AUNTY AMI, SIRAJ, EMMANUEL AND HAJA
Sat at TEDx Mayor of Freetown, at the start of what is Sierra Leone’s most festive season, I learned why the 2017 Mount Sugarloaf landslide claimed over 1000 lives and left an equal amount internally displaced. I learned of how Sierra Leone’s marine life is dying out at mass amounts. How air pollution has increased the rate of respiratory diseases. And other deeply concerning problems that affect me and millions around me every day. But instead of losing hope or being worried, I left the event inspired and invigorated.
That day, I also learned of the many young and fierce humans pushing and pulling, moving and shaking, collaborating and collectively striving to sustainably reverse the many ways in which poverty, necessity, the modern economy and/or lack of government support continue to attack Sierra Leone’s land, seas and skies.
There was Haja—almost 5 feet but her energy stands beyond 6 feet and 10 inches. The most positive intellectual I’ve ever met, Haja built and runs Sierra Leone’s first reusable pad company.
Aunty Ami—as I’ve come to affectionately call her—is a one woman machine, her initiative Freetown Waste Transformers (FWT) is the first to systematically collect my city’s trash and turn it into much needed electricity!
Alhaji Siraj Bah is effectively outdating Sierra Leone’s most used household item—coal, used by 80% of the country for cooking and many other things. Alhaji manufacturers and sells bio-briquettes made from coconut husks. They emit zero smoke when they burn and they burn longer and harder than regular coal. Siraj sells them for far less than regular coal, to ensure they disrupt the market and depollute the air.
Finally, there is Emmanuel Mansaray, a self-taught engineer who built a solar powered ‘kehkeh’, one of the most used forms of public transportation.
I decided to pitch a feature on Sierra Leone’s young eco-preneurs to CNN Inside Africa, and the whole network became more excited about the show than I did. I think they felt what I witnessed—that these changemakers are not in it for the money—they genuinely want to make Sierra Leone healthy again!
It was the biggest, longest and most challenging project I had been commissioned for at the time - filming a 30-minute episode for CNN Inside Africa. After 8 consecutive days of being in the field, I thought I would break. And then, in the middle of her interview, Haja broke into tears when she said, "I feel like I am living my grandmother's wildest dreams". And I knew then that I had to keep going.
We filmed Emmanuel in his home in Quintorloh—East End, Freetown. An upcoming urban community of largely corrugated-iron houses—on top on the steepest hills with little to no car access. We filmed Alhaji on a farm, with chicken chasing me, and his kind mother offering me a homecooked lunch and marriage to her uncle. We filmed at Sugarland Beach, under the beating sun where young boys asked us for money or to play football with them. We filmed aunty Ami at the many thriving businesses she had built. But, also in the middle of a trash transformation plant—flies and fresh waste and all. And we filmed in Haja’s childhood bedroom whilst her mum and cousins sang prayers to us.
Our last shoot was on top of Leicester Peak, Freetown’s highest city viewing point. Young men and women pulled up in their second-hand cars, carbon dioxide pouring out of exhaust pipes, and parked to play afrobeats, drink and smoke as we pack up our equipment. I couldn’t help but think, we and our children owe Sierra Leone’s future healthy air, land and seas to Haja, Ami, Siraj and Emmanuel.