Diamonds are not for dinner

Half of the population of Sierra Leone was displaced by the brutal and senseless civil war that raged in the country from 1991 until 2002. During that time, more than two million people fled their villages and farms as rebels terrorized them and others joined the fray. Because of this and the destruction of the nation’s infrastructure, by the end of the war, Sierra Leonean farmers were producing just over half of the staple rice consumed in the country. By 2007, they had upped their output and were producing nearly three-quarters of its rice needs. And that, thanks mostly to small-scale farmers toiling in rice swamps and mixed upland farms. They did so without much support from anyone; at that time family farming just wasn’t a priority with major donors and governments.

Then in 2008, in the wake of the global financial meltdown and fuel and food crises, some new and powerful players suddenly turned their attention to farms, or rather, to land as an asset in their portfolios. Foreign investors suddenly saw farmland as the new “gold, only more profitable” and set about acquiring enormous tracts of arable land in Africa, some just speculating on the new asset and some because they planned to turn the land into giant offshore farms that would turn Africans into lowly wage labourers (if they were lucky) or landless peasants on their own land in their own countries. Foreign donors and African governments alike began to clamour for the transformation of the family farm from a way of life into agribusiness, and large mechanized farms that would conform to economies of scale.

Jusu-Kamara-close-V-225x300The experts drawing up the blueprints for millions of lives in Africa almost invariably repeated the assumption that young people prefer city life and that they don’t want to work the land the way their parents and their forefathers did. Sierra Leone’s national rice development strategy was developed jointly by Japanese International Cooperation and the Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa, that like AGRA was funded by the Rockefeller and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundations. Neither of these have much in common with the very people they claim to be trying to help, namely the unemployed Sierra Leonean youth or the hard-working Sierra Leonean farming families.

This doesn’t prevent them from speaking on behalf of the youths and farmers. In a blueprint for a rice strategy in the country, the Coalition for African Rice Development make this statement: “The existing labour intensive farming is no longer attractive to the youths who are drawn to urban areas for easier jobs.”

Easier jobs? Doing what? Working as a watchman for a foreign-owned security company twelve hours a day, six days a week, for just over one dollar a day? Peddling on the streets a backpack of pirated DVD collections from Asia? Making a few cents a day selling top-up credit for mobile phones? Or worse, begging? Stealing to feed themselves?

The Coalition for African Rice Development that wrote Sierra Leone’s national rice development strategy, didn’t offer a reference or citation for its sweeping generalization about youth and farming and the draw of “easier jobs” in urban areas. Yet this is the assumption on which the entire strategy to modernize agriculture is based. It is used by experts to justify their push for larger, mechanized farms that fit the corporate food system, which focus on profits, privatization of nature, monocultures and economies of scale, at the expense of food sovereignty, crop diversity and ecological sustainability, and of course, the wealth of diverse foods.

The development of industrial agriculture benefits the corporations with technology to sell — seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and those seeking a handful of raw materials for the industrial food chain. They also assume, fallaciously, that there is oodles of land available for foreign investors, “idle” or “under-used” land that the local people don’t know how to exploit correctly, which can be taken over to provide the youth unwilling to work their own intensive family farms any more with paying jobs as farm labourers.

It all fits beautifully with the other assumption being bandied about by the experts to rationalize and justify the takeover of the farmland of the world’s poorest by the world’s richest, namely that traditional farming systems are ineffective, unproductive, inefficient and dispensable. That the only way forward is, well, the corporate one — a food chain controlled from the farm to the fork by gargantuan financial and corporate groups. That it’s actually good for Africans to give over their arable land to foreigners, to bankers, and that when bankers, brokers and private equity, hedge and pension fund managers become the new farmers, all will be well down on the giant industrial plantation.

Easier jobs?

I set out to do some informal testing of these assumptions. First in Freetown and then the town of Koidu where so many young people are working very hard indeed in the labour intensive artisanal diamond mines — holes they dig deep into the earth in search of increasingly elusive and rare alluvial diamonds. Then in villages, to see if it’s true that they don’t want to work as farmers any more, to see how people eat and live in urban areas, in the diamond mines and in rural farming communities. I begin in the shantytowns of Freetown, far from the bright lights of Lumley Beach bars and glitzy expatriate hang-outs. It takes hours to drive the ten or so kilometres from the west side of the capital, through the seething mess of its downtown and then east along Kissy Road, a two-lane stretch of chaos that can hardly be avoided to get in or out of the city centre.

