Saturday, November 20, 2010

A Journey to Sierra Leone

Kyra Ellis-Moore, a student at Albuquerque High School, traveled with her mother, Jennifer Moore, a Professor at the University of New Mexico School of Law, to Sierra Leone in West Africa in October 2010.  Jenny Moore, who once worked with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, was in West Africa to conduct research for a book she is writing on conflict resolution in Africa.  The book spotlights three countries emerging from civil war, including Sierra Leone.  We hope to highlight Jenny's research at some point in the future, but this post is all about Kyra.

You might remember Kyra as the young lady who organized an Offering of Letters at Albuquerque High School. She has also participated in several Bread for the World and ONE Campaign activities through St. Andrew Presbyterian Church.

Kyra wrote about her experiences in a blog called New Mexico Word: Speaking Out.  The blog was created by Youth Radio especially for youth in New Mexico to write about a variety of topics and experiences. The organization promotes intellectual, creative, and professional growth for young people through education and access to media. Youth Radio’s media education, broadcast journalism, technical training and production activities provide unique opportunities in social, professional and leadership development for youth, ages 14-24.

Kyra's posts are very insightful and informative and provide a wealth of background along with keen observations.  I have included excerpts from each of her posts.  These are real pleasure to read. Click on the headline to read each  full piece.

After 26 hours spent on planes and in the airports and on the runways of Washington DC, Brussels, Belgium, and Dakar, Senegal, and the five hours spent in a taxi, SUV racing along island highways, parked on a packed-to-the-gills ocean ferry, and stuck in a perpetual traffic jam on the streets of the city -- my mother and I finally arrived at our hotel in Freetown, Sierra Leone at 11 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 8, 2010.

On Saturday night (Oct. 9) we walked down the hill from our hotel to the headquarters of the United Nations in Sierra Leone, and the one-time headquarters of the largest UN peacekeeping mission in history, during the Sierra Leonean civil war.  There we met with Michael Schulenburg, the Special Representative of the Secretary General for Sierra Leone.

Although my mother’s main interest for the interview concerned peace keeping and transitional justice, I was able to ask him some questions specifically on the subject of youth.
But now, [the youth] are being reached out to by political parties, and with a voting age of 18, these youth hold huge political clout, which will most like determine the outcome of the upcoming 2012 presidential election.
Sierra Leone youth are defined as people who have not yet found their roots, goals, or role in society.  These youth have been largely left behind by the war:  they are uneducated, unemployed, alienated from traditional backgrounds, and normally to not belong to any community or social groups.   Schulenburg believes this election is a turning point and will determine the country’s future, and if it begins going in a direction of development and sustainability, it will be time for the UN to begin their exit, and give the nation a chance to be self-sustaining.

Day 2: Freetown, a place of traditional, modern, secular

Freetown is an interesting mix of the traditional, modern, and secular.  One second, you will see women walking down the street in traditional African dress; as, the next second you will see groups of boys in Western sports jerseys or polo shirts with the collars popped.  There are also signs advertising cell phone companies (Africell and Zing seem to be the major players), banks; reality TV shows; and, other signs advocating for education and development, and promoting AIDS prevention and domestic violence prevention.

Moreover, people wander the streets, and sit on street corners, just being a part of the general chaos.

I found all the sites we visited to be particularly impressive, but the secondary school interested me the most personally.  There, we were greeted by the entire (and extremely attentive and respectful) student body.
The school also doesn’t have enough funding to pay their teachers, with four of them working on a purely volunteer status currently.
During our meeting, the Principal informed us how the school was lacking in equipment (dictionaries, sports jerseys and soccer balls, and laboratory equipment) and money to provide the students with financial need (most of them) with scholarships.  (CD Peace had explained to us earlier how these scholarships are determined, by financial need obviously, but also by academic merit and “politeness.”)  The school also doesn’t have enough funding to pay their teachers, with four of them working on a purely volunteer status currently.

Like many schools in the area, one of their current focuses is to specifically target female students, and by the size of their female student body, they seem to be somewhat successful.

We were able to get in some good people-watching again; and this time, as it was a school day, the sidewalks were crowded with children, who were dressed in uniforms of all different colors and designs, walking in packs with their classmates. Although there are many signs of growth and development throughout the city, there are also many reminders of the war, including several amputees we saw walking, on crutches, and in wheelchairs, along the roads we traveled.

During the past few days, we covered a variety of topics and information, but several of the focuses were the Special Court, gender issues and women’s rights, and health care.  The Special Court is a hybrid, international court that was set up at the end of the civil war to prosecute the persons most responsible for the war. After eight years and $150 million (this amount is disputed, many claim the amount is much higher) it has convicted only eight people, (one has died, one is on trial, and several are missing).

Many people are critical of the court, saying that it has been excessively expensive and has diverted funds from many other important efforts (including the TRC). Some people also criticize the small scope of its prosecutions and the underrepresentation of Sierra Leonean justices. On the other hand, many people praise its efforts to hold some of the most responsible for the war accountable, and how it has helped to create a culture of justice and applied international law in Sierra Leone.

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