From a distance one could hear the sangbes, accompanied by a segula and the soothing voice of a female Mende singer, the sort of griots I grew up hearing in the town squares of my Southeastern villages. But I was faraway from the villages of my childhood, where dust clouds rose from the feet of dancing women, and their waist, adorned with beads, moved like the spinning threads of a kondi gula. I was in the west of Freetown, and for a moment, a conference room in the luxurious Radisson Blu Hotel, also known as Mammy Yoko, had been transformed into one of the village squares of Bo, Bonthe, Moyamba, Pujehun. How else could it have been, when it was indeed a pre-launch gathering of the newly established Southern Province Women’s Network (SProWNET). They were far from their individual Southern villages, but for one night alone in Freetown, they were home.
When I entered the room, I was immediately reminded of one of those cheesy punch lines I learned in America: paramount chiefs, a minister, an honorable, a justice, doctors and civil servants walk into a room. You see, it would have been hilarious if this were a punch line to something funny, but it is no joking matter. This was the caliber of women gathered for the SProWNET pre-launch, and I was humbled to have been there.
As a humanitarian worker, I am used to the desolate faces of Sierra Leonean women and girls on the pages of aid magazines, illustrating one misery or another, ranging from rape, teenage pregnancy, child marriage and maternal mortality, to crude violence against women and abject poverty. Just a couple of weeks ago, I visited Moyamba District with Naasu Fofanah, the effervescent commandante of these Amazonians of SproWNET, and witnessed the appalling atmosphere in which many of our women and girls live. The story is true for other regions of the country. The urgent drive to address some of the pressing needs of Southern women, especially, and women nationally, is a mission that will challenge this Amazonian force, but if there is any force to reckon with right now in Sierra Leone, the ladies of SproWNET are a reliable anchor for women and girls.
It was a joyful occasion with a somber undertone, and unlike other occasions in Sierra Leone where pot-belly boys in tight pants file behind the microphone, this was a ladies affair, and those of us who were honored with an invitation simply sat and paid attention. The Honorable Member of Parliament, Madam Verinoca Kadi Sesay spoke with the dignity and grace of a strong female leader. She condemned the culture of fear and intimidation of women in politics, and admonished Sierra Leoneans that women can be a “powerful instrument of development” when given a chance to lead. She encouraged her sisters to be themselves and resist shaming. Those interested in politics must remain “steadfast and consistent.” She said women in politics face intimidation, violence, financial constraints, and other barriers, and added that with a little support from their sisters, they can do well.
Also present was Haja Fatmata Maama Koroma-Kajua VI, one of the most remarkable paramount chiefs of this country. She was elected in 2002 with a whopping 138 votes. The runner-up, a man, received a meager twelve. This is one of the greatest endorsements of a female leader, ever, in this country. But it was with the humility of a genuine public servant that she told her sisters to always focus on what they want. She emphasized a pragmatic approach toward men in the struggle for women’s right. What she conveyed was that women’s rights are not anti-men!
Ms. Fofanah, for whom this was both a celebration and a good-bye (she is on her way to America where she will be the first West African recipient of an Executive Masters Scholarship at NYU). Responding to the perception that they are elites far removed from the poverty of their people, she said: “We are not elites. I have experienced poverty. I don’t want to be poor anymore.” It is a response I have heard from many who have transcended the obstacles thrown at women and girls in this country—those who survive the multitude of patriarchal booby-traps placed in their path. There are those who mistake triumph for elitism. For clarity, elitism is an attitude, not a status. I will call no one elitist who says we can no longer stand-by and watch our children get impregnated, raped, and violated. This is the determination of SProWNET—women whose purpose is to empower their sisters and daughters.
The inimitable commandante of SProWNET also warned against partisanship and encouraged her members to diversify their political leverages. The advocacy of SproWNet began in that very conference room when Ms. Fofanah made a fierce call on Justice xxx and the government to provide more resources for the Family Support Unit—a division of the Sierra Leone Police with a mandate to investigate rape and other forms of violence against girls. Ms. Fofanah lambasted the minuscule support provided for a vital organization such as FSU. When she was done, the night ended with more rhythm and dance. The women left cognizant of the humongous task ahead, but invigorated by a collective drive to say, enough!
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