Returnees aim to revitalize Sierra Leone

FREETOWN — Yeniva Sisay-Sogbeh left the United States three years ago to return to her parents’ homeland of Sierra Leone where she runs the Excel Education Program which promotes high achievement and leadership skills.

“I moved back to contribute to the development of this nation,” she said. She’s not alone. Thousands of exiles and refugees are returning to Sierra Leone.

Sierra Leone's civil war ended in 2002, after 11 years of bitter fighting in which an estimated 50,000 people were killed. Now that peace and stability have been established, the government is encouraging people to return to their homeland and play a role in its transformation. Others living abroad are making more frequent trips to the nation now that the infrastructure has become more reliable, perhaps testing the waters before making such a move.

“It’s very encouraging. The diaspora people are coming back in flocks,” said Nikita Johnson, a native Sierra Leonean who left in 1989 and now lives in London, but makes frequent trips to visit family in Freetown. He said he plans to spend more time here this year, looking for positions in the logistics sector. “You see more young people taking up responsible positions,” he said.

That’s the goal. President, Ernest Koroma has extended an open invitation to Sierra Leoneans living abroad to return and be a part of the restoration of the nation.

Yet the uncertainty of a lasting peace has kept some Sierra Leoneans away, said Saidata F. Sesay, deputy minister of information and communications.

“Most of them are (away) because of the fear of the unknown, the horrors of the war, of the doubts they have of the solidarity and permanency of this peace,” she said. “So they need that confidence this government will do whatever it needs to keep the peace.”

Sesay herself lived in Atlanta for more than 10 years. But it didn’t take Koroma’s call to bring her home in 2007.

“After the war I saw a lot of nationalities who were not Sierra Leoneans coming to rebuild this country,” she said.

“I said to myself, ‘Hey, what am I doing? People are risking their lives to go to that country and I’m sitting here enjoying the luxuries that America is providing for me. That is unfair, Americans are going to my country to help turn it around,’” she recalled. “So I said, ‘I have to go back to do my bit. If all these strangers can go there out of love and humanity, why should I not go back?’”

It’s difficult to pin down exactly how many nationals have returned since the end of the war, during which Sierra Leone lost 30 percent of its educated population, according to U.N. estimates. Thousands of Sierra Leoneans remain abroad, with the greatest concentration in the United Kingdom. Sierra Leone's total population is 6.4 million.

Sesay said it’s essential that those who return bring the experience they’ve gained abroad to put some of the Western world’s best practices in place in Sierra Leone, particularly when it comes to areas such as health, governance and finance.

Sisay-Sogbeh’s commitment to “do her bit” hasn’t ended with her Excel education program. She teamed up with nine other returnees to form the Ma Dengn Association. In December, the group hosted the first annual Ma Dengn Festival, a two-day celebration of Salonean culture. “We wanted to showcase Sierra Leone as a melting pot,” Sisay-Sogbeh said. “We are trying to bring back indigenous Sierra Leone culture.”

According to the organizers, Ma dengn is the Kuranko word for "let's meet" or "let's get together."

Several hundred people attended the event held on Lumley Beach in Freetown.

There were dozen of food and arts and crafts vendors on hand, selling everything from “raffias,” straw hats traditionally worn by male beachgoers to local foods such as pepper soup and fufu — boiled cassava roots ground to the consistency of mashed potatoes.

Sisay-Sogbeh said one of the goals was to get local businesses used to participating in such events to showcase the brighter side of Sierra Leone.

“This is a new concept here, to have booths … and to pay to come in,” she said.

Sesay at the Ministry of Information says she’s committed to backing — and communicating — the president’s call to rebuild the country and shed the image of its bloody past.

“I don’t know if I have succeeded in making any difference, but I’m trying,” she said. “At least I’m here.”