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Story Publication logo July 20, 2010

Sierra Leone Gets Normal

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Burundi, Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau and the Central Africa Republic were the targets of a UN...

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Our project on the UN Peacebuilding Commission brings me to Sierra Leone for the third time since 2008. I'm amazed by the subtle changes I feel, and sometimes see, around Freetown. The most obvious is the one that would never make it on the postcard circuit: Huge, gleaming white trash collection trucks. Two years ago, Freetown got rid of its trash by collecting it in piles at the end of major streets and burning it. There are still a few major piles to be found at strategic locations, but they're tended by trucks – and presumably, workers with nifty new jobs – and the trash is taken away.

You may be asking yourself, Is she seriously writing about trash collection? I get that this has the potential to sound a little snotty, as if the recently returned adventure tourist is pleased to see that the natives have finally discovered sanitation. But that would be too cynical a read even for me. And it would be wrong, for reasons that suggest perhaps this whole peacebuilding thing has its merits.

Earlier this week, I spoke with Philip Dive, the joint strategy officer at UN country headquarters and, de facto, HQ's peacebuilding point man. He had a delightfully clear way of discussing things that UN documents tend to obscure (and he didn't once use the verbs "sensitize" or "capacitate"). He explained that he thinks of peacebuilding as a process of normalization, of taking situations so abnormal they demand attention – 70 percent of youth are illiterate! – and fixing them so that, basically, they don't. Can you imagine reading an article headlined, "Seventy percent of Sierra Leonean youth can read and write"? Because I can't imagine getting one published.

Dive doesn't use "abnormal," normatively. There's not judgment in it, the same way that my noticing trash collection is not an invocation of the colonial continuum of progress toward civilization. And that's just the point. When you come to Freetown – which you should, for the beautiful beaches and the delicious food and the people and the fantastic hand-dyed fabrics and expert tailors – you won't notice the trash collection. Because to you, it's normal.

I was reading a report yesterday that described Sierra Leone as "post post-conflict." I find it an absurd phrase, even though I can intuit what the writers mean. I suppose one might think of my literal journey from the Central African Republic to Burundi to the Sierra Leone as one from pre-post-conflict to post-post-conflict, if you were inclined to use those terms. But I'm not sure all those hyphens are helpful.

"Sure, we live with the consequences of the war in terms of the weakness of state infrastructure," another UN worker told me. "But the only people who still think about the conflict here are the development workers who start their grant proposals with, 'Eleven years after conflict tore Sierra Leone apart…'"

Downtown, a bank teller made the same point a bit more bluntly. Granted, he's a lucky (and a skilled) young man to have such a job. Still, he told me he works a 12-hour day, with an hour's commute on either end. He's busy, and often, he's tired. "We don't need anyone to tell us not to go to back to the bush," he said, cufflinks clinking against the counter as he counted out my leones, doing what bank tellers everywhere do, normally.


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