Ebola: A Wake Up Call To Sierra Leone's Upper Class – By Sheka Forna

In an op-ed for Okayafrica, Sheka Forna discusses Ebola as a wake up call to Sierra Leone's upper class.

The Country Lodge, pictured above, is one the priciest hotels in Sierra Leone. Up above the city in a secluded location, it is a respite for the wealthy.

I recently returned to my hometown of Freetown, Sierra Leone, after 6 weeks in Europe, and found myself surprisingly relieved by the state of the country. Belying some of the more hysterical voices in the Western media, as well as the more radical elements on Facebook, people are - by and large - getting on with their lives. The streets are filled with hawkers and petty traders; I awake to the calls of water vendors and the voices of neighbor greeting neighbor; joggers continue to ply the beach road, and the local youth are passionately engaged in a noisy 5-a-side soccer competition. Absent from our day-to-day existence are the dead and the dying so graphically pictured in foreign news stories, absent is a sense of fear, and absent too is any breakdown in society or the rule of law. That is not to say that things are normal – we are a nation under siege; Ebola is still very real, people are dying, communities blighted, and radical steps have to be taken to halt its spread. The number of dead will rise, but there appears to be a growing faith that we're moving in the right direction and a populace confident that this plague will be beaten.

I was taken aback to learn that a recent comment I'd posted on Facebook may have offended the Government of Sierra Leone. I generally try to be objective, if a little cynical, in my observations. They may have been referring to my ridiculing a statement by Alpha Khan, our Minister of Information and Communication, that Sierra Leone had sufficient ambulances for its populace prior to the Ebola outbreak. Mr. Khan claimed that each of Sierra Leone’s 14 districts had at least one ambulance, with some having "as many as three." Allowing for the more generous figure, Sierra Leone therefore had "as many as" 42 ambulances serving a population of 6.1 million. Few other governments would hail this figure as satisfactory. So when a woman from my paternal village suffering complications in childbirth had to be transported to a hospital by 'Okada' – the ubiquitous motorcycle taxis that provide the backbone of Sierra Leone’s public transport system – I hope my frustration can be understood.

This minor Facebook tiff got me thinking about Sierra Leone’s upper classes – the doctors, dentists, bankers, accountants, business men and women – and their general complacency. We who have the privilege of relative wealth and education, most often abroad, and who have returned to Sierra Leone to enjoy the benefits that such privilege brings. Servants, chauffer-driven cars, beach houses, holidays abroad, and a seemingly endless succession of fashion shows, parties, dinners and cocktails – we have lived an entirely different life, far more privileged, far safer and certainly more decadent, to that of the majority of Sierra Leoneans. Until now we in these upper classes have generally been unwilling – or uninterested – in engaging in civil matters and publically voicing our opinions on those things essential to developing our country which, by the way, still ranks 5th from the bottom on the UN’s Human Development Index.

We have turned a blind eye to the poverty and lack of development that surrounds us. From my balcony I look out over a tin shack, barely 100 square feet, occupied by three generations and 10 individuals from one family. Boiling hot in the dry season, dripping wet in the rains. At the end of my street a stand-pipe delivers water intermittently to children, some as young as five, who queue daily bearing 5-gallon jerry cans and any other container with which to supply the washing and cooking needs of entire families. The road outside my house is riddled with potholes and bordered by open gutters, choked with rubbish. Dusk pitches 70 percent of the city into darkness. As Sierra Leone’s infrastructure has crumbled, the upper classes have hidden behind ever higher walls, bigger SUVs, and more powerful generators, grumbling but unwilling to engage – to all intents and purposes acting as if the Sierra Leone outside our walls was another country from the ‘Sweet Salone’ that we've inhabited.

I wasn't here during the war years, but see echoes of the same complacency that saw my parents waking up to rebels on their doorstep. I recall speaking to my stepmother by telephone from London in 1995, concerned by a BBC report that had placed the biggest rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), less than 10 miles from our house in Freetown. She cheerfully told me not to worry, that she had only that morning been for a stroll on the beach and that all was well. History has proven how wrong she was. On that occasion the rebels were rebuffed. But in 1997 they returned with a vengeance, overrunning Freetown before embarking a wave of looting and revenge killings. My stepmother was evacuated to a US aircraft carrier with just one plastic bag of possessions. She was not to return to Freetown for three years.

