There aren’t many medical mysteries in Sierra Leone.
If a medical doctor can’t diagnose an ailment or if a patient can’t afford to see a doctor, he or she usually comes to one conclusion about the cause of the pain and suffering: they must have been shot by a witch gun. The illness could be typhoid or schizophrenia, but the symptoms are often attributed to some form of black magic.
A belief in witchcraft and the powers of traditional healers prevails in the culture of Sierra Leone. Sierra Leoneans make casual references in conversation to the truth of witchcraft, whether they are an uneducated person living in a small, rural village or a university-educated researcher living in Freetown.
One reporter, Esther, who worked with my colleague Chris, warned him not to shake the hands of too many people in a large crowd. She said people might try and give him some black magic. One of my reporters in Bo, named Peter, told me wives casts spells on their husbands, often to keep them from straying from the marriage. Another woman told me it’s possible to have someone killed through witchcraft.
Strange behaviour or crippling illnesses, everyone tells me, usually means someone has been shot by a witch gun, which can’t be seen by the naked eye. Mental illness is most often attributed to witchcraft, because its symptoms are so difficult to understand. A traditional healer claims to be able cure people of their ailments and charges a hefty fee for his services. Patients pay with money, chickens or palm oil and are usually given herbs as treatment.
But treating an infectious disease as a curse or spell has fatal consequences for many. A reporter working with my colleague, Sulakshana, died in June from typhoid after she saw a traditional healer instead of a medical doctor. She left behind two young children.
Of course, Sierra Leoneans looking for conventional medical treatment are largely out of luck. Eighty or so government doctors treat a country with a population of six million people. Unlicensed doctors abound, but their prices are higher and their qualifications not exactly verifiable. Traditional healers are easier to access. Villagers are often afraid to visit hospitals if they’ve never been before, concerned they won’t be coming back. There’s also the issue of paying for gas or a vehicle to get to the hospital.
But an established belief in witchcraft has only led to devastating discrimination in countries like Nigeria. A belief in the practice has led many Nigerian communities to abandon small children, claiming they are witches sent by the devil. The children, sometimes as young as two or three, are accused of bringing misfortune upon a village, after crops die or food goes bad. They’re beaten, tied to trees and left to die. Preachers make money off these circumstances, offering to remove the curse from the children for large sums of money collected from the desperate parents. Charities in Nigeria that take in children abandoned are overwhelmed with the demand for their services.
I don’t disagree with people when they tell me about witchcraft. Instead I ask questions so that I can understand it better. But I asked one woman if someone could put black magic on me. She laughed for three or four minutes. “No,” she said. “You’re white. They can’t get you.”
There aren’t many medical mysteries in Sierra Leone.
Having a grandparent as an adult has something so sweet about it.
The days where you were spoiled with new skis under the Christmas tree are gone, as are the congratulations you received at school concerts and the cheers at weekend swim meets.
The relationship evolves as you begin to converse as equals, about jobs, politics, good books and relationships. As an adult, you become fully aware of how much that grandparent supports you and how much they enjoy hearing about how your life is turning out.
My Nana wasn’t my blood grandmother, but I always felt like she was. She married my grandfather, my mom’s father, when I was about four-years-old. My family grew in size as a result of that marriage. It grew to include uncles and aunts and cousins who wouldn’t be my family today if it weren’t for that marriage.
When my grandfather died in 2001, and the cousins started to spread out, some to work abroad and others to attend university, she became the matriarch and social organizer of the large group, ensuring we saw each other at Christmas and exchanged email addresses.
She read my newspaper stories with a critical eye, quick to voice her opinion, ask questions and encourage me to do better.
I’ve encountered many strong women in my life. My mother, my sister, teachers and friends. My Nana was one of those strong women: feisty, engaged, independent and intelligent.
Any time I came to her, to tell her of my quickly hatched plan to take a new job, go back to school or leave the country, she supported it without hesitation. Sometimes she’d just smile and say, “That’s marvelous.”
She listened well and didn’t take sides. Her presence made me sit up straight and always do my best. She was often blunt in her approach and very rarely showed any vulnerability or emotion, making her very different from me and my own mother.
