The World is Flatter
Published: January 1, 2013
Josh Haner/The New York Times
Last week's events in Sierra Leone were truly historic, although we may not know for years or even decades what their final meaning is. It is impossible not to be tantalized by the potential of these events to change the course of Sierra Leone's history. What's important, however, is that we focus on what this means on the street. The current administration seems too caught up in spinning the facts to pay attention to how their people are doing. Just call it missing the battle for the bullets.
When thinking about the recent turmoil, it's important to remember three things: One, people don't behave like car salesmen, so attempts to treat them as such are going to come across as foreign. Car salesmen never suddenly set up a black market for Western DVDs. Two, Sierra Leone has spent decades being batted back and forth between colonial powers, so a mindset of peace and stability will seem foreign and strange. And three, freedom is an extraordinarily powerful idea: If corruption is Sierra Leone's ironing board, then freedom is certainly its tabletop.
When I was in Sierra Leone last January, I was amazed by the level of Westernization for such a closed society, and that tells me two things. It tells me that the citizens of Sierra Leone have no shortage of potential entrepreneurs, and that is a good beginning to grow from. Second, it tells me that people in Sierra Leone are just like people anywhere else on this flat earth of ours.
So what should we do about the chaos in Sierra Leone? Well, it's easier to start with what we should not do. We should not ignore the problem and pretend it will go away. Beyond that, we need to be careful to nurture these first inklings of a moderate, modern society. The opportunity is there, but I worry that the path to peace is so strewn with obstacles that Sierra Leone will have to move down it very slowly. And of course Freetown needs to come to the table.
Speaking with a up-and-coming violinist from the large Protestant community here, I asked him if there was any message that he wanted me to carry back home with me. He pondered for a second, and then smiled and said, shad-farin-bin-yamin, which is a local saying that means roughly, "It takes one day to destroy a house but to build a new one will take months, perhaps years."
I don't know what Sierra Leone will be like a few years from now, but I do know that it will probably look very different from the country we see now, even if it remains true to its basic cultural heritage. I know this because, through all the disorder, the people still haven't lost sight of their dreams.