Driver turns roadside advocate "fo pikin"

"I just thought they would like to know what we do," said James Kargbo, a driver with the United Nations Children's Fund during a road mission from the capital city, Freetown, to the northern provincial towns of Port Loko and Makeni recently.

The journey took us up and over Sierra Leone's peninsular mountains - the only place along the West African coast where mountains rise so near the ocean - which prompted Portuguese navigators who arrived here in 1462 to name the land Serra Lyoa (Lion Mountain), later modified to Sierra Leone.

Along winding, potholed roads, over narrow bridges and through torrential downpours and blinding sunshine, James proved not only his driving skills but also his enthusiastic ability as an advocate.

The field mission included conversations with former child combatants who are now enrolled in UNICEF-supported vocational skills training or family tracing and reunification programmes. During one of these chats, a 15-year old girl, who had been abducted by rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and forced to fight, described an attack in December 1999 on the village of Robana.

On the bone-jarring journey back to Freetown two days later, we passed by a small, bullet-ridden sign for Robana. James stopped the vehicle and we got out at a collection of thatched mud-huts. We were quickly surrounded by the friendly citizens of Robana - a small village that only appears on the most detailed of maps.

James introduced me to the village chief in Krio, one of Sierra Leone¡¯s tribal languages, and said we would like to hear some of the recent history of the village if that was all right with the villagers. For the next 20 minutes, first the chief and then many of the villagers - especially the women - recounted the history of Robana, in which the RUF's attack of December 1999 was a pivotal event.

Afterwards, we thanked them for their time and asked if they would like a photo taken in the village. There was a lot of laughter and general consent but the chief smiled and said no, politely but firmly. James asked why, and the chief responded that maybe we would make money from the photograph while the village got nothing.

At that point, James transformed from driver to UNICEF advocate, explaining in Krio (a form of pidgin English that incorporates English, French and Portuguese as well as many national and tribal languages from Africa) the nature of the agency's work "fo hep wuman en pikin" - to help women and children.

"I explained to the chief and the villagers that we were from UNICEF, pointing to our logo on the jeep," he said. "I asked them if they had heard of the agency and they said, 'Yes, on the radio'.

"I asked them if they knew what UNICEF does in Sierra Leone, and then I just kept on talking," he added. "I explained that we work all over Sierra Leone to help children and women, and that we had worked throughout Sierra Leone's 10-year war.

"I asked them if their children had been vaccinated against polio and when they said yes, I explained that UNICEF supports the polio vaccination campaign. I also explained to them that we help provide medicines to health clinics, we help children to go back to school, we help children who were traumatised by the war and we make sure that people have clean water to drink."

"I was very proud to explain our work because I have seen so much of it driving around on different missions, but sometimes our people just don't know how much UNICEF helps," he added.

"Then I told them that we were visiting different projects to write stories about them, so that we could help people understand the problems we face in Sierra Leone and what UNICEF is doing to help.

"By people reading the stories, I said, we hoped to raise more money from people in Europe, North America, Japan and other countries, so that we could continue to do even more work for the children and women of Sierra Leone."

"I told them that photographs can help make people in other countries understand our situation, and that we wouldn't personally make any money but that Sierra Leone children and women throughout the country - in villages like Robana - could benefit if more money is raised."

At the end of his explanation, James responded to a few questions and suddenly the chief smiled, shook our hands, nodded his head and led us over to the huts. The villagers of Robana would be happy and proud to have their photo taken, he said.

"I was very pleased to hear about James' work in the field," says JoAnna van Gerpen, UNICEF's Representative for Sierra Leone. "Our national staff truly is the backbone of all our work in Sierra Leone. They always have an excellent insight into the daily challenges faced by Sierra Leoneans and can relate issues and correct misconceptions in the most well-understood and well-received manner."

"James' pride, enthusiasm and broad knowledge of our work in Sierra Leone is inspiring to me," van Gerpen added. "In fact, all of our national staff, each one of whom has suffered first-hand as a result of Sierra Leone's 10-year conflict, are inspiring to me and we all really believe in the good work the agency is doing in this country."

* This feature is a contribution to IRIN from Kent Page, UNICEF/WCARO, Sierra Leone.