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Stories from Sierra Leone – let’s get personal, says Eric Boa

4th June 2020

One of the advantages of working for CABI, at least for me, was the opportunity to visit new countries.  Not many would share my enthusiasm for going to Sierra Leone, which I first did in 2006, a country still reeling from the corrosive effects of a brutal war and displacement of its people. It was less enthusiasm and more an endless intrigue in how others work and live, with a few new pests and diseases thrown in.

The arrival at Lunghi airport and transfer to my hotel was an early reminder that new experiences may be memorable but not always pleasurable. There was a power cut shortly after landing, never a good sign, adding more chaos to the melee of passengers battling to get to their final destination. Lunghi airport is separated from Freetown by Tagrin Bay. The  road journey is 180 km and four to five hours. Nobody does this. The lure of a 15 minute helicopter flight was appealing. Made in Russia, flown by Ukrainians and owned by a Nigerian was not.

So, like most people, I battled my way to the ferry terminus. I could vaguely make out a number of what are best described as pleasure craft. The sort of boat that takes tourists up the Thames to Hampton Court. Only smaller. Porters waded out with suitcases on their head. I settled down next to a lady with a giant cuddly teddy bear and we chugged across the bay. Porters waded out to retrieve the suitcases. Colleagues from the Department for Crop Protection guided me to the hotel in Aberdeen. The only connection I could see with my alma mater was the beach. Puzzling, but intriguing.

My main experiences up to now were bewilderment and bemusement. It had taken nearly three hours to get to the hotel, two hours shorter than the direct flight. I learnt that my room had to be paid for in cash. Few places accepted credit cards back in 2006 and I never found a functioning ATM. I had hard currency and managed to pay my final bill after constantly balancing personal and work expenses via trips to the Lebanese Supermarket, the local money changer. It all took up a remarkable amount of effort. Accumulating inconveniences reminded me of a wonderful quotation that has rung in my head ever since I heard it: “Adventure exists in the imagination of other people”.

These personal experiences are rarely written about in the formal reports and publications that donors and sponsors require. Yet they frame and influence what you do and how well you do it. My remit was to ‘promote/develop innovation’, one of the grand ideas that International development is fond of. I wholly subscribe to development goals but they don’t tell you what to do. The options are limited when you only have ten days. So we held an innovation workshop at the football stadium. Long discussions about paying per diems, hiring a generator and finalising the minutiae of holding a meeting. My counterpart, Shamie, was enthusiastic, hard-working and relentlessly optimistic throughout, despite trying personal circumstances that would have defeated most of us. His actions reminded me why I’d come.

The workshop looked at plant health clinics. Later, we managed to hold a clinic in market at Waterloo, a neighbourhood of Freetown. It’s close to Gloucester and Hastings. More intriguing, random associations. I remember that the tomatoes for sale in Waterloo market were malnourished, small and grotty. But clearly saleable. Producing quality fruit and vegetable was clearly a challenge. Shamie was tirelessly energetic, gathering people for our makeshift stall. Over the next four years he did a magnificent job in corralling a woefully underpaid and under-resourced group of extension workers and plant health inspectors to run regular clinics. I used money from our DFID grant to provide some support. Jeff Bentley and Rob Harling went out later to monitor progress and provide training.

I returned in 2010 with Wade, a colleague from CABI. New funding was available to expand the number of plant clinics and inculcate plant doctors in the wonders of Plantwise. We went on a grand tour, visiting plant clinics and talking with plant doctors in Kambia, Kabala, Magburaka, Kenema and Bo. Shamie got local organisers to run plant clinics to coincide with our visits, all memorable in ways that I only fully appreciate today. There were problems in organising transport, accommodation and many other petty matters that are the everyday facts of life in Sierra Leone. People get on with their lives. It’s how things are, something I’ve learned with not a little humility.

We held a two day workshop in Makali and around 30 plant doctors and interested souls attended. I was aware that expectations were high: visiting scientists, new project, more funding. If you let these expectations weigh too heavy then you’ll achieve nothing. We had a makeshift programme, improvised as we went along. I watched carefully for reactions and listened to what people had to say, trying to capture their opinions, experiences and suggestions so we could build on and improve the plant health clinics. It felt a little flat at times, partly because of the weight of those expectations.

I was running out of ideas on what to do when I suggested that participants write short stories about their plant clinic experiences. Blank looks and few sparks of interest. We ploughed on regardless, hoping that the results would surprise them. They worked in pairs and Wade and I discussed with them the title and subject of their story. Slowly the narratives took shape. Once we’d got a working draft I added a photo and printed out a copy of the story. I’d done photostories before with Jeff Bentley and Sol Danielsen and noticed the amazement when reluctant authors saw their stories in print, plus photo. The same thing happened in Makali. Perhaps the biggest revelation for authors is to realise what they’ve achieved. Extension officers receive more brickbats than bouquets. Few are there to praise their efforts. The second revelation is that others are interested in what they’ve done.

You can read the photobook here.  Highlights include Sonny and Abu writing about the confusion between plant and human clinics and the unexpected arrival of mothers with their babies expecting ‘free health services’.  Samuel wrote about his pride in having the President of Sierra Leone visit his plant clinic. Isatu shared her joy of being a plant nurse. Abdul was about to give up farming until he met David at the local plant clinic, who gave timely advice on how to control damaging pests.

I thought at the time that the stories were a little flimsy. Nothing of great substance seemed to happen in the lives of plant doctors, and their experiences were similar to plant doctors in other countries. No great scientific discoveries were made and crop production didn’t radically improve. But it is the ordinariness of the stories that is extraordinary; we rarely get to read about the everyday events that shape the lives of agricultural workers. Felipe Fernández Armesto said that “stories help explain themselves; if you know how something happened, you begin to see why it happened”. With this knowledge you can begin to attempt to make changes and improve the delivery of advisory services, identify problems that need further research and celebrate the small successes. Wade was kind enough later to share his personal reflections on the trip, helping me understand how I worked and gently suggesting how I could do things better.

Objectivity is a key tenet of science. Yet we must not underestimate nor forget the power of personal stories to illuminate and inform our work in all aspects of agriculture. So I’m looking forward to holding the Write Now! workshop once this blessed pandemic is over and we can continue widening our perspectives on crop pest and disease management.