Nearly eight years after the end of a brutal 11-year civil war, the archbishop of Freetown and Bo in Sierra Leone said most people who fled have returned to the country, although they struggle to survive amid a shattered economy.
In an interview in Washington Sept. 21 with Catholic News Service, Archbishop Edward Tamba Charles described a country that is attempting to recover from the war in the West African nation, which left tens of thousands of people dead and displaced hundreds of thousands more.
Archbishop Charles was visiting the United States in mid-September along with Archbishop George Antonysamy, the apostolic nuncio to Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Gambia, sponsored by the U.S.-based Healey Family Foundation, which funds an assortment of church-related projects in Sierra Leone.
Archbishop Charles said that among the surprising and positive results of the end of the civil war is that the Catholic Church is growing, both from the return of people to their hometowns and because of conversions of people who relied upon the church for assistance during the war.
“The church stood by them through the war,” he said, “and the experience of war brought some people to their faith.”
An information page on the Web site www.scarsintostars.org, which is connected to the Healey foundation, notes that although Catholics make up only about 8 percent of the population, the church was considered a threat by rebels. Priests and religious were expelled, church property was looted and vandalized, and many church-run clinics, schools, orphanages and church buildings were burned, it said.
Archbishop Joseph Ganda, Archbishop Charles’ predecessor in the Archdiocese of Freetown and Bo, was kidnapped, along with four Xaverian missionaries. They escaped about 10 days later, but other priests and nuns also were targeted and some were killed.
Since the end of the war, rebuilding the economy and infrastructure have been primary goals for society, Archbishop Charles said. In many areas, people have been unable to make a living in their home villages so the population in the cities has grown, further straining society.
There, people work as “petty traders,” selling small items to make enough for a meal, he said. “There are no resources for them to rebuild in their villages.”
Still, Archbishop Charles believes Sierra Leone has the raw materials for a successful agricultural economy. “Our land is very fertile, and we have plenty of rain,” he said. “Yet we have to import rice for our people from Asia.”
Before the war, coffee and cocoa production for export expanded a great deal, often by taking fields out of rice production. When prices for those products fell with the expansion of the same crops elsewhere, particularly in Asia, Sierra Leone was left having to import rice to feed its people, the archbishop explained.
Other issues facing the rebuilding society are how to help the former child soldiers and the girls and women who were victims of human trafficking.
“We will start with education,” Archbishop Charles said. “We know education is the sure way out of the cycle of poverty. I came from a very poor family myself and education brought me out.”
The current government has “the good will but not the resources” to rebuild society, he said. Sierra Leone has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world. The archbishop said one out of every four children does not live long enough to have a fifth birthday. Those deaths are primarily due to preventable causes: diarrhea, malaria and malnutrition.
By Patricia Zapor