In January 2015, during the Ebola outbreak, I arrived in BontheSherbro Island, Southern Sierra Leone, leading a team of young reporters covering districts that were recording 42 days without any Ebola case. Bonthe District was the only district that did not record a single Ebola case throughout the deadly outbreak. Four years later, I traveled to Bonthe again, this time with an NGO, to officially launch a project for safe drinking water for 50 remote communities in the Sherbro Islands of Dema and Sittia chiefdoms. Today, the once powerful Island is suffering from a much more severe man-made disease relating to political neglect, rejection and dejection. The frustration of the almost 10,000 inhabitants was summed up by their exuberant Mayor Layemin Joe Sandi in his call for an ‘urgent Cabinet decision’ to rescue Bonthe District from its predicament.
Now that there’s a new President of Sierra Leone who happens to hail from Bonthe District, I ask Mayor Sandi, what is the mood on the island and what has changed in the essential areas of political administration, education, health, economy, security and sports. The following is a transcription of our discussion:
At the moment the District Officer who used to be at the Mattru Jong chiefdom has relocated. We have started interfacing with the different organizations in communities and this is laudable and encouraging.
In terms of hearing our voice and central government hearing our plans, it has changed. Now we go to offices, they listen and attend to us positively; for example, the Ministry of Works and the Sierra Leone Roads Authority. When we took the concern of the sea face wall, in-township road project and the poor manner in which it was done, they have changed the entire concept. They are now doing a different job to fit the topography we have. As I am talking to you know, the sea face wall and in-township road projects are ongoing but the only challenge we have at the moment is the transportation of materials because it is a riverine area. This is slowing down the implementation and our fear now is whether we can complete the projects on time if this challenge continues.
The Ministry of Social welfare is equally doing well for us in the delivery of services from the Council. We want to take good advantage of the current political will and fix the issues affecting Bonthe as the District Headquarter Town.
Bonthe is a fine place to promote education. Council has launched the Free Quality Education Program (FQEP) and the support is coming from the government. Books have been distributed to schools but more is yet to be actualized. Schools that are supposed to receive subsidies are getting that but our biggest challenge is that the school buildings are colonial in nature.
If the scheme is to succeed, then government should pay more attention to teachers and also infrastructure because when a child has a comfortable environment to learn, then he/she will learn faster.
The greatest challenge in the Sherbro Island has been water. The water we are drinking is clayey and has a lot of salt in it. There is no school with WASH facilities not to talk about good toilets.
We have been doing well in the area of health and Council has been collaborating effectively with CUAMM (Doctors with Africa) Sierra Leone because their response in the hospital is great as they have strengthened it with a blood bank, solar lights, funds for fuel and lubricants which complements our efforts and ensure that things are working in the hospital.
They are also providing referral services for pregnant women and that has reduced maternal mortality in the municipality. As a Council, we are ensuring that if the organization is doing all of these, we should make sure that food is in the hospital throughout. Also, we have ensured that we provide essential drugs that are not in the hospital free-of-cost for especially pregnant women, children under-five and the aged.
Council is also providing support to the doctors. I was reliably informed that government has been paying housing allowances for doctors but nothing has been working in that direction. Interestingly, Council has been paying for housing for doctors.
Also, we will start providing tea and other incentives for nurses, especially those who are not on salary, who stay late at night with pregnant women so that they will be motivated to do more.
The monthly cleaning introduced by President Maada Bio has made Bonthe one of the cleanest places in the country. Council is engaging 1,100 youths with all of them receiving Le40,000 each. A total of Le44, 000,000 is being injected every first Saturday into the community.
Council has further purchased cleaning tools and motorbikes for monitoring during the cleaning exercise. We ensure the total involvement of all 18 Sectional Heads to add up to the team of Council Staff and Councilors who ably supervise the monthly cleaning exercise. Six million Leones is used monthly for coordination is used to motivate them and fuel provided for bikes to facilitate the monitoring process.
The solar street lights have outlived their usefulness but we have been able to attract 200 modernized street lights, although we actually need more.
At the moment, economic activity is very poor, which is why we are advocating for us to go into tourism because we believe that we can turn around the economy. Because of the low income earners we have in the district, we have low quality and substandard goods in the market. The fish processing sites we have are still not being utilised. We are working with the Fisheries Ministry to ensure that they are fully operationalised.
Honestly, the economy of Bonthe is nothing to write home about and having infrastructure in place is a basic requirement in tourism.
The population size of Bonthe is almost about 10,000. Our sources of revenue are taxes, house rates and market dues but to get the people to honour these obligations is a huge challenge for Council. If we want to implement the law to the letter, it will be a problem.
We want Dema and Sittia to be part of Bonthe. We are being faced with the actualities of the day and Council should be able to generate its own revenue to sustain it.
In the area of sports, we have been collaborating with SLADEA and their Bread for the World project and have constructed a perimeter fence around the football field. It has been there for a while with no one to assist us. We have taken the issue to the Sport Ministry and they have pledged to work collaboratively with Council to have a mini stadium with a football field.
We are still deprived in the area of security. The police barracks here is still empty, with no police officers residing there. At the moment, we only have 10 police officers to man the entire municipality and the entire Sherbro islands of Dema and Sittia. We are expecting the police to have their presence everywhere to ensure control of crime.
We have challenges with other institutions but what is stressing the Council so much is staffing. Staffs are sent to us on punishment when the government wants to punish them. We have let the local government service commission know that if they send any staff now on punishment grounds, we will reject them out rightly. We think transfers should be fairly done and staff should not be made aware that they are being transferred to far away Bonthe on punishment grounds as they will not give their best. Every staff in the local council family should be given a fair opportunity to have a taste of every environment in this country and not special staff for special councils. Some of them who are currently here on punishment come in some time once a week and that undermines the operation of the Council as well as service delivery and writing of reports. We see it as a disservice to the Council and the country as a whole.
Credit: Development and Economic Journalists Association (DEJA-SL).