Sierra Leone’s First Post-war Traffic Light
Amber for recovery – After years of war, progress of sorts
May 14th 2016 Economist
Multi-coloured minibuses, shabby motorbike-taxis, white four-wheel-drives and battered jeeps stream through the centre of Freetown, overtaking on both sides, hooting as they go. A few strategically positioned cops try to control the flow by waving sticks and yelling at bad drivers over a cacophony of horns. They act as inefficient human traffic lights, with the added power to stop helmetless bikers and extract small bribes from them with the threat of a visit to the police station.
Until this month, Sierra Leone had not seen a real traffic light in more than 14 years. They were all stolen and sold for scrap during a civil war that lasted, off and on, from 1991 to 2002. During that period rebel armies rampaged through the country, terrorising civilians and sometimes chopping off their hands. Hungry for booty, they grabbed whatever they could carry off, from livestock to diamonds, aid shipments, televisions, cars—and traffic lights.
So Sierra Leone’s first post-war traffic light, which now stands proudly at a busy crossroads in downtown Freetown, is more than just a tool to ease congestion. The president’s spokesman, Abdulai Bayraytay, says it represents “a transformation. We are moving forward as a country; the light is part of our reconstruction effort.” Erected on President Ernest Bai Koroma’s personal instructions, it is supposed to be the first of many that will appear around the country in the years to come.
As well as demonstrating the nation’s recovery, Mr Bayraytay believes that the light will also help reduce corruption. “The traffic police are perceived as being very corrupt, and if we limit human contact in road services there will be less misconduct,” he says.
For all the government’s efforts to portray a single traffic light as a symbol of progress, it also serves as a reminder that the country’s recovery has a long way to go. Growth has averaged 5.1% a year since the war ended. But if you stroll to the heaving junction where the light is, you will see that it works fitfully, blinking only with an amber bulb. Road users, many of whom have never seen a traffic light before, are cheerfully oblivious.
It may be just a matter of time until the light is working properly. But a cynic might speculate that it is purely for show. Sierra Leone is gearing up for elections, with parliamentary and presidential polls due next year. Symbols are becoming rather more important than anything so mundane as managing the traffic.
SEA CUCUMBERS – Silver in the deep. But locals lose out
Apr 2nd 2016 Economist
The sea cucumber—a warty, sausage-shaped creature that feeds on the ocean floor—can sell for half its weight in silver in the markets of Guangzhou in southern China. This fleshy sea-slug is prized as a delicacy, a traditional medicine reputedly capable of curing joint pain and fatigue, and a natural aphrodisiac. As overexploitation has depleted stocks throughout Asia, merchants have sought the creature further afield. Six years ago, two Chinese traders discovered that the waters around Sierra Leone’s Banana Island were teeming with sea cucumbers; islanders have been diving for them ever since.
The leathery echinoderms only emerge from their hiding-places in the dark. So when night falls, Emmanuel Pratt slides out to sea in his brightly-painted canoe. Wearing a wetsuit and flippers, he takes a last drag of his cigarette before pulling a mask down over his face, and slipping into the dark water. Moments later the beam of his waterproof torch appears a dozen feet down as he searches for his new livelihood.
When the Chinese traders, known to the islanders only as Mr Cham and Mr Lee, first turned up, locals say they promised to use some of the profits from the sea-cucumber trade to boost the islanders’ quality of life. A motorboat, a community centre, solar panels and water pumps were promised in exchange for being allowed to operate there. Six years on, a group of young men sit on empty petrol cans in the rundown village of Dublin, passing a spliff around in the pitch dark. “They delivered nothing,” says another diver. “The traders made a lot of money and we didn’t get any of it.”
Similar words have echoed throughout Sierra Leonean history. For centuries foreigners have come to buy its resources—gold, diamonds, bauxite—but the country remains one of the world’s poorest, with a GDP per head of less than $800 a year. Yet despite the old complaint, most of the island’s young men are grateful that the Chinese came. They still get paid about $1 per cucumber.
“I did not have any work before, I had no plans, but now I have a trade. I built my house with the sea-cucumber money,” says Mr Pratt. He proudly gestures to his cement house. Painted lime green, it stands out against the other ramshackle clapboard structures. Imagine how much more could be built if the islanders got a grip on their own resources.