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Struggling with sustainability in Sierra Leone by Prof. Dan Rohlf

Posted by: | May 12, 2014 Comments Off on Struggling with sustainability in Sierra Leone by Prof. Dan Rohlf |

Even more so than in Cambodia, sustainability seems like a very abstract concept in Sierra Leone, West Africa. I say this because I am the village of Sembehun, far upcountry and about a dozen miles from the one highway in the country. Relative to almost everyone in the village, I live well because I am an honored visitor. Moreover, I study and teach about sustainability. Nonetheless, even I have a hard time thinking beyond my own needs and comforts here in Sembehun; it is not hard to understand how people who live such places see as an almost frivolous luxury anything more than doing what will insure basic survival.

Unlike our trip to Cambodia, I’ve not come to Sierra Leone to see any famous sites. Aside from a scenic but essentially undeveloped Atlantic coastline, there is little for a tourist to see here. A wildlife safari is also pretty much out of the question; the elephants, primates, and other animals are now virtually gone, their populations long since hunted out and their habitat mostly destroyed. Most of the lush tropical forest that formerly blanketed the land has been logged by multinational targeting valuable species such as mahogany, then finished off by local people seeking wood for building or simply for fuel.

Instead of tourism, we’re here to see long-time family friends. My wife Lori was a Peace Corps volunteer in the remote town of Buedu from 1985-87, and we’ve come to see the man – and his large extended family – who took her under his wing and was almost a father to her during those years. Sembehun is his native village where he spends part of his time after retiring from years as a teacher and school administrator.

Here is what is outside the cement house where I am typing (using solely battery power): The tortuous red dirt road from the highway to the village varies between difficult and nearly impassable – and the rainy season has only just begun. But most of the 300-400 people who live in here rarely travel. Perhaps 60-70% of the population are under 25 years old. It is unusual to see a man between the ages of 30-40; many of them were killed during Sierra Leone’s violent and senseless war that started in the mid-1990s and lasted into the 21st century. Lori’s friend and his family survived only by fleeing Buedu to nearby Guinea, where they lived in huge refugee camps for nearly eight years. Children, however, are everywhere; women commonly have their first child when they are 15 or 16 years old and have four or five after that. Almost as soon as a child can walk, he or she has the run of the village with virtually no adult supervision. My impromptu juggling lessons routinely attract a crowd of 40 or more kids, jostling each other for a closer look at the tall white stranger tossing rocks into the air. From my efforts at teaching them the trick, my nickname among the village throng is “Throw Throw Catch Catch.”

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under: General, International

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