A final visit to Bo
Jane Knight reflects on thirty-seven years of One World Link.
In 2017, on what must have been about my 20th visit to Sierra Leone since 1981, I announced that I would not be returning as I am getting too old.
So, imagine their surprise when I turned up in Bo again at the end of last October! However, I had to go back to say good-bye to to Bishop Koroma whose health had deteriorated so badly in 2018, and he had ended up blind and very fragile.
I am sorry to say that he died 6 weeks after I left. I have lost three of my closest Sierra Leonean friends whom I first met in 1982, and who guided me through the years of establishing our One World Link partnership. Had they lived in this country, I am sure they would have lived much longer.
Going back 37 years after my first visit to Bo brought back many memories. Armed with a few contact names given to me in England from OXFAM and others, I spent 2 weeks asking various individuals if they would be interested in a friendship link between the people of Bo District and Warwick District? Would such a link (based on equality) be possible or desirable? It took 2 more visits in 1982 and 1983 to be confident that the answer was yes. In the early days there was much stopping and starting as people lost interest and communications were limited to snail mail and hand delivered letters via the early visitors, and the progress was small but it was there.
At least the first exchange visits between Bo and Leamington helped to recharge everyone’s batteries and the link started to grow.
Even today, the expectations especially in Bo were and are wide ranging. Doubts about changing the relationship between people in such different worlds, long influenced by donor recipient attitudes wrought by colonialism and charities over the years are slowly being eroded… White people are now being taken on as real friends with trust and love shared by many across the divide. We now have rich and inspiring partnerships between teachers, medical staff, and local government officers and members. From hesitant one to one school links, we have teacher training programmes across many of the primary schools in both Districts, and health worker and local government planning and waste schemes. The latter is reaching out country wide. And then there are the personal engagements and sheer love between all the OWL members.
On a practical level, there have been some dramatic changes, and in other ways nothing has changed. Most dramatic has been the development of mobile phones (by-passing any significant development of land lines). On my first visit to Bo, I had to queue at the post office and wait for the telephone operator to connect all the cables and plugs until ‘Hey Presto’! I heard my husband’s voice crackling down the line from England. Now, not only does everyone (even in the villages) have a phone, but they can call for free and send pictures of everything that is happening, on Whats App.
On my first visit the pound was worth 2 Leones. On this last visit, it was Le10,000.
The challenges of keeping OWL alive despite disappointments and frustrations remain, but our link survived the civil war and Ebola. There is further optimism now because of the political change last year from the Northern dominated APC government to a new President (Maada Bio) from the Southern region (SLPP) party. He has brought optimism that the country will at last, go forward. When I first arrived, the country was being stripped of all its wealth by the dictator, Siaka Stevens. During this last visit, Bo OWL arranged for me to meet the President (the last one I met was President Tejan Kabbah just after the civil war). This was a dramatic end to the experience of arriving in Sierra Leone, knowing no-one, and now leaving with a handshake from the President!