The privileged in Sierra Leone have long chosen to abstain from tackling issues that impact on the lives of all Sierra Leoneans, preferring instead to seek remedies for our lot alone, leaving the rest of society to fare as best they can. How ironic that we now reflect on the inadequacies of our healthcare system when we, myself included, have not thought twice about having our babies born abroad? With one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world, why would one choose to give birth in Sierra Leone if other options are available? Similarly, we bemoan falling standards in education while pondering the logistics of schooling our kids in the UK or the US (guilty again!).

The truth is we need to engage and we need to do so on an ongoing basis, not just in the face of a crisis. I'm amazed at how few of my contemporaries participated in the last Presidential election. Too hot, too dirty, too smelly, too time consuming. I can understand why some chose not to, but I find it harder to understand our unwillingness to involve ourselves in other ways. Sierra Leone is not Eritrea or North Korea. We have a vibrant press, professional bodies, access to social media and a fairly benign ruling class. As the son of a casualty of our past political processes – my father was executed by a previous regime, but that is another story – I'm mortified that some now look back to that period as the "good old days." Although political opponents are no longer imprisoned, let alone killed, I can understand that, for some, the memories of pipe-borne water, continuous power, decent roads, functioning hospitals, good schools and the absence of squatters, beggars and litter holds a powerful pull. However, the rot, now obscured by rose-tinted spectacles, had set in - paving the way for the eleven year civil war that came, and our country’s present day travails.

Be under no illusion, decisions are being made every day that impact on our lives. We have the opportunity to be a part of that process. We can blame our government for much, but we cannot blame it for everything, and not at all if we opt out of the debate. Engagement need not be confrontational. It can be constructive, informed and offer solutions. There is a saying in Krio, the lingua franca of a country boasting 16 local dialects, “wan finger no dae pik stone.” To pick up a pebble requires the use of several fingers, not just one. A country is only as good as its institutions. The ongoing crisis has demonstrated how wanting some of these institutions have been, amongst them we the upper class.

That seems to be changing. It is a pity that it took a crisis such as this (and, more probably, the very specific ways it has effected us such as the closing of schools and bars, and the suspension of international flights), but we seem to finally have started to find our voices. The radio, newspapers and Internet are full of the frustrations of a people who have been galvanized by the unfolding Ebola tragedies. Organizations are springing up to complement the government's efforts in the war against Ebola, dissident views are being espoused in forums by people avowedly non-political, professionals are beginning to question the failings of the institutions representing them. But more can be done: we can participate in community meetings and work with our local governance structures; we can use our professional bodies to proffer solutions to some of the problems we face; we can join the boards of our schools and hospitals; we can be candid with foreign dignitaries; we can petition; we can lead. We have the ability to create a better Sierra Leone. But to get there we must do all of this, and more. Ebola has been a wake up call. I hope that the small steps that have been taken will continue and develop long after we've kicked Ebola out of Sierra Leone.

Sheka Forna is the son of Mohamed Forna, a doctor and leading Sierra Leonean dissident executed in 1975. Born and educated in the UK, Sheka returned to Sierra Leone in 2008 to establish Splash Mobile Money, the country’s first mobile payment provider. He is married with three children. The ongoing Ebola crisis has forced his family to take up temporary residence in Denmark.

Photo courtesy of Sam Soko.

Interview: Sam Soko is the Kenyan Director Behind Sundance Hit, 'Softie'

We meet filmmaker Sam Soko who has made a stirring documentary about the Kenyan protest leader Boniface Mwangi

Filmmaker Sam Soko didn't intend on making a documentary about Kenyan photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi.

The original idea he had was to make a manual of sorts, a short video guide, on how to protest, the do's and don't's. Soko, himself an activist artist who cut his teeth convincing friends to let him create political music videos for their apolitical songs, knew Mwangi's experience on the streets both photographing protests and staging them meant he had a lot to share with others.

But then came the blood. A thousand litres of it, to be precise. And the pigs. Dozens of them, with words like MPigs written on them. Like the graphic photos Mwangi had become known for taking—it was a sight you couldn't look away from. It was a protest Mwangi organized, in 2013, to decry corrupt members of the Kenyan parliament who had decided to increase their salaries, 2 months after taking office. And at his side, through the thick red liquid of it all, was Mwangi's wife, Njere, ready to be arrested with him.

"Once I was witness to his relationship, I started seeing him as a family man," Soko tells OkayAfrica. "Because he's planning a protest and all, but when you look at the footage, you start seeing the kids and you start seeing Njere. That's when it started hitting me, in the sense, that she was with him in such a crazy space."

