FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — They painted broken telephone and electricity poles, even rocks on the street.
In almost every corner of Freetown and its surrounding areas residents have spent the past few weeks preparing for celebrations to mark 50 years of independence from colonial British rule, bathing the city in green, white and blue, the colors of Sierra Leone’s flag.
The city’s Lumley Beach turned into an around-the clock beach party with tents and stages set up to provide entertainment way into the early morning hours.
“I’m celebrating independence because I love my country,” said a waitress at a beach restaurant where she served expatriates and “just-comes,” a name for Sierra Leoneans who returned from their homes abroad to join in the festivities.
This week is a remarkable time forSierra Leone. In addition to many people getting a few days off of work for the Easter and independence day holiday, there’s been an air of excitement that such a milestone has been reached. At the national stadium Wednesday — and all week — nearly everyone has donned a T-shirt, hat or scarf bearing the 50th anniversary logo in a public display of national pride.
“It’s fantastic, there’s no violence and we have peace,” said Mohammed Kamara. “I can see plenty of changes.”
For Maiatu Monseray, the celebrations allowed an opportunity for reflection. “We think about what has passed,” she said, watching school and church groups parade by on the stadium field. “After the war Sierra Leone was sinking, now the country has a new face.”
However, some may question whether this small, struggling country should applaud its history of the past 50 years. Most people live in poverty, a majority of people are underemployed if employed at all, sanitation is poor, and only 42 percent of people are literate according to government statistics. Although the 11-year civil war ended in 2002, Sierra Leone is still a “post-conflict” nation and is struggling to meet the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals and compete in the global economy.
“I don’t think there’s much to celebrate,”said Abdul Kamara. “We are not independent. We’re always relying on foreign donors, we cannot do anything for ourselves, despite having so many natural resources.”
Sierra Leone is rich in diamonds, bauxite, and iron ore, which has specifically attracted several foreign investors. At the same time, the country — like many underdeveloped nations — suffers from a lack of solid infrastructure which often makes companies skeptical about investing here. For example, electricity from the national grid is spotty in many areas and is almost nonexistent outside of the capital, Freetown.
While construction and refurbishment of many roads are underway, several of these projects have made living and working conditions even worse.
The current government points to these projects — such as the Bumbuna hydroelectric plant — and others as a positive sign of development. The minister of public works says things may be difficult now but urgency is needed, so “everything must be done at once.”
“When [President] Ernest Bai Koroma came to power we had seven megawatts of power in the country, today we have 84,” said Alpha Kanu, minister for political affairs during an event last weekend for more than 100 “just comes” and their families and friends.
For some, praise for 50 years of independence appeared mostly political, despite the country reaching the milestone regardless of the party in power. Lavish congratulations for the president and vice president could be seen on banners hanging from businesses, newspaper advertisements and dresses made from fabric bearing the president’s face and the 50th anniversary logo.
Koroma, of the All People’s Party, is up for re-election in 2012. It’s clear to many that his campaign has begun, with rousing speeches given by political allies at the weekend event for Sierra Leoneans from the diaspora. Koroma was bombarded like an international rockstar with adoring fans running to take photos and shake hands with him at last weekend’s event.
“It’s all political,” said Abdul Kamara said at the parade pointing out that there were no groups from the leading opposition party, the Sierra Leone People’s Party marching in the Independence Day parade.
“It seemed very APC, (All People’s Party) to me,” said C. Kamara when discussing stadium parade. He added that he still enjoyed seeing the school groups and the military soldiers who performed a mock defense demonstration — one of the only things to draw loud cheers from the crowd.
Still, Kanu dismissed critics who state the country has little to celebrate, pointing to the fact that Sierra Leone won its independence without bloodshed and has remained a nation of religious tolerance.
“Over the past 50 years we’ve survived the ups and downs of being an independent state … even when civil war threatened to turn us into a failed state,” he said. “We are back from the brink and moving forward.”