Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Population

DEVELOPMENT-SIERRA LEONE: Freetown Shackled by Garbage

Lansana Fofana

FREETOWN, Aug 6 2004 (IPS) - Winstanley Johnson will probably go down in history books for the fact that earlier this year, he became the first elected mayor in 30 years of Sierra Leone’s capital – Freetown. As he picks his way around the rubbish heaps in the city, however, there may well be times when he wonders whether it’s worth having this honour.

“The current problem of garbage in this city is a serious one and a disgrace to our country. One of my immediate priorities is to ensure that Freetown is cleared of the seemingly unending mounds of rubbish,” Johnson told IPS.

“For a start, the city needs 20 dust carts and garbage clearing trucks. I will ensure the garbage clearing exercise is divided into three zones – east, central and west – for efficient management,” he added.

At virtually every street corner, mounds of garbage block vehicle and pedestrian traffic. The few aluminium garbage bins that were placed in public areas have long since been stolen, and recycled into pots and other metal artefacts.

A western diplomat told IPS, “I have served in many countries, both in Africa and Asia, but I think that Freetown is one of the filthiest (cities). Its garbage and stench are simply overwhelming.”

The job of cleaning Freetown has been a perennial nightmare for authorities in Sierra Leone.

During the civil war that raged for much of the 1990s, mass migration took place from rural areas to the capital. This was due not only to the brutal attacks by rebel forces and the destruction of infrastructure – but also the lack of jobs and services in these areas.

As a result, Freetown’s population swelled from under 400,000 to over a million. Although the war was officially declared over in January 2002, most of these people have refused to return to their original communities, which still offer few incentives or services. But, the situation in the capital’s sprawling slums can scarcely be much better.

The Ministry of Health and Sanitation has been overwhelmed by the amount of refuse generated by Freetown’s inhabitants.

Last year, President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah even turned to the Ministry of Youth for help, in the hope that unemployed youths could be mobilised to take up the challenge of cleaning the capital. Young people currently make up about 60 percent of Sierra Leone’s five million people.

“This was an emergency measure,” says Haroun Sankoh, a co-ordinator of the initiative. “The capital’s garbage problem was getting out of hand, and some practical measures had to be undertaken to deal with it.”

Sankoh says hundreds of youths heeded the president’s appeal.

“They were paid small stipends and indeed they were doing quite well, though we had constraints in meeting their logistical needs. We divided them into (the) three zones.and got them engaged 24 hours, round the clock.”

As gratifying as this response was, it didn’t really do the trick – and many of the youths who were hired to clear garbage eventually became disillusioned with the small salaries they were earning. These amounted to less than 35 dollars a month.

As Freetown enters the peak of the rainy season, the problems posed by rubbish heaps are likely to get worse. Poor drainage, combined with the surfeit of refuse, creates ideal conditions for the spread of diseases.

Residents of the capital are caustic when discussing government’s failure to address the garbage crisis comprehensively.

“Can’t our government manage the city’s garbage problem? We are dying of cholera, malaria and typhoid daily, and health services are simply not good enough,” says Josephine Kanu, a trader in the east of Freetown.

Amara Bangura, a shoemaker, says “This government deserves to be voted out: they are simply incompetent. How can they deal with state governance when they cannot handle the simple job of cleaning the city?”

Freetown’s unending battle with garbage has even prompted local musicians to join the fray.

The rap duo ‘Baw Wow Society’ has recorded a hit song about the problem entitled ‘City Life’, in which they describe the unsanitary nature of the capital – and take a swipe at authorities for failing to deal with the problem.

In the aftermath of the youth initiative, garbage collection has once again become the responsibility of the city council. Mayor Johnson says he has also approached a number of non-governmental organisations and private companies to provide funds and logistical support for refuse collection.

A local mobile service provider has responded to this appeal by pledging an undisclosed amount towards the garbage clearing initiative. Other companies are set to follow suit, says the mayor.

Sierra Leone’s civil war, which officially ended in January 2002, was largely fought over control of the country’s extensive diamond resources. Revenues from the sale of so-called “conflict” or “blood diamonds” allowed the rebel Revolutionary United Front to wage a campaign of terror in the West African state.

Other factions involved in the various bouts of conflict have also been accused of human rights abuses, however. A war crimes tribunal in Freetown is currently trying those alleged of bearing the greatest responsibility for these crimes.

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