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Sierra Leone’s middle class gains traction

Country's professionals make progress after 11-year civil war, which ended in 2002.

Michael Tommy, 45, a generator mechanic for the United Nations in his Sierra Leone office. Tommy says his wages allow him to support his family and send his three children to school. (Kimberly S. Johnson/GlobalPost)

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — Here in Sierra Leone and across Africa experts struggle to define what it means to be middle class. But many people know they want to be part of that group.

“It’s my education [secondary and vocational school] and experience,” said Michael Tommy, a generator mechanic for one of the United Nations’ compounds here. “With the money they pay me I’m able to sustain myself and my family, but I’m not able to save for a house.”

For Desmond Finney, Sierra Leone’s middle class can be divided into two subgroups: “It’s those of us that 15 to 20 years ago decided to go to college and have found ourselves in that class because of education,” said the managing director of Premier Media, a local media consultancy. “The other set of people are those who are businessmen, or those that have been able to make it in the informal sector.”

Who makes up Africa’s middle class and the numbers of people in it are not exactly clear. A strict determination by income level is not sufficient, according to many experts. Education, career paths, aspirations and lifestyle are also important features that help to establish who is in the middle class. Getting children educated and buying a home are important elements in being middle class.

Sierra Leone, with a population of 5.2 million, has a small but growing middle class.

The growth of Sierra Leone's middle class was thwarted by the country's volatile history. The education and careers of thousands were violently disrupted by the civil war which wracked the country from 1991 to 2002.

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Now, with peace and stability for years, Sierra Leone is returning to economic growth and development. President Ernest Bai Koroma is hungry for social change and business investment that will help Sierra Leone become more prosperous. More people are seizing the opportunity to move out of the shackles of poverty which has crippled the nation — and much of Africa — for decades.

Tommy, 45, said he worked odd jobs to pay his secondary school fees, but treasures his job at the U.N. He knew he couldn’t afford to go to college, so he went to a vocational school instead where he studied mechanical engineering.

He wants his three children to attend college. “I don’t mind paying for their school fees,” he said.

He makes about $325 dollars a month, a good wage here. By comparison, a waitress typically earns $25 a month before tips. A nurse working at a government hospital earns roughly $50. A local taxi driver may bring home $5 on a good day. A typical middle-class American would be considered rich by Sierra Leone standards.

Many of Sierra Leone’s professionals who fled the country during the civil war found refuge in the U.S. and Europe, where they pursued education and jobs.

The brutal war disrupted education in secondary schools and colleges across the country, so there is a major gap that is hindering the growth of the middle class, said Adusei Jumah, economic advisor for the U.N. Development Program in Sierra Leone.