to Abidjan, but all flights were canceled, so this was a big opportunity for us. As luxurious as being on a ship sounds, those 3 days, came straight out of a horror movie. We took no showers, had no real meals and sleep was a complete stranger. The rain left no room for comfort, as the storms shook us in different directions. Comments like “Liberians, where are you running to again” became all too familiar. The days went by, not as quickly as we’d expected, but finally, we arrived at a port in Freetown called Government Wharf. Citizens of Sierra Leone and other nationalities were allowed to disembark, except Liberians.
We were seeking refuge and they were unsure about taking us in, or sending us back to our country. We stayed on the ship for about 4 hours until a call came in from the UN, telling port authorities to allow us into the country. This was predicated upon the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention, which “defines the term refugee and outlines the rights of the displaced, as well as the legal obligations of states to them.” The principle further states that “a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom.”
We were given bread and sardines, and allowed to finally disembark. We weren’t in Freetown to stay; this was supposed to be a stop before the main journey. We were only there to catch a flight to our final destination, Abidjan. The port was crowded and everyone was heading somewhere. We told the authorities that we were in transit and had money to leave the country, but they insisted on taking us to Waterloo, in rural Freetown, where there was a refugee camp for Liberians. Our fate decided, we spent the night on the cold floors at the port, before boarding a big truck for the refugee camp the next day. The drive to Waterloo was a somber one; an uncertain future awaited us still. We arrived at the camp, got registered and were given spots on the floor to place our blankets. We again pleaded with the authorities there to let us go, but they told us that we’d have to stay until someone came to bail us out. So we stayed for about a week, uncertain and confused.
One afternoon, a guy visited the camp to sign for his family. My older sister chatted with him and asked him to sign for us. He said that he’d return in a few days to help us out. He kept his promise and we happily left Waterloo for Freetown. Freetown was green and hilly; mountains overlooking the city and beautiful beaches everywhere. We weren’t on vacation, but it started to feel like a mini-vacation. We stayed at Cape Sierra Hotel, a beautiful hotel overlooking the beach, for a night, and moved to the National Stadium Hotel, where we stayed for about a week, before leaving for Abidjan.
That’s the Sierra Leone I got to know. It’s always been that relative, a twin to Liberia that fascinates me. I may not know enough about it, but the culture, food, history, tribes, war and even Ebola, reflect the many similarities we share as countries. My Sierra Leonean friends and I talk about those similarities all the time. They too feel the same connection to Liberia. I’m particularly fascinated by their profound parables like “Get, get, no want, want, want, no get”, which means “Those who have, don’t want, and those who want, don’t have.” Only a Salone Titi or Freetown Borbor, can say that with matchless wit and distinction.
Salone, like Liberia, has known tremendous suffering and pain. But like Liberia, they have a fighting and resilient spirit. They bounce back after the hardest blows have hit them. The land of the Lion Mountain, the true meaning of Sierra Leone, perfectly describes the land and its people. A brave people; adorned with laughter, strength and a carefree spirit. Although we grieve and mourn, let us not doubt their ability to rise again.
Salone, L.I.B feels your pain; our hearts bleed and reach out to you. Others may write you off, but we know your fortitude all too well. We won’t blink an eye, or sleep on you.
Dear Salone, we see you!
Patrice Juah is a Mandela Washington Fellow of President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), Writer, Poet, Entrepreneur, Broadcaster, Communications Strategist, Girls’ Education Advocate, Global Speaker and former Miss Liberia, dedicated to changing Liberia’s image within the international community. She’s the founder and executive director of the Martha Juah Educational Foundation, Founder/Creative Director of Moie, and the founder/editor of Sexy Like A Book. Miss Juah is a member of UN Women’s Civil Society Advisory Group on Liberia, and sits on the boards of the Liberia Literary Society and Smart Liberia. Ms. Juah can be reached via email : [email protected] or via her website at : www.patricejuah.com