by jim weller
Life is hard for newborns in Sierra Leone. How would you react to seeing it first hand?
How Would You React
Sierra Leone is a third world country. If "fourth world country" were a commonly used term, Sierra Leone would be a fourth world country. Enough said. I can give one example though. I know bartenders and waitresses in Freetown that earn 150,000 Leones (Le:) per month. Le:150,000 is $50 US Dollars, per month! This is not a bad salary here.
Sierra Leone is also somewhat still in the aftermath of a 10 year civil war. Things are normal now, no real unrest, elections that went off without much problem, improvements here and there, small, small, as they say here. But there are reminders, such as people without hands or parts of their arm that were chopped off. Cripples who sit either on the ground or in wheel chairs along the road. Freetown is an overcrowded capital due to citizens who fled the fighting up country to come for the safety of the city. They stayed because there are no jobs or sources of income in the villages and towns.
The result is that Freetown has thousands and thousands of young people who walk up and down the street selling everything you can think of. They come right up to the window of the vehicle and the only thing you can do is ignore them. They sell Sunglasses, kitchen towels, prepaid phone cards, newspapers, bread, cookies, crackers, car mats, tools..........I could go on and on.
Right behind these street walking merchants are the small almost make shift shops that are either shipping containers or constructed of wood and zinc who are selling many of the same items. I always wonder why the shop merchants allow people to peddle the same merchandise right in front of their stores, but, this is Freetown.
Along with this confusion, there are the people who beg for money, old ladies up to 70 and 80 years old who come to the window with forlorn faces gesturing to their mouth wanting something for food. Cripples who follow you in their wheel chairs in slow moving traffic no matter how much you shake your head no or try to ignore them. Young boys and girls, maybe five or six years, leading blind or crippled adults right up to the car window to beg. Do you think these young kids organize themselves; or are the adults forcing them part of the two member team?
Many who have had arms or hands chopped off or mangled come right against the window asking for money. At first it's disturbing but in a short while it becomes a little bit meaningless and you don't pay attention, then finally it actually becomes annoying. It's part of the deal of being in Sierra Leone, nothing you can really do about it. What you can't do is give money because then they swarm you. Every time you come back you are surrounded.
There are times though that you do still see something that disturbs and make you think. Everyone knows that new born babies need extra special care. They are fragile and life for them has to be protected by their mother. Sierra Leone has a very high infant mortality rate. Health care and facilities are few and not in very good condition. It's a struggle from the start; babies here already have two strikes against them.
So what would your reaction be when a women comes up to your car window while you are stopped in a traffic jam and begs for money, while at the same time holding a baby right against the window. A baby that is at most about two days old, in heavy traffic, people pushing and shoving everywhere, exhaust, dirt, dust, trash, sun beating down at midday, nothing but a tattered and dirty blanket. Not the ideal setting for a new born baby who is crying and most likely starving, or at least very hungry.
The reality, it was most likely not the woman's baby, but a friend or family members who was either lending it out as a prop to make money, or maybe did not know it was being used. The thing was that this woman had another new born wrapped on her back. It was hard to tell how young this one was. My guess is that this was probably her baby, who knows; maybe she was using both and switching them from time to time.
The question still remains. What would your reaction be? How would you feel when a young woman takes an innocent new born baby who can't even open its eyes, struggling in its unknown and much harsher new environment, and puts next to your car window and begs for money, then continues to follow you down the street.
Do you reward her efforts? Do you believe the baby will really benefit if you give the woman something? Maybe, maybe not, but who knows? I won't say how I felt, what I did or what the other two people in the vehicle with me thought or did. I will say this; I was not shocked or outraged. That might tell you something about this place. It was enough of a disturbing site to cause me to consider it later that day, which also tells you something of how hard this place can make you.
The truth is that life can be cheap in Sierra Leone, especially for the new members of the family, and their mothers.