Tuesday, December 11, 2007

World's Poorest Country

image Another of Sunkari Conteh's children is sick. The last/ time one of her children was ill, it died.

Almost three years old, her daughter succumbed to diarrhoea because Conteh couldn't afford to pay a Le 90,000 medical consultation fee.

"I pleaded with the doctor to wait while my husband gathered the money," she said. "The doctor refused.

I cried and yelled at him, but he didn't listen." As she cried again this past Saturday, Conteh recalled that she was able to take her baby to a pharmacy, but after a few days, her daughter died anyway. "I don't even like to think about it, it's terrible, it's pathetic." Now Conteh is worried another of her children may suffer the same fate. Once again, she can't afford the fees to vaccinate her youngest child.

The Kroo Bay mother has four children and provides for them by selling oranges in the streets of her community. Her husband is unemployed.

Conteh is like thousands of Sierra Leonean mothers struggling to survive in what last week the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) announced is now the poorest country in the world.

Sierra Leone has taken Niger's spot at the very bottom of the UN's human development index. According to the UN global report, launched in Freetown last Friday, this country is now ranked 177th out of 177 countries.

But the international 2005 findings are bleaker than a 2006 national report, which was also launched Friday.

The UNDP claimed Sierra Leone fell to the lowest place because there is insufficient information about the country.

"I believe the situation would have been much better if there was adequate data to show for development in the country," said Bernard Mokam, the UNDP's country director.

But Saidu Turay, the Public Relations Officer for Freetown's Kroo Bay slum, wasn't surprised when he heard the report on the radio.

"Once these reports come up we feel sad," he said.

"It's a clear manifestation that nothing has been done since the time of the last report. The health care system is very, very poor." Turay said just last Friday a baby died in his community because there was no treatment. As he discussed the report from the doorway of the one-bedroom Kroo Bay shack he shares with several members of his family, a woman entered his compound shouting and crying - she'd just heard that she, too, had lost a family member to sickness.

"If Sierra Leone is rated as the least developed country, then Kroo Bay will be rated as the worst developed slum in the country," said Turay.

He said the Kroo Bay community suffers from high maternal and infant mortality, high unemployment, low rate of children in school, lack of housing, lack of proper medical facilities, high crime, child labour, trafficking and prostitution, sexual abuse, teenage pregnancy and many other problems.

Turay rolled his eyes. "Etcetera, etcetera - these are the things that affect us in the community and these are the things the UN looked at when they were doing their study." Turay said in the last three months, three Kroo Bay women have died during childbirth because they couldn't afford to go to hospital or have a caesarean section. Conteh, too, said she delivered her five children with a traditional birth attendant in Kroo Bay.

"I don't have the money. Life is extremely difficult, I am right now suffering from malaria, but I don't have the money to go to hospital," she said.

Turay said this is common in Kroo Bay: "If you don't have the money to buy the required drugs, the person dies." With a growing population of more than 8,000 people, Kroo Bay is one of many Freetown slums long neglected by development projects and the government. Turay said it is extreme poverty like Kroo Bay's that accounts for the country's poor performance on the human development index.

On Friday, Vice President Sam Sumana said his government is re-preparing a poverty reduction strategy paper from the last government, which he said "will stand as a stepping stone towards development." He also said the new government is committed to combating the problems raised in the report.

Turay said the APC government should be aware of the problems after years in opposition. He said he doubts anything will change.

"During the electioneering process you saw a lot of politicians coming down to the slums and making all kinds of promises because they wanted our votes," he said. "But once the election is over you hardly see any of them, even to say thank you for the votes.

They give us sugar-coated vibes and then leave our problems to be solved by ourselves." Turay said if it wasn't for international nongovernmental organisations like Concern, Save the Children and the YMCA - who Saturday launched a new community centre and training project in Kroo Bay - his community would be completely neglected. "The government forgets about the existence of the slums, even though we are in the heart of the city." The theme of this year's global and national UNDP reports was the massive impact climate change is having on the people of the developing world, including Sierra Leone.

"Our coastal land areas such as Bonthe Island, Banana Island, Rokupre and other villages directly depending on agriculture will be inundated," said Joseph Rahall, the coordinator of Green Scenery, a local civil society organisation. "This will cause mass displacement of people, causing security threats and our security is not in place to solve such problems.

The criss-crossing of people will create conflict and we don't want to go back to war." Turay, too, said he is worried about climate change.

He said Kroo Bay is rapidly expanding and most new homes are being built on top of rubbish, at the water's edge. "If the water rises, we're in trouble," he said.

A greater worry in Kroo Bay is the annual rising of water during rainy season. For more than five months every year the people of Turay's community and others like it are continuously flooded with water and debris from the hills around Freetown.

"On the issue of flooding, we are scared, we are always prepared for the worst to happen next year," he said. "This year was the worst ever." Turay said this is one impact of climate change that could easily be tackled by this government.

"You see the trees being cut down in the hills," he said, noting that deforestation causes erosion, which causes the flooding. "Climate change also affects us greatly and it is on the increase because I don't see much being done about deforestation. It is a man-made problem." Along with destruction, the annual flooding also leaves the drainage areas of Kroo Bay clogged with garbage from the hills. The stench of sewage, stagnant water and mounds of garbage permeates the air throughout the community.

Turay said this build-up can be traced back to his community's health problems - poor drainage and stagnant water are breeding grounds for mosquitoes and Turay said malaria is a growing problem in Kroo Bay.

Relevant Links

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However, Turay said for Kroo Bay residents, day to day food security is a more constant worry than health problems.

"We are poor and we can't afford the price of food, especially when the price of rice keeps sky-rocketing and there are no mechanisms to control the price.

People find it very difficult to survive here. We find it difficult to sleep at night because we are thinking about how we will survive the next day."

allAfrica.com: Sierra Leone: World's Poorest Country (Page 1 of 2)