When we reach Calaba Town, a shanty area crawling its way up the steep side of a mountain, I stumble and pant my way up the steep mud path to meet Jusu. He’s dressed in a green t-shirt bearing the image of the former leader of the political party that was defeated in 2007, a pair of brown shorts and flip-flops. He’s bone thin. He squats in the shade of a tree in front of a large mound of stones. His job? Breaking the stones using a small chunk of metal that may once have been part of a hammer. He does this all day. Every day. He says he sometimes has trouble with his eyes because of the flying stone chips and his hands are calloused and scarred. He rents a place to sleep in a tiny tin (pan-bodi in Krio) shack. He can’t afford anything but a meagre bowl of rice each day. He sent his wife and five-year-old daughter away to stay with an uncle, hoping that they will at least be able to eat better there. Each time he sells a pan of stones (they’re used in construction), he takes some of the money to his wife. A pan of small stones — two days of work — sells for 3,400 Leones, or about 75 US cents. He says he’s lucky if he sells one pan a week.

"Here in Freetown, I eat once a day in the evening. In the village we grow our own food and we eat three times a day, plantains, bananas, cocoyams. Fruit we just pluck from the trees."

“Here in Freetown, I eat once a day in the evening. In the village we grow our own food and we eat three times a day, plantains, bananas, cocoyams. Fruit we just pluck from the trees.”

Until the war came, Jusu says his life was fine — his father had a big farm with rice and cocoa. He helped out on the farm and attended school near Kailahun in the fertile east of the country. Then the rebels came, installed themselves in the community, devoured all the farm produce and began to kill people. He and others from the village spent almost ten years on the move, traipsing through the bush to refugee camps in Liberia, fleeing the fighting there too, moving to different refugee camps to escape the Liberian rebels. They eventually made their way back to Freetown. They’d hoped to find largesse with Jusu’s brother, but his brother had already perished. They sought help at a refugee camp in Freetown but were told the war was over and that they should leave.Jusu has been in Calaba Town ever since then, almost ten years now, breaking stones to try to get “a living”. All he wants to do is to go back home to farm. “Here in Freetown, I eat once a day in the evening. In the village we grow our own food and we eat three times a day, plantains, bananas, cocoyams, [sweet] potatoes. Fruit we just pluck from the trees.” He says he hasn’t been able to afford a banana in years, something that he could eat whenever he wanted in his home village.

In all, I meet and listen to the stories of ten men and women living in Freetown, who hail from rural farming communities. Every one of them is dreaming of going back home to take up farming again, but cannot afford even the transport to do so, and cannot arrive back home in the village empty-handed. Every one that I meet says that living in the city is hell. I’m thinking that the international financial and development institutions and their experts that maintain the youth do not want to farm, that they prefer the lights of the big city where jobs are “easier”, haven’t spent much time in Freetown speaking with displaced rural youth who want nothing more than to go home to work the land.

Diamonds are not for dinner

The situation is no different in the diamond-mining areas around Koidu, where the jobs available are neither attractive nor easy. Tamba spends his days digging in the diamond pits, knee-deep in brackish filthy water that collects in the holes, being devoured by mut-mut, tiny blackflies that turn exposed flesh into a burning red itch. For his toil, he is paid 1,000 Leones a day (about 25 US cents), plus one cup of rice. Tamba too comes from a farming community, where, “before the war, things were good. Life was peaceful. We did farming, growing rice, cassava, corn, groundnuts, vegetables and other things like cocoa, coffee and oil palm.”

“If you put a seed in the ground, you know what will come up.” Not the same with diamonds.

“If you put a seed in the ground, you know what will come up.” Not the same with diamonds.

He also fled during the war, spent years roaming about with his family, and he’s decided he will quit the diamond business that brings him nothing and try cutting firewood and selling it in bundles. He can sell a bundle for 200 Leones, that’s about 5 US cents, but he still think that will bring more income than the futile digging for diamonds. “Here,” he says simply, “I suffer.”

He dreams only of having the means to make his way back to his village, to farm on his family land. “If you put a seed in the ground,” Tamba says, “you know what will come up.” Not the same with diamonds. His story is fairly typical of those of a dozen men and women who speak to me in and around Koidu — not one wishes to stay in the town or have anything more to do with diamond mining or the hand-to-mouth existence they have as petty traders in and around the hard-luck town. They say that their family lands and tree-crop plantations are suffering without the youth there to do the weeding or  “brushing” in the cocoa and coffee stands, and the work of sowing, weeding, harvesting and processing crops on the farms.

