Temple run or stay?

For young people in Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, there is a code for the perilous journey that they are making to Europe via Libya.

Photo: Mats Utas

“Back then, when the boats came, people used to run. Now we’d get on gladly, at least it would mean work.” Junior’s bleak jokes are not making anyone laugh. He takes another sip of his Sprite and kicks up the dust on the street where we are sitting in Freetown, Sierra Leone. “That’s why everyone wants to go on a Temple Run”, he adds – this time everyone nods knowingly. In the addictive mega-hit mobile phone game, Temple Run, “you have to run for your life to escape the Evil Demon Monkeys nipping at your heels.” This involves jumping walls of fire, swimming through treacherous waters and flying across collapsing bridges. For young people in Freetown, Temple Run has become code for the perilous journey that an increasing number of young Sierra Leoneans are making to Europe via Libya.

It wasn’t always like this. The collective memory of the Atlantic slave trade off the shores of the Upper Guinea Coast to which Junior alluded when talking about boats, was once used to talk about rights. “We are Sierra Leoneans, not slaves!” young Freetonians shouted in 2013, when an urban beautification project threatened to shut down the informal livelihoods, such as commercial motorbike riding, that allow most young people to survive in the city. Through these slogans, and affirmations of citizenship, young people expressed their hopes and expectations of the government’s ability to deliver development after a 10-year civil war. The struggle was real, but hopes were high then. And then Ebola broke out in 2014. Junior and his friends kept hustling in Freetown, in the streets near Connaught Hospital, where at the height of the epidemic bodies were being dumped in the streets because there was no capacity to admit patients. Some volunteered to join the response as contact tracers and burial team members. Junior himself got sick. He collapsed in the streets and everyone ran away from him scared of contracting Ebola, leaving him alone to drag himself to the hospital and be put in isolation before his tests showed positive only for malaria. The economy crashed during the epidemic, and the post-war gains in economic growth all but disappeared.

So now the boats have a different meaning, they are not distant memories used to claim the rights of free citizens, but they are expressions of a loss of faith, for some, that things can change in Sierra Leone. They still serve as metaphors for how young men like Junior think about citizenship, but rather than asserting expectations, they speak of failures and disappointment. Many have begun to embark on the Temple Run, passing through Agadez in Niger headed towards Libya to board new boats towards Europe. In the busy streets where informal traders get together, daily discussions are dominated by stories of those who have called from refugee camps in Italy, those whose boats capsized, those who have never been heard from again. But Temple Run, for those who stay, is also a way to talk about their own country, to reflect on the feeling that nothing is moving and the loss of energy since the protests in 2013. It signals the possibility for adventure and change and new ways to imagine a future.

During the Ebola epidemic, the media and policy-makers focused on community resistance to public health measures, on grappling with why people escaped quarantined homes and seemingly did not believe that Ebola was real. They talked about a lack of trust in a ‘fragile’ state, and of reticent communities retreating, isolating themselves from the rest of the world. But that was too simple. It failed to consider how young people want to see themselves as Sierra Leoneans, and have expectations attached to these claims; how many of them volunteered during the outbreak and bought into the narrative of national struggle. It also hides from view the ways in which collective disillusionment in the aftermath of the epidemic is balanced by daily attempts to make life after crisis work.

Junior, for example, is working hard to change himself. He stopped drinking after alcohol got him into too many fights and, last time we spoke, he thought he might have been able to secure an apprenticeship through a local politician. It wouldn’t pay much, or last long, but it was something. It’s this imagination and ability to envisage possibilities that those working to rebuild Sierra Leone ought to capture in order to reframe a social contract after the devastation of the epidemic.

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