Democracy Begins with the Right to Speak
By Elizabeth McSheffrey
I’ve gone over these words again and again since my first day in Sierra Leone. Democracy begins with the right to speak – simple words that pack a powerful punch in a country where voices are often oppressed. Coming from a country like Canada, it’s difficult to truly appreciate their meaning, but the more time I spend here, the more I understand.
It’s been six weeks since I left home for this small West African country. Now that I’ve settled, people keep asking me, “So how do you like Sierra Leone?” I wish I could come up with a more descriptive answer than “good” or “fine,” but the question is deceptive in its simplicity.
Sierra Leone is not a place that can be described in a phrase or two. In Freetown, Sierra Leone is chipped paint and crumbling buildings. It is busy markets and red dirt roads. Outside the capital, Sierra Leone is bare feet and palm trees. It is brick huts and water pumps, sponsored by well-known charities. But no matter where you go in this country, you are sure to find smiling faces, a game of pick-up soccer and the most delicious smoked fish you have ever tasted.
But Sierra Leone is more than meets the eye. Despite their cheerful disposition, the people here live a hard life. The country’s past is marked by political violence, an overly-centralized government and a devastating 10-year civil war. As a result, marginalized groups have struggled to participate in civil and political decision-making. For many years now, the voices of women, the poor and the rural community have been left out.
Democracy begins with the right to speak – this is the motto of the Independent Radio Network, the media station I work for in Freetown. Partnered with Search for Common Ground, IRN uses radio programs as a platform for these voices to participate in political discourse. They believe this inclusion is vital to peacebuilding, which can help bridge the gap between living and surviving in Sierra Leone.
Before I came here, I had never really thought about the difference between the two. Again, coming from a country like Canada, I never had to. Where I’m from, we have the incredible luxury of defining ‘living’ as we please. For some, it means a big house and a custom convertible. For others, it is beautiful scenery, the love of a family and a glass of 12-year-old scotch. Either way, the important thing is that we’re free to choose.
But many of the people here are not so lucky. In Freetown’s slums, the definition of living is often restricted to that of surviving. And in one of the poorest countries in the world, hoping for more is a luxury most can’t afford. As I passed by tiny children, tummies bloated from malnutrition, I wondered if they would ever be in a position to demand better for their lives – to insist they be able to live rather than get by, to pursue their own interests and shape the country they live in. As they continue to grow, they can talk about it all they want, but that doesn’t mean anyone will hear them.
Back in the city, I decided to collect some voices of my own and find out more about what ‘living’ means to the average Sierra Leonean. “I want to be a great stage actor,” said my colleague Ezekiel when I asked him. His eyes lit up at the thought, but dimmed just as quickly. Unfortunately, he said, pursing these dreams is not the cards – not here, anyway.
“The government doesn’t listen to what you want,” he said. “There is no appreciation for talent here, they don’t care. Instead I have to go to school and be a doctor or a manager.”
On the walk from work that day, I stopped to talk to a group of school girls that has taken to following me to and from the office. Usually, they walk behind me with their hips waving and their chests out, and freeze when I turn around and pretend not to know they’re making fun of me. This time, instead of playing our usual game I asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up.
They looked at me as though they had never been asked such a question before. After a moment of deliberation, one of them said firmly, “a teacher.” The rest giggled and said they didn’t know. Their indecisiveness surprised me – at their age, I had already decided to be a princess, a firefighter and an artist. Like the children in the slums, these girls have the freedom to speak – what they are missing, is the opportunity.
In the last six weeks, I have learned a great deal about the difference between living and surviving. I have come to understand that opportunity is an important stepping stone between them, and regulates the fine line between ‘getting by’ and pursuing happiness. Freedom must include choice, and for years, choice has been limited in Sierra Leone. Search for Common Ground and IRN are trying to improve the odds by giving people a voice on the radio. After all, democracy may begin with the right to speak, but the right to speak begins with the opportunity.
Elizabeth McSheffrey is part of the SFCG international internship program and is working with the Independent Radio Network (IRN) in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Her current responsibilities at IRN involve website design, technical/production assistance, and program evaluation for the network’s 25 member radio stations. She is a recent graduate of Carleton University’s journalism program, an avid traveler, and an aspiring foreign correspondent.