So there are definitely problems with the assumption that all young people wish to live in cities where there are “easier jobs”. But this is the very basis on which the plans are being hatched by government, financial institutions and foreign investors to develop the country’s agricultural sector. Rather than family farms, they want large mechanized agribusinesses and industrial plantations that cover thousands of hectares. They say this will create jobs, but fail to consider how many jobs — on family farms — will be lost forever. The consolidation of family farms and the large-scale takeover of African farmland threaten to drive still more rural people into urban shantytowns and sentence them to lives of crushing poverty, hunger and suffering.

But my informal research is not yet finished. So far I’ve spoken only to people who have been living in involuntary internal exile in Freetown and Koidu since the war, whose dreams of going home have yet to be fulfilled. How do people who have already returned to their villages to farm feel about their lives and livelihoods now that they are back in their rural homes? To find out, I need to head out that way to intrude on local lives for some days, in the east of the country.

Painful memories, hard times . . . and happy to be back home and farming

In the village of Sandiyah I meet the young farming couple of Aminata and Philip. They are eager to show off their farm, but first they want to tell their stories. We gather on the small mud porch of their two-room, mud home. Aminata and Philip sit beside each other on a worn wooden bench, their only son Ansu playing at their knees with a little pink and white stuffed monkey. I am invited to sit in a wooden chair that has been fetched for me.

Aminata begins. Philip sits quietly with his hand resting on her thigh, and I have the impression it’s intended to both comfort and encourage her as she relives the pain of her recent past. Translated from the Krio in which she tells it, this is her story. “Before the war, we ate well,” she says. “My father had cocoa, we grew rice. I went to school in the morning, and I ate before school and then after school as well. We all worked together. I had already met Philip and we were talking about getting married.”

Then, the rebels marched in from Liberia. They told the people of Sandiyah to gather up all the chickens and to slaughter and cook them for them. Next they captured all the dogs in the village and ate those. After that, they slaughtered and devoured the community’s goats and sheep.

“The rebel named Killer came to take me,” Aminata continues. “I said to him ‘I’m a virgin and I don’t do this’. So he said, ‘That is the kind of woman we like, sweet.’ My father attempted to intervene to save me and the rebels pushed him to the ground and cut his throat right before me. So I said to Killer, ‘You have killed my father, now kill me.’ He said, ‘No, I want to take you as my wife [have sex with you] by force.’ He raped me, in front of everyone, right in front of my father’s body. They force me down at gunpoint. My mother was seeing this from the kitchen behind and she was shouting at me, ‘Agree, agree, [don’t fight back] so they don’t kill you!’”

Aminata speaks quietly, steadily, without a hint of what it must do to her to remember this. Philip looks straight ahead and his comforting hand doesn’t move from her leg. It’s as if the story is about someone else, from another life, and they’ve found a safe distance from which to contemplate horror. I’m having trouble writing it down; my hands are shaking, my throat aches and I struggle to blink back tears. I don’t know whether it’s because of her story or the way she is telling it, sitting there beside Phillip with such remarkable equanimity and resilience?

“The rebels went back to their camp in Giema, and my mother said we should all go into the bush and hide,” Aminata continues. “We were able to bury my father in a shallow grave that night. Then we all went into the bush, scattered in different places. I knew my boyfriend Philip was there somewhere too.”

Aminata describes how the rebels came and gathered up young men scattered in the bush around the village and told them to go hunting and bring animals to eat because all the dogs and livestock were finished. The rebel who called himself Superman told them to come with five “beef” [animals]. They were only able to find and hunt three — one a cutting grass, one a kind of porcupine and another a small antelope. Superman said that he was going to complete his unfulfilled order for five animals with people. “He slaughtered two men on the spot,” she says quietly.

I stop writing. I can’t make myself put on paper the next part of the story and the horrors the rebels inflicted on the villagers of Sandiyah. After this, Aminata says, they scattered into the bush, erecting small thatch huts — the “mansions” they put up for farming season — in which they hid, struggling to survive on what plants and animals they could gather and hunt. But it was not enough, so Aminata and some other teenage girls roamed further in search of food. She never saw her mother after that.

Rebels captured the young women and put them to work carrying loads of looted crops from other communities. Then soldiers from the Sierra Leone army recaptured them and accused them of being rebels and sent them to the military camp at Daru. There a soldier befriended her, took her as his “wife” and told her she would be safer in the town of Kenema, which the rebels had not succeeded in taking. He escorted her there in a military vehicle, but was killed himself in an ambush on the way back to the military camp near Daru.

