Environment: The Green Scenery example in Sierra Leone

29 September 2019 at 12:58 | 18313 views

Editor’s Note: This article was first published in May 2007.

By Abayomi Charles Roberts, Edmonton, Canada

Talk about the earth’s changing climate is now everywhere like the very air we breathe. Among the key issues are the melting of polar ice, leading to rising sea levels and loss of littoral lands; and higher average temperatures and loss of ecosystems, along with vulnerable wildlife species. The reason is the depletion of the ozone layer that reduces the sun’s heat on earth. This hole boring of the earth’s shield’ is blamed on the high emission of carbon gases like Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). These gases come mostly from giant industrial plants and the billions of automobiles and other combustible machines worldwide.

The buzzword is Global Warming. Many scientists all over the globe agree that it is happening. Yet, world politicians, especially those in industrialized countries (the biggest emitters) and other countries that host big businesses, dodge the problem or renege on their promises to take corrective measures.

For African countries like Sierra Leone, the clearest indicators of climate change are reduced rainfall and extensive soil erosion due to loss of vegetation (deforestation). All this - and more subtle changes - cause the enlargement of the Sahara Desert and Savannah (grassland) belts southward. Some groups in Sierra Leone (fondly called Salone, by citizens) have been working assiduously for many years now. Their mission is to make a positive difference, however small.

Their goal is to help slow or even stop these alarming trends, from their tiny corner in West Africa. I was a member of one such a group, GREEN SCENERY. I helped found it nearly 20 years ago in Freetown.

June 5 is World Environment Day. As Sierra Leone observes it this year, I reflect on Green Scenery’s genesis. He focuses on the challenges and victories of this unique group of volunteers:

Sample: Wildlife Game
It was the last day of the annual Wildlife Week, in the early 1990s. Government Model School compound where we wrapped up the week’s events was so crowded that organizers were overwhelmed. The weeklong events had culminated in a march past of school children and volunteers across central Freetown, The march ended at Model School. However, there was no clear plan after we had served refreshments. Restless, the marchers waited with their banners and placards, as if calling for more. That was when Green Scenery members, as hosts, did some quick thinking. Being mostly teachers at the school, we the members had the ball in our court.

We knew the kids love to dance and mime (lip-sync) popular songs. There were brass bands, a PA system and a rental stereo set so we came up with a game. It was musical chairs but we adapted it, to make it consistent with the wildlife conservation’ theme. Teams sprang up for an inter-school competition at both primary and secondary levels, as chairs appeared like magic.

We explained that the game is about birds and their habitat. “When people cut trees they deprive birds of their homes,” came the announcement. “This forces the birds to compete and even fight for the fewer trees left for them to build nests or perch on. Let the contestants be the birds and let the chairs be the trees. So now we can see how too few chairs can lead to fights among people.” We did not need to say or do more. It did not even matter who won, as the kids were all just thrilled. Green Scenery scored big time that evening. Guests from RSPB who came from Britain just for the wildlife week were visibly impressed.

Grim Scene
Security guards at Fourah Bay College (USL) used to make futile efforts to prevent the indiscriminate cutting of trees/shrubs at the Botanical Gardens. People in Freetown will go regularly to its Mount Aureol location to fetch firewood. In a similar pattern, the gradual depletion of the tree cover in the catchments of the Guma Dam/Reservoir gradually compromised its current capacity to sustain Freetown’s safe drinking-water supply. The many ponds (more like lakes) left behind by the huge dredge at the Sierra Rutile mines in Moyamba are a sorry sight and cause for alarm. The diamond fields of eastern Sierra Leone, where big companies have had an unchecked field day since the 1930s (when diamonds were first discovered in Salone), are no different.

There was, also, the unique enterprise of one German immigrant in those years. From the eastern outskirts of Freetown, Dr. Franz Sitta ran a thriving industry, exporting chimpanzees and other apes from Sierra Leone. Sitta was an elite poacher of sorts, by condoning and encouraging the trapping of these animals. If the state/municipal authorities checked him at all, it was not really in the public interest or to protect the apes.

Take the firewood gatherers aside. At least they were common people who sought energy sources (firewood) to prepare their meals. The option of them starving must have clouded or precluded any understanding/appreciation of the counter measures by the then college authorities. Theirs were innocent and desperate measures to survive. The effects of their actions are relatively tiny chips of the iceberg.

