When Sierra Leone is mentioned, what comes to mind for many people around the world is a poverty-stricken nation that has experienced a complicated set of social and political problems since its independence from British rule in April 1961.
Images of child soldiers, amputees and wasted communities resulting from the country’s decade-long civil war in the 1990s seem to be familiar as media houses around the world shared them through the news. In 2014-15, it was the case of the Ebola virus disease, which claimed thousands of lives that put Sierra Leone and its neighbours – Liberia and Guinea – in the news again. Then in 2017, came the devastating mudslide and flooding from heavy rains that claimed over a thousand lives in around the hills of Freetown.
While these are all significant events in the history of Sierra Leone, it is important to not entirely frame the now and future of the country on these events. It is critical to shift the discourse to a positive narrative that focuses on the strengths of Sierra Leone.
What many people, in and out of Sierra Leone, may not be familiar with (because that story hasn’t been told often) is that the nation’s foundation is rooted in the values of freedom and liberty – progressive values that have contributed to the advancement of humans in many parts of the world.
When waves of freed slaves came to what is now the nation’s capital, Freetown, in the late 1700s, they demonstrated hard work, resilience and hope for the future.
This ethos of hard work, resilience and hope underpinned the great achievements of Sierra Leone in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Little is known about the country’s pioneering role in the areas of education, democracy, the mass media, which helped to shape the future of not only Sierra Leone but other nations in sub-Saharan Africa.
The establishment of Fourah Bay College, the first Western style university in west Africa, in 1827; the Sierra Leone Grammar School (formerly CMS Grammar School) for boys in 1845 and the Annie Walsh Memorial Secondary School for girls in 1849 attracted students from all over west Africa who became future leaders in their countries.
Since the end of the civil war in Sierra Leone, there have been noticeable signs of a return to that early ethos of hard work, resilience and hope as well as to those cherished values of freedom and liberty.
In 1996, Sierra Leone returned to a multi-party democracy after nearly thirty years of one-party and military rule. Since then there have been five successive local councils, parliamentary and presidential elections with two peaceful transfer of power. As democracy take root, the space from civic participation continues to expand.
The country was able to reconcile after its war. Amid many challenges, communities (men, women, old and young) have largely come together to rebuild their lives and homes. They continue to pin their hopes in the future and to work hard towards a better Sierra Leone. And if effectively mobilized and supported, the country’s youthful population will carry those hopes into the future.