Aminata was taken in by a friend, who became her “sister” and convinced her to join a convoy to Freetown. Aminata found a room with an aunt of her new sister, who allowed her to use the veranda of her tiny hut in eastern Freetown as a hairdressing salon. On good days, she could earn half a dollar and feed herself. On bad days, she had no choice but to sell other services to survive.

Philip picks up the story, taking me back to his own days of bare survival and suffering in the bush, of witnessed horrors. The last time he saw his mother and father was near the beginning of the war, in about 1993, when they were hiding in the bush near Sandiyah. Then he and seven of his friends were captured by the rebels and taken to their camp in Giema. They managed to escape from the rebel camp but were then caught by soldiers, who killed six of them, accusing them of being rebels. He too was taken to Daru, and survived a horrendous battle between soldiers and rebels in which rebel leader Rambo was killed. He eventually joined a military convoy headed to Kenema, surviving two ambushes. When the rebels attacked Kenema, he decided that he needed to seek sanctuary in Freetown, where over the next ten years he eked out his survival washing vehicles, cleaning gutters, drying fish, making charcoal on the eastern outskirts of the capital.

Aminata picks up the tale again. She was in a transport van, a poda poda, on her way to visit a relative on the other side of Freetown when she spied Philip, her long-lost boyfriend, standing on the roadside. “I cried. Tears were streaming down my face,” she says. “I got out and call to him. He come and hold me and I was shamed because my body be so down [she had lost so much weight and was so thin], my hair rough, my clothes rags. I felt so bad. I wept.” Philip bought her some second-hand clothes and brought them to her in a plastic bag, and every weekend he made his way across town to visit her, bring her a bit of money if he had it, sometimes as much as 2,000 Leones [50 cents].

When the “scouts” from the youth reintegration project came and asked them if they wished to go back home to their village, they were ecstatic, but still sceptical until Philip joined the earlier group of household heads. Three months later, Aminata and other dependents followed. “When I sat in that vehicle, my plan was to close my eyes until I reached my home,” she says. “I didn’t want to see anything until I got home. But we stopped in Bo [second largest town in Sierra Leone] on the way and they gave us food, one plate of rice and plasas (leafy sauce) and fish each. It was so long since I had eaten like this, so I ate every piece on my plate. And as our vehicle entered the village, we started to sing. Philip was there waiting for me and the whole village sang and danced for three days.”

At this point, Philip and Aminata have now been home in their village for eight months. They still haven’t managed to build a new house. At the moment, they and their one tiny son sleep along with fourteen other people in Philip’s uncle’s house — sharing two tiny bedrooms and the “parlour”. But they are happy, and as soon as they stop speaking about the past, their joy at their current situation is palpable. They ask to be “snapped” again and in the photograph they radiate happiness, health and hope.

“We eat three times a day now that we are home,” says Philip. “We eat whenever we are hungry, and we eat all the things we could not have in the city. Cassava and plantain and banana and fruit and vegetable.” He spreads his arms and grins. “We have our food right here! We can eat everything. We are healthy now.”

He shows me a tiny nursery where he is producing oil palm seedlings to plant in his tree-crop plantation, left to him by his father, family land that was not touched all those years he was away. Today he produces organic cocoa, for which he is being paid close to a dollar a pound. Philip and Aminata pose for photographs in front of a lush garden full of cocoyam and vegetables of all kinds. Then they lead me down a path towards their rice swamp. This means passing by the village school, where our presence puts a temporary end to morning classes as the children, in their neat blue uniforms, come running to greet the white visitor, screaming and leaping with unselfconscious excitement. The school is crowded and the teachers are poorly paid — some are volunteers paid only with food and shelter.

Wealth and poverty take many forms

Life is certainly not easy and there are no modern amenities for many miles around and the road to the nearest town, Kailahun, is barely passable for much of the year.

“We eat three times a day now that we are home,” says Philip. “We eat whenever we are hungry, and we eat all the things we could not have in the city. Cassava and plantain and banana and fruit and vegetable.”

“We eat three times a day now that we are home,” says Philip. “We eat whenever we are hungry, and we eat all the things we could not have in the city. Cassava and plantain and banana and fruit and vegetable.”

the monetary poverty is tempered by the solidarity, the self-sufficiency, the security of a village of farmers in peace time. Aminata must be thinking the same thing; she suddenly recalls for me the kinds of poverty they suffered in the capital, where they had no money to feed themselves and social poverty merely added to their misery, in the dank heat of a crowded city plagued by malaria-carrying mosquitoes and filth.