The real culprits are the cabals of national/local government leaders, senior civil servants, mining companies, and mineral and timber exporters/smugglers all over the country. They, no doubt, account for the biggest chunks of the proverbial iceberg. Their selfish machinations are out of contempt for the largely non-literate and unsuspecting populace. Many of these big men’ have been overseas. They must have witnessed, firsthand, how other communities elsewhere jealously guard their natural resources. Yet, they fail to emulate and replicate, upon their return to Sierra Leone.

Instead, they ignore calls of the media and campaigners. At best, they only pay courteous lip service. This is just one aspect of how a few people betray our collective trust. Another is the way proceeds from the sale of the very diamonds, gold; timber, etc (for which the environment is ravaged) never reach the poor people. Our civic leaders, with their agents and partners (either deliberately or by negligence) allow the aggressive, indiscriminate and reckless plunder of precious flora and fauna. They tacitly aid and abet the squander of our invaluable natural heritage - before, during and after the fact.

The point here is to sketch the Salone scene; not so much to witch-hunt or cry over spilled milk. The aim is to show the need for urgent action. Sierra Leone badly needs help in taking effective measures, as the world contends with global environmental problems. When was the last time anyone heard about or saw a zoo anywhere in Sierra Leone (outside college campuses), even before the war? Did the recent reports of toxic waste dumping in Ivory Coast ring bells or revive memories of a similar case in Sierra Leone? Indeed there was a national zoo in Freetown but only up to the 1970s, as was a case of toxic waste dumping in our waters when Siaka Stevens was president.

’Model’ Pioneers
Green Scenery members were all schoolteachers, working in central Freetown. A few were from Albert Academy and Sierra Leone Muslim Brotherhood Secondary School, as were others from nearby Government Rokel Secondary School at the foot of Tower Hill. The core of Green Scenery came from Government Model Secondary School along Circular Road. Joseph Rahall came up with the idea. Rahall, then a newly trained science teacher from USL, thought deforestation was one obvious threat to the local environment. He discussed the issue with myself and a few other workmates in the staff room. “Fellows let us do something before Salone becomes a desert,” Rahall urged. “We can start work with the kids who are more impressionable; that way Salone stands a chance in the next generation,” to paraphrase his own words. That was how Green Scenery was born.

It may be regarded as a noble profession but teaching was far from rosy in Sierra Leone. Not only were we lowly paid; we would be lucky to have our meager monthly salaries after working for two to three months. However, we were young, ambitious and relentless, in spite of red tape or state lapses. We would improvise to cut costs or scale hurdles. We wrote our own constitution, and then printed it in stencil (cyclostyle), in a matter of days. We hassled government functionaries tirelessly. Above all we tapped the skills of each member, be they formal education, personal or general life skills. We painted our first few billboards inside the Model School staffroom. This we did after convincing the then Principal, Patrick Taylor and his deputy, Miss Amelia Georgestone that we meant well and were determined to start and sustain nature clubs in the school. Later, Green Scenery initiated a field trip in which a busload of Model School pupils toured the mines at Sierra Rutile.

It is impossible to recall the names of all the founding/early members but here are a few: There was Mr. Toronka at SLMB, Augustine Allieu at AA, and Sorie Fasuluku and Victor Roberts (my elder brother), at Rokel School. The Model School teachers included Sylvester Samba, Michael Charles, Petteh Jalloh, Michael Kabia, Alhaji Ahmed Turay, Prince Johnson, Shole Davies, Jose Stanley (JS) Momoh, Vandy Rogers, Alhaji Kamara, Bruce Johnson, Olu Beury, Phillip Max-Gorvie, CP Deveneux, Mr. AG Dundas, Lamin Mansaray, Abdulai Caulker, Raymond George and Sam Jolly. Donald Lawson, a founding member, passed away in 1997. The only woman among us those early days was Mabel Gamanga, also a Model teacher at the time.

