When I told people I was going to Sierra Leone, the reaction was surprising. Even among my reasonably well-informed friends, there was uncertainty about the exact location of the country. Those who were aware that there had been a war there recently weren’t always aware it had ended, and most of these conversations ended with earnest discussion of Leonardo DiCaprio's accent in Blood Diamond.
Related programme: Sierra Leone: Insanity of War
The reality of course is that the country's problems are only exacerbated by this lack of awareness in the West. As I flew to Freetown, I was treated to a perfect view of the sun setting over the Sahara desert. It is vast and barren, and reminded me of just how much lies between us and Sierra Leone - physically, socially and economically.
In Sierra Leone - as in much of Africa - mental illness is barely understood. While many in the country aspire to the trappings of Western success, our obsessions with counselling, cod psychology and personal development haven’t been imported along with the mobile phones and rap music.
Its easy to see why. In Kailahun I met a young man called Sayon who watched his father being killed and was forced to kill for the rebels when he was just four years old. While he recognised that he needed someone to talk to (Sayon had tried to commit suicide twice), he said what depressed him the most was his day-to-day life. He was left with no family. He had to pay his own school fees, buy his own uniform and books, and contribute to his surrogate family's income. He knew that, in a country like Sierra Leone, if he dropped out of school he'd have no future, so he has no choice but to work so hard that he barely has time to study for a future job that he cannot imagine getting.
The experience moved me to tears, mainly because I imagined my own four-year-old son in the same position, and was forced to admit to myself that I would prefer him to die with me than to suffer like Sayon has.
Telling Sayon that he needed counselling was pointless, because it was clear he needed stability in his life before anyone could help him overcome the trauma and the self-esteem issues.
Sayon’s situation is reflected in that of the whole country. Despite being a nation in need of mental-health assistance, the government is struggling just to get basic things done. The road from Freetown (the capital) to Kailahun (a major town) is best described as a dirt track through the jungle. In Kailahun, we saw bananas rotting because they couldn’t be transported to Freetown – where bananas cost twice as much. With such simple development proving difficult to achieve, it’s hardly surprising the government haven’t turned their attention to mental health.
Sierra Leone has been described as a country addicted to aid, and I could see it. There are whole housing estates built to house NGO workers, all the largest buildings house their offices and there are white jeeps with various charity logos and slogans all over the place.
It would be a worrying development, but Government mental healthcare is in such an appalling state (the country’s only psychiatrist blames the government who in turn blame him) that one can only hope the NGOs stay. And that needs more awareness from the likes of my increasingly better-informed friends!