Today Sierra Leone has crippling unemployment. As Bob Howard found out in Freetown, jobs are hard to come by, especially for the young. He asks – “when jobs do appear, shouldn’t they go to people who merit the position, rather than those who are best connected?”
This is Bob Howard’s story about freelance grave diggers and bootleg parking attendants, broadcast on BBC Radio 4:
‘Banks warn of spending squeeze amid solid growth’, was how the Daily Telegraph (UK) reported the Bank of England’s latest growth forecast this week, while the Sierra Leone Telegraph opted for “Wobbling like the midriff of a belly dancer” to describe its country’s economy.
An editorial (in the Sierra Leone Telegraph) raged at politicians, whom it accuses of stealing the future of the young, and being “as useful as a pair of sunglasses on a blind man with only one ear”.
After a long civil war and the more recent Ebola outbreak, some things are improving in the country. But it remains one of the poorest nations in the world.
In the Ascension Town Cemetery in the country’s capital Freetown, the graves vary from the ostentatious with raised white pillars and pink surrounds, to plots with just a simple headstone.
It has been a burial ground for generations. When there is a funeral there are mourners, and most of the time there are people visiting family graves as well.
But in recent years there is a third contingent. They are called friends of the dead. They are local young men without jobs, hoping to get tips from bereaved relatives, by guiding them to find their loved ones or helping them to dig graves.
They don’t attract much comment here, as everybody in Sierra Leone is used to people living from hand to mouth.
More than half the young adult population is unemployed. Abu-bakarr is a typical friend of the dead. He is thirty years old but looks younger. He is wearing a white tee shirt and a heavy silver coloured necklace. Abu-Bakarr has a wife and three children, his daughters are six and seven years old, his son was born just a week ago.
Working in the cemetery he makes about two pounds a day, and with that he has to look after his wife and children and pay their school fees. If he is ill or he can’t even make that much money, his father-in-law helps out.
Albert does not even have that sort of help to fall back on. He is twenty-five – an orphan and unmarried. But the last three years he has got by reserving parking spaces in central Freetown by placing old tyres in the road, hoping grateful drivers would tip him twenty or thirty pence for his trouble.
Albert has ambitions. He wants to drive a taxi or deliver goods. He is saving money. But he estimates that to take lessons, pass his tests and set himself up, would cost six hundred pounds.
While he earns just three dollars a day, I wonder how he will ever save up so much. Life is tough here even if you are a graduate.
Humu recently gained a first class degree in mass communication, and wants to be a press officer or journalist. But she says many employers stop accepting applications long before the official closing date. That’s because – she says, it’s already been decided who will get the position.
In Sierra Leone I hear, it is who you know and not the qualification or experience you have which will land you a role.
Humu has volunteered as a teacher to gain work experience, but job ads often stipulate that applicants have five years experience in their chosen field, so she is stuck in her parent’s modest house looking on line for work.
She says her younger sisters can’t understand what she is doing back at home with mum and dad when she graduated with such a good degree. She lights the charcoal to make a lunch of rice and groudnut soup for the family, and to distract herself from her predicament – even if only for an hour.
To help people like Albert, Abu-bakarr and Humu, Sierra Leone has a Youth Ministry. The Minister himself – Bai Mamoud Bangura is just thirty-six years old. He is casually dressed and looks youthful.
The sound system from a trade fair outside his office at the National stadium promoting Sierra Leonean goods, provides a musical backdrop to our conversation.
He says employment is a relative term and most Sierra Leoneans are in fact self-employed. He says earning a living temporarily doesn’t tie you into a particular job for life. Look at me he says, I started off as a barber, now I am a minister.
Even those who have found jobs can find they are in a completely different role from the one they had hoped for.
Abdullah grew up far from Freetown. His parents sold bananas to make a living. After he arrived in the capital, it took him ten years to finish high school, as he worked to support himself.
He then went on to university to qualify as a para-medic. Now he is a cashier in a Freetown hotel.
After his mother died in childbirth and his father passed away last year, he has to provide for his younger brothers and sisters. He didn’t know anybody who could get him a job as a para-medic, so he didn’t feel he had much choice when an uncle found him this position at the hotel.
Sierra Leone has survived a great deal: a terrible civil war, entrenched poverty, and the recent outbreak of Ebola. A perfectly balanced economy with plenty of jobs for all, was never going to appear overnight.
But when jobs do appear, shouldn’t they go to people who merit the position, rather than those who are best connected?