Political and economic tensions have swelled into protest in Sierra Leone—what meaning do these demonstrations hold for civilians?
That day was different.
I was waiting for the steady crescendo of the typical morning scurry to build. By now, women in brightly colored lapas would be balancing the day’s work on their heads, shouting rhythmic chants alongside the road, hoping to attract customers on their way to work. But today there were no customers in the street outside my window. What was usually a clogged freeway, stacked end to end with poda poda (mini-buses) and okada (motorcycle taxis) was jarringly silent. Without the blur of exhaust fumes choking the atmosphere, I could see that the stillness of the morning saturated townships into the far distance. Curiously, I watched the gentle rolling hillscape of Sierra Leone stretch into a soundless sea.
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It would have been a peaceful morning—breathtaking—but it’s not the Salone (Sierra Leone) I arrived to. I decided I would visit Aminata’s booth to find out what was going on. Aminata was a street peddler who stationed herself just steps from my lodging. Due to proximity (and the fact that she tolerated my anglicized Krio) we had become close, striking up conversations every morning before I headed to the hospital. But today, her booth was deserted and boarded up. Suddenly, I remembered our conversation from the night before.
“There’s a national protest tomorrow,” she had said. When I asked her what the protest was for, she sighed heavily. “The prices. Too high. 800 leones (USD 0.04) for a bag of rice!” She sucked her teeth loudly in disapproval while another of her frequent customers, a local pastor, chimed in: “Everything is going up. Medicine. Petrol. Everything.”
He was right. Over the last few weeks, I had watched gas prices at the local Shell station climb steadily. Not to mention the cost of medicine at the hospital. I recalled my most recent interview with a doctor who lamented that most of her patients could not afford medications without assistance from NGOs: “Good thing it’s free for now,” she had said. “Had it been that [patients] had to pay, it would have been a disaster.”
I also recalled similar protests I had heard about in other West African countries this past summer—disaffection growing like a rising tide and engulfing whole nations. In some places, like Niger and Gabon, the protests had devolved into coups with citizens demanding new governance and an end to exploitative practices that drained civilians of power and resources. Before coming to Sierra Leone, I was well aware of the rumblings of discontent which were traveling across the continent. And now, here was evidence that the grievances of the Sierra Leonean people might be finally coming to a head.
“I suppose it’s a good thing then,” I had said. “The protest. The government will take notice.”
Both Aminata and the pastor looked at me incredulously. “Protest?” the pastor spat, “Is that a protest? It’s just violence.” Aside from his disdain, I detected fear—an inkling of trepidation about what the protest might mean, and who would be hurt. “The last protest,” he explained, “so many people died.” It was on this somber note that we parted ways for the evening, only for me to awake to utter stillness the next day.
Wherever the protest was taking place, it seemed far from the city center I inhabited. My lodging was mere minutes from the president’s residence, in a more affluent neighborhood known colloquially as the President’s Lodge. I continued to watch for signs of the protest throughout the day, but all I saw was the occasional soldier dutifully patrolling the empty streets surrounding President Bio’s house. There were more soldiers than usual, creating a bubble of protection I was both grateful for and anxious to see beyond.
Curiosity took hold and I decided to attempt a short walk. I didn’t get far before I was stopped by a soldier. He drove a large, shiny SUV—an unusual display of wealth rarely seen among the local inhabitants. When he rolled down his window to ask where I was going, I was hit with a blast of cool air conditioning, another rare luxury, even among the inhabitants of the President’s Lodge. I was curtly asked to turn back and go home.
“It’s not safe to go out today,” the soldier said. “Let me take you back to your lodging.”
On the way back, I gently picked his brain about the protest, and it became clear he was not sympathetic. “It’s not true the country is against him [President Maada Bio]. Thanks to him we have a new airport—new roads—and more! I’ve never seen a president like him.”
Later that evening, however, videos and news stories began to pour in via WhatsApp, documenting another side of the story. Particularly, in Makeni and the eastern side of the city capital, recordings surfaced of marching crowds chanting, “He has to go!” Fires and swollen bodies were scattered across the roads in the wake of heavily armed trucks manned by government soldiers. It appeared that the violence the pastor had warned of had come to pass after all.
Despite this outburst of discontent, over the next few days, the country quickly came alive again. In my unscathed corner of the earth, I was once more greeted by the calls of street peddlers early in the morning. Children in starchy blue uniforms and oversized backpacks ran through the streets on their way to school, their laughter and teasing ringing in the air. And thankfully, Aminata was back at her booth, shouting her greetings as I passed by on my way to the hospital.
“How are you?” I asked cheerfully. She did not return my cheerfulness, however. Though the country appeared to have moved on from the protest, she remained shaken. She pulled out her phone and began flipping through the graphic videos of the protest I had already seen in the days before. “Look how many people died,” she said. “It’s crazy!”
Anxious to provide a sense of peace to her, I naively attempted to provide some meaning to the chaos: “It’s sad, but they died for something they believed in I suppose.”
Aminata’s gloomy expression remained unchanged. “No,” she said, “they died for food to eat. They died for a place to live. This is what [the government] should have put in place for them, but they don’t have it. They died for nothing.”
With that, a heavy and tense silence hung between us—stillness, masking the rumblings of discontent.