Sophia Spring on ‘Sweet Salone’

I recently completed a photographic project entitled ‘Sweet Salone: Portraits of Contemporary Sierra Leone’ – kindly featured on this website by Rob. What did I hope to achieve with this project? Simply to provide an insight into the lives of a few Sierra Leoneans in the hope that it might produce a more nuanced representation of the country than previously shown in the media.

JOHN MACCAULEY, 20. John was 10 years old when he made the staggering decision to leave his family and join ‘The House of Jesus for the Disabled’ – a community of around 50 disabled men and women that life on a small plot of land in the middle of Freetown. As a child he would play with the children in this community, and as a result of the friendships he forged he decided that he would like to dedicate his life to helping them. He was the first ‘healthy’ to join the ‘The House of Jesus’, and is now an invaluable member of it. He spends his days there repairing wheelchairs and making new ones out of old prams. John is also an adept tailor, and teaches many in the community this skill. The ethos of ‘The House of Jesus’ is to move away from a culture of dependency, and to move towards a level of self-sufficiency. By learning certain skills, such as tailoring, they can earn an income to support themselves and their families, instead of being completely reliant on aid and the generosity of others.

Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world, with terrible rates of infant mortality and one of the lowest life expectancies in Africa.  But these stark statistics should not define the region, or its people. I could have so easily turned my lens to the inhabitants of Kroo Bay (one of the worst slums in the world), but that would have been too easy, and too reductive a view of Sierra Leone.

‘This is the first time in over 20 years that I have studied. I work very hard, but I don’t mind because I love what we learn here…….one day I would like to set up my own salon’. HALIMATU KADIA CONTEH, 34.

Ultimately I feel very ambivalent about the kind of ‘shoot and run’ tactics employed by some photographers that sees them profit from someone else’s hardship. I also question how helpful these snapshot images are in promoting the cause of LEDCs. I feel that we are so often bombarded with media images of poverty that we have become almost desensitised to such sights.  I think it’s now time we start to represent those in the third world as individuals, not as victims.  Perhaps this change of tact could have a profound effect on the way we view the developing world, and the lives of the people that live there.

“Political tolerance, further education and civil liberties – without these things our country cannot move forward.” Andrew Koromah brought the concept of independent journalism to Sierra Leone. In the early 1990’s he set-up Kiss FM and Sky Radio, the country’s first independent radio stations. These were instrumental in linking Sierra Leone throughout the civil war, and importantly they gave each faction a public voice during the conflict. His efforts have been recognised internationally, and he has won a number of awards including the Knight Press Fellowship from the International Centre of Journalism in Washington. Andrew tirelessly ploughs all his energies into the development of Sierra Leone, whether it is the creation of community radio stations, or the lobbying of government for the ratification of treaties, including the Convention of the Rights of Children. “Sierra Leone is still a deeply polarized country… we need to cultivate a greater level of unification in order to progress.” ANDREW KROMAH, 53.

This at least was my aim – and so I set out to photograph and interview as broad a cross section of Sierra Leonean society as possible. I met everyone from musicians to village chiefs, civil servants to dollar boys, hairdressers to taxi drivers, soldiers to schoolgirls.  Consequently I came away with a very rich understanding of what Sierra Leone is like today, and I can tell you that it is a country that is characterised by so much more than its poverty and sad history. It has fully moved on from the civil war that defines it in so many people’s imaginations, and it now stands as a nation steeped in optimism and hope.  The country still has a long way to go, but if the opportunities on offer could match the motivation of its people, then Sierra Leone would be positively thriving by now. As it stands there is a dearth of employment in the country. Aid still floods in, a lot of which is channelled into education, but without jobs this education is not capitalised on.

“What do I love about this country? Take a look around you…what’s not to love? MARLENA BANDU, 29.

Today Sierra Leone has a huge amount to offer; it’s rich in minerals, has a climate perfectly suited to agriculture and has some of the most beautiful beaches in Africa. What Sierra Leone would now benefit from alongside aid is foreign investment, better infrastructure and sustainable tourism.  All of this would provide much sought after jobs, which in turn would bolster the economy and allow Sierra Leone to flourish independently of aid. However these things will not start to happen until outdated perceptions of the country are changed.  It is my hope that this project has gone some way to doing this.

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