But you really learn the most from those most different from you.
You didn’t mess with her, and I liked that so much.
Seeing people die is something I truly hate about getting older. I don’t have any grandparents left. I was so lucky to have started out with four and was even luckier to know my Nana until the age of 25. But that doesn’t make it any easier to say goodbye, especially when I’m halfway across the world.
I shot this video mostly to capture the sound, as it's really hard to film rain. It tends to rain particularly hard these days at night and in the morning. But right now, it's 11:30 a.m., and I've been watching it rain for three hours straight. Good thing I went grocery shopping yesterday.
Adama Kai sits in an armchair and taps the keys on her laptop in her design boutique, occasionally glancing to her left to check on a handful of tailors sewing in the backroom. The designer gets up to greet a well-known customer, a leggy young woman wearing a gold sequined dress, and leads her over to a rack of colourful, high-end clothing. Kai could be running a chic, up-and-coming boutique in Montreal or New York. But her boutique, Aschobi Designs, is located in the heart of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, which is one of the poorest countries in the world.
Along Pademba Road, where Kai has set up shop, people sitting inside dilapidated shacks made of corrugated steel hawk cell phone minutes and cigarettes. Stray dogs sniff inside gutters and piles of garbage for scraps of food and women and children sit on the street, selling fruit and groundnuts. In this city, where nearly 70 per cent of the population lives below the poverty level, 26-year-old Kai has decided to launch her high-fashion brand.
“This is my home,” she said. “Trying to operate on this level in America would cost me money I just don’t have."
I went to visit Kai in her shop last month because I wanted to do a story about her. A high-fashion designer in Sierra Leone is unusual. A new NGO pops up on every corner once a week, but Kai's shop is the first of its kind in the country. My friend Blake found something written about her in Vice Magazine and sent it to me, and I knew I had to meet her. She was born in New Jersey but moved to Sierra Leone as a baby. As a child, she left Sierra Leone to live in Ethiopia, and eventually went to school in the U.S. and France. But now, she’s back.
Kai admitted most of her clothing is out of reach for the average Sierra Leonean. The custom made pieces sell for between $50 and $200 USD. Most of her customers are ex-pats and the wives of government ministers. But she still considers her work a form of public service. She employs a small staff of tailors and has plans to open a vocational school. Operating a business in Sierra Leone has its challenges, including coping with the unpredictable supply of water and electricity. But her brand has seen considerable success in fashion shows in Africa and she has plans to sell to the rest of the world online.
I mentioned Kai's business to some ex-pat friends of mine and they said they thought her efforts would be better made towards bringing food or medicine into the country. But I disagree with that sentiment. Every country will rebuild itself differently and I consider it unrealistic to believe a society can rebuilf itself if there is no emphasis placed on sustaining culture and entrepreneurship. The way I see it, every one will help rebuild in the way they know how. Whether or not this will work, I can't say.
I’ve said goodbye to the rural life in Sierra Leone and have moved to the big city, Freetown. My roommate in Bo, Chris, has been sick on and off with malaria and food poisoning for the past six weeks. After a visit to the hospital, where the nurse inserted an IV by candlelight (there wasn’t any power in the hospital that night), he’s decided to go back to Canada to take care of his health. I don’t blame him one bit, considering the abysmal state of the health care industry in this country.
But with him on his way back to Canada, I wasn’t willing to stay in Bo alone. Our house is in a rural section of the town and it wasn’t safe for me to live there by myself. I was concerned that if I got sick like Chris did in the middle of the night, no one would be around to help me. There’s also very little to do in Bo but work, so I was certain I’d get really, really lonely and start talking to the giant spiders.
So I packed my bags and headed for Freetown. I’ll continue my work at a different media outlet, at a newspaper called the Salone Times. I’ve moved in with my co-workers based in Freetown and once again have access to running water, which makes me feel very spoiled.
After all the stresses of this experience so far (falling staircases, maniacal landlords, roommates with turbo-malaria, 67 marriage proposals, heat rash, bedbugs), I’m fairly certain I’ve become a more tolerant, understanding person; either that or a very cynical, sarcastic person.