Soko formed a creative and activist hub, called PAWA 254, with Mwangi, as they became part of the groundswell demanding democratic reforms in a country still left scarred from the division sewed between Kikuyu and Luo people by British colonizers. "We had a new Constitution at the time, and there was this hope that we finally could picket without being tear-gassed or being beaten, Like, our civil liberties could be held up." Instead, the government strengthened its police force into a notorious organization condemned by human rights activists. "That's very salient in the film," says Soko. "If you see how the police dress, for instance, at the beginning, it's very different; they become more militant towards the end."

Soko's debut feature-length documentary, Softie, which became the first Kenyan film to ever premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, earlier this year, is at once a love story between Mwangi and his wife and their three children, but also between Mwangi and his beloved Kenya, under president Uhuru Kenyatta. Central to the film is the tussle between how these different loves bump up against each other: what comes first — love of country or love of family?

We spoke to the Nairobi-based director about making the film, which opens in virtual cinemas, starting this Friday, September 18th.

Boniface Mwangi with his wife Photo courtesy of Sam Soko

OA: Early on in the film, we learn how steadfast Boniface Mwangi is — he talks about being willing to die for the ideals he believes in, which made me think of Nelson Mandela and his Rivonia Treason Trial speech. Boniface is someone in the present day who still shares this belief?

When we were working on the edit, and kind of crafting and thinking about what the story was going to be, something that we found that was really, really interesting is, with a lot of the stories, like the story of Nelson Mandela, you'd never see the other side. That's something we see later, up ahead, as a retrospective. We'd hear about Martin Luther King and then we'd read about Coretta Scott in, I think, 1990, like, 'Oh, this his was her struggle.' That sort of thing. But for me, Boniface and Njere represented a present day reality struggle that showcases what Mandela was going through, what Martin Luther was going through. That was kind of like unravelling the curtain; when you see Martin Luther marching, Coretta's at home, trying to help their kids do their homework. And this is the reality.

OA: And the film poses that question of love for your country versus love for your family, and which one should come first?

Exactly. They see it in different ways. Boniface sees it that if you improve the country, you improve the lives of those who you love. Njere's like, you have to have your family's back first. And that means everything else comes second. And she's right; she's not wrong. And he's not wrong.

OA: The film really is privy to some really private moments in Mwangi's life — how did you gain his trust?

When we started filming the short video, he was really involved with the protests, and we started doing the protests with him. So we were—quote, unquote—in the trenches with him in the protests, and somehow that's how he kind of welcomed us to his home. When you've been with someone in the streets, and you're tear-gassed together more than once, you already have a common bond. But then I started developing a relationship with him that was beyond the streets. Just checking up on him and asking, what's going on, what's taking place? That sort of thing. I think it took a while. And I think even from Njere, we kind of developed a kind of camaraderie that was separate from my relationship with Boniface, because I would actually be like, 'Hey, he said that, how does that make you feel?' And not necessarily on camera. But over time, he kind of accepted us to be there with a camera. At some point, I kind of felt like they were talking to me, and not necessarily the camera; like, the camera is kind of this thing that's there, but not there. That kind of trust, again, was built on a respect that I have for them and their values and what they're doing. I think that's something they saw. It made them trust me with their story and trust me with their family.

You're the director of the film, but you're also producer, writer and cinematographer. Did Boniface's own style as a photojournalist influence you in any way?

The film has three cinematographers, and a lot of my cinematography is within the intimate moments, because that's when they would only engage with someone they trust. But him being a photographer actually, to a point, made the work a bit hard because he's constantly looking at how you're doing it. He's in your face about the angle. He's like, 'Hey, why are you standing there, you should be there.' But in some places he did help 'cause he's been filming in the streets and filming protests for a very long time. So when you're there filming, he'll easily tell you, 'Dude, don't stand there. They're about to start tear-gassing. Go to the other side.' And it's weird, when you're on the other side and you're filming, and all of a sudden you see tear gas, you wonder, 'How the hell did he know?' You do that 234 times and you start knowing yourself, 'Oh, this is how,' and he was really helpful in that sense.

I can imagine that filming during the protests must have been one of the big challenges of making this film but what else did you struggle with? There were death threats for Mwangi, did that happen to you as well?