The village is remarkably clean; there is no plastic litter and the mud paths have been swept. The teachers gather the children and call them back into the small classrooms, and we continue our way down to the rice swamp, which is vibrant green. Once they’ve harvested the rice — they expect to get several tonnes from the seven acres — they intend to plant peanuts and take advantage of the rich soil during the dry season. The swamp is surrounded by tree-crop plantations that are so diverse that they are indistinguishable (to my untrained eye) from original forest. As we wander back to the house, they lay out their dreams that are rapidly becoming plans. They would like to have two more children, no more, because “too many children is not good”. One should grow up to be a teacher, another a farmer and the third a doctor. They hope that their harvests will not just feed them but provide enough income that eventually they will be able to build a new home — a mud house with four rooms and a zinc roof. They will continue to farm but also hope to do some petty trading, set up a little stand of goods that they can sell on their porch, salt, Maggi cubes, maybe local soap that Aminata’s sister makes from cocoa and palm oil.

Will they ever leave again, give up on the hard work of farming and move to Freetown in search of better-paid employment?

“No!” they shout, “Never.”

“Is there anything you do miss in the city?” I ask.

Aminata smiles, almost sheepish. “I get used to the tapalapa [baguette-like bread] in Freetown,” she says. “I do miss that sometimes.”

Aminata and Philip are just one of fifty-two families that have been helped back to their village by a German-funded reintegration project, to resume their lives that were so violently and cruelly interrupted by the war. Since the young people returned to the village, the community has benefited enormously from their strength and energy in rejuvenating the rice swamps and tree-crop plantations, and from their ideas. Sandiyah was all but demolished by the war, and today it is being rebuilt. It is festooned with signboards from some of the cooperatives and buyers who are now providing a relatively lucrative and steady market for local organic cocoa and providing training and materials to the people of the village to improve the production and processing of the cocoa beans. Old rifts that once existed between the elders who excluded the youth from community decision-making, which fed into the discontent that allowed the rebellion to take hold in the country, are now gone.

The Town Chief in Sandiyah, Saffa Brima Konuwah, is happy the youth are back, despite the problem with accommodation. He says it is absolutely normal that the youths were given the land that their fathers left.

“The land,” he says, “is for all of us. So we gave them swamps for rice and for small gardens for the women.” He says to really improve life in the village, they would like to have a small market, micro-credit for the women to do business, a Court Barray [covered public meeting place for townhall meetings], storage facilities for crops, a rice mill, a water well and a drying floor for the rice and other crops to improve their quality and reduce losses caused by mould and pests. If they had that, he says, they would have everything they needed.

“We have so much cocoa, we have so much food,” says the Chief.

I’m flummoxed. On one hand, the World Bank and major donors are calling for a complete transformation of family farming that they call ineffective and inefficient, something they claim young people no longer want to do. Other the other hand, there is the evidence I’ve been collecting from real people — formerly rural people who are stuck suffering and hungry in cities and dreaming of returning to the farm, and from those living in villages and enjoying the simple fact that they can eat three times a day, eat well, and enjoy being back in their communities, far from the social ills and misery of urban areas.

Someone doesn’t have it right. That someone, it seems to me, is not the people who are speaking for themselves. I move about in the village trying to see past the lack of modern amenities to the qualities that make it a happy home for Aminata and Phillip. I walk past the one-armed tailor producing beautiful dresses and school uniforms using his antique treadle sewing machine. A group of women offer me a lesson on how to make “black soap” from cocoa pods and palm kernel oil. I watch a group of toddlers playing with bits of wood and plastic, pause for a few moments in the shade on the veranda of the chief’s house to listen to the men gathered there joking and talking, then wander down the mud road a piece listening to the muted sounds of voices in the afternoon heat marvelling at the artistry of their lush vegetable gardens.

Poverty and wealth take many forms — and as I’ve learned from Aminata and Philip, peace itself is wealth and its dividend for them is their livelihoods, life back in the village where they can farm and produce food to feed themselves and to earn income to build their lives, however modest.

Author’s note: From 2007 until 2012, a German-funded project helped 6,500 Sierra Leoneans internally displaced during the war return to their home villages and their farms. This project YOURS (Youth Reintegration Salone), was part of the Employment Promotion Program of Germany’s official international development agency (GIZ).

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