Debating Ideas aims to reflect the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series. It offers debates and engagements, contexts and controversies, and reviews and responses flowing from the African Arguments books.
“I found a quiet place”, reads a text from R on a Saturday afternoon. I know this is no easy feat in Freetown’s East End, so I rush to call him on WhatsApp. We are speaking a week after Sierra Leone’s 60th independence anniversary and the plan is to reflect on his life and consider what it means to be a young man in the country today. We have been having similar conversations for a while—over the course of a decade-long friendship. His life and reflections were crucial in shaping my understanding of youth as a social condition in Sierra Leone, tracing the intersections of marginal livelihoods and political imaginations. This research agenda culminated in my 2018 book, The Politics of Work in a Post-Conflict State, which traced the impact of unemployment on urban youths’ political trajectories. Today, we are reminiscing about the last ten years, but also retracing his life to get a glimpse into a generational struggle to make it in the city. How is his personal hustle to become a man in Freetown’ streets inscribed in the upheavals of Sierra Leone’s recent history? His milestones and setbacks, against this backdrop, are an effort to reclaim the place of young men like him in the telling of the story of Sierra Leone at 60.
R rarely thinks about the past, so we pinpoint moments in our shared history as anchors. We start from when we met on a rainy afternoon in the summer of 2010 in downtown Freetown, where he was selling second-hand phones—doing jewman biznes. “What was your life like back then?” I ask him. “I struggled badly”, he remembers as he describes his transition from his parents’ home to the streets of Freetown where he slept for over two years. Sierra Leone emerged from civil war in 2002 and a first democratic transition in 2007, when promising economic growth driven by the mining industry fuelled hopes for a better future ahead. In this optimistic trajectory, however, the role of young people was ambiguous—their potential as leaders of tomorrow countered by fears that they might take up arms again. Readings of the conflict posited young men like R as ticking bombs—poverty and unemployment were seen as inexorable conduits into violence. R came from a large family from the Northern province. They had been displaced during the war and returned to the city after disarmament in the early 2000s. His father was a petty trader who struggled to support his children and his mother was often sick, so as the eldest son he decided that, since “there was nothing at home” he would strike out on his own. He left home and joined a group of young men who introduced him to the jewman biznes.
He was painfully aware of public perceptions of young people in his “selling ground”. Their association motto, “Norto bad we do”(“we didn’t do anything wrong”), played on this social exclusion but also of the blurred lines of legality in efforts to get by. At the beginning, the boys he linked up with were involved in shinka—buying stolen or broken phones to resell. The key was to be able to run fast, and he was not always successful, resulting in some rough nights in the cell: “I’m a sufferer, so I fought to steady myself”. But the selling ground also gave him a community he did not have before: he was part of something. A vibrant social life and the occupation of public spaces in the streets outside government buildings gave him an identity and at the same time served as provocation to mainstream society. R’s stories piece together the emergence of a distinctive political consciousness around this urban youth culture after the war, marked by tensions between opposition to a system that kept young men marginal and a desperate wish to become included.
As he recounted his interactions with formal politics over the years, he sketched a trajectory from hope to disappointment to disengagement. During the 2012 elections, he rallied and campaigned under the banner of his trading association, but he felt that the elders did not share the opportunities that accrued as the All People’s Congress (APC) was re-elected: “They said we don’t do serious business, they didn’t trust us”. His selling ground was a stronghold for the APC so “we expected this man [then President Ernest Bai Koroma] we danced for would change things for us”, but he said they never saw it. In 2017, I had met R at the APC Convention in the Northern city of Makeni, where the new party leader, Samura Kamara, was selected to compete in the following year’s elections. “Why did you go?” I ask on our call. I explain to him that as we stood together in the crowds outside the convention’s closed-door meeting four years ago, I had been struck by the fact that he and his friends continued to engage with the party, in spite of their disappointment with its performance after their 2012 electoral victory. In the past, he had told me that he would continue engaging because he was a citizen—voting to assert his position as a political subject. But as I ask him the question now, he is more jaded. He laughs and tells me that the convention for them had not really been about politics. They decided to go to see if they could get some business from the crowds, an opportunity as any other.