It's so funny, when you're filming and when you're in the protests, it's adrenaline talking. So you're not really thinking about whether you're going to be okay. This one time, I got arrested because the cop said I was a spy for the protesters. [We had everything] from cameras breaking to sound equipment messing up, but when it became a more political story, with death threats, it became scary even for editing the film. Because you don't know who's watching you. This one time, I was with him in the car, filming, and we were being followed. So we kind of had to be very careful who we are telling about the story. It was a very deep secret that we were making this film and there are people who are watching it now asking, 'How could you keep this from us from all these years?' Because we had to do that. Especially when the family was in the US. We had to do that for the sake of safety for him, Boniface, for his family but also the film team. I remember doing the pitches with different names. But then we were also lucky that we had our co-producing partner in Canada, Eye Steel Film, so they were able to house the edit there. I went to Canada to edit and that kind of also gives you a kind of freedom to think and work and create. That was the reality, and now I think we have PTSD from the film. I can't film another protest. I'm sorry. I'm out. Like, it tapped me out.

There are similarities to the Black Lives Matter protests here in the US, against police brutality and violence but the slogan takes on a different resonance in places like Kenya, where the police force is particularly heavy-handed. How do you see these protests as being similar but also different?

There are two things that you learn with the film. One, our voices can never be silenced. They will try, but I think humanity is like a pressure cooker. The more you boil us, the more you put that heat, the more explosive we become. And through people like Boniface's life, you see that there are human beings who exist, who do extraordinary things.

The other thing is the idea of activism doesn't necessarily just speak to the person who's on the street. It doesn't necessarily speak to the person who's holding the placard. An activist is someone like Njere and her life, and her family. And Khadija [Mohamed, Mwangi's campaign manager]. She's such a strong and powerful activist in her own right. She was Boniface's campaign manager for free. The work they did was so powerful. And you have these other people in the background who are doing such incredible things. The sum total of what they've done is [to] instigate… We have an election next year, but I am so sure that we are going to have so many candidates who are going to be like, 'We want you to donate to our campaign. We have these values and beliefs; this is what we want to do.' That is how we need to go about change or add on to the conversations of change.

The same thing that's happening with the Black Lives Matters movement. Yes, there are people going to the street and we should keep going to the street. But we need to push people to engage in policy and make sure these policy changes are made.

We need to stand for what we believe in, as filmmakers in spaces where we feel oppression exists. Like the rules that have come out with the Academy Awards, these are rules that should be celebrated because they add on to that conversation of diversity and representation. All these things—that sum total—is what makes the difference. It's going beyond the streets and going beyond our Tweets, going beyond our Facebook messages, making films and sharing films. We just need to keep pumping up the volume, keeping the heat up, keep pushing. It's gonna take a while, but we'll get there.

Photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi during a protest in Nairobi, Kenya Photo courtesy of Sam Soko

That's where you as a filmmaker come in—this film was the first Kenyan film to get into Sundance, where it won a special editing prize.

There's another film I'm producing and, and, yes, I had my film at Sundance, that's great. But there's this other filmmaker who's making another film, and it's so cool, and this is the thing—we need to keep bouncing off this energy and this light and this vibe, and just keep pushing and making sure that the wheels keep turning. That's what we're all about.

How do you renew your strength, as a filmmaker but also as a Kenyan and as an African?

Being a Kenyan is hard. I think being an African is hard. Like, it's hard. There's a line I heard Boniface say once: 'I love my country, but I am afraid of my government.' But the way in which, personally, I find energy is when I meet new filmmakers, or you know, people who are like starting out and they want to make films that sound totally crazy. And they believe that they can do it. And I'm like, 'yes, yes, keep going!' We are planning to do a premiere. We have not confirmed the date yet but we're thinking it's around going to be early October in Kenya, because Kenyans haven't watched it. The government gave us an adult rating. They're putting us on the same level as porn.

This is the same government that banned Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki because of its homosexual theme…

Exactly, that's what we're getting but the lemonade that we've made out of all this is, 'Guess what? This is cinema!' We're going to take it to a cinema. People are going to come to watch it in a cinema or watch it at home or watch it in the best way possible. And the people who've watched it have appreciated it as a film and a story, and their story. They've seen a reflection of themselves. That gives me so much joy because the Kenyans who've watched it, when they give you feedback, they say, this is truth; this is our truth. And they don't see just an activist. They see a couple struggling with love. They see our history in the last 10 years. And they're like, 'What the hell, we lived this?' and they see the things that are unresolved — and many things are unresolved. Seeing that reaction gives me so much strength and hope. But it's hard. It's very hard. Because, you know, you have to wake up and see the policeman getting a bribe. And you're like, 'Homie??'

"SOFTIE" Movie Poster

Watch the trailer for Softie here.

Softie | Official Trailer | A film by Sam Soko

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