The Struggle of Sierra Leonean ‘Street Boys’ and their Opinion on Street Girls

A workshop was held with 30 young 10-17 year old men suriving on the streets of Kono, Sierra Leone where their struggle, patriarchy, their attitudes towards female youth struggling involved in sex work, the war, their opinion on the South African diamond mining company Koidu Holdings, capitalism, colonialism and the 2012 elections was discussed. A handful of the young men were former combatant child soldiers during the civil war in Sierra Leone which encourages some family members to marginalise them by refusing to have them in the house for being ‘rebel pickin’ and many had lost parents at the hands of rebel soldiers, which resulted in their lifestyle having to fend for themselves with no other responsible adult able  to accomodate their basic needs.

Admirably, the young boys had very refreshing things to say in regards to their concern over the street girls involved in sex work were they weren’t happy with the way the women were treated and felt the female youth living in poverty were suffering more than the young men. They described the women were going to big dangerous men unaware of whether the man had diseases and the money they received wouldn’t protect them from HIV or AIDS. The boys explained the disadvantages the girls faced  as gang targets resulting in attacks and having their money stolen from them and the women being taken advantage of and violently raped, beaten and girls as young as eleven being stabbed if they requested for money but having nobody to defend them, arrest or talk to the men. One of the boys who washes dishes for market women refuses to take money from the girls he knows has to prostitute themselves. The young ‘streets boys’ are friends with the ‘street girls’ where they hold the money for the girls for safety to ensure the women are less vulnerable than themselves. One of the concerned boys with younger sisters makes sure he visits his grandmother’s home to share some of his money with his younger sister so she doesn’t have to prostitute to feed herself.

The young men said they respect the women and understand the women are not involved in sex work off their own accord but for the same poverty the men are living through and having lost parents too during the war. The men explained if the women they knew had the right support, the women would be the next President or First Lady and they share their money with the young women out of the love and respect for them. The young men work unanimously with the young women by accompanying them when they go out at night to ensure their safety from men over 20, the girls half the money they make with the boys.

The boys are unhappy with their own struggle and having to hustle on the streets of Kono day and night for not having sufficient support, sweeping the market, doing laundry, ironing, transporting fish, cleaning toilets, looking for scraps of metal and overall involved in child labour, breaking stones and working near the mines. The boys said they are taken advantage of where the older men would take their money when they lay to rest. The young men who are raped or sexually abused by older men don’t report or inform anyone, afraid of the dangerous beating after if the men aren’t sent to prison. The boys feel their fathers have too many wives which has resulted in some of the children being marginalised, not looked after properly and ending up on the streets. The boys are grateful for the money the young female street girls give to them when they know the boys haven’t eaten.

The boys feel marginalised by the community and not given chances but constantly treated as nuisances and taken advantage of by market traders who refuse to pay them after the work they have done for them “you’re just a street child and all thieves- kuleeloo.” The struggle of Black youth in England was explained to the young men, stop and search and various other methods of marginalising Black youth, the boys were disheartened that they treated European NGO workers in Sierra Leone well and can’t comprehend the institutionalised racism in Britain. The young men spoke of getting into trouble with the police where they call their grandmother or the social workers from the Street Child project to come and collect them from the police station.

The young men feel nothing is going to change in Kono after the 2012 elections “all the politicians are the same” and are fearful for the safety of their lives for the kidnapping and sacrifices that are made prior elections with vulnerable street children being targetted. The boys are frustrated with the Koidu Holdings diamond mining company; their comments have been collected in video footage. Stories of how the boys had lost their parents during the war at the hands of the rebels where shared where one of the boy’s father was commanded to dig his own grave, lie down and was shot where they then buried him. Another boy’s mother had told the rebel she had no money for them where they raped and killed her by the side of the river. The boy sees the former rebel he’d witnessed rape and murder his mother every day, working for the exploitative Koidu Holdings.  Another boy was grateful his mother had decided to keep him and not leave him by the river after the rebels had killed his father and she had lost all hope and still struggles till this day.

European NGO Workers in Africa Promoting White Supremacy

I have been running workshops with young people, supporting a local community led organisation in Sierra Leone, being inspired by local community social workers shadowing their outreach work with young children surviving on the streets in Makeni and Kono, to take back to template and work more effectively with young people in England. I have been in contact with the local community and miners on the exploitation of Sierra Leone’s natural resources and neo-colonialism’s effect on West Africa. Kono is worst affected by the aftermath of the civil war in Sierra Leone, the exploitation leading to an influx of prostitution, child labour, exploited local miners and hundreds of children living on the streets and working in the mines when they are supposed to be in school. Many factors I have witnessed have influenced my understanding of how the presence of white European Westerners in Africa can be damaging to local communities in ‘developing’ their country and continent.