A few non-teachers helped us here and there. They were senior Model School pupils. Augustine Marrah even became a registered member after he graduated from school. Another pupil was Abu Bakarr Kargbo (aka Agba-Oh!). He was a dynamic youngster who helped rally his younger schoolmates by using his skills as a Sierra Leone Boys Scout leader and show promoter. Not all civil servants were apathetic to our cause. There was one Pa Turay at the Forestry department at Tower Hill. He advised Green Scenery on forestry matters. When we had to lobby, Mr. Val Collier, a senior civil servant then, also guided us readily.

By late 1989, we had registered as Project Green Scenery, officially a non-profit organization of volunteers. Among our aims were public awareness, lobbying, and liaison with other similar bodies (local/foreign) in the spirit of the slogan THINK GLOBAL, ACT LOCAL.’ Our strategy was to focus on the pupils, using basic education and activities like tree planting. Our hope was to get the message to them, their peers and their parents. Green Scenery started a pilot project of nature clubs in the schools where members were teachers. This we did in collaboration with some local and international bodies like RSPB (UK) and IUCN in Holland, the Sierra Leone Adult Education Association (SLADEA) and the Conservation Society of Sierra Leone (CSSL).

Flashback on Co-operation

Green Scenery had key partners like SLADEA and CSSL, on the home front. Overseas, the group had contacts with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Also, we had the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds to count on, for technical advice. The RSPB’s Peter Wood, a Briton, was head of the Gola Rain Forest Conservation Programme in eastern Sierra Leone. Peter Wood worked mainly from Kenema but helped groups like ours in Freetown.

In August 1992, Peter Wood spearheaded the sponsorship by RSPB of two Sierra Leoneans, Augustine Amara (from Kenema) and myself to attend a wildlife workshop in the outskirts of Accra, Ghana. Two ornithologists from RSPB, Dorothy Bashford and David Chandler, attended the Accra workshop as overseers. Teachers from different schools all over Ghana took part. Bashford and Chandler were so impressed with our participation that they asked us both to stay for another similar workshop. This time it was with Ghanaian students, at the same venue near Legon University. Highlights of the latter series included a students’ mock session of the (then just concluded) Earth Summit’ in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, that same year.

The RSPB’s idea was to get both of us to learn by interacting with our Ghanaian counterparts. It was with a view to exchange ideas and then share the lessons learnt from the workshop experience, with other teachers and volunteers in Sierra Leone. The co-organizers were Ghana Game & Wildlife and Save the Seashore Birds Project of Ghana (the latter was also an RSPB initiative).

The RSPB later teamed up with CSSL, Green Scenery and other bodies in running the annual Wildlife Week every October. In the 1992 edition (the first in which Green Scenery took active part), then Head of State Valentine Strasser delivered the keynote address to kick off the event in Freetown. Renowned environmentalist and chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall, then working in East Africa, was Guest of Honour. It was quite an event as Strasser - then newly in power and quite popular - gave environmental conservation the highest possible nod from the government. The children were at there best, in mood and school colours, as they street-marched to several school bands later in the week. Dr Sama Banya, head of CSSL and workers like John Moriba and DD Saffa played key roles.

Earlier that same year, the annual National Tree Planting Day took place at the bauxite mines in Moyamba, operated by Sierromco Ltd. Though Green Scenery could not get sponsors for some Freetown puplis to attend, I represented the organization.

Kid Tree Planters, Desert Arrest
Another area of meaningful co-operation is during the annual National Tree Planting exercise. In Freetown, Aureol Tobacco Company sponsored the planting of acacia manjium and eucalyptus tree seedlings at a site in the Leicester/Gloucester Mountain Rural area. Each year Green Scenery would help mobilize the school children to the site for the exercise. The government’s forestry division trained our members and other adult volunteer groups in basic tree planting and the strengths and recommended uses of each tree type (soil protection, wind break, fire resistance, etc.). Mr. Ashcroft of the said department and Mr. Hazel Thompson (then a science lecturer at FBC) gave those invaluable lessons.

The goal of the government and sponsors (ATC) may have been re-forestation. For Green Scenery, it was basic education and awareness promotion. The kids loved the hike up/down the hill, the breath of fresh air at higher altitude, the dirty hands’ work and, of course, the break from classroom rigours. Green Scenery and the kids, on other occasions, also planted trees on the slopes of Mount Aureol and Hill Cot Road. As a group, Green Scenery held workshops/seminars for members. We also made spontaneous moves like when we planted a few trees at Youyi Building, to be symbols/reminders to the many government workers who use the multi-storey office complex.

