18 December 2008

Sierra Leone: ENCISS, World Bank Reunite a Divided Land

The River Jong estuary that runs through Bonthe District seemed calmed and serene as the orange glow of the evening sun disappears beneath the horizon. The estuary, festooned with mangrove swamps, provides a natural and peaceful habitat to more than a hundred species of birds and other marine life that have co-existed through the ages.

The boat ride on the serene waters on to the island was as expected, equally calm. The tranquility of Bonthe Island, free from the usual hustle and bustle of modern cities provides an ideal holiday spot. Descendants and non-descendants alike use to flock to the Island to spend their Christmas holidays that has earned the name "Christmas Island". That was long ago.

Colonial infrastructure and relics still adorn the island with few modern structures. The view from the sea has a sharp contrast to an artist impression from an ancient portray. The jetty would remind European visitors of the scrap remains of the shipyards of the Industrial Revolution during the 1800s in Western Europe. Warehouses belonging to European conglomerates such as Paterson Zochonis (PZ), CFAO, to name but a few, are still conspicuous. These were all evidence of a booming economic activity before and shortly after independence in 1961.

Bonthe District has one of the world's largest deposits of titanium ore (rutile), a substance used as paint pigment and welding rod coatings. Sierra Rutile Limited, owned by a consortium of US and European investors, began commercial mining operations in Bonthe in early 1979. However due to poor mining policy, the region has very little to show for this huge economic potential. There are no good roads, water supply or electricity. Bonthe District continues to suffer from environmental degradation in living memory.

However, such beauty, peaceful co-existence and economic potential that the Jong River provides have not reflected in the life of the descendants of the district. Deep seated personality conflict and sharp political division had relegated Bonthe District, especially Bonthe Island to the bottom of the socio-economic ladder in Sierra Leone.

It was these latent divisions that ENCISS, the World Bank, and major stakeholders set out to bridge in a three-day District Development Dialogue focusing on Bonthe District.

The objectives of the District Dialogue forum is to engage development stakeholders, include the two local councils, traditional rulers, residents of Bonthe and Bonthe descendants around the world on a constructive dialogue for a development strategy that identifies the priorities of the district. This is expected to feed into a district development plan as an instrument to solicit development support on behalf of Bonthe.

However, a formidable development strategy would not be possible if the polarisation of the district that has characterised the downturn of economic activities continues unabated.

The Bonthe District dialogue forum cuts across family and house acrimony. The forum breaks political barriers. The three members of Parliament and 50 descendants residing in Freetown, Bo and Moyamba Districts from varying political backgrounds joined the eleven paramount chiefs led by their Parliamentary Representative, Chief Badara Sheriff II, an indication of the importance attached to the reunification of the district. Residents of Bonthe Island cannot afford to be left out. The whole township came to standstill as both the elderly, the clergy, school teachers and pupils, women and children streamed toward the Patrick's Hall, the venue of the meeting. The euphoria that greeted the meeting was like a dream waiting to occur as the new generation of "Bonthenians" have high expectations for their land to grow. A live radio discussion that involved the entire district was organised by Radio Bontico preceded the forum.

The geo-political make-up of the district into a mainland and an island - Mattru Jong and the island of Bonthe Sherbro - was a source of rancour, bitterness and acrimony amongst the descendants of Bonthe District so much so that the district suffers from social and economic neglect over the years. This was exacerbated by sharp political differences between supporters of the Sierra Leone Peoples Party and the emergent Peoples Movement for Democratic Change. These political differences underpinned the general atmosphere that characterised the district social landscape over the last coupled of years. As if that is not enough the Local Government Act 2004 accentuated the problem. It provides the district with two separate local councils - one on the mainland and another on the Bonthe Island Municipality.

In his welcome statement during the opening ceremony of the dialogue forum, the Mayor of Bonthe Island, His Worship Gilbert J. Caulker said Bonthe District is amongst the least developed districts in Sierra Leone, in spite of its rich mineral and marine deposits. He pointed out that these economic potentials have not been harnessed to the benefit of the district as a whole. The Mayor stressed that the development of Bonthe should not be an issue for politics or dependent on which political party is in power, but should be borne out of a genuine concern of descendants of Bonthe. He sounded a clarion call to all his compatriots to bury the hatchet and return to develop their land.

The Chairman of the Bonthe District Council based in Mattru Jong, Moses Probyn, compares the district dialogue forum to a truth and reconciliation meeting wherein Bonthe descendants have the opportunity to talk openly about their personal differences and what went wrong. "Descendants of Bonthe should think positively about their land and how to kick-start development projects", he stressed. He mentioned projects in varying stages of completion, including the Bonthe Police Station and promise to do all he can to ensue that the project is completed.

There were emotional scenes at the forum. Descendants who had deep seated grudges and differences and had not been speaking to each other were seen in warm embrace and handshake. Long term enemies participated in "pin-a-friend" with ribbons, signifying an end to personal squabbles and family feuds culminating basically from differences in political affiliations. Participants suggested the for formation of the Bonthe District Descendants Association (BONDDA) with a specific mandate to unify the descendants at home and abroad.

The forum ended with the adoption of a communiqué and building linkages in the district on the major resolutions of the forum. These include the immediate establishment of Bonthe District joint website to showcase economic potentials of the district and to link the Bonthe Diaspora. Establish periodic markets where farmers from the mainland and the island can sell the produce, develop the health and education infrastructure, especially the Bonthe Technical School and the Mattru Hospital, revamp the Torma Bum Agricultural project and conduct a wider advocacy that will lead to a policy review in the mining sector. Issues such as fostering good relationship and political tolerance, the establishment banking services, empowerment of women and youth and equitable distribution of resources between the mainland and the island formed part of a strategy and final recommendations.

A social gathering and a cultural display from the Bonthe District Cultural group was organized by residents of Bonthe Island as a show of solidarity and support of the reconciliation process. The staple food of Bonthe Shebro of cassava and pepper soup and fish was served. The evening was all dancing and reveling that lasted all night long.

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