Most NGO’s are encouraged to have international Western volunteers and workers on board by inviting international volunteers to contribute their time to work within a community. Encouraging international volunteers to step in to access and support the struggles of communities drowning with the direct catalyst result of poverty, capitalism and neo-colonialism almost demeans the local communities’ ability and right to self-determination as though the ideas and vision of a Westerner is superior to that of a local community activist.

Community organisations should be encouraging recruitment of local indigenous volunteers for the beneficiaries to be inspired by, who are familiar with the local struggle and have endured aspects of the same struggle some of the young people are currently facing. External funders should support local empowerment by providing petty cash as an incentive to cover reimbursement of travel expenses for those young people willing to volunteer and contribute to building and giving back to their community. Former beneficiaries could be empowered by being given responsibility or a mentor or youth worker opportunity, rather than promoting the presence of expatriates.

How is a young African child abandoned by their parents, hustling on the streets open to immense vulnerability and corruption having only ever witnessed poverty and forced to prioritise to feed their grandparents, supposed to relate and role model a white middle class young person who went to private school in a city in England and had been given everything on a plate? Personally, having struggled as a young working class ethnic minority female in England, it was difficult to believe white middle class people could empathise with my struggle. I witnessed plenty of sympathy but not even a hungry child sieving stones looking for diamonds all day in a mine in Sierra Leone wants sympathy from a white British supremacist, as though white and British supremacy isn’t responsible for creating the conditions the child is living in, with promises of ‘development’ whilst their parent’s an economic slave at the hands of the West who pays their hardworking parent a pittance, maybe a plate of rice if they are lucky, in the first place.

I have witnessed white middle class NGO workers in Sierra Leone who’ve made some pathetic comments on Black working class communities in London, Brixton in particular, accusing traders of stealing gold they are selling. I do not for a second believe these people could empathise with the struggle of an indigenous African nation if they cannot understand the struggle of Black communities in England on their own doorstep but result in racist stereotyping. Racism from white supremacists in England shouldn’t be put up with and neither should indigenous African communities have to tread toes when witnessing racism from white people who are supposed to be ‘helping’ their community.  I have also witnessed international workers speaking to the local community in an African accent, this patronising racism cannot be denied as the worker was not attempting to speak Kreo but speaking to the local community as though they are inferior to his white blonde self. I also witnessed a Welsh mine worker tell a local Sierra Leonean Muslim worker “call me Allah.”

“If a man who speaks pidgin to a man of color or an Arab does not see anything wrong or evil in such behavior, it is because he has never stopped to think.” Frantz Fanon

A few international European activists attempted to deny the institutional racism from the British police in England where Black communities are stigmatised and also denied the continuous exploitation and oppression of Africa by the West. Why are people with such naive counterproductive views allowed to work in Africa whilst promoting white supremacy in communities already damaged by European colonialism and continuing to be damaged at the merciless hands of neo-colonialism. One cannot intend on just working to support ‘poor African children’ to shed a few tears and feel less guilty, compensating for their life of luxury in comparison and suggest politics to be kept separate when politics is responsible for the struggle of young children and their families in Africa. If the West didn’t exploit the natural resources of Africa or depict the African man as savage and incapable, maybe Africa would be self-sustained and able to ‘develop’ itself and maybe then young women wouldn’t have to depend on prostitution to feed her family and pay for her education fees.

Indigenous female workers in Kono and miners who work for Western companies in Makeni have complained of the attitude of white European NGO workers who make them feel inferior and that white Europeans are more respected by their community, which leads to the indigenous workers being left to feel marginalised whilst white supremacy is reinforced and white privilege denied. Westerners’ presence can also be intrusive as though African communities are incapable of building their own communities and need monitoring. A Western volunteer being placed to work with young Africans is almost as though ‘poor African children’ should feel privileged to have met a white British person, whilst Capitalism denies them the right to ever owning a passport or tasting the fruits outside of their village.

What one may naively perceive as helpful is in fact counterproductive. The local community shout ‘a-Porto’ and ‘white man’ at light skinned Westerners. This causes tension where local community activists are distracted from their dedicated work to ensure the ‘a-Porto’ is not being harassed for being an insensitive walking Capitalist with his iPhone which has been produced by exploiting coltan miners and her diamond earrings, again bought after exploiting local diamond miners who never had the privilege of sniffing the value of his findings.

“Africa is a paradox which illustrates and highlights neo-colonialism. Her earth is rich, yet the products that come from above and below the soil continue to enrich, not Africans predominantly, but groups and individuals who operate to Africa’s impoverishment.” Kwame Nkrumah

Shareefa Panchbhaya