The group also made quite a few giant strides. One was successfully protesting government plans to build structures along the scenic drive between State House and Parliament Building at Tower Hill in 1991. Joseph Momoh was head of state by then but police boss, James Bambay Kamara, virtually ran the state. He was the go-to-man so we made him the primary target and addressee in our petition. Green Scenery cited environmental and urban planning concerns. However, the security angle probably convinced Bambay Kamara. He aborted the plan! In 1992, Green Scenery registered its own newspaper, The Quill.

Green Run 94
The earliest Green Scenery project that really stands out is the unique mini-marathon, Green Run ’94. It was a rare use of sport to promote environmental conservation. First, it was exclusively and our brainchild. Secondly, sport is a universal language that transcends many barriers, using it was ingenuous. Thirdly, Sierra Leoneans are passionate about sports, thus making the event big in terms of impact.. Called Green Run ’94: For the Environment,’ it was easier to sell to the people and to sponsors and invitees. Besides, it was the first-ever competitive sporting event for the environment in Sierra Leone. Green Run 94 was also impressive, and a resounding success, in terms of runners’ participation, spectators’ turnout and corporate sponsorship. Green Scenery even got several ministers (called Secretaries of States, then), top civil servants and other local/foreign dignitaries to witness the climax of the race. Later the ministers and some dignitaries planted trees outside the main bowl of the stadium, as a symbolic gesture. The then sports minister (SOS) Charles Mbayo gave the keynote speech.

Green Scenery began plans for the race early in 1994, ahead of that year’s World Environment Day. The distances were about 12 kilometres for girls and 18km for boys. The starting points were on the Freetown/Waterloo highway (Bai Bureh Road) in the east end of the city. The race finished on the main track of the national stadium.

To begin, we sought and got corporate sponsors. One of them, the telecommunications company SIERRATEL donated prizes, imprinted T-shirts and other souvenir. We then worked out other details like renting the stadium; recruiting volunteer sports officials for technical assistance; and getting police clearance/assistance for road traffic control. As was usual, the project brought out the best in each of us, while highlighting our team spirit. Prince Johnson, Raymond George and Abdulai Caulker who were still teachers at Model school, for instance, gave us their skills as physical education specialists. Alhaji Kamara was an engineering lecturer at FBC who moonlighted at Model School. He came in handy when we had to cope with the PA system at the stadium. Rahall used his business contacts for sponsorship, having managed a beach side tavern in Freetown. Michael Charles and Sylvester Samba handled registration and the briefing of athletes and volunteers. Everyone did his/her share in dealing with correspondence and the distribution of handbills (flyers) and posters.

I was the media man, as Publicity Officer. I quit teaching in late 1993 and in the weeks before June 4, 1994, I was already one of the editors of a newspaper, Liberty Voice. Green Scenery enjoyed wide publicity on my account. I also got other local media to give Green Scenery breaks as a non-profit voluntary body. BBC radio previewed the race, thanks to Lansana Fofanah their Freetown correspondent.

The first clear indication of what was to come was when we held the mandatory medical exams for athletes. Sports doctor, Eugenia Osho-Williams, a former national sprinter herself, volunteered to do the exams. She was quite impressed when scores of excited runners swamped her office, in the countdown to race. The rest is history. For the record, Amadu Kamara (Aristo Kay) won the boys’ race while Sama Forna finished first in the female category.

We often joked that Noah in the Holy Bible was the very first environmental (wildlife) conservationist. This took a more serious meaning on the day of the race. June 4, 1994 was a Saturday and it rained that morning. For Green Scenery it turned out to be a plus. Only a steady drizzle, the rain was a Godsend. While it helped to cool down the runners and improve performance, it was not enough to make the streets slippery and reduce the traction of running shoes. It did not prevent people from coming out to watch the race either. Thankfully, there were no casualties among the runners. Red Cross volunteers, some in vehicles and others on bikes, were on hand the whole stretch of the race route.

To Green Scenery, the rain was a blessing from God, for seeking to protect what He gave us to enjoy - not destroy. By the way, one of our billboards reads: “The environment is God’s gift to mankind, what we make of it is our gift to posterity.”