Throughout our conversation, R emphasises how much has stayed the same, yet change has been going on all around him. In 2014, Sierra Leone’s hopeful economic trajectory was stopped in its tracks by the Ebola outbreak that took the lives of over 4000 people. In March that year, as cases of the disease were first identified in neighbouring Guinea, we had sat in a café together with a friend, discussing the news of a new virus and they had joked that they would run to the hills if it arrived. A year later we met again, as I had come back to work as a social scientist in the Ebola vaccine trials, and there was little to joke about. Despite his initial misgivings, Ebola became quickly “damn too terrible, there were ambulances up and down every day”. He recalled friends who died and the drastic drop in business due to public health restrictions and economic crisis. “Some people though”, he notes bitterly, “they survived big time”—pointing to the crisis economy created by the state of emergency. Some people bought cars and built houses from “Ebola money”, he argues, partly blaming those whom he saw as profiting from tragedy, partly admitting he would have been too scared to work, as some of his friends did, in the nearby mortuary.
R’s recollections are in many ways a collective story about growing up, populated by other young men like him who have shared his experience in Freetown’s streets and the ghosts of those left behind along the way. As we speak, we remember our friend S, “who we lost to the water in Libya”. After Ebola business had been stiff and his selling ground was overtaken by frantic discussions of “Temple Run”, new opportunities to escape the city and make one’s way to Europe via Libya. R himself had wanted to make the journey. He tried to sell his father’s land: “I told him I would help him once I was there”. As he started off on his journey, however, he changed his mind in part because of a conversation we had where I expressed my concerns. But many of his friends like S did leave. Elders in the selling ground turned into agents, facilitating the trip for a commission. Even as he tells me that he recently confirmed S’s death, having spoken to someone who made it to Europe who said he’d seen S on a boat that drowned, R says he still has the “mind” (courage) to go. He tells me that after his failed attempt he was not able to sleep: “I was in torment at night, think of those who had gone…I’ve been here so many years and I have not seen anything”.
Our conversation is punctuated by memories of others who are no longer here, lost to the struggle—like our friend J who was murdered by his brother over a land case, or M who recently died after he was unable to seek treatment for the combination of illness and an injury incurred as he ran away from the police. I find these conversations hard. I remember their lives and think about my responsibilities to their stories preserved in my recorders. But R says that these memories make him think about what he can do not to end up like them. He keeps coming back to his wish to go abroad, but even in this longing to be elsewhere he articulates his expectations of his country’s leaders and visualises what it might mean for Sierra Leone to be “sweet” for people like him. He imagines politicians building factories, a path to a future when young men are busy all the time, and a politics focused on “continuation” not “deleting” what was done by previous governments, “while the poor just suffer”.
I ask him what it’s like to reflect on his own growth over the last ten years and to tell his story in this way. He hesitates a little. He has a daughter now and on becoming a father he says he is “happy and not happy”. At 35, he feels differently from when we first met. “Age is going”, and he was starting to feel that people judged him, that he was not really a man yet when he hadn’t had children. Now he feels proud of showing off his daughter, treating her like a “JC” (‘just come’—the term used to describe members of the diaspora when they visit during the holidays). “But the responsibility, I can’t avoid it”, he says, as he worries whether he will be able to give her a better life. In his selling ground, he acknowledges, he is an elder. He now has the respect he felt was lacking when we first spoke ten years ago, at least amongst his younger peers, who look up to him like he used to look up to the veteran jewman demwhen he first “jumped to the streets”.
As we end our call, he tells me he will probably head back into town. The ground has changed, his team’s congregation spot has been sold off to a mineral company and another historical hustling spot has been turned into a petrol station. But “it’s hard to leave”, he says, “I still go there, I won’t lie, at least I survive”. I imagine him standing on his corner, his presence over the last decade in defiance of urban development trying to shrink young people’s space in the streets. His story blends into the ones of those who are no longer here and of the young men who continue to arrive in the streets every day. They are an integral but often erased part of the diverse tapestry of lives and realities that make up Sierra Leone at 60. They stand as living critique of the failure of national politics to bring meaningful change to their lives and as indictment of the global orders and histories that have structured Sierra Leone’s trajectory of exclusionary development and cyclical crisis. At the same time, our conversation is a reminder that to be young, and to grow up, is not one thing. It is to be stuck and made to wait for adulthood, but it is also striving and contesting the parameters of that transition. I have been privileged to have this dialogue over ten years, mine and R’s lives becoming deeply intertwined, growing up in parallel. This vantage point opens up opportunities to see how the meaning of youth changes over time, fluctuating between hope and frustration, achievement and setback. Over the years, R has become more cynical as the anticipation of his mid-twenties that change was around the corner is replaced by some resignation, but he is also more comfortable with himself. His story starts with struggle, but it is open ended and future oriented. “I wasn’t sure I would be around this long”, he told me. But he is, and he is constantly making new plans, imagining possibilities and forging a better future for himself and his daughter.
Luisa Enria in conversation with R* (*R has chosen to remain anonymous)