The Women of Sierra Leone
Lee Karen Stow
Hull photographer and author Lee Karen Stow has just returned from visiting Sierra Leone. She was there to work on a project producing a photo documentary on the life of women in the country.
Every day now, without fail, I think about those women. As I open the cupboard door in my kitchen to shelves of choices for breakfast, I wonder what they are doing and how they are coping. I know that a bag of rice in Freetown is now a fiver more (an average week’s wages) and bread is best bought at night when it’s not so fresh, but cheaper.
I flick on my computer, in my own home with running water, a hot shower and a flush toilet, and my only strain this particular morning is to find the right words for the captions to accompany the photographs of those women who are on my mind.
How can I, from the vantage point of my rich and comfortable life, convey the desperation and pain they feel, or even their joy and laughter that humble me so. I check my emails and it’s a ‘thought for the day’ from Cecilia, reminding me that God loves me and all will be well. Cecilia, an orphan with no home of her own and whose job as a switchboard operator is ending soon, is reassuring me that life will be kind and I should be strong.
Women of Kroo Bay Shanty Town
Rebecca, a new mother of month-old Raymond calls me from a borrowed mobile and in jazzy Krio says ‘’ello, ow de morning?’’ If I close my eyes I can still feel Raymond’s tiny hand clasped round my little finger, hear the dogs barking in the village, feel the sweat slide down my skin in a house with no air, see the cockroach scuttle for the corner, and hear the clang of pots as Rebecca cooks, cleans and sees to the whole family, including her ill father and aunts. Her husband has been unemployed three years. ‘’God will provide!’’ she laughs. I try not to dwell on the fact that one in four children dies before the age of five.
It’s been over three weeks since my second visit to Sierra Leone. Last year, on behalf of Wilberforce Women, I went out to deliver basic photography skills workshops to a host of women who have since formed themselves into a women’s photography group and are helping to strengthen the links between our twin cities. Julie, Francess and Cecilia visited Hull last October for further photography skills, including a day at the BBC, and Francess spent a couple of days with me at Christmas (she still talks about her first trip to the cinema, eating popcorn and how we buy even our pet dogs presents).
On Christmas Eve, I sat with Francess in the waiting room at Hull’s Paragon Station as she prepared to return home. I bought a copy of The Independent which carried a front page report of Sierra Leone as the toughest place for a child to be born into and we read it together. Francess shook her head, ‘’it’s true,’’ she said, ‘’it’s all true.’’ I’ll try to help was my feeble reply, knowing that whatever I write or photograph might move a reader for a minute but in no way would it change a country, or lives, for sadly the pen and the camera are not that mighty.
Daughter greets Mother
So in February 2008, in the year when I would turn 42 years of age, I returned to Sierra Leone where life expectancy for women is just 42. I lived with the women, documented their average day and tried to imagine what life was like in their shoes. I watched them cook and clean, I visited their ill-equipped hospitals where wonderful nurses are losing the will to work, the maternity hospital that is forced to wash and re-use disposable gloves despite the presence of HIV, the school where teachers worry about attacks on their female students, the offices where wages are a joke, and the markets where crime and pick-pocketing are rife.
But I could not imagine what it’s like for those women who, quite frankly, exist in a living hell. The women of the filth and disease-ridden slums and the women doped up and forced to beg for their food as the country’s one and only mental hospital is unable to provide meals. I cannot forget the daughter hidden away because a doctor told her mother her floppy joints and flattened face proved she was down syndrome and there’s nothing else to be done. Or Kadiatu, whose legs were severed by a youth wielding a machete and is reduced to begging for money and food. Or Iris (she wouldn’t dare give her real name) whose cheating husband is beating her stomach until she bleeds.
Rebecca with her child
From my desk I email Gladys, who baked a carrot cake for me on her coal stove and led me up a stairwell where the family chicken was roosting in a cardboard box, and into a room with a soiled mattress and a worn dresser. From a drawer she pulled out fading photos of her mother, Adeline, once the daughter of a former president. Her mother looks happy, as glamorous as Diana Ross in her 1960s mini dress, about to qualify as a midwife and return to a Sierra Leone that is safe, educated, prosperous and where tourists lounge on white powdery beaches. But that was another era, before civil war and corruption smashed the country to pieces and bled it dry, and before Adeline succumbed to cancer, leaving her daughters and sons to cram into one floor of a house with peeling paint and broken mirrors.
Gladys replies joyfully. She doesn’t moan about the price of rice or the fact that the chicken has yet to lay an egg. She says she loves the green tea I gave her and is looking forward to working on the second Wilberforce Women photography project which is called ‘Mothers’. In fact, she cannot stop scribbling down her ideas. When are you coming back, she asks … how about this Christmas? I sip my own green tea and reach for my diary.
last updated: 21/07/2008 at 13:04