By Jenny E. Kim, Sierra Leone
My taxi driver Sharif is a 001– he eats 0 breakfast, 0 lunch, and 1 dinner. First started by university students in Freetown, classmates used the labeling system to identify those who were able to share meals and those who could not. The system is a reminder that in Sierra Leone access to basics necessities are limited. Food, clean water, roads, and electricity are all challenges. As the local currency continues its downward trajectory, in no other way does the average Sierra Leonean feel the economic pressures more than he does with food.
Above is a picture of a billboard located in one of Freetown’s busiest intersections, Congo Cross Junction. Sierra Leoneans call their country affectionately by the name “Salone”
One meal a day is common. Each meal here represents a weighty financial decision. For Sharif, the charcoal used to cook the staple, rice, is as much of a financial consideration as the food itself. He cooks on charcoal because he cannot afford to buy the single gas burner. The needed gas refills are a luxury beyond his imagining. So the forests here are stripped in part to supply the charcoal that Sharif and those like him need to feed themselves. As for rice, the price has almost doubled within a year. In January, a 50 kg bag of rice that fed a family of four for a month cost Le 70,000 or roughly $25. That same bag of rice today is twice that amount in local currency (between Le 130,000 to Le 150,000). The steep 33% devaluation of the currency from Le 3,000 to Le 4,000 against the U.S. dollar contributed to and exacerbated an already tenuous situation. With no commensurate adjustment in income, the most desperate have resorted to purchasing scrappage—spoiled rice.
“A Sierra Leonean doesn’t consider it a meal unless there is rice, and lots of it,” my colleagues tell me. Chances are if you order local food, whatever appears will be served with a small bucket-sized mound of rice. Eat in Sierra Leone and it’s a challenge to avoid it. Before WWII Sierra Leone had plenty of rice. The country which is wet and humid with nutrient rich soil, has always been considered ideal for rice growing. Rice abounded. But today, although the landscape remains the same, Sierra Leone has become a rice dependent nation importing over 30% of its annual consumption from countries like China and India. Some blame the shift on the diamond trade, claiming that farmers abandoned the rice fields in a rush to the diamond mines. Others claim that rice farmers have yet to recover from the cataclysmic destruction of rice fields wrought by the rebels during the war. Food experts speak of essential equipment, higher yielding rice seed variants, and other factors needed to produce the staple. Whatever the root causes or long term solutions, the fact remains that today Sierra Leone cannot feed itself.
When I arrived in Freetown, I was confused about meal times. That first week I sat around watching for signs of a mass office exodus to lunch. I waited until 3 pm before making a move. It wasn’t until the second week that I caught on that food issues in Sierra Leone were complicated. Perhaps lunch time was a notion I had stubbornly brought with me from the U.S. Here, the notion seemed vague. When I temporarily stopped taking lunch, a colleague noticed and commented that I was now a 101.
Lend to entrepreneurs in Sierra Leone here: http://www.kiva.org/app.php?page=businesses&partner_id=148&status=All&sortBy=New+to+Old/>